Welcome to the future. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a magical world where tedious workday tasks are automated and phones serve up recommendations and information unasked, or it’s a terrifying surveillance-state dystopia in which machine learning is deepening inequality, robots are coming to take all the jobs, and privacy and human dignity are things of the past.
Which will it be? In this feature, PW looks at books that explore the intersection of business, money, and The Future, underscoring the excitement and unease of a fast-changing world.
The First Law of Robotics
Excitement and fear vie for the upper hand in discussions about the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, and algorithms. Some see a rosy future when workers are freed from the tedium of repetitive tasks to focus on creative work; others warn of the day when we’ll all feel an articulated metal hand on our shoulder and turn to see the robot that’s replacing us.
Those who aren’t even sure what AI stands for will find an accessible primer in Janelle Shane’s You Look Like a Thing and I Love You (Little, Brown, Nov.). Illustrated with charming cartoons, oddball case studies (self-driving cars in Australia were confused by kangaroos), and wry observations about the often-hilarious failures of artificial intelligences to comprehend human contexts—the title is the result of an AI attempting to generate a successful pickup line—this is “a skeptic’s manual to evaluate AI for yourself,” says Little, Brown associate editor Nicky Guerreiro, and “a book that makes you sound smart at a party.”
Several authors are urging a cool head, even while presenting views of the future that many will find both shiny and scary. In The AI Advantage (MIT, Oct.), Thomas H. Davenport, IT and management professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., proposes that the true potential of AI lies in basic forms of automation, such as chatbots. He urges business leaders to calm the conversation and to focus on reviewing technological innovation through a strategic lens: what can it do for me now, today? “It’s not all about the corporate singularity,” says Paul Michelman, series editor for MIT Press’s Management on the Cutting Edge titles. “AI is just the next stage in data analytics.”
Computer scientist Melanie Mitchell makes a similar case for sobriety from the coding front lines in Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans (FSG, Oct.). She aims to provide an antidote to the “popular schizophrenic relationship to the subject—people tend to be either apocalyptic or triumphalist,” says FSG editor-in-chief Eric Chinski. Writing from the tech perspective, and speaking with some of the scientists who are knee-deep in this work, Mitchell calls for an examination of ethical issues around AI, such as the expectation of privacy in a world where facial recognition technology is ubiquitous and the morality of allowing drones to make autonomous decisions.
Miami Herald reporter Andrés Oppenheimer takes a less prescriptive approach in The Robots Are Coming! (Vintage, May), originally published for the Spanish-language market and translated by Ezra E. Fitz. This international view of AI in action follows the author around the world to places where robots are already at work, from a Japanese automated hotel to a high-tech California farm to Oxford University, where scientists are studying the future of robotics. “Oppenheimer doesn’t take a position with the techno-optimists or the techno-pessimists,” says Vintage Español publishing director Cristóbal Pera. “This is a field guide on how to navigate the future.”
Notably, each of these authors drives home the point that AI is neither as advanced nor as omnipotent as common wisdom would have it, and that panic may be premature when talking about a technology that can’t distinguish a pedestrian from a kangaroo.
In its most quotidian applications, such as personal banking, AI and automation can be a time and stress saver, according to Alexa von Tobel, founder and managing partner of Inspired Capital and former CEO of LearnVest, who tackles automation and personal finance in Financially Forward (Currency, May). Her first book, 2014’s Financially Fearless, called for a structured, set-it-and-forget-it approach to saving; the new title helps readers capitalize on digital automation and select a single app to more efficiently manage their money.
“It’s amazing how much effort and investment in the business world is going into this, and how many entrepreneurs and big companies are getting into this game,” says Currency executive editor Talia Krohn. “They’re banking on the assumption that people aren’t going to be freaked out by the idea that fingerprints are passwords and their banks are on their phones.” Von Tobel narrows down the options for digital non-natives and others who want simple, safe solutions for money management.
B Is for Bitcoin
A number of new releases address the ways in which cryptocurrency is changing finance and urge readers to look beyond their own wallets. These books provide plenty of fodder for the argument that, though the much-hyped bitcoin is little more than a flash in the pan, the impact of blockchain—the peer-to-peer ledger system that bitcoin uses—is here to stay.
In Blockchain for Everyone (Gallery, Aug.), John Hargrave, CEO of blockchain content platform Media Shower, offers a guide to investing in blockchain assets. “Hargrave persuaded me that blockchain technology could be as paradigm shifting as the internet proved to be,” says Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, executive editor at Gallery. “I was surprised to learn that cryptocurrency might prove, eventually, to be the first but ultimately least impactful of blockchain’s applications.”
This is because a “totally decentralized market” is on its way, says Mike Henton, who edited Thomas J. Anderson’s Money Without Boundaries (Wiley, Aug.). “Now that the dust of the bitcoin craze is settling, we’re thinking about the behind-the-scenes implications of blockchain.”
Readers looking for an insider view of some key players in cryptocurrency will find it in Ben Mezrich’s Bitcoin Billionaires (Flatiron, May). It follows the story of the Winklevoss twins, who famously got shut out of the Facebook fortune—as detailed in Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, which was the basis of the 2010 movie The Social Network. Left scrambling, they became early investors in bitcoin and later, Mezrich writes, were its first billionaires. “People remain fascinated by the enigma of Facebook,” says Flatiron editorial director Noah Eaker. “But when the Winklevosses were on the losing end of their fight with Zuckerberg, they had to hustle. They took risks others didn’t. And they got rich.”
Silicon Valley risk takers such as the Winklevosses figure into several forthcoming titles, including The Code (Penguin Press, July), which PW’s starred review called “a must-read for anyone interested in how a one-horse town birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization.” Historian Margaret O’Mara tracks the evolution of the epicenter of American tech innovation through portrayals of the people who created and grew it, lending a human frame to a business that often seems monolithic and faceless.
“Adult supervision seems sorely lacking these days,” says Penguin Press v-p and publisher Scott Moyers. Books such as The Code, he says, “assure readers that there are wise people at the helm whom they can trust.” Moyers also acquired the recently released Coders, in which Wired columnist Clive Thompson delves into the competencies and blind spots of the programmers who are sitting in cubicle mazes right now. PW’s starred review said the book “shines a much-needed light on a group of people who have exerted a powerful effect on almost every aspect of the modern world.”
Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, author of Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles—and All of Us (Currency, Nov.), is more blunt: “Evil was baked into Google’s business plan,” she says. “Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw the potential for surveillance capitalism in their first paper; titans of big tech have since not wanted to talk about the dark side of their inventions.” (For more from Foroohar, see “Defanging the Corporate Beast.”)
Foroohar calls for voters to force politicians to take a good hard look at how digital wealth should be distributed and what regulations should be put on these companies—a question also posed by Microsoft president Brad Smith in Tools and Weapons (Penguin Press, Sept.), coauthored by the company’s communications director, Carol Ann Browne. They assert that large tech corporations should be more open to government intervention and need to embrace regulation before they’re forced into it.
“These are important communities that are monocultures, which have a fantasy that they’re a ruthless meritocracy,” Moyers notes. By examining their influence, Smith, Browne, and other authors have tapped into the public’s desire for transparency about business practices and for privacy protections, and its fascination with the people—with their all-too-human foibles and biases—who have the power to make it happen.
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer living in Washington, D.C.
Below, more on the subject of business and personal finance books.
Fight the Power: Business and Personal Finance Books 2019
These titles propose ways to amplify marginalized voices in the workplace, at client meetings, and with investor dollars.
Defanging the Corporate Beast: PW talks with Rana Foroohar
Sparked by her child’s $900 worth of in-app purchases in a month, Foroohar’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ (Currency, Nov.) delves into how big tech captures and monetizes personal data.
Deus Ex Machina: PW talks with David Weinberger
In ‘Everyday Chaos’ (Harvard Business Review, May), Weinberger explores modern technology’s implications for the business world and the ways in which humans and machines, sometimes uneasily, coexist.