Bill Gates wants you to read more science fiction.
On Monday, Gates released his annual holiday book recommendation list – along with a blog post explains why two of his five selections are science fiction books. As a child, he wrote, he was “obsessed” with science fiction. And although the famous reading enthusiast focused more on non-fiction as he got older, he has recently found himself “drawn back to the kind of books I would have loved as a child.”
In his youth, the billionaire wrote, he devoured the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein – and spent “countless hours” discussing Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy with the late Paul Allen, his childhood friend and later Microsoft co-founder.
This year, Gates’ holiday book recommendations include a couple of modern science-fiction works that “made me think about how people can use technology to respond to challenges.” This is not surprising: Gates has spent much of the past year highlighting the need for technological innovations to address climate change. In February, he published his own book on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”
In addition to sci-fi, Gates also recommended two non-fiction books on “groundbreaking science” and a piece of historical fiction that “made me look at one of history’s most famous figures in a new light.”
Here are the five books that came on his annual “favorites” list this year:
‘Clear and the sun’
By Kazuo Ishiguro
“I love a good robot story,” Gates wrote of the latest novel by Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro.
“Klara and the Sun” is a story told by a solar-powered robot named Klara, a companion of a seriously ill child in a dystopian future United States. Despite the dystopian environment of history, Gates noted, the artificial intelligence-driven robots are “not a force for evil.” Instead, the book refers to Klara and other similar robots as “artificial friends”.
Artificial intelligence has long been an area of interest and investment for Gates. In a 2015 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, he noted that machines with “superintelligence” could realistically threaten humanity one day.
Ishiguro’s book may represent the reverse of this argument. “This book made me think about what life with super intelligent robots could look like,” Gates wrote. “And whether we want to treat that kind of machine as pieces of technology or as something more.”
‘Hail Mary Project’
By Andy Weir
Like Andy Weir’s 2011 novel “The Martian,” which appeared on Gates’ 2020 summer reading list, “Project Hail Mary” involves a human being who ends up in a difficult situation in outer space. The main character is a high school teacher who wakes up on a mysterious spacecraft without knowing how he got there.
According to Gates, it’s a book that’s hard to describe without giving away too many plot twists. But suffice it to say, the teacher “uses science and technology to save the day,” Gates wrote. “It’s a fun read, and I finished it all in one weekend.”
‘A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence’
By Jeff Hawkins
In 1996, Jeff Hawkins invented the digital PalmPilot assistant. Since then, Gates wrote, Hawkins has “spent decades thinking about the connections between neuroscience and machine learning,” culminating in “A Thousand Brains,” a non-fiction book published in March.
In his book, Hawkins – who also co-founded the machine learning company Numenta in 2005 – dissects how people think about the nature of intelligence, how the human brain works, and what it takes to develop true artificial intelligence.
“‘A Thousand Brains’ is appropriate for non-experts with little background in brain science or computer science,” Gates wrote. “It is filled with fascinating insights into the architecture of the brain and tempting clues about the future of intelligent machines.”
‘The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race’
By Walter Isaacson
Gates also recommends this biography of biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for her work on CRISPR gene editing, a system in which DNA is cut and genes modified to treat diseases. The book is written by Isaacson, who was also the cinematographer for Gates’ longtime friend and rival, Steve Jobs.
“The Code Breakers” is more than just a biography of Doudna’s scientific career and discoveries. It dives deep into the potential uses of CRISPR gene editing, such as curing blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Gates wrote, adding that CRISPR “is one of the coolest and perhaps most consistent scientific breakthroughs of the last decade.”
CRISPR has been deeply divisive in large parts of the scientific community for many years, mainly due to moral concerns. “Isaacson is doing a good job of highlighting the most important ethical issues surrounding gene editing,” Gates wrote – including whether the process should be used to change the human gene pool for future generations.