The year 2018 is drawing to a close, and we badly need a break from the crisis politics, trade tension, workplace discrimination, fear of robo-displacement and climate apocalypse that we have encountered and tried to cope with. If that sounds like an annus horribilis, you may not be very far from the truth and the trouble-torn times have been well captured in some of the best books published this year.
The books presented here do not follow any particular order, but we have undoubtedly encountered one masterpiece this year (and a sombre one at that) in journalist John Carreyrou's BadBlood that chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos. The multibillion-dollar biotech start-up was set up by the charismatic Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes who wanted the world to get rid of the hypodermic needle. Her innovation: A simple pinprick drawing a few drops of blood that could be used to perform a whole range of tests. A technology which she claimed to be fast, affordable and accurate. The problem was that the technology never worked. And Holmes kept running the scam until she got found out. At one point, Theranos presented all that Silicon Valley stood for - youth, talent and disruption. The company became the darling of the media and investors poured in, including some big names such as Larry Ellison, the Chief Executive of Oracle.
If Bad Blood has exposed the dark belly of the Valley, there is another spot-on dissection of how the future of jobs will be reshaped with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots. In Human + Machine, Accenture leaders Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson provide an interesting example of collaboration when they write, "In one corner of the BMW assembly plant in Dingolfing, Germany, a worker and a robot are collaborating to build a transmission. The worker prepares a gear casing, while a light-weight robot arm, sensitive to and aware of its surroundings, picks up a twelve-pound gear. The worker moves on to their next task, while the robot precisely puts the gear inside the casing and turns away to pick up another." A precise and practical view of the shape of things to come and how to deal coolly with the new reality.
We have delved deeper into the theme of tech enablement and explored the Architecture of a Technodemocracy. Jason Hanania, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016 as the first Technodemocratic candidate and came back to promote an exceptionally forward-thinking concept, candidly discusses how the pillars of a government's power can be completely decentralised with the use of technology.
Talking about technology brings us to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, led by AI, machine learning and robotics. The US has been a pioneer here, but China seems to be catching up big time. AI Superpowers, a bestseller penned by venture capitalist and AI pioneer Kai-Fu Lee, makes this quite clear. Lee says China will win for two reasons. First, it has access to more data than the US, which is mandatory for AI success. Second, cutting-edge inventions are no longer critical. What matters most is tweaking the tech and creating new applications out of it. This is where China, with its vast array of computer scientists, is likely to win in the end. Also, in China, the chances of a Big Brother-Big Data synergy are much higher than in the US.
The tragedy is that not even the tech superpowers could deal with climate crises. On the other hand, population growth has been pushed too frequently as a key reason behind these issues. In her 'cautionary tale' On Infertile Ground, Jade Sasser critiques the flawed theory at work. Apart from the environmental issues, it is often thought that population control will be a unique opportunity to support women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. But Sasser points out how the bulk of poor women living in Africa, Latin America and developing Asia, "remain disproportionately targeted by such a narrative". After all, "the countries that contribute the most greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year are not those with the highest fertility rates," she says. In fact, in high-fertility countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, national greenhouse gas emissions are not even among the top 75 worldwide. Moreover, such a sweeping strategy tends to ignore other dominant causes of environmental destruction - industry-level pollution, fossil fuel consumption, extraction of natural resources, military activity and so on. Overall, it is a compelling tale, weaving many threads of feminism, environmentalism, activism and social justice.
All these have given rise to umpteen questions, picked and explored by Yuval Noah Harari in 21 Lessons in the 21st Century. It is a modern-day primer of sorts, chronicling the constant, rapid and somewhat disorienting change which continues to impact our life and livelihood. Take, for instance, the case of driverless cars, which is going to make life difficult for many. In the past, people managed to secure jobs in spite of such structural shifts mostly because machines used to match their physical capabilities but did not compete at the cognitive level. But it is different this time around. As Harari writes: Many people might share the fate not of 19th-century wagon drivers - who switched to driving taxis - but of 19th-century horses, who were increasingly pushed out of the job market. Plus, if robots replace human beings, how will the consumption dynamics work?
Going by what we have been through, a good portion of the world (and our readers) must have decided that the future will be worse. But is that the case? Hans Rosling along with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund breaks this myth in Factfulness. We have reviewed the book earlier, but it needs another prominent mention as one of the best business books of the year. As Hans points out, the purpose of the book is to "fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview", putting off the naysayers and showing through data that the state of the world is improving, albeit slowly. However, the human brain is hardwired to detect the unsavoury and reacts accordingly to survive. So we will probably notice the doom and gloom faster than the positive happenings.