Bill Gates wants you to read more science fiction.
On Monday, Gates released his annual list of vacation book recommendations — along with a blog post explain 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 And although the famous reading enthusiast has become more focused on non-fiction as he got older, lately he’s been “withdrawn by the kinds of books I’d loved as a kid.”
In his youth, the billionaire wrote, devouring the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein — and spending “countless hours” discussing Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy with the late Paul Allen, his childhood friend and eventual co-worker. founder of Microsoft.
This year, Gates’s vacation book recommendations included a few modern science fiction works that “made me think about how people can use technology to respond to challenges.” Unsurprisingly, Gates spent much of the past year praising the need for technological innovations to tackle climate change. In February, he published his own book on the topic of ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’.
In addition to the sci-fi, Gates also recommended two nonfiction books on “advanced 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 made it to his annual “favorites” list this year:
‘Clara and the Sun’
By Kazuo Ishiguro
“I love a good robot story,” Gates wrote of Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel.
“Klara and the Sun” is a story told from the point of view of a solar-powered robot named Klara, the companion of a seriously ill child in a dystopian future United States. Despite the story’s dystopian setting, Gates noted, the artificial intelligence-powered robots are “no 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 “super intelligence” could one day realistically threaten humanity.
Ishiguro’s book may represent the flip side of that argument. “This book made me think about what life with super-intelligent robots could be like,” Gates wrote. “And whether we’re going to treat these kinds of machines as pieces of technology or as something more.”
‘Project Hail Mary’
By Andy Weir
Like Andy Weir’s 2011 novel ‘The Martian’ that appeared on Gates’ summer reading list for 2020, ‘Project Hail Mary’ is about a human who finds herself in a tricky situation in space. The main character is a high school teacher who wakes up on a mysterious spacecraft, not knowing how he got there.
According to Gates, it is a book that is difficult to describe without giving away too many plot twists. But suffice it to say that the teacher “uses science and engineering to save the day,” Gates wrote. “It’s fun to read and I read everything in one weekend.”
‘A thousand brains: a new theory of intelligence’
By Jeff Hawkins
In 1996 Jeff Hawkins invented the digital assistant PalmPilot. Since then, Gates wrote, Hawkins has spent “decades thinking about the links between neuroscience and machine learning,” culminating in “A Thousand Brains,” a nonfiction book published in March.
In his book, Hawkins — who in 2005 also co-founded machine learning company Numenta — dissects how people think about the nature of intelligence, how the human brain works, and what it takes to develop a true artificial intelligence.
“‘A Thousand Brains’ is suitable for non-experts with little background in brain science or computer science,” Gates wrote. “It’s full of fascinating insights into the architecture of the brain and tantalizing clues about the future of intelligent machines.”
‘The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of Humanity’
By Walter Isaacson
Gates also recommends this biography of biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on CRISPR gene editing, a system that involves cutting DNA and modifying genes to treat disease. The book was written by Isaacson, who was also the biographer of Gates’ longtime friend and rival, Steve Jobs.
“The Code Breakers” is more than just a biography of Doudna’s scientific career and discoveries. It takes a deep dive into the potential applications of CRISPR gene editing, such as curing blood diseases like sickle cell anemia, Gates wrote, adding that CRISPR is “one of the coolest and perhaps most profound scientific breakthroughs of the past decade.”
CRISPR has been deeply divisive in much of the scientific community for many years, largely due to moral concerns. “Isaacson does a good job highlighting the key ethical questions surrounding gene editing,” Gates wrote — including whether the process should be used to alter the human gene pool for generations to come.