angle-left Books for understanding the era of technology

Books for understanding the era of technology

The researcher Lluís Montoliu presents in his book Editing genes: cut, paste and colour, the keys to understanding the genetic revolution. Credit: José Luis Pindado.

JAVIER YANES | Tungsteno

We live in times of great technology-driven transformations, but changes sometimes frighten us, especially when we don't understand their fundamentals. To understand what's coming and to lose one’s fear of the future, there’s nothing better than listening to the voice of the experts. We review here a short list of books that help us understand how we got here and where technology will lead us in the coming decades.

Keys to Understanding the Coming Genetic Revolution

Editing genes: cut, paste and colour. The wonderful CRISPR tools, Lluís Montoliu (Next Door Publishers, 2019)

In 2018, a Chinese researcher surprised the world with his announcement that he had modified the genes of two babies to make them resistant to the AIDS virus. The news was met with general condemnation from the scientific community, but brought to the forefront the current crossroads of the new applications of genomic editing, a technology that is set to lead the biomedical revolution of the 21st century.

At the heart of it all is CRISPR, a set of new molecular tools that allow genes to be cut and pasted almost as easily as a child's puzzle. This is the focus of biotechnologist and disseminator Lluís Montoliu, who has gathered in one volume all the basic information for anyone interested in knowing the keys to this technology, its realities, expectations and the ethical dilemmas it presents. The prologue to the book was written by Francisco J. Martínez Mojica, the Spanish microbiologist who discovered the fundamentals of CRISPR more than 25 years ago.

The truth is in the data

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Dey Street Books, 2018)

Everyone lies, but our behaviour on the Internet reveals who we really are. This is the thesis of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, data scientist and columnist for the New York Times, who in 2012 began to delve into the exhaustive world of big data through his doctoral thesis. His research has turned him into an expert on deciphering human behaviour based on what we do when we are connected to the web.

An example: according to surveys, only 2 to 3% of American men define themselves as gay, and this percentage is notably higher in more progressive states like Rhode Island than in more conservative states like Mississippi. However, Google searches or Facebook patterns draw a different reality: 5% of American men are gay, with hardly any differences between states. It is one of the curiosities told in Stephens-Davidowitz's book that illustrate how nowadays power lies in data, power that serves to uncover truths, but also to manipulate them and to slip into the depths of our intimacy.

The history of the digital age

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

In the 1830s, the collaboration between mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace —the daughter of poet Lord Byron— led to the creation of the first computer programs, for which Lovelace intuited an infinitely broader usefulness than simply executing calculations. In that germinal achievement could already be found those ingredients that in the opinion of journalist and writer Walter Isaacson have been key in the progress of information technologies until today: individual genius, obstinacy, teamwork and a balanced mix between sciences and humanities.

After his acclaimed biography of Steve Jobs, Isaacson undertook the task of writing what is intended to be the definitive history of the digital age: from the mechanical ingenuity of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the invention of the transistor, the microprocessor, the computer and the Internet. And all this narrated through essential characters such as Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Grace Hopper, John von Neumann, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, among many other luminaries without which not even this article would have been possible.

The dawn of the machines

Life 3.0. Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Max Tegmark (Knopf, 2017)

Although we may not yet be fully aware of the fact, artificial intelligence is already among us, not only in the systems we access with our devices, but even within the devices themselves, such as facial recognition systems. And we are only at the beginning: over the next few decades, artificial intelligence will be introduced into all areas of our lives.

Physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark has spent years researching the risks of artificial intelligence, but also predicting how they can be avoided so that their benefits can be exploited to the full. The Life 3.0 described by Tegmark, the technological era of the human being, will have to overcome pitfalls such as the loss of traditional jobs and the threat of intelligent weaponry. But as the author describes, it is in our hands to direct the reins of technological progress so that the goals of artificial intelligence remain aligned with those of human society.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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