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HAI Recommended Reading: 10 Books Worth Checking Out

HAI faculty members share their favorite fiction and nonfiction books with a technology theme.

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Need a new book for a quiet evening? HAI faculty offer their favorites. 

COVID may scuttle the bustle of a busy holiday season, but perhaps one silver lining is more time to work through our reading lists. Here HAI faculty offer up what they’ve enjoyed recently – from disaster adventures to philosophical approaches to AI to large-scale questions about our relationship with technology.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter is a former Stanford colleague and a brilliant philosopher of science. But this book is an extraordinary excursion into the philosophy of mind – a thorough exploration of a species in which intelligence arose completely independent of the evolutionary line that produced human intelligence. With the octopus we have a real-life, terrestrial specimen of a truly alien intelligence, from which Peter draws lessons not only about the mysteries of these incredible creatures but about the nature of our own minds and consciousness. I have recommended this book to scores of people of all backgrounds, and without exception they find it accessible and deeply rewarding.  

— John Etchemendy, HAI Denning Co-Director and Provost Emeritus

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, by David Deutsch

The philosopher C. D. Broad once said that “the nonsense written by philosophers on scientific matters is exceeded only by the nonsense written by scientists on philosophy.” Well, the exception proves the rule, and David Deutsch, a quantum physicist, is an extraordinary thinker whose philosophical ruminations about everything from quantum mechanics to AI to the paradox of congressional apportionment are sure to set you back on your heels. People who know me well know I am usually scathing in my criticism of “big thinkers” like Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari. But Deutsch may be the biggest thinker of them all and, well, I finished this book with my jaw dropped and my mind expanded.  

— John Etchemendy, HAI Denning Co-Director and Provost Emeritus

Supersizing The Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, by Andy Clark

This book continues the theme of embodiment, action, and cognitive extension, which I’ve been really enamored with in my own research.

— Fei-Fei Li, HAI Denning Co-Director and Sequoia Capital Professor in Computer Science

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

This is a Stanford doctor’s personal journey through a heroic combat with lung cancer. Also important for AI+healthcare researchers to gain that kind of personal empathy.

— Fei-Fei Li, HAI Denning Co-Director and Sequoia Capital Professor in Computer Science

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin, and Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life, edited by Ruha Benjamin

Highly readable, compelling books for those immersed both in tech and policy. Ruha Benjamin specializes in the interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, and technology; race-ethnicity and gender; knowledge and power. A Princeton professor who runs the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, with degrees in both social sciences and STEM, and postdoctoral fellowships at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and Harvard University’s Science, Technology, and Society Program, she is one of the few scholars who truly bridges the “two culture” divide. Both books are terrific, engaging reads.

— Michele Elam, the William Robertson Coe Professor, School of Humanities and Sciences; Professor of English

Apollo 13, by Jim Lovell

This is not a new book and is already an old movie, but I recently listened to the book-on-tape of Apollo 13 about the technical failure of that moon-bound flight in 1970, and the subsequent efforts to save the crew. The computers in that vessel had absolutely no AI, but it is instructive to hear about how an advanced technology, human decisions, and bad luck combined to create a catastrophe. But what is inspiring is that motivated and dedicated humans were able to troubleshoot myriad challenges to bring the crew home safely. As AI emerges, I think there are important lessons on the relationship and roles for humans and their cutting-edge technologies that make this excellent book worth another look.

— Russ Altman, Kenneth Fong Professor, School of Engineering; Professor of Bioengineering, of Genetics, of Medicine, of Biomedical Data Science and, by courtesy, of Computer Science

What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason, by Hubert L. Dreyfus

Despite being published nearly 30 years ago, Dreyfus’ perspective on the limitations of artificial intelligence is still relevant today. The book raises, analyzes, and questions some of the key assumptions underlying different paradigms in AI research, and speculates on what alternative aspects might be important.

 — Chelsea Finn, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and of Electrical Engineering 

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier

This is an eye-opening look at the different kinds of data routinely collected in today’s digital world and the various ways they are used – often without the knowledge of the general public.

— Amit Kaushal, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine (Stanford-VA) and Adjunct Professor of Bioengineering 

The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Powers

This is one of my favorite books. Although it is a fictional novel, Powers blends decades of scientific learning from biology and ecology with human characters to convey the magic of nature in a way that ultimately raises thought-provoking questions about our relationship to technology. 

— Kate Maher, Professor of Earth System Science and Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

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