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We Welcome Our Robot Overlords: 5 Books to Prepare You For a Very Sci-Fi Future

The future of space exploration and artificial intelligence is omnipresent in series and film, and it can all seem quite far removed from reality. But think again: today, we unearth five books that offer the science behind mind-boggling concepts from your favorite science fiction—and show why they’re not quite as far off as we think.
by Caitlin Schiller | Jun 2 2016

We’ve plumbed the oceans and dabble ever deeper in space. Scientists are now beginning to explore the wild frontier of the human mind and the intricate pathways of the genome. But before any exploration of these new frontiers began, people like Jules Verne and Mary Shelley imagined them—sometimes in ways more fantastical than others.

Today, the future of space exploration and artificial intelligence is omnipresent in series and film, and it can all seem quite far removed from reality. But think again: here, we unearth five books that offer the science behind mind-boggling concepts from your favorite science fiction—and show why they’re not quite as far off as we think.

1.Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku

Did you know that in the nineteenth-century, Jules Verne—he of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth—had already dreamed up devices like fax machines, a worldwide communications network, and rocket ships to the moon? While we don’t travel through other galaxies wearing catsuits quite yet, in some regards, today’s science already has surpassed yesterday’s fiction. And what about technologies that seem impossible today? Which of them will be realized in the future and how? Acclaimed physicist Michio Kaku explores why, soon, you won’t need to be a psychic to read your lover’s mind, whether you should start saving money for a handheld laser gun, and what it actually takes to travel faster than light.

2. The Singularity is Near – Ray Kurzweil

Remember the scene in The Matrix in which Neo has a program uploaded to his brain and, in the swish of a nunchuk, he knows kung fu? What would life be like if you could upload knowledge in a trice? What skills would you collect like so many pogs? Start considering it now, because this possibility isn’t as far off as we might think. The Singularity Is Near shows how evolution is drawing ever closer to a dramatic new phase, in that by 2029, computers will be smarter than humans, and not just in terms of logic and math. Ray Kurzweil, inventor, entrepreneur and a director of engineering at Google, explores how the event will profoundly change how we live and pose serious questions about humanity’s future.

3. A World Without Ice – Henry Pollack

In addition to making your lemonade a lot more pleasant on a hot summer’s day, ice—the polar and glacial varieties—has a critical effect on the Earth’s climate. And, scarily enough, due to the emission of staggering quantities of greenhouse gases, Earth is warming and ice is melting at a rapid pace. Even if we love the mild winters, this is distressing, and A World Without Ice will tell you why. Here, learn the role ice plays in Earth’s climate as well as how human activities became the main driver of climate change. You’ll find out about the severe and unavoidable consequences the disappearance of ice will wreak on our environment and the global economy. And, finally, you’ll learn about ways in which climate change can be mitigated so that the planet doesn’t go all Waterworld on us.

4. Superintelligence – Nick Bostrom

Close your eyes and picture the human apocalypse: the smell of sulfur, burnt umber horizons, and, chillingly enough, the intelligent machines that we created creakily roaming the earth. Even if you’re terrified by the notion of a post-human world, it’s pretty fascinating to wonder about what will happen when we’re gone. Superintelligence investigates how creating a machine more intelligent than a human would change humanity. Nick Bostrom, a professor at Oxford and the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute, has penned a fact-and-study-heavy book that draws on a variety of disciplines to build a complex picture of the superintelligent future and how we might arrive there. It also delves into the moral questions surrounding the creation of artificial life forms (which would probably have been valuable background reading for Ex Machina’s inventor character, Nathan).

P.S. Bill Gates loves this book.

5. Life at the Speed of Light – J. Craig Venter

Does the idea of a real-life Frankenstein’s monster weird you out, or do you shudder at the thought of eating a genetically modified tomato? If so, then Life at the Speed of Light might not be for you. It reveals a whole new world of genetic engineering – the future of science and perhaps even of humanity itself. Read about one scientific team’s fascinating quest to create artificial life from scratch by decoding DNA itself. Bonus: learn how, in the future, we might be teleporting medicine to Mars!

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