The best books about the future of technology, innovation, and war

Audrey Kurth Cronin Author Of Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation Is Arming Tomorrow's Terrorists
By Audrey Kurth Cronin

The Books I Picked & Why

The Future of War: A History

By Lawrence Freedman

Book cover of The Future of War: A History

Why this book?

Sir Lawrence Freedman sets the standard for erudite but accessible writing about strategy, and this is another wonderful book. It analyzes how smart people in many historical settings have predicted the future of war, and why their predictions then succeeded or failed. The broader political, economic, or social context was often more important than popular concepts of the day—things like short war, decisive battle, the “RMA,” or revolutionary technology. Freedman also reminds us that influential analyses of war’s future change how that future unfolds. Reading this book helped me see beyond popular predictions, to be more discerning about change and continuity.


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The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

By Tonio Andrade

Book cover of The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Why this book?

A key question today about the future of war is who will dominate AI technologies–China or the US & its allies? History offers clues. This book tackles the hot debate about what historians call the great divergence—that is, why, since it invented gunpowder (and other key military technologies), China then fell dramatically behind Europe in the modern era. Andrade goes beyond classic arguments about a gradual 500-year Rise of the West, beyond revisionist arguments about the West shooting ahead only very recently, to craft a third view. Using archival evidence, he lays out a series of key smaller divergences accompanying industrialization. Why does this interest me? If Western technological advances happened only recently and rapidly, they can be quickly reversed. 


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Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War

By Paul Scharre

Book cover of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War

Why this book?

Paul Scharre explains the military use of autonomous weapons and AI-driven platforms in a book that’s accessible and comprehensive. He’s a former Army Ranger who helped write the US military’s guidelines for unmanned systems and military autonomy. I have other, more recent books about individual technologies; but Scharre’s is the only one that melds an insider’s understanding of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) with clear analysis of their pros and cons. He’s a skeptic of arms control but sees the need to reduce their downsides. My students like the book—even those deeply opposed to LAWs. Scharre’s explanations of autonomy and AI in military weapons are especially valuable for non-specialists. They are an antidote to all the loose AI terminology that just confuses everyone. 


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Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

By Stuart Russell

Book cover of Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

Why this book?

This book lays out the security risks of fast-moving AI research better than any I have read. Stuart Russell believes artificial intelligence will soon out-think human beings in scale, scope, and speed. And he knows what he’s talking about: he’s been a leading AI researcher since the 1980s. Russell’s not concerned about superhuman robots becoming conscious and turning on us. His worry is intelligent AI algorithms doing exactly what we’ve designed them to do, including objectives that incentivize manipulating or harming humans. And that’s already happening–think social media search algorithms, driving humans into violent, polarized groups or future AI used to track down “the enemy,” however defined. Russell’s solution is to change AI research to incentivize outcomes that serve humankind. I think every human should read this book.


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Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age

By Brad Smith, Carol Ann Browne

Book cover of Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age

Why this book?

Brad Smith is the president of Microsoft, a lawyer who designed and drove Microsoft’s legal strategy during the anti-trust suit in the 1990s. (I should also mention he was my undergraduate classmate at Princeton University—though I’ve not seen him in decades.) Smith co-authored the book with Carol Ann Browne, Microsoft’s Senior Director of Communications. Most big tech companies see themselves as historically unique, allergic to discussing risk, regulation, responsibility, or self-restraint. I assumed this book would follow suit; but I was wrong. It’s honest, balanced, and full of historical references to earlier technologies, such as railroads, electricity, the telegraph, and nuclear weapons. It’s also loaded with insider stories about cyber threats, social media-facilitated violence, and international law initiatives (e.g., the “Digital Geneva Convention”). This book taught me a lot about how major tech companies are already affecting war and peace.


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