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6 must-read books to understand the future, according to YCombinator’s president

The president of the famous Silicon Valley accelerator shares his favorite books that help inform his thinking about where technology is headed.

6 must-read books to understand the future, according to YCombinator’s president
[Source photo: Peshkova/iStock]
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Predicting the future is what human beings do. We create our internal models of the world in order to predict where we will find our next meal or where the next danger will emerge. Naturally, for investors this is fundamental to what they do. The best investors are able to find founders who are good at predicting the future. A great founder tells a compelling story about why their version of the future is the right one. The future that will, in fact, come to be. The future in which their company plays an outsized, epic role. And the younger the company, the crazier, more outlandish their story.

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I love reading about the past because that helps inform us about what is likely to happen next. But the books below also inspire me to think deeply about what the world might look like in 5, 10, 20 years, and beyond. And this helps me decide what role I can play to orient that future in a positive direction.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis

The behavior of human beings is notoriously difficult to predict in advance. Nevertheless, economists blithely went ahead and based their entire domain on predictions that two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, proceeded to demolish. In the process, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize (in economics!) which, sadly, Tversky couldn’t share as he died in 1996. This is their story, told in inimitable Lewis fashion—I couldn’t put the book down. I always love learning about extraordinary people who, with special insight and brilliance, change the way we see the world. I loved a story Lewis tells about Tversky, regarding the tongue-in-cheek intelligence test employed by Tversky’s colleagues at Hebrew University. The more intelligent you were, the faster you realized Amos was smarter than you.

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Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Although predicting the future is hard and often impossible, it turns out some of us are simply better at it than others. This book outlines what makes them so good. I thought a lot about Tetlock and Gardner’s work during COVID-19 as so many predictions went awry, while others, too often ignored, were spot on.

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord

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This well-written and compelling book is about the possible: what we, the human race, might achieve; and what might go wrong, seriously wrong, on the path to those achievements. These ideas seem particularly relevant today—and Ord’s arguments make me determined to do what I can to lower those risks. Speaking of doing what you can, check out Giving What We Can, an organization he founded.

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by R.P. Eddy and Richard A. Clark

I’ve been thinking about this book ever since reading another Michael Lewis book, The Premonition, about the COVID-19 pandemic. Disasters will always happen, but figuring out ways to listen to the people with the ability to predict their arrival seems to be strikingly difficult.

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Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible by Arthur C. Clarke

I discovered this out-of-print but extraordinary book some years ago, by one of my favorite science-fiction writers growing up. His predictions about space exploration, genetic modification, computing, and more are extraordinary, given that it was written originally in 1962 (Clarke later revised it).

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer  A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg

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This book describes the discovery of CRISPR, likely one of the most important findings of this century. Think about how a human being is built from a single cell, following the blueprint inscribed in the 46 chromosomes in its nucleus. There is something extraordinary about this code that can create the most complex structures, including every organism on the planet. This is the story of how Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered a mechanism to edit that code, an initial step toward “unthinkable power.”


Geoff Ralston is the president of YCombinator.