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Marko Bjelonic




I was born in 1990 in Yugoslavia, right before the start of the civil war. When the war began, my parents and I managed to escape the country and we found a new home in Germany where my talented younger brother Filip was born. This constant fight for asylum shaped the first years of my life, gifted me a relentless determination, and gave me a deep appreciation for the sacrifice of my parents. After more than ten years in Germany, we managed to receive a permanent residency, and in 2018 I proudly received my German passport. I continue to dedicate my work and achievements to my family, Ostoja, Snijezana, and Filip.

Today I am happy to call Switzerland my home, but this has not stopped me from traveling the globe, eager to understand the perspectives of others, and especially what motivates them. Spending my time in robotics has the potential to create a silo kind of thinking, and so in my reading, I have tried to venture into disciplines that might augment my knowledge and potentially help me understand the world from different points of view. Perhaps you will enjoy my book recommendations below, and like me, they will take you on an intellectual journey to places you had not considered before.

Click on the images to jump to my personal book review:

Visited Countries

Book Recommendations

by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow (amazon.com)

Daniel Kahneman is probably the most influential writer in my reading list since his book is cited by most of the other authors presented here. He speaks about the fast thinking system one and the slow thinking counterpart called system two. As humans, our decisions in life are influenced continuously by heuristics and biases, e.g., anchoring, availability heuristic, attribute substitution, optimism and loss aversion, framing effect, and sunk-cost fallacy. Overcoming these pitfalls might enable us to think more rationally and in a more statistical way. It is the first time that I read about the expert problem and the overconfidence in decision-making that comes with it. As if that were not enough, we are our remembering selves, and the experiencing selves, who make our living, are like strangers to us. I highly recommend reading this book especially if all the concepts are new to you. The book taught me a lot about my own mistakes when it comes to decision making. More importantly, I can see some of the same behaviours in the people around me. Mastering these concepts enables me to understand and influence others in a better way. For example, knowing that humans give a stronger weighting to peak experiences and how an experience ends, lets me structure my encounter with other people more effectively. You can find a TED talk and a Google talk of Daniel presenting his research. By the way, he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences!

by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (amazon.com)

The world is becoming a better place, and Steven Pinker is giving proof to the world's enlightenment with data. The fact is that the news is becoming more and more negative. Our progress in all areas like health, prosperity, safety, peace, and happiness, however, has tended to rise worldwide. He explains the cognitive science of why this progress should be appreciated. To be honest, before I read the book, I had no idea about the development in the last centuries, and I was also influenced by the media. Knowing about what we as humans have achieved makes me confident that we will be able to solve possible future problems that artificial intelligence, automation, nuclear weapons and environmental pollution will bring to us. The TED talk of Hans and Ola Riesling shows how ignorant we are about the world and proves in a funny way that chimps a more intelligent in that respect. Now is the best time to live!

by Mo Gawdat

Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy (amazon.com)

This book has a special meaning for me since my girlfriend gave it to me as a present at the beginning of our relationship. Mo Gawdat is the former Chief Business Officer at Google's [X]. He realized that despite his incredible success, he was desperately unhappy. After the sudden death of his son, he decided to write this book. Mo's book provides a path to happiness by following a predictable equation. Happiness is bigger or equal than your perception of the events of your life subtracted by your expectations of how life should be, i.e., Happiness ≥ Events - Expectations. The five key lessons of his book are: 1) Happiness isn’t something you find – it’s something you work on; 2) Accept that life won’t always go your way 3) In this moment, there is absolutely nothing wrong at all; 4) Life is mostly made up of positives; and 5) You are in charge of what you choose to focus on. Being in a highly competitive environment that is shaped by high external expectations, it becomes difficult to find happiness and fulfillment. My personal takeaway from the book is to give myself each day time to sit and think. We are living in a world where we are always overwhelmed by the constant flow of information and impressions. Investing time in yourself is my number one tip for success. Mo's Google talk gives you a glimpse of how to engineer your path to joy.

by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (amazon.com)

Yuval Noah Harari takes us on an impressive view through the history of humankind. He divides our history into four major parts given by the Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE), the Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE), the Unification of Humankind, and the Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE). The ability of humans to cooperate in large groups is Yuval's main explanation for our domination of the world. To this end, our unique ability to believe in fictional stories existing purely in the imagination enables us to function in larger numbers. Our imaginations might arise from gods, nations, money, human rights, or quite controversely corporations like Google. To my surprise, all these beliefs are only man-made and became only possible through technological progress. For example, the rise of capitalism and democracy is thanks to the development of infrastructure and the large-scale information exchange. Future technologies like artificial intelligence might create new social structures that are not thinkable today, and today's beliefs in concepts like individualism might become deprecated. He claims that the progress throughout history did not necessarily create a better and happier society, which is, for me, quite controversial. On the contrary, Steven Pinker's book proves with data that the world is becoming a better place. You can find an interesting conversation between Yuval and Steven here. Yuval's conclusion considers how modern technology may soon end our species. This final remark is discussed more deeply in Homo Deus ...

by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (amazon.com)

... building upon the predecessor, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval reviews the current abilities and achievements of humankind. The book attempts to paint an image of the future. As already mentioned in my previous book review of his predecessor, beliefs in the human experience, individualism, human emotion, and consciousness are being threatened by scientific advancements. To this end, our society is on the way to gain happiness, immortality, and God-like powers. The book closes with the following question: "What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?" Yuval's tone seems to be quite cynical when it comes to our future, and in certain parts, he sounds apocalyptic. Personally, I am more positive than him regarding human's future and our technological advancements. The topics that he raises, however, are essential and need to be publicly addressed. But as usual, our political leaders are busy trying to solve our present problems. For somebody like me, who is trying to shape the future of the world, this book reminds me of my ethical responsibilities as a researcher. You can find a TED talk and a Google talk of Yuval presenting his research.

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (amazon.com)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is of Lebanese descent but worked in New York as an option trader and quantitative analyst. The Black Swan theory is about the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable events. Humans tend to find simplistic explanations for these events retrospectively. One of my favorite examples is his quote from Stalin, who said: "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." The quotation summarizes how news can cause outrages about rare events like terrorism, which makes us overestimate the likelihood of a potential terrorist attack. On the other hand, car accidents and diabetes are killing far more US Americans than terrorism. Still, we hear nothing from these events in the news. We live in an Extremistan world where we are subjected to Black Swans, i.e., a society where the total can be conceivably impacted by a single observation. In this respect, we are fooled by randomness, and many financial institutions use Gaussian distributions, i.e., the bell-curve, to mitigate risk. One famous example is the bankruptcy of a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) in 1998. The investment company used the risk expertise of two Nobel economists, who were called geniuses but were, in fact, using phony, bell-curve-style mathematics. That is all well and good, but how should we deal with Black Swans? The central idea is not to attempt to predict Black Swan events but to build robustness to negative events and an ability to exploit positive events. Methods like the barbell strategy consist of taking both a defensive attitude and an excessively aggressive one at the same time. For example, I am putting around 80% of my money in the safest instruments available (mostly boring index funds) and the remaining 20% on extremely speculative bets. You can check out his Google talk to find out more about his book, but I highly recommend reading it!

by John Brockman

This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know (amazon.com)

John Brockman is a passionate advocate of cutting edge ideas of both science and the arts. Moreover, he founded the Edge Foundation, an organization aimed to bring together the world's finest minds. Similarly, this book is a collection of 205 of the world's most influential thinkers from all disciplines, e.g., physicists, economists, psychologists, philosophers, novelists, artists, and more. Many scientific concepts changed my way of how I perceive the universe and my everyday life. Besides, some of the ideas encouraged me to further research the topic at my own. It is is impossible for me to summarize the book here. Therefore, I am introducing one of my favorite ideas of the book — the concept of entropy picked up by Seth Lloyd, Steven Pinker, Antony Garrett Lisi and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system entropy never decreases. Isolated systems inherently become "less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes." Only by adding external energy the closed system can decrease its entropy, i.e., become more structured. This law is far more than just the foundation of our universe. Our understanding of our everyday life should take into account that any system becomes more unorganized over time. An underappreciation of the second law of thermodynamics lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being guided poorly. "It is in the nature of the universe that life has problems." We need to apply constantly information and energy to expand our order or, as Erwin Schroedinger's "What is life?" teaches us that order comes from disorder.

by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (amazon.com)

A great book recommended to me by my colleague Timothy Sandy. After reading about the story of Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar Animation Studios, I had the desire to watch a Pixar movie. At the same time, his beliefs and achievements made me check out the job openings at his company, which is nowadays owned by Walt Disney Studios. Did you know that Toy Story is the first-ever computer-animated feature film? This book is, for me, one of the most practical business books I read, and I love how he presents the pieces of advice coupled with his autobiography. In short, stop focusing on your short term achievements and your shareholders. Instead, start hiring smart people while making sure that you offer them a working environment where they can unfold their creativity. This also means that every employee needs to feel ownership and responsibilities. Micromanaging is not the way to go! Sadly, not a lot of companies are listening to his voice. There is one critical note from my side, and I hope that I can discuss my thoughts with him: At the end of the book, he is considering randomness and how random events guide us in life. It almost seems like he is trying to act humble about his achievements. On the other hand, he started his Ph.D. in 1969 in computer graphics at the University of Utah. One of his classmates, Jim Clark, would go on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Another, John Warnock would co-found Adobe and still another, Alan Kay, would lead on several fronts, from object-oriented programming to graphical user interfaces. Considering how randomness guides our lives, how come that there can be so much "luck" for this group of PhDs? In my opinion, we are increasing the probability of positive events by working hard and working towards the right vision. So, we can bend the bow in the right direction. Still, the magnitude of success is undoubtedly a random number that is hard to influence. By the way, one of his co-founders of Pixar is Steve Jobs, and he is revealing many sides of him that are different from the general opinion in public. If my short book review is not enough, you can also check out his talk at Stanford to become more excited about this book.

by Max Tegmark

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (amazon.com)

With the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Max Tegmark introduces Life 3.0 and its impact on the future of life on Earth and our Universe. One can tell that Max is a passionate physicist, and one of my favorite parts of the book is when he describes the physical limits of computation, communication, energy, and exploration of our (reachable) Universe. For example, his MIT colleague Seth Lloyd found that the fundamental limit is 1033 times beyond today’s state of the art for how much computing we can do. So even if our current progress keeps doubling the power of our computers every couple of years, it will take us more than 200 years until we reach that limit. Besides, his discussion about consciousness, i.e., subjective experience, is one of the best scientific explanations I have read. In his opinion, if artificial consciousness is possible, then the space of possible AI experiences is likely to be huge compared to what humans can experience. One criticism of the book is that some of the scenarios are prophetic and stretch too far into the future. We tend to find simplistic predictions of the future and forget about the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable events called black swans. In this respect, predicting the future in the next decades is, in most cases, impossible, but I am sure that Max is aware of this. If you like to find out how to get empowered, not overpowered, by AI, watch his Ted talk.

by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (amazon.com)

Why are people so selfish and stockpiling toilet paper? This is one of the questions one might ask during the current coronavirus panic. As people spend money on a pack of toilet paper, they are applying market norms, caring more about their own selfish goals, and paying less attention to the welfare of others. MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely shows that if we would instead offer toilet paper for free, people would be less selfish and apply more social norms, caring more about others. He believes that people are inherently dishonest and by reminding them about fundamental ethics, we can change their behavior. When supermarkets place notes on their shelves or make announcements over loudspeakers that we should only take one pack per purchase, people tend to comply. The book proves that we do not behave in fundamentally rational ways. Standard economic theories draw far-reaching conclusions about everything from shopping trends to law to public policy while assuming that people are reasonable in their decision making. Reading this book did not just improve my understanding of behavioral economics; it even gave me more insight into how to become a more successful dater! The next time you go out, Dan suggests bringing along a slightly uglier version of yourself. Why? Because, despite imagining ourselves as objective, we are, in fact, judging on a relative basis. And why should even a mediocre date always end on a positive note? Because that is all your date will remember! Find out more about how to improve your success with the other gender in his Ted talk.

by Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, Aaron Courville

Deep Learning (amazon.com)

This is probably the most unhandy book to read in the summertime at the lake of Zurich, but it was worth it! Deep learning has taken over technology, and this is perhaps the most comprehensive textbook on this subject. What fascinates me is that by studying algorithms described in this book, we can develop theories about how our human brain works. For example, our brain learns a probabilistic world model when experiencing real events while awake and during sleep; we further refine this model by sampling synthetic experiences from the current model. This strategy is a well-known decomposition into the positive phase and negative phase of machine learning. Throughout my Ph.D., I mainly focused on model-based control, but one year ago, I finally had to accept that the future of robotics is (deep) learning. This book encouraged me to jump into the cold water and educate myself in this novel field. Together with my colleague, Joonho Lee, we are applying reinforcement learning to our roller-walking robot, ANYmal. Stay tuned for the future of robotic mobility!

by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (amazon.com)

Content coming soon!

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (amazon.com)

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by Chris Voss

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It (amazon.com)

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by Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Richard L. Hudson

The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin and Reward (amazon.com)

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by Atul Gawande

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (amazon.com)

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by Burton G. Malkiel

A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing (amazon.com)

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by George S. Clason

The Richest Man in Babylon (amazon.com)

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by Benjamin Graham

The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing (amazon.com)

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by Dale Carnegie

How to Win Friends & Influence People (amazon.com)

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by William N. Thorndike

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success (amazon.com)

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by John Brooks

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street (amazon.com)

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by Martin Ford

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (amazon.com)

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by Clayton M. Christensen

The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (amazon.com)

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by Strunk Jr., William

The Elements of Style (amazon.com)

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by Peter Thiel

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (amazon.com)

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by Vaclav Smil

Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (amazon.com)

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Made by Marko Bjelonic