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Yuval Noah Harari
For all human history, we've had to worry about famine, plague and war. Everyone took it for granted that it was all part of God's Plan.
The problems haven't been completely solved, but they've been transformed from uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges.
Mass famines still strike, but they are caused by human politics rather than by natural catastrophes. In most countries today more people die of over-eating than starvation. Marie Antoinette famously advised people to eat cake if they didn't have bread; millions of Americans have taken her advice literally. In 2014 there were 2.1 billion people who were overweight vs 850 million with malnutrition.
AIDs devious disease bc doesn't kill directly. Instead, it destroys the immune system, so you die of pneumonia or an infection.
Throughout history war was seen as inevitable, peace was just a temporary state. Today it is no longer seen as a way to gain wealth by appropriating assets - knowledge and skills the main source today - so now seen as a cost. In 2012 approx 56 million people died, 620,000 from violence - war killed 120,000 and crime another 500,000. 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes.
You get an unexpected promotion at work, and you feel a temporary buzz of joy. But that feeling quickly recedes, and to regain it, you have to get another promotion, then another. And you wind up feeling unhappier than if you had just stayed a minion all your life. Evo does this to us - we're the descendants of animals who got hungry after eating a nut and went hustling for the next one, rather than the animal who experienced everlasting joy after eating the first one.
And today that means we are never satisfied - we need a new kick every day. And worse, our brains adjust to the new level - what was exciting and rewarding yesterday is now the base level.
Upgrading sapiens will be a gradual process, not a sudden tech revolution. Step by step we will merge with our computers - and it is happening today. Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphones a bit more control over their lives. Same with genetic modification - no-one is going to suddenly create a superhuman. But we're already sliding down the slippery slope - we quite naturally agree with parents who select embryos without fatal genetic flaws. But we will soon be able to select for stronger immune systems, better memory and for sunnier disposition.
Science operates on different time scales - 'far away' is 20 years time, and 'never' is less than 50.
History is worth studying. Just as our personal family - our parents and grandparents - are a result of coincidences resulting from unforeseen consequences of choices, human societies are the product of multiple random coincidences. If we understand that, we can break the shackles of the past. Instead of taking for granted that our way of life is, you can look at things people have tried in the past and look at results.
People don't realize how 'captured' they are until you point it out. Look at house buyer who want a nice lawn out front of their house. Why? A 150 years ago nobody had a lawn (no lawnmowers) yet toady almost taken for granted.
If you'd told an ancient Egyptian that one day the pharoahs were no more, or told a medieval that we don't believe in God any more, they would both be horrified - could not imagine how society would maintain order without these sort of authorities.
Homo sapiens has taken over the world. There are about 200,000 wild wolves, but more than 400 million domesticated dogs. 40,000 lions but 600 million house cats. 900,000 buffaloes but 1.5 billion domesticated cows.
Until now. only natural forces affected the world. Tectonic shifts linked North and South America, and S American marsupials were wiped out. But this didn't affect the marsupials in Australia. But now humans changing things on massive scale.
Domesticating animals caused them a lot of suffering. You could argue that in the wild they are constantly in danger from predators and starvation, whereas those needs are removed by human keepers. But they are confined in small cages, mothers are separated from offspring, and monstrosities are selectively bred. They have a background of hundred of thousands of years of evo to shape their instincts and emotions, and these don't suddenly disappear when some of their basic needs are met.
The same thing applies to humans. We pursue sweet foods, teenage boys engage in risky behaviour etc, all bc of biological imperatives that we needed 70,000 years ago, but which modern societies have made obsolete.
An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. A recipe is an algorithm: a human (or a machine) has to translate the steps into actions. Humans are also algorithm machines - working through sensations, emotions and thoughts.
A hungry baboon sees some bananas in a tree, but also notes a nearby lion. He then has to make a series of calculations about his own speed, the lion's speed, the quality of the food, his own hunger etc. The algorithm is under constant quality control by natural selection: a too cautious baboon will starve before gets chance to reproduce, a too risky one will be caught by a predator before passing on his genes.
The Flood tale in Genesis has God upset at human behaviour, so he decides to kill of everything. Not just get rid of homo sapiens, who apparently upset him, but for some reason clear out the blameless animals as well. In biblical times, most humans also had no status. They could be whipped like animals, sold into servitude, given in marriage deals - treated as property in same way as animals were.
In pre-biblical, pagan times, animist religions had a dialogue between man and other creatures. The Agricultural Revn silenced this dialogue - now just between man and his God. The Scientific Revn has silenced the gods as well. Having deciphered the rules of chemistry, biology and physics, mankind uses them as needed, without reference to any gods. When a hunter looked for game, he asked a god to help him, and he gave the god an offering when he succeeded. When a farmer wanted his cow to produce more milk, he asked a god to intervene, and again repaid the favour. But when scientists manipulate genes to produce a new substance, the genes don't ask for anything in return.
Traditional belief that we are entitled to dominance over animals bc humans have a soul and animals don't. Yet despite thousands of ingenious expts to test the idea, there is zero evidence that any being has a soul. This is the core of religious objections to T of Evo. It basically subtracts the soul from any explanation of humanity, and this terrifies all the God-botherers.
Yuval Noah Harari's last book, Sapiens, was a global phenomenon. Its fluent narrative of how the human species came out on top - via fire, farming, money and 70,000 years of technological and cognitive revolutions - was colourful and compelling. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates personally recommended it. Harari's TED talk got 2m views. And the Israeli professor of history became one of that small group of authors who, like Malcolm Gladwell, are virtually popular prophets.
Like its predecessor, which sold in its millions, Homo Deus will have a world audience. Taking over where Sapiens left off, it looks forward to where history, ethics and gargantuan biotech investment might lead us - to the end, Harari thinks, of death, suffering and the very idea of being human.
But before you rush to buy it, be warned. The vision here is as super-confident as it was in Sapiens, but the factual framework is much patchier. And while Harari's first book had its dark side, with its criticisms of the way our species has treated other mammals, this sequel is outright dystopian.
The super-rich, at least, will be OK, thinks Harari. They will pursue immortality by handing over their medical and genetic data to Google's diagnostic algorithms. (Many are doing this already.) They will enhance their minds with techniques such as transcranial stimulation, which uses electromagnetic fields to increase cognitive abilities. (The technology exists already in the form of a rudimentary helmet that allows soldiers to concentrate better on killing people.) They will benefit from the kind of algorithms that currently 'recommend' books for us on Amazon - and these programs will be so accurate that it will be 'madness not to follow their advice', even on marriage choices and political decisions.
The rich will also upgrade their children. Genetic engineering will start by eliminating predispositions to cancer or depression - but via 'baby steps', Harari suggests, we will soon be 'on our way to a genetic child catalogue'. Such upgrades will eventually turn out an elite race of 'super-intelligent cyborgs'. They will no longer be separate biological entities but 'integral parts of a huge global network'. They will be like gods - but 'think more in terms of Greek gods'.
The rest of us 'will feel like a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street' and be about as employable. Already, technology is supplanting us. Now it is driverless cars and stock-exchange algorithms. Next will come special-forces super-warriors and digital teachers instructing by personality type.
The 'useless masses' will console themselves with drugs and 3D virtual-reality games. As a result, Harari thinks, human value systems will collapse ' because our beliefs about the value of every individual will become irrelevant. 'What's so sacred,' he demands, 'in useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences in La La Land?'
That is what the new super-race will think, anyway. If you doubt this, says the book, consider how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. Harari, who is a vegan, details the sociability, maternal feeling and intelligence of pigs, accompanied by a description (and photo) of the heinous 'gestation crates' in which sows are caged. Un-upgraded humans will be treated like those sows, Harari believes - though he stops short of suggesting that the master race will actually eat us.
This scenario is bleak, but it does not feel particularly new. What is more intriguing is Harari's analysis of the deeper drivers. 'We cannot hit the brakes', he argues, because nobody is in control of science as a whole and because the ethical systems that would stop us making bad choices are weak. Conventional religion is finished (or so Harari apparently thinks), and the modern 'religion' of liberal humanism, with its empty belief in the value of every human life, won't survive the transition to the new, upgraded world.
The sweep of Harari's vision is exciting, but the detail is thin and the supporting arguments full of holes. It is like taking in the view from a supertall skyscraper that has missing girders. And questionable foundations.
For one thing, Harari's future is an extrapolation of the scientific present, dominated as it is by the cult sciences of the moment - genetics and web technology. The future is likely to be far stranger.
You can accept that, as a reader. More troubling is that Harari builds his central argument on hasty science and sketchy history. Take the notion of free will, a vital element in the hollow humanist ethics that must supposedly collapse. Free will, Harari believes, vanished in a puff of science when 'brain scanners' detected decisions before people were aware of having made them. He doesn't seem to know about the storm of counterevidence and reinterpretation that has rumbled on since Benjamin Libet's classic experiment was performed in 1983.
Similarly, the idea that all humans have indivisible selves evaporated, according to Harari, when neuroscientists studied patients whose two brain hemispheres had been cut off from each other, and supposedly found that the two halves could disagree. 'Humans aren't individuals,' Harari concludes, 'they are 'dividuals'.' But the experiment he describes dates from 1978, and the brain is now understood to be far more plastic. And it is never clear, in any case, how any of this undermines the value of being human.
Harari is a historian, so you can forgive him a scientific stumble or two. But his history can be just as unreliable. Ancient hunter-gatherers, he writes, 'believed that there was no essential gap separating humans from other animals'. There is very little evidence for this romantic notion. Money arises, he says, when 'the government takes worthless pieces of paper, declares them to be valuable, and then uses them'. Actually, paper money evolved from bills of exchange, which traders used between themselves. Capitalism's win-win ethos of growth, he states, 'helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching'. Even if you could separate Christianity and capitalism in that way, the argument would be hard to back up.
Plenty of dash, most of it slap - as my university tutor once wrote. It gets more egregious when Harari tackles religion, which he does frequently and aggressively. Harari does not go after Islam, for some reason, but he does attack Catholicism, which supposedly 'demands blind obedience to a pope who never makes mistakes '. Cheap nonsense. As for Judaism, it is a conspiracy by 'hair-splitting' rabbinical scholars to usurp the original temple cult. In any case, religion - all of it - is 'self-absorption' and 'infantile delusion', he thinks. So don't expect priests or rabbis to save us from ourselves, any more than the liberal humanists will.
For all that it despises religion, Homo Deus is oddly reminiscent of a book of prophecy. Our ethics are broken. Our nature is corrupt. The apocalypse is nigh. The difference is that Harari offers no comfort and no way out. Even in Silicon Valley, this seed may fall on stony ground.
More books on Inventions
"SAPIENS", Yuval Noah Harari's previous book which came out in 2011, looked to the past. Zipping through 70,000 years of human history, it showed that there is nothing special about our species: no divine right, no unique human spark. Only the blind hand of evolution lies behind the ascent of man. That work ended with the thought that the story of Homo sapiens may be coming to an end. In his new book, "Homo Deus", the Israeli historian heads off into the future.
In one thrilling sweep, Mr Harari proclaims that the old enemies of mankind - plague, famine and war - are now manageable. "For the first time in history," he writes,"more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined." Instead, the challenges of the third millennium will be how to achieve immortality, happiness and divinity, the latter in the sense of enhancing people's physical and cognitive abilities beyond the biological norm.
This might sound like good news, but the author has a dystopian vision. People, increasingly, will cede jobs and decisions to machines and algorithms. The "useless masses" cast aside by this development will pursue the mirage of happiness with drugs and virtual reality. Only the super-rich will reap the true rewards of the new technologies, commandeering evolution with intelligent design, editing their genomes and eventually merging with machines. Mr Harari envisages an elite caste of Homo sapiens evolving into something unrecognisable: Homo deus. In this brave new world, the rest of mankind will be left feeling like "a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street".
Mr Harari's prophecy is bleak, but it is far from new. More interesting is the way he roots his speculation about technology in the context of how liberal democracy has evolved. For most of human history, Mr Harari says, humans believed in gods. This lent their world a cosmic order. But then, at least in some parts of the world, science began simultaneously to give mankind power and to strip it of meaning by relegating religion to the sidelines. This existential hole was filled by a new religion, humanism, that "sanctifies the life, happiness and power of Homo sapiens", he writes. The covenant between humanism and science has defined modern society: the latter helps people achieve the goals set by the former.
But the life sciences are now undermining free will and individualism, which are the foundations of humanism. Mr Harari describes scientific research that, in his eyes, proves that the "free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms". As it dawns on mankind that free will is an illusion and external algorithms can predict people's behaviour, Mr Harari believes liberal democracy will collapse. What will replace it? Perhaps a techno-religion such as "Dataism" that treats everything in terms of data processing and whose supreme value is the flow of information. In this context, Homo sapiens is a rather unimpressive algorithm, destined for obsolescence - or an upgrade.
Although there is plenty to admire in the ambitious scope of this book, ultimately it is a glib work, full of corner-cutting sleights of hand and unsatisfactory generalisations. Mr Harari has a tendency towards scientific name-dropping - words like biotech, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence abound - but he rarely engages with these topics in any serious way. Instead, he races along in a slick flow of TED-talk prose. Holes in his arguments blur like the spokes of a spinning wheel, giving an illusion of solidity but no more. When the reader stops to think, "Homo Deus" is suddenly less convincing, its air of super-confidence seductive but misleading.
Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or tables, and the simpler the story, the better. The story that has ruled our world in the past few decades is what we might call the Liberal Story. It was a simple and attractive tale, but it is now collapsing, and so far no new story has emerged to fill the vacuum. Instead, we get Donald Trump.
The Liberal Story says that if we only liberalize and globalize our political and economic systems, we will produce paradise on earth, or at least peace and prosperity for all. According to this story - accepted, in slight variations, by George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike - humankind is inevitably marching toward a global society of free markets and democratic politics.
The plot line of this story, however, began to lose credibility starting with the 2008 global financial crisis. People who, in the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands, expected that playing by the rules would allow them to rise and flourish suddenly began to fear that they had been duped, and that the system did not work for them. The Arab Spring has turned into an Islamic Winter; authoritarian regimes in Moscow, Ankara, and Jerusalem are abandoning liberal-democratic values in favor of chauvinistic nationalism and religious extremism; and even in the liberal strongholds of Western Europe people are having second thoughts. Now the tidal wave of disillusionment is making its way to the very country that has pushed the Liberal Story to the rest of the planet, sometimes at gunpoint - the United States. As American citizens feel let down by decades of promises and assurances, their disenchantment may sweep Donald Trump into the White House, to the horror and astonishment of the established elites.
Why are people losing faith in the Liberal Story? One explanation is that this story has indeed been a sham, and that, instead of peace and prosperity, the liberal prescription has produced little more than violence and poverty. This, however, is easily refuted. From a historical perspective, it seems evident that humankind is actually enjoying the most peaceful and prosperous era ever. In the early twenty-first century, for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from epidemics; and more people commit suicide than are killed by war, crime, and terrorism put together.
Another explanation for the loss of faith in the Liberal Story is that people care more about their future expectations than about their past achievements. When told that they no longer suffer as their ancestors did - from famine, plague, and war - people don't count their blessings; rather, they enumerate their debts, disappointments, and never-to-be-fulfilled dreams. A person who has lost his job at a Rust Belt factory takes little comfort in the knowledge that he hasn't died from starvation, cholera, or the Third World War.
Unemployed workers are right to fear for their futures. The Liberal Story and the logic of free-market capitalism encourage people to have grand expectations. During the latter part of the twentieth century, each generation - whether in Houston, Shanghai, Istanbul, or Sao Paolo - enjoyed better education, superior health care, and larger real incomes than its parents. In coming decades, however, owing to a combination of ecological meltdown and technological disruption, the younger generation might be lucky to just stay in place. As people lose faith in the system's ability to fulfill their expectations, they become disillusioned even amid unprecedented peace and prosperity.
A third possibility is that people are worried less about stagnating material conditions and more about dwindling political power. Ordinary citizens across the world are sensing that power is shifting away from them. As countries become increasingly dependent on global currents of capital, goods, and information, governments in London, Athens, Brasilia, and even Washington have less power to shape the future of their own territories. Moreover, in the twenty-first century, most of the major problems are likely to be global, and the national political institutions we have inherited are incapable of handling such problems effectively.
Disruptive technologies pose a particularly acute threat to the power of national governments and ordinary citizens. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, progress in the form of the Industrial Revolution produced concomitant horrors, from the Dickensian coal pits to Congo's rubber plantations and China's disastrous Great Leap Forward. It took tremendous effort for politicians and citizens to put the train of progress on more benign tracks. Yet while the rhythm of politics has not changed much since the days of steam, technology has switched from first gear to fourth. Technological revolutions now vastly outpace political processes.
The Internet suggests how this happens. The Web is now crucial to our lives, economy, and security, yet the early, critical choices about its design and basic features weren't made through a democratic political process - did you ever vote about the shape of cyberspace? Decisions made by Web designers years ago mean that today the Internet is a free and lawless zone that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, revolutionizes the job market, smashes privacy, and poses a formidable global-security risk. Governments and civic organizations conduct intense debates about restructuring the Internet, but the governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare.
In the coming decades, we will likely see more Internet-like revolutions, in which technology steals up silently on politics. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology could overhaul not just societies and economies but our very bodies and minds. Yet these topics are hardly a blip in the current Presidential race. (In the first Clinton-Trump debate, the main reference to disruptive technology concerned Clinton's e-mail debacle, and despite all the talk about job losses, neither candidate addressed the potential impact of automation.)
Ordinary voters may not understand artificial intelligence but they can sense that the democratic mechanism no longer empowers them. In actuality, the most crucial choices about the future of ordinary voters and their children are probably made not by Brussels bureaucrats or Washington lobbyists but by engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists who are hardly aware of the implications of their decisions, and who certainly don't represent anyone. But voters can't see them or address them, so they lash out where they can. In Britain, voters imagined that power might have shifted to the European Union, so they voted for Brexit. In the United States, voters imagine that 'the establishment' monopolizes all the power, so they are determined to give the system a kick in the groin and prove that they still have a say. This makes Trump the perfect candidate. Precisely because he is utterly unthinkable to the mainstream élite, he is the ideal way to prove to the system that the ordinary voter still retains some power - if only the power of mayhem.
This is not the first time the Liberal Story has faced a crisis of confidence. Ever since this story gained global influence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, it has endured periodic crises. The first era of globalization and liberalization ended in the bloodbath of the First World War, when imperial power politics cut short the global march of progress. This was the Franz Ferdinand moment. Yet liberalism survived this maelstrom and emerged stronger than before, with Wilson's fourteen points, the League of Nations, and the Roaring Twenties.
Then came the Hitler moment, when, in the nineteen-thirties and early forties, fascism seemed for a while irresistible. Fascism blamed liberalism for subverting natural selection and causing the degeneration of humankind. Fascists warned that if all humans were given equal value and equal breeding opportunities, natural selection would cease to function. The fittest humans would be submerged in an ocean of mediocrity, and instead of evolving into supermen humankind would become extinct. In the end, however, liberalism proved itself fitter.
The liberal phoenix next faced a challenge from the left, during the Che Guevara moment, between the fifties and the seventies. While Fascists found the liberal story soft and degenerate, socialists accused it of being a fig leaf for the ruthless, exploitative, and racist system of global capitalism. For 'liberty,' the socialists said, read 'property.' The defense of the individual's right to do what feels good amounts to safeguarding the property and privileges of the middle and upper classes. What good is the liberty to live where you want when you cannot pay the rent, to study what interests you when you cannot afford tuition, and to travel where you fancy when you cannot buy a car? Even worse, by encouraging people to view themselves as individuals, liberalism separates and prevents people from uniting against the system that oppresses them, thereby perpetuating inequality.
Since liberalism and capitalism were two sides of the same coin, much of this left-wing criticism stuck. Revolutionary and anticolonial movements throughout the world looked longingly toward Moscow and Beijing, while liberalism became identified with the racist European empires. By 1970, the United Nations had nearly a hundred and thirty member countries, only thirty of which were liberal democracies—and most of these were the old colonial powers. Liberal democracy seemed an exclusive club for aging white imperialists who had little to offer the rest of the world, or even to their own youth.
Liberal democracy was saved largely by nuclear weapons. Nato adopted the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, according to which even conventional Soviet attacks would be answered by an all-out nuclear strike. Behind this monstrous shield, liberal democracy and the free market managed to hold out in their last bastions, and Westerners got to enjoy sex, drugs, and rock and roll, as well as washing machines, refrigerators, and televisions. Without nukes there would have been no Beatles, no Woodstock, and no overflowing supermarkets. But in the mid-seventies it seemed that, nuclear weapons notwithstanding, the future belonged to socialism. In April, 1975, people all over the world watched on TV as helicopters evacuated the last Yankees from the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, and many were convinced that the American empire was falling.
In fact, it was Communism that collapsed. In the eighties and nineties, the Liberal Story yet again crawled out of history's dustbin, cleaned itself up, and conquered the world. The supermarket proved to be far stronger than the gulag. More important, the Liberal Story proved to be far more supple and dynamic than any of its opponents. It triumphed over traditional empires, over fascism, and over Communism by adopting some of their best ideas and practices (such as government-sponsored education, health, and welfare for the masses). By the early nineties, thinkers and politicians alike could proclaim 'the end of history,' confidently asserting that all the big political and economic questions of the past had been settled, and that the liberal package of free markets, human rights, and democracy remained the only show in town.
But history has not come to an end, and following the Franz Ferdinand moment, the Hitler moment, and the Che Guevara moment we now find ourselves in the Trump moment. This time, however, the Liberal Story is not faced by a coherent ideological opponent like imperialism, fascism, or Communism. The Trump moment is a nihilistic burlesque. Donald Trump has no ideology to speak of, just as the British Brexiteers have no real plan for the future of the Disunited Kingdom.
On the one hand, this may imply that the present crisis of faith is less severe than its predecessors. At the end of the day, people won't abandon the Liberal Story, because they don’t have any alternative. They may give the system an angry kick but, having nowhere else to go, they will eventually come back.
Alternatively, people may look further back and seek shelter with other stories, traditional nationalist and religious tales that have been pushed to the side in the twentieth century but never completely abandoned. This is arguably what has happened in places like the Middle East, where nationalist extremism and religious fundamentalism is on the rise. However, for all their sound and fury, movements such as the Islamic State don't offer any serious alternative to the Liberal Story, because they don’t have any answers to the big questions of our era.
What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of an enormous new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families, and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies, and to open even larger gaps between the rich and poor? You are unlikely to find the answers to any of these questions in the Bible or the Koran. Radical Islam, Orthodox Judaism, or fundamentalist Christianity may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms, but in order to navigate the coming twenty-first-century tsunami, you will need a good map and a strong rudder, as well.
The same is true for slogans such as 'Make America Great Again' or 'Give Us Back Our Country.' You can build a wall against Mexican immigrants but not against global warming; you can cut Westminster from Brussels but you cannot cut the City of London from global financial currents. If people cling in desperation to outdated national and religious identities, the global system may simply collapse in the face of climate change, economic crisis, and technological disruption that nineteenth-century nationalist myths and medieval piety can neither fathom nor solve.
Mainstream elites therefore look in horror at events such as Brexit and the rise of Trump, and hope that the masses will come to their senses and return to the fold of the Liberal Story in time to avert disaster. But it might be much harder for the Liberal Story to survive the current crisis of confidence, because the traditional alliance between liberal ethics and capitalist economics that has long underpinned the Liberal Story may be unravelling. During the twentieth century, the Liberal Story was immensely attractive because it told people and governments that they don't have to choose between doing the right thing and doing the smart thing; protecting human liberties was both a moral imperative and the key to economic growth. Britain, France, and the United States allegedly prospered because they liberalized their economies and societies, and if Turkey, Brazil, or China wanted to become equally prosperous they had to do the same. In most cases, it was the economic rather than the moral argument that convinced tyrants and juntas to liberalize.
In the twenty-first century, however, the Liberal Story has no good answers to the biggest challenges we face: global warming and technological disruption. As the masses lose their economic importance to algorithms and robots, protecting human liberties may remain morally justified - but will the moral arguments alone be enough? Will elites and governments go on valuing the liberties and wishes of every human being even when it pays no economic dividends to do so? The masses are right to fear for their future. Even if Donald Trump loses the coming election, millions of Americans have a gut feeling that the system no longer works for them, and they are probably correct.
No matter who wins in November, we will therefore be left with the task of creating a new story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require new visions. In 'Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,' I explore one such novel ideology that currently takes shape in Silicon Valley. If the Liberal Story promised salvation through globalization and liberalization, the new meta-narrative promises salvation through Big Data algorithms. Given enough biometric data and enough computing power, an external algorithm can understand humans better than we understand ourselves, at which point authority will shift away from humans to algorithms, and democratic elections and free markets - as well as authoritarian dictators and rigid ayatollahs - will be as obsolete as chain-mail armor and flint knives.
We already hear experts calling for algorithms to take over in fields such as educating children (an A.I. mentor for every student), combating obesity (your mobile phone will mastermind your diet), and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions (the Internet of Things will take care of that). The potential implications also range widely, from the benign through the creepy to the downright dystopian. I doubt whether the gurus of Silicon Valley have really thought through the full social and political consequences of their ideas, but at least they are thinking in fresh ways. When humans lose their ability to make sense of rapid global change and the old story collapses and leaves a void, we need new ways of thinking, and we need them fast. At present, though, we are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, in which people lose faith in the old story but before they have embraced a new one. This is the Trump moment.
Famine, plague, and war. These have been the three scourges of human history. But today, people in most countries are more likely to die from eating too much rather than too little, more likely to die of old age than a great plague, and more likely to commit suicide than to die in war.
With famine, plague, and war in their twilight - at least, for now - mankind will turn its focus to achieving immortality and permanent happiness, according to Yuval Harari's new book Homo Deus. In other words, to turning ourselves into gods.
Harari's previous work, Sapiens, was a swashbuckling history of the human species. His new book is another mind-altering adventure, blending philosophy, history, psychology, and futurism. We spoke recently about its most audacious predictions. This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
Derek Thompson: In Homo Deus you predict the end of work, the end of liberal individualism, and the end of humanity. Let's take these one by one.
First, work. You have a smart and scary way of looking at the political implications of mass automation. At the end of the 19th century, France, Germany, and Japan offered free health care to their citizens. Their aim was not strictly to make people happy, but to strengthen their army and industrial potential. In other words, welfare was necessary because people were necessary. But you ask the scary question: What happens to welfare in a future where government no longer needs people?
Yuval Harari: It's a very scary scenario. It's not science fiction. It's already happening.
The reason to build all these mass social service systems was to support strong armies and strong economies. Already the most advanced armies don't need [as many] people. The same might happen in the civilian economy. The problem is motivation: What if the government loses the motivation to help the masses?
In Scandinavia the tradition of the welfare state is so entrenched that perhaps they'll continue to provide welfare even for masses of useless people. But what about Nigeria, South Africa, and China? They have been encouraged to provide services mostly in the hope of advancing prosperity, [which requires] having a large basis of healthy and smart citizens. But take that away and you might be left with countries with elites who don't care about the population.
Thompson: The last point is interesting, because, in Europe and the United States, the opposite seems more true: The population doesn't care about, or think it needs, the elite. That's a part of how we got Trump and Brexit. Now you see these radical-right backlashes against the establishment sweeping across Europe. Why is this happening now?
Harari: That's the big question. I didn't foresee it coming. It's not my expertise to look at the political situation in the U.S. or in Europe. But if you look at the objective condition of health and so forth, most people in the U.S. and Western Europe have better conditions than they used to. But they feel like they are being pushed aside and losing power. And they fear their children will have a worse life than they do today. I think these fears may be justified. But I don't think the antidote will work. Trump will not help Alabama voters regain their power.
People's happiness depends on their expectations, not their conditions.
Thompson: Americans might be richer and better educated than they used to be a generation ago, with better health care and superior entertainment options. But the fact of progress doesn't seem to matter. The story is all that matters. And the victorious Trump story was that America's cities were falling apart and 'I alone can fix it.'
Harari: [White Americans without a college degree] are a declining class within a declining power. The U.S. is losing power compared to the rest of the world, and within the U.S., the Trump voters are losing their status. Even though they are experiencing better conditions, the narrative self which is dominant in most people tells a story of decline, which says that the future will be worse than the present. And most people's happiness depends on their expectations, not their conditions.
Thompson: Let's say the future for most people is a universal basic income, wonderful psychedelic drugs, and virtual reality video games. People don't starve. They aren't miserable. But they also stop striving. The Walt Disney virtues - challenge yourself! go on an adventure! - are sacrificed to live permanently inside of Disney-style entertainment. Is that utopia or dystopia?
Harari: Most philosophers will say that your hypothetical is a dystopia. A far worse world.
But you could argue that people already spend most of their lives in virtual games. Most religions are virtual games superimposed on the reality of life. Do this, and there's a penalty. Do that, and you get extra points. There is nothing in reality that corresponds to these rules. But you have millions of people playing these virtual reality games. So what is the difference between a religion and a virtual reality game?
Recently I went with my nephew to hunt Pokemon. We were walking down the street and a bunch of kids approached us. They were also hunting Pokemon. My nephew and these children got into a bit of a fight because they were trying to capture the same invisible creatures. It seemed strange to me. But these Pokemon were very real to the children.
And then it hit me: This is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! You have two sides fighting over something that I cannot see. I look at the stones of buildings in Jerusalem and I just see stones. But Christians, Jews, and Muslims who look at the same stones see a holy city. It's their imagination, but they are willing to kill for it. That's virtual reality, too.
Your hypothetical also raises a deep philosophical question: What is the meaning of life? Historically philosophers investigated questions that were interesting to only half a percentage of humankind.
Thompson: Right. 'What is ideal way to seek happiness?' isn't a useful inquiry when the entire countryside is dying of plague.
Harari: Yes, but once you are free from considerations of famine and plague, this becomes a much more practical question: What is the meaning of life? If you design a self-driving car, you must design ethical algorithms in the case that it's about to hit a child. Do you risk injury to the pedestrian, or the passenger? That is suddenly a very practical question. Philosophy, once an archaic system, becomes central once we take care of widespread death and misery.
Thompson: Alright, let's move from the end of work to the end of individualism.
You have a beautiful way of summarizing human beings' relationship with authority. First, we believed that authority came from the gods. But that belief has yielded to modern liberalism, which tells us that authority comes from individuals. Democracy says power comes from the voters, not the divine. Capitalism says the consumer is always right, not the Bible. Marketers say beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, not in platonic forms.
But you have a ominous prediction that humans will merge with the computers, algorithms, and biochemical devices that make our lives better. We will yield our authority and identity to data and artificial intelligence. What invention or innovation in the world right now is the best example of this future?
Harari: I like to begin with the simple things. Look at GPS applications, like Waze and Google Maps. Five years ago, you went somewhere in your car or on foot. You navigated based on your own knowledge and intuition. But today everybody is blindly following what Waze is telling them. They've lost the basic ability to navigate by themselves. If something happens to the application, they are completely lost.
That's not the most important example. But it is the direction we're talking about. You reach a juncture on the road, and you trust the algorithm. Maybe the junction is your career. Maybe it's the decision to get married. But you trust the algorithm rather than your own intuition.
The most important invention that's spreading now is biometric sensors. They may become ubiquitous. Humans will consult their biometric data to determine how to live. That is really interesting and scary stuff, because we will no longer be in charge of our identity. We will outsource our executive decisions to biometric readings of our neurochemical signals to decide how to live.
Thompson: Here is how I understand this idea. It's the future, and I'm hungry on a Friday night. I think, 'I'd like fried chicken.' Then I consult my AI daemon, which can read by biochemical signals and predict my future emotions, and it says to me: 'Actually, Derek, a chicken salad will make you happier.' So I eat salad.
On a case-by-case basis, this technology seems wonderful. It's making me so much healthier and happier. Technology is rescuing me from the natural errors of misreading my future wants and needs. But over time, 'I' have disappeared, because I have outsourced my identity to a biochemical analyst.
Harari: Yes, exactly. In this scenario, we will come to see that decisions don't come from a mystical soul but from biological processes in the brain. In the past we couldn't gather the data and analyze it. So you could imagine that there is a mystical, transcendental soul inside you making these decisions. From a practical perspective that was a good enough estimation. But once you combine a better understanding of the biochemical processes in the body with the computational power of big data then you have a real revolution, because this traditional notion of free will no longer make practical sense and you can have algorithm that make better decisions than an individual human.
Thompson: That's fascinating, because I now think of these algorithms as bringing me closer to myself. If a fitness tracker encourages me to run more, or an entertainment algorithm discovers a song I love, I'm happier. And I prefer myself happy.
But over time, my decisions have been reduced to brain signals and brain signal readers. 'I' am not special, or sacred, or even individual. I'm just a vessel for a bunch of signals that are best read by a computer. There is no room for 'me' in that arrangement.
Harari: What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It's not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.
Have you seen Inside Out? For me this was the tipping point in popular culture's understanding of the mind. For decades Disney sold us the liberal individualistic fantasy: Don't listen to your neighbors or government, just follow your own heart. But then in Inside Out, you go inside this little girl Riley, and you don't encounter a self or a core identity. What the movie shows to children and their parents is that Riley is a robot being manipulated by chemical processes inside her brain. The cataclysmic point in the story is your realize that none of the sources inside her are her true self. In the beginning you identify with Joy but the critical moment comes when you realize none of these emotions are Riley's true self. It's a balance between different sources.
And I think this is what will happen more and more on a general level. The very idea of an individual that exists, which has been so precious to us, is in danger.
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