Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘Yuval Noah Harari’

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2020

by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper Collins 2016)

Although he insists that his vision of the future is only “possibilities”, rather than predictions, Yuval Noah Harari’s ideas of the future of the Earth and its species are pretty bleak, and I found this book really depressing and hard to get through. Harari is essentially saying that my humanist values will become extinct, along with my species, as the world becomes a giant data processor. While I am not likely to live to see this dystopian world, it is frightening to think of my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and their children having to live in it. And a mere four years after Harari published Homo Deus, some of those possibilities seem to be on the verge of becoming probabilities… or realities.

Chapter 1, “The New Human Agenda” serves as an introduction to the book. Briefly, the agenda is (1) immortality (overcoming aging, disease, death); (2) bliss (the pursuit of happiness); and (3) divinity (reimagining Homo Sapiens as godlike cyber-beings with special powers. (We already have powers that eclipse those of the gods of the ancient world: think of advancements in medicine, transportation, and communication for starters.)

Part One: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World

Chapter 2, “The Anthropocene” describes how our species has conquered all other species (BUT mosquitoes? rats? viruses? bacteria?) and changed the planet’s ecology. We are as gods relative to other species with whom we “share” the planet. First, there was animism, the idea that all things are imbued with a spirit of their own and are in that sense equal to each other. (I like to think I am an animist by nature.) The humans of that time, hunter-gatherers, were just another species among many, and all were holy and had value. Animism was succeeded by the theist religions which developed after the Agricultural Revolution; they taught that human beings are unique in the world and deserving of special treatment; the needs and feelings of other species were deemed unworthy of consideration. Only man was “sanctified”, and a farm was the model for new societies, complete with masters, inferior races to exploit, wild animals to exterminate, and God to sanction everything.

It is in this chapter that Harari defines an algorithm as “a methodical set of steps. . . used to make calculations, resolve problems, and reach decisions.” Examples are math problems, recipes, and beverage vending machines, and include sensations, emotions, and desires. He will later claim that we are in the process of reducing everything in the world to algorithms–including life and human experience; it is a critical concept.

Chapter 3, “The Human Spark” asks whether Homo Sapiens is unique or not. Are we superior to other life forms? Monotheistic religions all claim that human beings have an immortal soul in addition to our temporary physical form, yet science cannot show the existence of the soul. Even the mind (“a flow of subjective experiences. . . made of interlinked sensations, emotions, and thoughts, which flash for a brief moment, and immediately disappear”) cannot to proven to exist in a physical sense. Consciousness arises from the mind; they are distinct from the physical brain and neural network. Is the mind created by electrochemical reactions in the brain? (If so, we don’t know how.) We cannot deny our subjective experiences, e.g., pain, yet sciences has been unable to show that human consciousness rises above that of other animals. We are able to control other species because we have the ability to collaborate flexibly in large communities, using shared stories (e.g., holy scriptures) to create a community of strangers. Intersubjective entities are human constructs such as money, nations, gods, and laws, in which people believe. . . until they don’t. “Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination.”

Part Two: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Chapter 4, “The Story Tellers” focuses on the Cognitive Revolution, when humans developed language to give voice to their thoughts, which strengthened the intersubjective networks of the human brain, enabling such activities as collecting taxes and organizing complex bureaucracies. The powerful forced their fictions such as money and holy writings on others. These stories are tools in the quest for power over reality.

Chapter 5, “The Odd Couple” refers to science, which seeks power, and religion, which seeks order. Science can change reality, and religion can confer legitimacy on human laws, norms, values, and social structures. All human societies believe in some system of moral law not invented by people, and followers of each religion believe theirs to be the only true religion. Religion is different from spirituality, and the quest for truth is a spiritual journey. Science needs religion to create institutions. (“God hides in the fine print of factual statements.”) Humanism is also a religion in which humans are the beings that are worshipped.

Chapter 6, “The Modern Covenant” turns its attention to modern societies, which have relinquished the meaning conferred on the world by theism in order to acquire power. Here society is fueled by scientific progress and economic growth, which is seen as the answer to everything. We believe that when we produce more, we can consume more, and consumption leads to happiness. Also, when populations increase, we must produce more just to stay the same. Lack of growth leads to redistribution of wealth (terrible!), so everything else can be sacrificed for growth. But infinite growth requires infinite resources, leading to an impossible situation: ecological collapse. For example, the only way to stop climate change is to cease growth, but this is not in human nature, which is greedy, always wanting more stuff. Free market capitalism has brought us many positive outcomes (it has to a large extent overcome famine, plague, and war), but we have paid for these gains with a loss of meaning.

Chapter 7, “The Humanist Revolution” discusses this new religion which attempts to create meaning in a world devoid of meaning. The highest authority is no longer God, but our free will. That which causes suffering is bad. Life is seen as a gradual process of inner change; life experiences lead us from ignorance to enlightenment. Science’s yang (power, reason, laboratories, factories) contrasts with humanism’s yin (ethics, emotion, museums and supermarkets), and we believe that we should follow our feelings and do what feels good. Orthodox humanism (liberalism) is contrasted with socialist humanism (communism) and evolutionary humanism (fascism, Nazism).

Part Three: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Chapter 8, “The Time Bomb in the Laboratory” concerns scientific advancements which establish the lack of an immortal soul or even a stable self. We are just a collection of electrical impulses, with no power over our own thoughts.

Chapter 9, “The Great Decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness will (or might) bring about the end of the liberal philosophy. Humans will no longer be relevant or required to make the economy run or win wars; value will be in the collective but not in individuals; valued individuals will belong to a new class of superhumans. Non-conscious intelligence (i.e., AI) uses algorithms to recognize patterns in everything, enabling it to outperform humans in many areas, leading to a loss of jobs for working people. Jobs already in danger include stockbrokers, truck drivers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and pharmacists. People will become unemployable and irrelevant. (The Republican lack of concern for working people’s access to healthcare, adequate housing, and a living wage perhaps stems from their view of people as dispensable and disposable.) Favorite quote: “In the Twenty-first Century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”

Chapter 10, “The Ocean of Consciousness” considers “techno-humanism”, a new religion that sees humans as the apex of everything (Homo Deus). Humanism commands us to know ourselves and to follow our dreams, and techno-humanism provides the chemical (pharmaceutical) tools to do that.

Chapter 11, “The Data Religion” is probably the scariest chapter. Dataism is the name Harari gives to the belief that the universe consists of data flows. The life sciences’ biochemical algorithms and computer science’s electronic algorithms combine to turn everything into data, and all systems into data processing systems. These can be distributed (capitalism) or centralized (communism). This Technical Revolution moves faster than political processes. Favorite quote: “The government tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare. It is overwhelmed by data.” Everyone is overwhelmed by data, and power belongs to anyone or anything that can handle it. Governments become mere managers of nations. No one knows where the power has gone. The rich can make more profits for themselves, but they can’t stop climate change or eliminate inequality. In the short run, dataism can help (some?) people acquire health, happiness, and power, but in the long run it can make us obsolete.

Three key questions:

(1) Are organism really just algorithms? Is life really just data processing?

(2) Which is more valuable: intelligence or consciousness?

(3) What will happen when nonconscious algorithms know us better than we know ourselves (which is sort of true already)?

It all reminds me of the possibly apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).


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