Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow

Homo Deus

In his new book Homo Deus, Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari has published one of the most thoughtful and far-reaching analyses of humanity’s present and future. Building on his earlier Sapiens, Harari argues that although humanity has made enormous progress across in the past few centuries, the future of our society, and even of our species, is uncertain.

Harari begins with a reprise of human history, from prehistoric times to the present. He then observes that although religious beliefs are much more nuanced and sophisticated than in the past, human society still relies heavily on the narratives they teach. Moral laws are widely believed to have been revealed from on high — whether in the Torah (Jews), in the New Testament (Christians), or in the Vedas (Hindus).

Are we now beyond these philosophical systems? Harari points out that modern “religions” also have their set of “divine” laws. Communism, for instance, was thought by Karl Marx and other early proponents to be a “scientific” theory, based on natural laws. Even modern liberalism, dating from the Enlightenment onward, along with present-day secular humanism, are also based on a religious creed, namely the fundamental belief that each human is endowed by natural law with free agency and unalienable rights. As Jefferson wrote in the U.S. Declaration of Independence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Science, technology and modern liberalism

But just as modern science, biblical scholarship and philosophy have undercut some of the fundamental tenets of various religious movements, in a similar way modern science and technology are now drawing into question some of the fundamental tenets of liberalism and secular humanism. Harari argues that future technology, in particular artificial intelligence, is certain to be even more disruptive to these philosophical systems, and may draw into question even the definition of “human.” Indeed, humanity almost certainly will be transformed by this technology, and humans in our present-day sense may no longer exist 100 years from now.

Here are some of his observations:

  1. Liberalism’s very success may contain the seeds of its ruin. Scientists and technologists, pushed on by the supposedly infallible wishes of consumers, are devoting more and more energies to the three central projects of liberalism: (a) human life preservation and extension, (b) universal bliss — the “pursuit of happiness”, and (c) the approach to superhuman levels of knowledge and power.
  2. Attempting to realize these dreams will almost certainly unleash new post-humanist technologies that may spell the end of humanity as we know it. Artificial intelligence is already an unstoppable force, and is certain to change every aspect of human life. As we offload more and more of the operation of the world to intelligent systems, and as we enhance ourselves with a variety of dimly envisioned new technologies, what will “human” mean?
  3. Modern science and technology are undermining both the notion of a single, human “self” as well as the notion of of free agency. One conclusion of modern psychology is that human consciousness is not a single entity, but, in Marvin Minsky’s memorable words, a society of mind. Similar studies make it clear that one’s mind makes a decision between a few milliseconds to a second or more before consciously announcing the decision. What’s more, since the brain is fundamentally a computer, operating on inputs possibly together with atomic-level quantum events, where is “free will”? Finally, given current and future technology, should not the human “self” include the array of intelligent assistants that the person utilizes?

Is society advancing even faster than Harari’s predictions?

What strikes this reviewer is that, if anything, Harari’s roadmap of human society steadily adopting intelligent systems and robots, and careening to a posthuman state, appears to be happening even faster than he anticipated (the book was first released in the U.S. in 2017). Consider:

  1. Many have already offloaded numerous tasks to their smartphones and personal computers, certainly including: (a) keeping a calendar of appointments and events, (b) managing messages and email, (c) managing personal and family finances, (d) managing physical activity and health, (e) keeping track of spouses and children, and even (f) finding potential romantic partners. Why do we willingly surrender so many highly personal details to intelligent assistants? Because the intelligent assistants are better at these tasks!
  2. Artificially intelligent, machine-learning-based schemes have already taken over much of market trading. For example, most conventional actively managed mutual funds do not exceed the returns of a simple buy-and-hold index fund strategy. Instead, the state-of-the-art action is with highly mathematical, big-data-based hedge funds.
  3. Over 200 million smartwatches have been sold (as of June 2019), with sophisticated features that track highly personal details, such as heart rates, the length and type of daily exercise, and how frequently one takes a break to stand and stretch. The latest Apple smartwatch, for instance, includes GPS mapping, wireless communication, heart rate monitoring, an electrocardiogram generator, and can automatically alert emergency services if it detects that the wearer has fallen and was not able to get up. Future editions are certain to greatly extend the list of available features.
  4. Social media services such as Facebook and Twitter are collecting enormous amounts of data on users’ personal characteristics and preferences. Indeed, ensuring privacy, avoiding the misuse of this data, and stopping the proliferation of fake news and doctored images has emerged as a major technical challenge and political issue confronting the technology industry.
  5. Artificial intelligence applications are advancing at a torrid pace. Once unthinkable AI advances, such as self-teaching Go-playing computer programs and self-driving autos and trucks, have already been fielded. In May 2019, researchers at Google and several medical centers announced that an AI-based CT scanner detected and identified lung cancer on a par with the best human specialists. Such developments are certain to come at a breakneck pace in the coming years and decades.
  6. The wave of technology-based unemployment that has beset blue-collar and clerical industries is certain to take aim at higher-skill occupations. The financial industry, the medical care industry and even creative industries such as music composition are certain to be revolutionized. Harari has echoed warnings of others that a major societal challenge will be how to handle tens of millions of persons whose skills are no longer economically valued, and who are not really trainable for new emerging high-tech vocations. Even among other workers, hundreds of millions will need to re-invent themselves, perhaps more than once, over the space of their careers.

The data religion

The final chapter of Harari’s book addresses what he calls the “data religion” — the observation that the collection, dissemination and analysis of data is emerging as more than just a technology development, but in fact the central governing principle of human (and posthuman) society, as we inevitably approach a singularity, to use a term coined by Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil and others. As Harari summarizes this “religion,”

Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone into knowledge or wisdom. The work of processing data should therefore be entrusted to electronic algorithms, whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain.

In this regard, Harari echoes predictions made by numerous other scientists and scholars. For example, mathematician Steven Strogatz, in a recent New York Times article, writes,

Maybe eventually our lack of insight would no longer bother us. After all, AlphaInfinity could cure all our diseases, solve all our scientific problems and make all our other intellectual trains run on time. We did pretty well without much insight for the first 300,000 years or so of our existence as Homo sapiens. And we’ll have no shortage of memory: we will recall with pride the golden era of human insight, this glorious interlude, a few thousand years long, between our uncomprehending past and our incomprehensible future.

Harari ends with three simple but deeply significant questions:

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable — intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

These are good questions. But if anything, it seems to this reviewer that Harari is soft-pedaling the changes that are to come, which are certain to impact every aspect of modern society, from its fundamental philosophical underpinnings and governmental systems to highly personal details of day-to-day living. Hold on to your hats!

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