Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)


    Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow represents a fascinating and important contribution to the debate over humanity’s future. The seemingly inexorable advance of technology and data can seem to be a force that is growing beyond human control. Harari provides valuable context to the question of where we are headed, by offering deep historical context of how we got to the present. His work puts past, present, and future into a big-picture view, weaving together themes of philosophy, religion, science, happiness, spirituality, and more into a cohesive narrative of the dramatic change that homo sapiens is undergoing, socially, technologically, and spiritually. Most of the scholarship surrounding artificial intelligence and machine learning is narrowly focused on the technical issues - designing new and better ways to achieve computational intelligence - while the larger questions of to what end this technology is being applied, and how it will shape our societies, are very much a secondary part of the discussion. Hopefully Harari’s work represents part of a developing awareness of the importance of understanding these issues not just from a technical but from a holistic perspective.

    Much of the work is focused on history, elucidating the development of human kind to the current moment. Homo Deus is a tour de force of historical synthesis, using diverse examples from numerous societies to weave a narrative of how we got to the present. Harari begins by pointing out that humanity is at a crossroads - in the 20th century, for the first time, we have solved (or begun to solve) many of the issues that have plagued all of human existence: disease, shortage of food, conflict, etc. “During the last hundred years,” Harari explains, “technological, economic and political developments have created an increasingly robust safety net” Though this is obviously not true for all of humanity, is is difficult to argue that progress in the last century has not entered a new phase. For the first time, human beings can plausibly discuss “solv[ing] death” - the possibility of upgrading ourselves to dramatically or indefinitely extend life. This possibility, of course, raises profound questions - of happiness and spiritual progress, of equality and the lack of it, of authority and political organization, and more. Harari devotes much times to examining the developments that have led us to this point, and the philosophical perspective is valuable. The technical questions cannot be separated from the humanistic ones, and Harari is right to point out that we should be skeptical of the narrative of progress and growth, at least because, “studies have shown that American subjective well-being levels in the 1990s remained roughly the same as they were in the 1950s.” This introduces the possibility of engineering happiness, perhaps through bio-chemical means. Harari raises the paradox of this pursuit - many religions have pointed to the folly of the unending pursuit of happiness. This discussion culminates in the idea that a major “project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus.”

    The historical narrative that Harari constructs is much too comprehensive to revisit in detail here. He traces humanity’s development through its various revolutions (agricultural, industrial, scientific, informational), and through its many and often competing forms of religious and political organization. The dominant theme, though, is that “organisms are algorithms” He traces the history of views on mind and soul, applying the modern information-based perspective to understand historical changes and upheavals. Humanity is so dominant over other species, because of our imagined orders, our shared narratives and webs of meaning, our “intersubjective realities”. Such inventions as writing and money, which derive their power from these shared realities, are explained in terms of their algorithmic structure. Shared meaning is the basis both for positive development - cooperation and progress - and for harmful forces - authoritarianism, abuse of religious myths, etc. Harari analyzes religious and political developments in terms of their power as tools of social management, for better or worse.

    As his narrative approaches the current historical moment, he takes stock of the dilemma of progress - “The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness.” This is true in many ways, perhaps most prominently the growing threat of ecological catastrophe. Our way of life, our progress and growth, is speeding us towards the very real possibility of self-destruction. In describing how this paradox developed, Harari admirably traces the intertwined rise of science and capitalism, explaining that, “The modern pursuit of power is fueled by the alliance between scientific progress and economic growth.” The growth paradigm has yielded many material benefits, but have these translated to real human benefits, in terms of a more meaningful way of life? It is to Harari’s credit that he is willing to keep open the possibility, indeed the inarguable conclusion, that growth and progress have perhaps been counterproductive, and that humanity has misunderstood its own goals at a very basic level.  For all of its concerted efforts, perhaps homo sapiens has simply trapped itself in a rate race towards more anxiety and less true fulfillment. Science has dethroned free will, and the progress of the last century is in the process of undermining our most fundamental social and political structures, and the shared narratives that give us meaning.

    This all begs the question, “Can humans go on running the world and giving it meaning?” The remainder of the book, which focuses on where we go from here, is oriented around this question. “Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness,” Harari argues, “hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.” The decoupling of intelligence from consciousness poses existential threats, in terms of political and economic destabilization, and more fundamentally in terms of human value(s) and the forms of shared meaning that drive human endeavor. In Harari’s view (and it is difficult to argue the point), “at the beginning of the third millennium we face a completely different kind of challenge, as liberal humanism makes way for techno-humanism” The new religion is dataism, and, “From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips. If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system.” As a results of the changes that are represented in the rise of the data religion, “The individual is becoming a tiny chip inside a giant system that nobody really understands”, and this massive and rapid change is “undermin[ing] our main sources of authority and meaning.” Whether humankind will be able to successfully navigate the next phase of our existence is an open question.

    Perhaps the only shortcoming of the work is that, for all its detailed historical exposition and its artful framing of the big questions we face, Harari does not offer much in the way of practical recommendations. Like Franklin Foer's World Without Mind, Harari's work is heavy on framing the big questions and light on recommendations for how to proceed. It is difficult to fault Foer or Harari for this though - we can see it as an illustration of the nascency of the debate over this challenging next phase, and an indication that we still need to properly formulate these questions about the future before we can begin to answer them with specific political, intellectual, spiritual, and technical recommendations. Surely this type of work is a sign of a growing awareness that, while humanity might have divinity within its grasp, we equally must reckon with our existential threat to ourselves, our planet, and our sense of meaning. Narrowly framed ‘ethical’ questions are not enough to guide our response to all of this, and it is heartening to see thinkers like Harari taking a comprehensive, big-picture view to understanding how the past informs the urgent need to reckon with the future.