To say that the Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, takes on ambitious subjects with huge timespans in his work would be an understatement.
Take his last book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, first published in Hebrew in 2011, and then translated into English in 2014: it begins 13.5 billions years ago, when the first known recorded atoms and molecules appeared in the universe, in what is commonly known as the Big Bang.
The book then traces the trajectory of known life on earth, which is believed to have begun around 3.8 billion years ago: when certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms.
The emergence of individual, distinctive human cultures is believed to have started around 70,000 years ago. It is the stark divisions and developments of these human cultures— commonly known as history—which Harari predominately focused on in his last book.
Essentially, three major epochs, Harari argues, have shaped the course of human history: the Cognitive Revolution, which saw the emergence of fictive language, from 70,000 years ago; the Agricultural Revolution, from 12,000 years ago, which brought about the domestication of plants and animals; and then the Scientific Revolution, which began 500 years ago and which, in turn, led to the rise of mercantile-industrial-capitalism.
As Sapiens concludes, Harari looks to the future of human evolution. In doing so, he leaves his readers with some broad and open ended questions. What do we want to become as a species? And what are the ethical and moral implications for just how far scientific and technological advances can take humankind?
In his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari keeps these questions in close focus, while also spending considerable time and effort playing Nostradamus: looking into the future, asking what the fate of humanity might be.
Today, I’m sitting with Harari in his publisher’s office in central London to quiz him about this latest tome. The first question seems fairly obvious: Where did the title come from?
“Well, just as for thousands of years we have been Homo Sapiens — the species Sapiens of the genus Homo — now we are going to be the species Deus, God of the genus Homo,” the 40 old Israeli historian explains, without any irony or humour.
“I don’t mean this metaphorically,” Harari insists.
“I mean it in the literal sense, that we are in the process of trying to acquire powers that traditionally were thought to be strictly for the divine: to create organisms and living entities according to our wishes.”
If God in the Old Testament is said to have — allegedly or mythologically at least— created animals, plants, and humans according to his wishes, Harari believes humans have now been given that same chance to play around with nature and to create life from scratch.
“In the 21st century, the main products of the economy will no longer be just food, textiles and vehicles. They will be bodies, brains and minds. So we are doing something even the old Gods weren’t able to do, which is to create non-organic life. Artificial intelligence.”
The Question of Consciousness
Harari’s latest book is certainly not afraid to pose challenging questions concerning humanity’s future. For instances, he asks: if and when computer programmes attain super human intelligence, should we then begin valuing these programmes more than we value humans? The question, one suspects, is open ended, rather than one with a ready-made, logical answer. And it’s a subject Harari constantly returns to, explores and analyses with great depth and precision in Homo Deus.
Still, if we don’t yet understand human consciousness, Harari believes, it’s pretty hard to suddenly take a leap of faith to a place where Artificial Consciousness can exist. Intelligence may give humans — and now machines for that matter — the ability to solve problems, like playing chess, operating a machine, or even driving a car. But crucially, consciousness, Harari stresses, is the ability to feel emotions subjectively: like love, hate, anger, jealously and rage.
“Computers, of course, are becoming extremely intelligent: in some spheres far more intelligent than humans,” says Harari. “But there is zero development in computer consciousness,” he says defiantly.
In his book, Harari points out that in recent decades, life scientists have demonstrated that emotions are not some mysterious spiritual phenomenon that allows us to magically compose melodies, poems, symphonies, novels and songs. Emotions, we now understand, have an evolutionary purpose. Indeed, if evolutionary psychology has taught us anything, he writes, it’s that emotions are merely biochemical algorithms that are vital to the survival and reproduction of all mammals.
So what exactly is an algorithm?
Essentially, it’s just a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems, and then reach decisions. To differentiate between humans and machines, Harari points to a clear distinction in the makeup of their algorithms. Take, for instance, he says, the algorithms controlling vending machines: they work through mechanical gears and electric circuits. The algorithms controlling humans, on the other hand, work through sensations, emotions and thoughts.
“The algorithms of humans are infinitely more complex than the algorithms of vending machines” says Harari. “Mainly because the algorithms of humans have been shaped by natural selection over millions of years.”
Take writing, for example. Harari claims it has enabled humans to organise entire societies in an algorithmic fashion.
“Think of huge institutions, like schools, hospitals and armies,” Harari explains. “Here, decisions are not made by a single individual. Instead, you have thousands of individuals connected through a procedure. And each human fulfils a particular part in this very complex process. Individuals are no longer solving problems by themselves. They are part of this huge step-by-step [algorithmic, ed.] process.”
Anyone who has ever set foot in one of these huge institutions, knows that if you wish to move through the system effectively, what is written on your form is far more important than reality. But even those with a basic understanding of science, engineering and the written word, can agree that vending machines, for all their charms, cannot run efficient bureaucratic structures. Yet at a fundamental level —at least this is the current scientific view —the algorithms of humans and vending machines work from the same mathematical principle. But surely there must be one distinctive trait that sets them apart?
“Well in humans, and other animals, you have a subjective sphere of feelings and emotions: it’s called consciousness,” says Harari. “Vending machines do not have this. They don’t have any feelings or any emotions,” he says, just in case any of his readers may have been trying to chat up that sexy coffee machine at work, and feeling disheartened at its lack of response.
One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make when talking about Artificial Intelligence, says Harari, is that they confuse it with Artificial Consciousness. At present, he argues, we don’t have any good scientific theory that explains how, when billions of neurons in the brain fire electric charges, it then creates the subjective feeling of say, love, hate or joy.
“What we do know is that there is the huge difference between humans and vending machines. And it boils down to consciousness. But at present we simply don’t understand it. This is why I am sceptical when people say we can upload consciousness into a computer.”
Certain scientists and thinkers in recent years, though, have claimed that there is nothing left to understand about consciousness. The American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, for example—who uses hard scientific data in his philosophical thought experiments—has argued in books like Consciousness Explained and Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, that consciousness can be whittled down to size; that it’s not as intriguing a concept as most people believe it to be. If natural selection can create life itself through an algorithmic process, Dennett asks in his work, why then shouldn’t the brain be able to create consciousness too?
Dennett, along with numerous other scientists and evolutionary psychologists, believes that any relevant questions needed to further our understanding of consciousness can be answered strictly by studying brain activities, without any recourse to subjective experience.
Harari, however, sees a major problem with this hypothesis. He points out that the whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experience, while few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities.
“I really don’t think [Dennett’s] view on consciousness is there yet,” says Harari.
“What we are able to do at present is find correlations of consciousness. This means that you can look at a brain through a scanner, and say, when this pattern appears in the brain, then on the mental level there is a subjective experience of anger, or love and so forth. However, if we ask for an explanation of why millions of neurons are firing in a particular pattern, to then create the subjective experience of love or anger, we are not even close to having a satisfactory answer.”
We also don’t know what could be the evolutionary use of consciousness, Harari argues.
Surprisingly, the better we understand the working of the brain, the less clear it is why we also need a mind, he posits.
“When you really understand how cascades of electro-chemical reactions in the brain lead to one another, and how this causes a person to behave a certain way, the less clear it becomes why we need the second level of subjective experience, in addition to these electro-chemical cascades.”
In sum, Harari says two key questions remain when it comes to furthering our understanding of consciousness.
Why can’t conscious experience just happen without subjective experience? And, what is the role of the subjective feeling of love, anger or fear, over and above the electro-chemical reactions in the brain?
“I’ve read quite extensively on this subject, and so far, I’m not happy with the answers that science provides us with,” says Harari.
A universe of data
An interesting narrative trope that Harari uses throughout his book to try and anticipate the future of human evolution, is to study history in tandem with culture and politics. A subject that continually crops up in the book— and which Harari uses to tease out this idea in some detail — is liberal humanism, which has been the dominant ideology of western philosophy, politics, ethics and culture since the late 19th century.
“Humanism is the idea that we each have this different inner authentic voice,” Harari explains. “And that we need to just discover what that inner voice is telling us and then do it.”
Or, as the cliché goes: if it feels good do it.
In recent years, however, technology has drastically altered this world view. More specifically, two words have steered this radical shift: Big Data.
“With big data the idea is to no longer give authority to these inner voices and biochemical processes. But instead to give voice to external algorithms, which understand us better than we understand ourselves.”
Typically, this allows huge corporations, like Google, Facebook and Apple, to choose books, careers, mates and even political views that best fit us, Harari argues.
A single phrase to best describe this process is dataism. This is the idea that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.
“This is a completely new understanding of reality and of the universe,” Harari claims.
“What dataism says is that the universe, at its most basic level, is just flows of data. And organisms are just a particular way of organising and processing data. And the cosmic mission of humankind, from this perspective, is to create the best data processing system possible, then shift authority to this data processing system. And then basically merge into it.”
Like capitalism, dataism, says Harari, began as a scientific theory. But it is now mutating into a religion that claims to determine what is right and wrong. The supreme value of this new religion, he says, is information flow.
If life is the movement of information, the next logical step— from the point of view of a dataist at least — is that we should then extend that flow of information into the universe.
Thus, according to dataism, human experiences are no longer sacred, data is the new God, and Homo sapiens are no longer the apex of creation. Once you have a system that understands humans much better than we understand ourselves — and which can outperform humans in almost all tasks— then humans become almost irrelevant and useless, says Harari.
So what, then, will the future hold for Homo sapiens, as machines accumulate more power, and out- manoeuvre them, and the data network extends, and information grows like never before?
Will humans become extinct? Or worse still, will they be violently murdered by machines, in some cyberborg-science fiction-type genocide?
“No, humans will not be killed,” says Harari.
Primarily, he insists, because they won’t need to be. After all, why murder an individual who is voluntarily going to give themselves over to an all-powerful network by their own free will and consent?
Instead, Harari argues, humans will gradually merge into this system. Eventually, they will no longer be isolated individuals, but instead be part of this huge system, where they’ll become less like chimpanzees and more like ants.
“Humans will become entities that cannot exist in isolation,” says Harari.
“But they will only exist as part of a network. And I mean this on the physical level. Your body will constantly be connected to millions of nano robots that will be protecting you against all sorts of diseases.”
“You’ll constantly be supervised and helped by this all-knowing system which you cannot disconnect from. So I’m not envisioning this Hollywood scenario, where the robots will rise up in rebellion and kill all the humans. No, we are talking about a merger: Humans merging into the network, and not humans being eliminated violently by the network.”
Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow was translated into English in September 2016 and is available worldwide.
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