Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Author: Yuval Noah HarariPublisher: Harvill Secker

Most people are either not aware or don’t care that the most pressing and revolutionary change in our world is right on our doorstep. The advance and rise of the machines. Homo Deus is a book that tells the story of what happens next with the human species based on what came before and the technological capabilities we have today. It’s a book to chill you right to the bone, but also to validate the sum and total of human endeavour and all of the great things that will come out of a rise in artificial intelligence.

Yuval Noah Hariri’s other book, the bestselling Sapiens laid out the previous 75,000 years of human history and reminded us that we aren’t so special and central to the turning of the world as we think. How in an evolutionary biological sense, humans are just one species of many to have existed over billions of years. We just happened to win the genetic and evolutionary lottery in order to march forward to where we are now.

In Homo Deus, Hariri talks about how the structures of our society such as religion, government and our enshrined and revered human rights laws are actually where we determine our inherent worth as individuals and as a species. Ideas about individualism and the sanctity of an individual person’s experience are seen as a cornerstone of our society. Each person is seen as having equal value and inherent worth.

Although the future, as predicted by Hariri, envisions a world that’s got multiple tiers. In a world where artificial intelligence is more capable of diagnosing diseases, driving cars, serving us food, informing us about the most vital decisions in our lives – humans and their intelligence come to take second place in terms of their abilities, reasoning and understanding of the world. In such a reality – those who don’t control or make the machines will be relegated to the backlots of society, a true underclass will emerge of people who were working in simple white and blue collar jobs – billions of people – taxi drivers, construction workers, retail assistants, office managers, accountants, soldiers, bank tellers. These people’s usefulness to society will cease unless they manage to adapt and shift by upskilling themselves into something else.

This bleak and scary picture, is unsettling and terrifying to us precisely because ever since we were born, we have been inculcated with the idea of our own individual humanistic worth. The future though will require an ideological shift away from humanism and towards a post-humanistic world. This ideological shift will be immense, and by the sounds of it, very painful.

What happens when machines are built which can analyse the sum and total of scientific papers since the beginnings of medicine until this very moment and then give someone a diagnosis and a personalised treatment plan? This machine won’t ever feel hungry, get tired, feel sick or have a bad day. In fact, unlike a human, it can work around the clock 24/7 and still produce the same impeccable results.

Machines are now able to diagnose cancer with 90% accuracy compared to human oncologists at a rate of around 50% accuracy. The machine won’t need to go to University for ten years to get an advanced degree and then undergo training somewhere. All that would be needed would be a calibration and ongoing maintenance.

But what about delivering someone bad news? Machines could actually gather data on a person’s personality, past history and body language in order to calibrate the best message to that person about their illness and prognosis.

Humans have got unprecedented levels of power right now. We have all but defeated the worst enemies of humanity – war is becoming increasingly rare, famine is become less frequent, disease is on the retreat throughout the world. By manipulating the data contained in our minds – in the same way as an algorithm we can achieve personal mastery of our fates. Although if we build machines that can process information more efficiently than we can, what about us?

The data driven transformation of society isn’t the end of world, and seeing the world as an algorithm that marches on devoid of human support may be the end of society as we know it. But then again wasn’t the invention of steam power, discovery of electricity, birth of computing also milestones in human endeavour as well. Rather than the world stopping, we are going to see the world moving at a faster and faster pace and we don’t really know how the year 2100 will look.

The idea that human beings are in charge of their own fate was never more than a flimsy idea that we gulped down readily because it served us within the society and power structures we live in. This is a supremely intellectual book that is written in a highly engaging style. Although Hariri would be the first to recognise that his writing is full of human logic and that a machine could have possibly done a better job than him.

I’ve probably painted the future as a doom and gloom apocalyptic scenario. The point though is that what lies ahead is obscure and also strangely exciting. Once we have left the traditional ideas of Christian morality, individualism and the primary equality of all human lives behind, there is a lot left over which we can’t even imagine.


* This review was first published on 28 September 2017 on Contentcatnip.com, a blog by Athena Dennis.

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