AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Thursday, 27 July 2017


“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, Homo Deus. “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci
Below, Yuval Harari discusses the attempt to upgrade humans into gods and explains why 'Data Religion' may conquer the world, plus you can read an extract from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow just for the fun of it (so to speak). Further down is an exclusive interview with Yuval about his earlier book, Sapiens, in which he discusses how science is increasingly able to address fundamental questions about our existence, why national identity has little practical meaning any more and why technology is on the verge of replacing Christianity, Islam and the other major faiths as our primary religion.

© 2017 W&G Foyle Ltd

A word from professor Yuval Noah Harari

During the twentieth century humankind has done the impossible and turned famine, plague and war from uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. Today more people die from obesity than from starvation; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed in war. The average Briton is a thousand times more likely to die from eating too much at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda? Humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divine powers of creation. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and to turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

This isn’t science fiction. The pursuit of immortality, happiness and divinity has already begun. It is taking place around us every day, in countless laboratories, factories and supermarkets. In 2013 Google established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is 'to solve death'. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In a January 2015 interview Maris said 'If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes'. Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. Using a football analogy, Maris explained that in the fight against death, 'We aren’t trying to gain a few yards; we are trying to win the game'.

The pursuit of immortality, happiness and divinity is currently undertaken for the benefit of humankind; however, it is questionable whether it will benefit all humans to the same degree. While immortality is now in – equality is out. Breakthroughs in biotechnology, nanotechnology and computer science might consequently create unparalleled gaps between rich and poor, and even split humankind into different biological castes. True, in the twentieth century most medical breakthroughs that began with the rich eventually trickled down to the general population. Yet what happened in the twentieth century may not repeat itself in the twenty-first century, for two important reasons.

First, medicine is undergoing a conceptual revolution. Whereas twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick, twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy. And whereas healing the sick is an egalitarian project aiming to give everyone the same universal standard of health, upgrading the healthy is an elitist project seeking to give some individuals an edge over others.

Second, twentieth-century medicine benefited the masses because they were useful. Twentieth-century armies needed millions of healthy soldiers, and the economy needed millions of healthy workers. The British or Japanese elite in 1914 had an interest in vaccinating the poor and building hospitals and sewage systems in the slums, because if Britain or Japan wanted to be a great power, it needed the slum-dwellers as soldiers and workers. But the age of the masses may be over, and with it the age of mass medicine. As computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, most humans might become militarily and economically useless. Hi-tech forces 'manned' by pilotless drones and cyber-worms are replacing the mass-recruitment armies of the twentieth century. Some studies indicate that within 20 to 30 years, up to 50% of jobs in the civilian economy will be automated. Under such conditions, at least some elites may conclude that there is no point in providing improved or even standard conditions of health for the new 'useless class', and that it is far more sensible to focus on upgrading a handful of superhumans beyond the norm.

The new technologies might do more than just split humanity into biological castes and consign most humans to the burgeoning 'useless class'. They may in fact topple humanity from its dominant position altogether. Whereas in the modern era authority gradually shifted from gods to humans, in the twenty-first century authority might shift again from humans to algorithms.

Today the world is still dominated by the humanist world view, which tells us that human beings have some magical spark called 'free will', and that our inner feelings are the ultimate source of all authority. Since no-one can understand my feelings and my choices, no-one should have the authority to make decisions for me. We shouldn’t listen to God, to Holy Scriptures or to Big Brother: we should rather listen to our feelings, follow our heart, and heed our own inner voice. In politics we believe that the voter knows best. In economics we maintain that the customer is always right. Humanist art thinks that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; humanist education teaches us to think for ourselves; and humanist ethics advises us that if something feels good, we should go ahead and do it.

Yet more and more scientists and entrepreneurs now argue that free will is a myth, and that given enough biometric data and enough computing power you could hack humanity and create an external algorithm that will understand us humans much better than we understand ourselves. If and when this happens, authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms, and humanist practices such as democratic elections and free markets will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.
Think of Amazon’s Kindle, for example. It can monitor which books you read fast, and which slow; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kindle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it can know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It can know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press each and every one of your emotional buttons.

As humanism declines its place will be taken by a revolutionary new religion, which emerges not from the Middle East but from Silicon Valley, and which preaches salvation through algorithms rather than through divine grace. This 'Data Religion' believes that the entire universe is a flow of data and that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system – and then merge into it. Like many previous creeds this Data Religion may well be a dangerous error. But like previous myths it may nevertheless conquer the world.

~ * ~

Professor Yuval Harari

...And now an extract from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The Modern Covenant

Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die. Very few of us can ever rescind or transcend this deal. It shapes our food, our jobs, and our dreams, and it decides where we dwell, whom we love, and how we pass away.

At first sight modernity looks like an extremely complicated deal, hence few try to understand what they have signed up for. Like when you download some software and are asked to sign an accompanying contract that consists of dozens of pages of legalese –you take one look at it, immediately scroll down to the last page, tick‘I agree’, and forget about it. Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Until modern times most cultures believed that humans played a part in some great cosmic plan. The plan was devised by the omnipotent gods or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power. Humans were much like actors on a stage. The script gave meaning to their every word, tear and gesture – but placed strict limits on their performance. Hamlet cannot murder Claudius in Act I, or leave Denmark and go to an ashram in India. Shakespeare won’t allow it. Similarly, humans cannot live forever, they cannot escape all diseases, and they cannot do as they please. It’s not in the script.

In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. It really mattered whether they fought bravely on the battlefield, whether they supported the lawful king, whether they ate forbidden foods for breakfast, or whether they had an affair with the next-door neighbour. This of course created some inconveniences, but it gave humans psychological protection against disasters. If something terrible happened – such as war, plague or drought – people consoled themselves that ‘We all play a role in some great cosmic drama devised by the gods or by the laws of nature. We are not privy to the script, but we can rest assured that everything happens for a purpose. Even this terrible war, plague and drought have their place in the greater scheme of things. Furthermore, we can count on the playwright that the storysurely has a good and meaningful ending. So even the war, plague and drought will work out for the best –if not here and now, then in the afterlife.’

Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.

Since there is no script, and since humans fulfil no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending, or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.

On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not confined to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want – provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning – but we can eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future – but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death – but we can create paradise here on earth and live in it forever, if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties.

If we invest money in research, then scientific breakthroughs will accelerate technological progress. New technologies will fuel economic growth, and a growing economy will dedicate even more money to research. With each passing decade we will enjoy more food, faster vehicles and better medicines. One day our knowledge will be so vast and our technology so advanced, that we shall distil the elixir of eternal youth, the elixir of true happiness, and any other drug we might possibly desire – and no god will stop us.

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. On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.

This chapter discusses the modern pursuit of power. The next chapter will examine how humankind has used its growing power to somehow sneak meaning back into the infinite emptiness of the cosmos. Yes, we moderns have promised to renounce meaning in exchange for power; but there’s nobody out there to hold us to our promise. We think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal without having to pay its price.

~ * ~
Here follows the interview with Yuval about his earlier book:

Sapiens, book coverYou've cited Jared Diamond - and in particular his Pulitzer Prize winner Guns, Germs and Steel - as an inspiration for the book. What advice did he offer you and what else made you want to tackle such a vast overview of humanity?
It wasn't an advice, but rather an example. When I began studying at university, I hoped that this will be the place where I can find some answers to the really big questions of life. But I was disappointed. The academic world encouraged me to focus on narrower and narrower questions, and gave me the impression that one cannot approach the big questions in a scientific way. Jared Diamond's book was a revelation. It showed me that it is possible to tackle the biggest questions of history and of human existence in a scientific way.
In writing Sapiens I tried to follow this example, and not only to dare ask very big questions about the human condition, but also to try and answer them scientifically. Questions such as whether there is justice in history, whether power ensures happiness, and what - if anything - makes humans different from other animals.
Much of our behaviour you accredit to genes developed before we settled into fixed communities. How would you address the suggestion that we are so much further developed that we can't really use genetics as a rational explanation for human behaviour?
Biology by itself cannot account for human behaviour. For human behaviour is also shaped by ideas, beliefs, stories and social structures, which cannot be explained in purely biological terms. It would be extremely foolish to look for a genetic explanation for the French Revolution. However, ignoring biology is also foolish. Humans are animals, and their physiology, their emotions and their cognition have been shaped by millions of years of evolution.
I think the relations between history and biology are somewhat like the relations between a football game and a stadium. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behavior and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena. However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games within it. Thanks to their amazing imagination, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical development of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sportscaster who, attending the World Cup championships, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field rather than an account of what the players are doing. On the other hand, a radio sportscaster who is unfamiliar with the boundaries and features of the playing field (e.g., the penalty area), will find it hard to make sense of the game.
As human beings trying to make sense of our place in the universe, would we need a replacement for religion should it be rejected? Are we compelled to ask why even when there isn't necessarily answer?
I think that religion is the most important human creation, and the key to our conquest of the world. As such, there is no danger that we will ever reject it. We are likely, however, to replace older religions with new ones.
But first, we should understand what religion is. Religion is not belief in gods. Rather, religion is any system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in superhuman laws. Religion tells us that we must obey certain laws that were not invented by humans, and that humans cannot change at will. Some religions, such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, believe that these super-human laws were created by the gods. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Communism and Nazism, believe that these super-human laws are natural laws. Thus Buddhists believe in the natural laws of karma, Nazis argued that their ideology reflected the laws of natural selection, and Communists believe that they follow the natural laws of economics.
No matter whether they believe in divine laws or in natural laws, all religions have exactly the same function: to give legitimacy to human norms and values, and to give stability to human institutions such as states and corporations. Without some kind of religion, it is simply impossible to maintain social order. During the modern era religions that believe in divine laws went into eclipse. But religions that believe in natural laws became ever more powerful. In the future, they are likely to become more powerful yet. Silicon Valley, for example, is today a hot-house of new techno-religions, that promise humankind paradise here on earth with the help of new technology.
You note that most of the scientific and technological progress being made today relies on international co-operation. Do you think that this may signal the beginning of the end for the nation state?
The tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries. Though citizens in Israel, Italy, Mexico or Thailand may harbor illusions of independence, the fact is that their governments cannot conduct independent economic or foreign policies, and they are certainly incapable of initiating and conducting full-scale war on their own.
States are increasingly open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and the international judicial system. States are obliged to conform to global standards of financial behavior, environmental policy, and justice. Immensely powerful currents of capital, labor, and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states. The appearance of essentially global problems, such as melting ice caps, nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation-states. No sovereign state will be able to overcome global warming on its own.
We are consequently witnessing the formation of a new global empire. The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers, and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.
One of the triumphs of post-war capitalism has been to put the acquisition of consumer products at the heart of all strata of society. Is this now a runaway philosophy that can only be diverted by a shortage of resources?
It is certainly a runaway philosophy. In a way, it is the most successful ethic in history. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. People were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.
In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions -- and buy more and more. This is the first ethic in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. And there is not much chance they will abandon it any time soon.
I don't think that it will be stopped by shortage of resources. Because in fact, over the last 200 years the resources available to humankind have been increasing all the time. We find new resources faster than we use-up the old ones. The real problem is not resource scarcity, but ecological degradation. The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.
You predict that humans will be able to use technology to upgrade themselves to a new species within perhaps a couple of centuries. Do you think this might offer a challenge to religious hegemony?
I think this will be the new religious hegemony. Upgrading humans is the aim of new techno-religions that begin to develop today in places like Silicon Valley. These techno-religions promise salvation, happiness and eternal life here on earth, with the help of technology. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other traditional religions are unlikely to survive such a transformation. But religion will not merely survive it - it will lead it.
In your conclusion, you state: 'Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.' Do you see anything that makes us capable as a species of addressing the extent of the suffering we cause?
Not at present. The dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human wellbeing (or animal wellbeing in general). There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the ones that enhance our wellbeing. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness and suffering of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage.

On Dr Yuval Harari and his two important books, also check my past entry: