Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow
by Yuval Noah Harari
This book was a grind in all the good ways. It’s like a can-opener circling everything you thought you knew, then popping open your mind to expose you to an entirely new perspective. The author doesn’t begin by simply telling you what tomorrow is going to hold. He spends more than half the book analyzing where we came from and how we arrived to where we are today to make a more educated hypothesis on where we are going and how we will end up there.
A majority of the US spends it’s time bantering about the necessity of wearing small pieces of cloth over our faces, whether or not we should be vaccinated against a virus we’re lucky to have a vaccine for, and bringing down or lifting up whichever political party is in the headlines. Hundreds of years ago we feared famine, plague and war. Death was around every corner and in light of this everyone was more present. Is life better now? Are we actually happier because our existence is safer and easier? It sounds like a philosophical question and not the background for a book on humanity and the future. However, it’s in the nature of humans to focus on what makes them happy, so one would be remiss to talk about our future and ignore the obsession with happiness.
Nothing directly makes us happy, our interpretation of moments and events does. This belief of Harari’s is ironically tied in with Stoicism and writings on judgments – events don’t affect us, our feelings about them do. Our interpretation of something can give us pleasant feelings and sensations. We seek out those feelings while our biochemical system (the one that creates those sensations) rewards survival and reproduction, not happiness. Still, we spend much energy finding happiness. This fundamental flaw is the basis for examining how the future we might create for humanity could be misguided. Since humans have had an enormous impact on the world, we need to look into our humanity to see the future. We are going to create it, unfair as that may be to every other living creature.
Another takeaway for me was contemplating, as well as discussing with other inmates, why people think it’s okay to treat animals the way humans do. We know animals, as with people, have social needs. They can feel elated or sad, carefree or depressed. Your dog has days when it’s lonely, others where it’s so excited that it pees on the floor when you arrive home. Is it because of our intelligence or our power that we feel we can treat other creatures on earth different than how we treat each another? Are these reasons why we feel it is okay to aggressively breed animals, ‘store’ them in confined environments away from their offspring with no access to sunlight or open range, and harvest them for meat? When I ask this question, a common answer (outside of pestering and asking if this is about becoming a vegetarian) is consciousness. We can do this to animals because we are conscious of life and they are not.
This is where part of the journey of this book begins to go deep. How do we define consciousness? What actually is it? If you take human thoughts down to the basics we are chemicals, chemical reactions, and electrical currents. How does all that turn into feelings? Harai postulates, and points to a lack of any scientific evidence showing otherwise, that consciousness serves no biological function. The best theory scientists have is it is a by product of certain brain processes. An example he uses is how jets are loud, but the noise doesn’t achieve the goal of flight. When we think, neural networks in our brain fire. This electrical function leads to biochemical reactions and a by product of those, our consciousness, could be considered mental pollution.
Then is it intelligence that makes humans superior? Analyzing the future comes into play when you begin to ponder the role of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Humans and animals can be seen as algorithms. Algorithms that have been fine tuned by evolution. Only the strong survive, they say. Physical strength aside, throughout the eons humans have habituated this planet, making good decisions played a key role in both survival and reproduction. We take in information, filter that information through our experiences, and make choices. Whether it’s solving a complex problem, hunting or playing a sport, we’re processing information and taking action.
If people think intelligence is what separates us from animals and justifies our treatment of them, and we can’t really define consciousness, what happens when artificial intelligence becomes superior to human intelligence? Artificial Intelligence already plays an enormous role in our lives. The author provides many examples which are extremely realistic and even mildly subdued considering the long-term implications. Take social media and tech companies. Google and Facebook have algorithms that in some ways know us better than we know ourselves. He provides examples of studies to back up that claim. Eventually, your Google calendar may make plans with your friends Google calendar and since it knows you so well it will even be able to convince you to follow through with those plans. Google won’t just know what you’re searching, but could have the power to literally lead you to it.
No one ever says “I spent three hours on Facebook today and it felt great.” Yet we come back to it again and again (of course, with the exception of me for the last 9 months). We share our private lives with these platforms as well as what we like and how we feel. They control what we see in our feeds and subsequently what we are thinking about, what we do, and who we ‘see’ online. To say AI could convince a human to do something is not far fetched, it’s close to our reality and already occurring.
Humans, with our inferior intelligence and consciousness no longer being of high value, may have the same fate as farm animals. Cattle ceded control to the tractor even though a cow has feelings and can think. The tractor simply served us better. What ‘conscious’ contribution do you participate in to add value to society that may be engineered into oblivion? All of this is a topic that has spurred many good conversations here. This one idea filled the better part of an evening during Covid isolation – a time when anything other than staring at metal bunks beds and cinder block walls was greatly appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed.
These ideas provide a chance to look at how we treat other living beings, whether they are animals or people, and what type of future we want to build for ourselves and children. For all we know, Facebook is creating the Metaverse as a means to entertain entire populations of economically useless people. The cows may not care that the tractor took their job, but humans might mind when they sit around all day with nothing to do and no way to earn a living.
While it can be claimed that people were happier during hunter & gatherer times, and that agriculture was the beginning of the demise of community based living and the introduction of a plethora of diseases and famine, the one non-negotiable is that if that were true, there’s no turning back the clock. On a global scale we cannot revert to the way life was 1,000, 100 or even 10 years ago. We can’t even go back to how it was one year ago. Hence, the wisdom in looking at where we came from to see what direction we are headed and how we may want to change course.