Homo Deus:A Brief History of Tomorrow

Published March 2018

This review is longer than most, but the book has more ideas than most. Some ideas are introduced without elaboration.

Sometime later this century, or the next, advancing technology may render humans economically and militarily useless, except possibly for a few genetically enhanced specimens with advanced levels of creativity.

This book is a followup to the author's earlier 'Sapiens', but has more extrapolation on where humans might go. As such it is more radical and frightening, also exciting. 'Sapiens' illuminated the past, where this is a window on a possible future.

In this book, Historian Yuval Noah Harari may only be 'spitballing' in his predictions, but at the highest level. And with the confluence of complexity, 'spitballing' may be the best activity to prepare humans for the future.

This is the most idea dense book I can recall every reading but.....

Warning.... some readers may be uncomfortable as cherished fictions/illusions underpinning their values and reality are unmasked and dissected. They may have an 'aw shucks' moment on discovering the foundation of their beliefs is less substantial than quicksand. But like the other religions, you can cling to your delusions even with the harsh rendering of them.

Health advances will not be for benefit of the mediocre masses, but to further enhance the special ones to god-like levels. Here is the origin of the the 'homo-deus' idea . This will not be under the direction of some evil genius, but the consequence of technology aka new algorithms that have superseded those that have evolved in humans.

Harari underlines the importance of the term 'algorithm' within the book as “arguably the most important concept in the world”. “An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.” A recipe, he adds, is an algorithm. It also might be seen as a pattern of programmed responses arising under stimulus. Sensations, emotions and desires are refined algorithms.

He suggests these revolutions and others are based on our history and projection of what he sees as the inevitable direction of improving technology. His presentation of a future runs from disconcerting to terrifying, but he reassures at the end that this is only one of several possibilities.

For his projections, he draws on past changes in human history as humans responded to new technologies, such as writing, the printing press and the steam engine.

Agriculture and related technologies made possible the growth of civilizations and an accompanying stable of gods to beseech and credit when causes weren't apparent.

This evolved into one-god religions and the further boosting of the importance of humans in comparison with other creatures. One of the key consolidating ideas was that humans had an immortal soul where no other beings did. It seemed to give licence to treat other beings more cavalierly in using them to human advantage and ignoring their needs.

This whole religious system came under scrutiny with the liberal humanist philosophy of the 18th century which was further advanced by the explosion of scientific discovery, most prominently represented in Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'.

However, religion retained its hold even over individual scientists when they weren't immersed in their study. The tangible existence of a soul became discredited and eventually gaps in knowledge, previously abdicated to God, were becoming apparent through science, particularly biology and life sciences.

Harari's investigation and explanation of foundation ideas puts him in a class with other notable public intellectuals reviewed on this site such as Nicholas Taleb, 'The Black Swan', Daniel Kahneman, 'Thinking fast and slow' and Malcolm Gladwell, 'David and Goliath'. All have investigated established ideas and exposed chinks in them.

The great trio of famine, plague and war that has preoccupied people for thousands of years has to a large extent been brought under control. Now, in much of the world, overeating is more of a problem than starvation.

While the Black Death plague that hit Europe is a landmark in history (White people's), the pestilence brought to America, Australia and the Pacific islands by the Europeans was worse. Although not gone, tougher diseases will encounter stronger medicine, says Harari.

Wars between big powers have not occurred in decades with death from suicide and diabetes leading war deaths. The transformation of the economy from material to knowledge-based is a big transition which removes a major issue for war.

Terrorism, a “strategy of weakness” getting large media coverage, has killed a small fraction of those dieing from obesity related issues. “For the average American or European Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda,” says Harari.

With traditional threats severely diminished, Harari asks what the new agenda will include. Politicians, CEOs and voters seem to favour economic growth over ecological stability, he says. With this priority a catastrophe may be in the offing, he adds.

He suggests that the goals of this century may be “immortality, happiness and divinity”, hence 'homo deus'.

Harari hints at the erosion of the oft reinforced idea that “human life is the most sacred thing in the universe”.

He speculates that immortality could provide problems for religions heavily dependent on the ideas of “heaven, hell or reincarnation”. Much artistic creativity, political commitment and religious piety is based on the fear of death, he adds

Risky activities, a kind of preparation for adventure, Harari suggests, may wain with prospect of death, which had been presumed inevitable. Immortality would mean that people have to reinvent themselves over several careers.

He calls the “war against death the likely flagship project of the coming century”.

Happiness of citizens has never been a goal of states. They are focussed on becoming stronger and even social welfare is primarily about making a stronger workforce, benefits to citizens are coincidental.

At the biological level, our bodies adapted to increase chances of survival, not happiness.

Most things deemed to provide happiness; good jobs, big houses, good looking partners give short-lived satisfaction, he says.

Happiness may come from the “right doses” of excitement and tranquility and he doesn't rule out drugs, video games and sex. But at the same time, to be effective, the pursuit of pleasant sensations must be slowed down not accelerated, he adds.

On another front, a big project is to upgrade or re-engineer homo sapiens with divine powers of creation, destruction and upgrade to homo deus. While he sees the effort, he doesn't predict success. However, there will still be some people dealing with desperate circumstances.

The key conundrum is that in the past human knowledge and technology increased slowly and politics and economics evolved accordingly. Now human knowledge and technology is growing exponentially and institutions can't keep up nor can we project what to expect in 50 years. The present is too different from the past.

The reality we grew up in and take for granted is changing faster than humans have been accustomed to accommodating. Some will latch on to familiar touchstones such as religion and 'old fashioned' values. History, he says, is not to predict the future, but to free ourselves from the past and imagine alternatives.

Animistic beliefs had humans giving thanks to animals for being killed and eaten. Agricultural religions gave no thanks to the animals and regarded them as soul less beasts for humans to use as they saw fit. Humans, upon whom God bestowed a soul, were the central heroes around which the world revolved and still does.

And domestication of animals ignored characteristics of emotion and intelligence, similar to humans, but inconvenient to religious belief. Long ingrained this pattern of deprivation is now based on economics, not religious values. The centrality of humans probably contributes to the resistance to respond to environment degradation.

He describes these characteristics common to animals, mammals and birds as biochemical algorithms. The mother-infant relationship is an algorithm shared by all mammals and birds.

With animals, we tend to humanize them and judge them by our strengths and not their own special abilities. Most things that humans can do other animals are capable of to some level. Difference is often not in kind, but degree.

The scientific revolution (in theory if not practice) ended all supplication of humans to gods or other entities with respect to knowing and doing things. It has also given rise to humanist religions, in which humans have replaced gods, he says.

Harari postulates the question as to whether humans will have to value programs more than humans, if and when computers become 'superior' in power and intelligence. If not can humans still claim the right to exploit animals.

The human soul, bestowed by God and echoed through religion, remains a central pillar of our legal, political and economic systems, he adds.

In addition the soul, which is eternal, cannot be squared with the theory of evolution which means change.

“Yet in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the existence of much more detailed alternative theories, the life sciences have ditched the soul.”

The current defining difference between humans and other animals is the capacity to co-operate and connect outside of an immediate acquainted group. That is humans can imagine and project co-operation to other remote humans in greater numbers and to intangible imagined entities such as civilizations, countries and companies. And this, he says, explains human mastery of the earth. Behind the co-operation is the invention and spread of stories that bind. While creating and bolstering values they are fictions, but since they give meaning to our lives we don't like to think of them that way. They create a web of meaning...laws, entities that “exist in the common imagination”. From it they can organize crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.

But, he adds, humans are ruled by emotions, which are sophisticated algorithms.

The invention of writing and money 5,000 years ago enabled trade, taxes and the more complex stories for religion, he says. Writing not only described reality, but came to reshape it. And fiction may be needed to augment reality to gain followers.

While the biblical world view was mistaken, says Harari, it provided a better foundation for large-scale human co-operation.

On the fear side, we should be fearing ourselves and impact more than a giant asteroid. We caused major extinctions before agriculture or metal tools.

The cause of war is fictional, but the suffering is real. Hence the need to distinguish fiction from reality.

Our institutions such as corporations and nations exist in our imagination, but we sacrifice our lives in their service.

Religion created by humans is “defined by its social function rather than by the existence of deities”. Religion confers superhuman legitimacy on human structures. It legitimizes human norms and values by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” “Religion is a deal where spirituality is a journey.” It offers a contract with predetermined goals. This allows society to regulate behaviour. For most, academic is a deal rather than a spiritual journey. Religions typically try to rein in spiritual quests which can lead to rebellion (Catholic church had more difficulty with intellectual questing Jesuits). Religion is interested above all in order and maintenance of the social structure. “Science is interested above all in power.” Both prefer order and power over truth.

“If shit just happens without any purpose or script, then humans too are not limited to any predetermined role.”

Modernity is based on the firm belief that economic growth is not only possible but is essential to solve the trio of dangers confronting humans (famine, war, plague). A problem means you need more stuff ( a panacea) so you must produce more. That this leads to happiness follows. He says all modern religions meet over the need for economic growth. This is a modern compulsion and all other issues yield to it. And free market capitalism has moved from science to religion. “It wasn't very hard to convince individuals to want more. Greed comes easily to humans.”

Capitalism increased global harmony by encouraging people to believe that growth was possible and they would share. There are three kinds of resources raw materials, energy and knowledge. The first two are exhaustible. He believes that resource scarcity can be overcome “the real nemesis of the modern economy is ecological collapse.” and it could be catastrophic to institutions, if not civilization. “The power of science makes the rich complacent.”

“People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.”

“Humanism is the new revolutionary religion.” It gives us more power and we are no longer part of a cosmic plan, but are still convinced our lives have meaning, says Harari. And under this philosophy the greatest threat to global law and order are presented by people believing in God.

Humans draw from their own experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but the meaning of the whole universe. Faith has been lost in God, but faith in humanity has been gained. It has changed education from instilling obedience and memory of ancient scriptures to “thinking for yourself” and employing sensitivity to your experiences and desires.

In literature this led to a departure from stories about brave heroes to 19th century stories about ordinary people and their feelings. Human experience is now the supreme source of authority and meaning.

Liberal humanism, that holds sway in the democracies, emphasizes individualism, the importance of individuals and their rights. It emerged from the French revolution and reinforced by the American. It is characterized by the “voter knows best” “the customer is always right” “if it feels good do it” and “think for yourself”.

Social humanism gave more importance to the group and manifest in socialism and communism.

Evolutionary humanism, evidenced in Naziism, emphasized the need to focus and enhance the “best” human groups over others.

Humanism fuses with ancient bonds between groups of people with basic common beliefs. This is challenged in the European Union.

'Equality' is preached in liberal humanism and from birth both rich and poor in a capitalist system are conditioned, says Harari. “The rich are taught to disregard the poor, while the poor are taught to disregard their interests.”

Under the umbrella of capitalism your successes are from your own merits and your failures from lack of them.

Harari predicts evolutionary humanism will shape modern culture and 'its survival of the fittest' may play a greater role going ahead this century. Liberals will tiptoe around political incorrectness while socialists leave it to the party and evolutionary humanists jump gleefully into the void relishing the mayhem and indecision. They argue that all human experiences are not equally valuable.

But the differences between the three humanisms is trifling compared to the difference from traditional religions.

Another bit on animals, since the wolf isn't human its experiences are less valuable than human's therefore its life is less valuable than that of a human's.

Defence of individuals right to do what feels good, says Harari, often amounts to safeguarding the property and privileges of the middle and upper classes.

With the cold war over, China is the puzzle, having liberated economics, it still is not a democracy or has a completely free market and has few ideological shadows. As we don't know who the Chinese are, it seems they don't either. Its ideological vacuum possibly makes it the breeding ground for the techno-religion emerging from the Silicon valley.

While God seems to be making a comeback, he says that is a mirage, God is dead. Radical Islamic zealots don't understand the 21st century or the opportunities of new technology and the answers are not in ancient religious texts. Religions still play a role, but it is largely reactive and no longer creative.

Hundreds of millions may go on believing, but numbers don't count in history which is often shaped by small groups of motivated forward looking innovators. He reiterates that understanding biotechnology and computer algorithms will be the game of the future. He even suggests the divide may see divine abilities of creation and destruction on one side and extinction on the other.

“When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.”

One of the big shocks for many may be that free choice isn't free, but a product of algorithms that can be discovered by technology rendering them impotent and removing the idea of personal freedom and eroding personal responsibility. Already Google and Facebook know more about many people than those people know about themselves. Why cast a vote when it can be predicted by information already out there?

Currently the liberal aspect has individualism, human rights, democracy and the free market holding sway, but science is undermining its foundations. It too is a religion and it may prove no more fact-based than the others and there are contradictions becoming apparent in the science lab. The nuances of self, free will and soul are not there and what is there is physics, chemistry and biology that govern the rest of reality. 'Free will” exists only in the imaginary stories we have invented.

Science finds that free will and individualism are both myths.

However, this doesn't mean we don't need our delusions, but we may well have to create new ones as the others, including liberalism, become too threadbare. We'll need new beliefs and political institutions.

Wars of the future between sophisticated powers will involve little violence because material goods will not be the goal, knowledge and data will be and it will be stolen or sabotaged nearly instantly. There will be no time for democratic chain of command mulling.

“The most important question in 21st century economics may be what to do with all the superfluous people.” In the past professions evolved and there was always something people could do better than machines, but nothing guarantees that will be the case in the future. So far machines have only competed on physical abilities, but cognitive abilities, including remembering, analyzing and recognizing patterns may be the new field.

Human professional specializing in a narrower niche makes tasks easier to program into machines. A hunter gatherer's wide variety of skills would be hard to replicate with a computer, says Harari. He also suggests those ancient people may have been smarter because surviving and thriving was more difficult than today.

While on that point hunter-gathers, for their activities, used about 4,000 calories daily. In the wealthy western countries we use about 224,000 daily, think house and vehicles.

Harari suggests that as algorithms push more people out of the market, wealth may further concentrate with the owners of the algorithms.

He suggests that algorithms will focus first on expensive jobs both in the value of the individual employee or the number of employees that do a similar job. Safe jobs may be those which are complex yet don't cost much such as an archaeologist. Technical difficulties and political objections may slow things down.

A bit of good news is that it may not be too hard to support the useless masses of us without any help from them. Of course the sacredness of human life and experiences may seem a redundant idea. With people's decisions better made by machines that know their wants and interests may further reduce their authority and freedom.

Individualism made sense in the 19th and 20th centuries when it was not possible to harvest people's opinions, views and preferences. Now Google and Facebook can do that. He speaks of the 'narrating self” which is the independent self. It may be superseded in self knowledge by computer stored data. Google will be able to cast your vote on a wider and more balanced selection of your data and not be overly influenced by recent events. Of course we are providing the data to the degree we interact with on line computer sites.

While both computers and biological science are involved in the revolution, the trend is fuelled by biological sciences.. The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is going on around us. And in time they may be making most of the decisions for us.

Then there will be a small privileged elite. These super-humans will enjoy unheard of abilities and creativity and they will make many of the most important decisions in the world. Real gaps in cognitive and physical abilities may develop between this group and the rest of society. Medicine will orient toward upgrading the robust (evolutionary liberalism?). The age of the masses may be over along with mass medicine. The elite will no longer have a vested interest in the masses.

“The liberal solution to social inequality is to give equal value to different human experiences, instead of trying to create the same experiences.”

Radical Islam and Bible belt Christianity are not the interesting religious centres, says Harari, it is Silicon Valley and it is about technology not God. The same prizes are held out...happiness, peace, prosperity and eternal life, but here on earth.

Homo Deus is an upgraded model of human with boosted physical and mental abilities able to hold its own against algorithms. They have to upgrade their minds. Involved will be genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interface.

WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic) is the group most commonly tested in university settings (students). But there are many different experiences in humans and a broad spectrum of consciousness and barely imagined ones in other animals. Over periods of time such abilities as smell declined, maybe as more effort was put toward mathematics, reading and abstract reasoning making possible more complex, economic and political systems.. Even now our eyesight may be evolving with different demands, more close seeing and less long. Future upgrades will reflect political needs and market forces, he adds.

Dataism (data religion) puts together the idea that organisms are biochemical algorithms and that computers deal in electronic algorithms but mathematical laws apply to both. Dataism collapses the barriers between the two and he expects electronic ultimately to outperform organic.

The concept that organisms are algorithms essentially processing data may transform the nature of life. It is current scientific dogma.

He says capitalism bested communism because distributed data processing works better than centralized data processing. Information essentially flows more freely. This is also an essential difference between dictatorships and democracies. However, in the future democracy may not process data as efficiently and disappear. It evolved when politics moved faster than technology.

The internet is a “free and lawless zone” that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, abolishes privacy and is a risk to global security. The government tortoise can't keep up with the technological hare.

The political systems can no longer provide “meaningful visions for the future”. The data is available for political actors, but they can't process it fast enough thus their thinking is on a smaller scale than their predecessors of a century ago.

Harari said it is dangerous to trust our fortunes to market forces because these forces do what is good for the market, not necessarily mankind. He cites global warming and potential of artificial intelligence.

Connectivity and sharing of information/data over many and increasingly more has been the primary advantage of humans over other species. The Internet-of-all-things may be the culmination of this.

He said humans rarely come up with a new value. He suggests that human liberty, human equality and human fraternity philosophized in the 18th century but acted on with the French revolution in 1789 is the last big value. It gave rise to humanism.

He calls dataism “the first movement since 1789” creating a novel value “freedom of information”. It is harder to protect and “own” information than it was in the past. Some say it shouldn't be owned and protected. The free market demands the ownership of information and the restriction is profitable, while at the same time it perpetuates inefficiencies.

Young people under 20, he says want to be part of the data flow and seem willing to give up privacy, autonomy and individuality for it. A private diary to them seems pointless, he adds.

On the other side “humanist art sanctifies the individual genius” and “humanist glorifies the individual researcher”. However, progressively more artistic and scientific accomplishments are the result of “ceaseless collaboration” of 'everyone'.

“Connecting to the system becomes the 'source of all being'”. People want to be part of things bigger than themselves. This was part of the lure of traditional religion.

On the declining data processing system of human algorithms. “When the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn't upgrade the horses, we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo Sapiens.”

“In the eighteenth century, humanism sidelined God by shifting from deo-centric to a homo-centric world view. In the twenty-first century, Dataism may sideline humans by shifting from a homo-centric to a data-centric view.” He added that it might take a century or two as it did with humanism.

He calls dataist dogma the greatest challenge of the 21st century, but also the most urgent political and economic project.

Dataism may do to homo sapiens what homo sapiens have done to all the other animals.

Concluding questions
Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
What is more important..intelligence or consciousness?
What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

If you enjoy the reviews and would like to purchase a book, use the Amazon link to help support this blog.
Published March 2018