A Brief History of Tomorrow
by Yuval Noah Harari
WARNING! – This book contains spoilers – spoilers of liberal humanism, and possibly of the whole human experience.
‘People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes.’
Harari’s earlier book Sapiens challenged us to look at ourselves and the history of our species in a new way. Homo Deus challenges us too – to imagine a future in which the goals of mankind will be immortality, bliss and divinity.
Whilst conceding that none of these predictions might come to pass, the author nevertheless makes a good case that they are less outrageous than they seem.
Having eradicated, or at least controlled, most of the deadly diseases of the past, mankind is already on the frontier of a breakthrough to extend the human lifespan. We can already replace failing organs, manufacture artificial limbs and manipulate the genetic code, so what is stopping us? Robotics and cybernetics are no longer in the realm of science fiction; AI is no longer the dream of mad scientists. And if Homo sapiens is able to perfect the technology, does that not make us gods already?
Life happiness seems somewhat more problematic. We can perceive the results of our technology, yet bliss surely is the most subjective of states. With all our modern neuroses, which medical science has to treat with pills or therapy (or we ourselves treat with illegal drugs), humanity would appear to be less happy than at any time in its history.
‘[S]cience always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions.’
Whilst billions of human beings today follow one or other of the conventional religions, such as Hinduism, Christianity or Islam, Harari contends that even their beliefs and practices are overshadowed by humanism. However, in order to convince us and to move on to much scarier ideas, he must first define what he means by religion. Clearly, religion isn’t just a matter of God/Gods, faith and prayer.
He identifies religions as having three main components: one or more ethical judgements; one or more factual statements; and a conflation of the two, resulting in practical guidelines that adherents must follow.
Communism, capitalism and humanism clearly meet the criteria. But just as the first of these is shown to be a failure, the second suspect – even flawed in the minds of many people, so the third is in danger of being overcome by new technologies. Is the future of our species redundancy? Already, so many of the tasks that humans undertook in the past (and still do) can be better done by machines, and it may only be a matter of time before others are too. Computers drive cars; they can diagnose diseases. Even aesthetic pursuits are not immune: computers can write music; they can draw and paint. Soon, they may be able to take the place of lawyers, accountants, artists and musicians.
‘Humanists argued that “God is a product of the human imagination.” Dataism now gives humanists a taste of their own medicine, and tells them: “Yes . . . but human imagination in turn is just a product of biochemical algorithms.” ‘
Yuval Noah Harari may have been watching a lot of Terminator movies but he does have a point. Homo sapiens is already well on the way to building the ‘Internet-of-All-Things’, as he calls it. Just consider how many of us already put our trust in the algorithms of entities like Facebook, Google, Microsoft Cortana and the rest. We are giving these organisations the power and freedom to control our social lives, our purchases and even our choice of partners. They know our likes – our tastes in music and art, the physical form and personality of our ideal man or woman, the things we enjoy eating and our favourite drinks. Give them any more power and our thoughts and feelings may become irrelevant.
‘Once Google, Facebook and other algorithms become all-knowing oracles, they may well evolve into agents and ultimately into sovereigns.’
Homo Deus – unlike Sapiens – is a scary book to read. It makes you think seriously about life, and wonder whether the twin armageddons of The Terminator and The Matrix are closer to coming about than most of us realise.
Who will be the gods of our future world, and what will become of the rest of us who miss out on divinity and immortality? Perhaps we ought also to consider whether, if indeed human beings are mere biological algorithms anyway, does it really matter?