‘Homo Deus’ – will AIs replace Homo sapiens?

By Ande Jacobson

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is the second, recent, international best seller by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In it, Harari draws heavily on his previous book (also an international best seller) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In fact, Homo Deus can stand alone and give the reader a nice synopsis of the earlier work. Harari compresses his previous book’s crucial concepts about the various developmental revolutions that humanity has weathered into half as many pages before broadening those concepts and presenting some possibilities of where humankind might be headed in the twenty-first century and beyond. Homo Deus was first published in an Israeli Hebrew edition in 2015. The first English translation appeared in the UK in 2016, and it finally made it to the United States market in 2017. As of spring 2018, it has been translated (in order) into English, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Chinese, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Croatian, Italian, Korean, French, Norwegian, Greek, Czech, Lithuanian, Romanian, Russian, and Bulgarian. While it hasn’t quite caught up to the 45 languages Harari’s earlier work has so far appeared in, this latest book is well on its way.

In his earlier book, Harari defined humankind’s developmental revolutions including:

  • The cognitive revolution and the beginning of fictive language and the common myths that allow humankind to cooperate on a larger scale than any other species in the animal kingdom;
  • The agricultural revolution and the domestication of grains and livestock;
  • The scientific revolution and the beginning of the realization of just how much humankind doesn’t understand about the world it inhabits.

The previous book’s ideas are explored in detail in the following series of A Good Reed Review book reviews:

In Homo Deus, Harari extends these concepts, and using them, later identifies some developmental possibilities that have an eerie science fiction ring to them. Two of the concept extensions that Harari addresses involve longstanding pursuits that have been in play since humankind’s cognitive awakening, namely the search for meaning and lengthening the human lifespan. Unfortunately, as Harari points out, these pursuits have not always been altruistic.

Historically, greater meaning and life advantages were bestowed on those Sapiens individuals whose value was deemed superior. Harari is quick to claim that until recently, the value differences were economic, not biological. Any given Sapiens might gain advantages because they lived in a community with greater access to resources, or within a family with greater wealth, though at their core, they were neither better nor worse than any other individual Sapiens. Harari asserts, as he did in the previous book, that humankind has a long history of subjugating those species deemed inferior within the animal kingdom, and more alarmingly “other” individual Sapiens groups, despite there being no biological basis for such a determination.

Another fascinating concept that Harari brings to light in this latest book concerns the debate surrounding the concept of free will. He injects a controversial wrinkle to his previous discussions presenting the contention that living organisms are algorithms. This isn’t a unique assertion. Many scientists have embraced this notion over the last several decades. Numerous neurological studies have shown that not only human behavior, but all animal behavior hinges on reactions to biochemical changes, or organic algorithms in the brain. As such, emotions can be interpreted as a direct result of these algorithmic processes, and how an individual responds to its emotions could be predetermined based on those algorithms. Harari cites several sources in his notes section from both computer science and neuroscience to support this conjecture. This is one of the many fascinating and controversial concepts in the book, and one that cuts very deeply into the divide between science and religion.

Harari’s algorithmic discussion leads to another controversial concept that is a potential next step following the rise of humanism. He starts by early in the book expounding on his interpretation of the concept of humanism as part of the Sapiens’ quest for meaning and authority. Earlier in the course of history, moral and ethical authority was said to come from some assortment of gods, but with the rise of humanism, that authority moved to humans, i.e., an individual’s feelings and internal motivations became the source of authority. In this new century, Harari suggests that Dataism, aided by computer algorithms, is the latest religion, and is now becoming the ultimate authority. This development suggests that humankind is no longer the source of meaning on Earth or in the universe, but the aggregate of their data is, and computers can aggregate and analyze that data much more proficiently than any organic being can. Harari is an intriguing storyteller, and his description of Dataism reads much like a science fiction novel in many respects.

Harari contends that much of history relates to changes in where authority over humankind is retained, and for much of society, this has often been coupled with religion and the various fictional constructs that Sapiens have created. The authority shift can be summarized as follows:

  • Theism: Authority from God.
  • Humanism (Ethical revolution): Authority comes from within persons based on human feelings and surveying all individuals.
  • Data/Data (cloud) processing: Dataism is the authority; biometric data + computing power => Google knows better than an individual.

One particular passage is both prescient and terrifying given current world trends:

In the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.

After clearly defining his terms, (support for which can be found in the notes section of the book), Harari jumps squarely into the futuristic aspects of his story. Based on the technological advances he recounts earlier in the book, he offers some possibilities for where he thinks humankind could be headed. After already making a strong case for treating Sapiens as organic computers running biochemical algorithms, Harari assets that the advent of nanotechnology and big data present some interesting tools. Being consummate toolmakers and users, he contends that humankind is not only interfering with the natural evolution of the species, it is potentially steering that evolution in an entirely new direction.

Returning to the Sapiens’ propensity for abusing those it deems inferior, Harari contends that technology may provide the tools to accentuate this characteristic to the point where portions of the Sapiens population develop along separate paths. Up to current time, all Sapiens, at a species level, have been more or less equivalent. The differences in populations are not biologically based, but have instead been economically distinct. With advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology, humankind is getting closer to being able to create biologically distinct subspecies that may be physically stronger, cognitively faster, and longer lived. Harari is quick to point out that the members of the species most likely to benefit from these advances are the financially stronger, so that one’s financial fitness will no longer merely address comforts, but species hierarchy to a much greater degree than has been historically possible – a chilling possibility to be sure.

Harari has given talks around the world on his work regarding his speculation based on historical record and the direction he sees Homo sapiens‘ evolution taking. In the following video, he builds on a possibility covered in the book and discusses the prospect of the development of inorganic life spawned by humankind.

In the next video, the Carnegie Council welcomed Harari to discuss humankind’s next developmental revolution:

Technology provides multiple options and is not deterministic. Different groups might make disparate choices on their use of technology, but the aggregation of those choices will determine the direction of Sapiens society.

Harari leaves readers with some perplexing questions from his investigation including:

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics, and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

References and additional reading:
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari
Book Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – a story of where we came from and where we might be going
Follow-on thoughts about ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – Part 1: Common Myths
Follow-on thoughts about ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – Part 2: Happiness
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari
Summary: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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