This past semester I slowly worked my way through (a mountain of shitty essays and) Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. This, by no means, is intended to serve as a review but rather as a summary to whet one’s appetite. As one should gather from the title, the author explores the possible ramifications that may follow once humanity has achieved “god-like” status regarding health and knowledge. Current advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, allied with the substantial predictions of where such technology is heading, allow us to envision a not-too-distant future when mankind may live a thousand-plus years and have all available knowledge–to be distinguished from wisdom–ready at demand. In addition, the three scourges that have afflicted humanity for most of its history–plague, famine, and warfare, no longer loom as harbingers of death over the developed world. Harari argues that even where we see these forces at (death)play in underdeveloped areas, we can blame governmental mismanagement rather than what our ancestors would have believed were inevitable and unavoidable realities, though many, perhaps, may lump rulers’ behaving badly into that mix. Though not an example used in the book, one can easily look at the greatest American foreign policy blunder: the second invasion of Iraq. Leaving aside the utter meretricious justifications for this war, the US did not need to attack Iraq for the historical precedents: resources and/or protection. The devastation of that nation, the near eradication of ancient Christian communities, and the refugee crisis now enveloping Europe have all been the results of governmental malfeasance, not elemental forces that will cycle through regardless of our actions.
Despite the heady subject matter and the impressively sprawling manner that Harari incorporates history, philosophy, science, religion, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, the book possesses a pristine prose and tart emotional tone that make for engrossing reading. My only real frustration with the work is that while Harari makes no bones about his ostensibly scientifically-based atheism, his “attacks” on God and religion come across, at times, as sophomoric and emotional. E.g., We have not been able to prove the existence of the soul, so it must not exist–neener, neener.
While I am somewhat aware of the trends in biotechnology and AI, Harari provided excellent grist for my thought mill concerning the modern trend of approaching organisms as nothing more than flesh-and-blood algorithms and life as a quirky way of data processing. Then again, I suppose that this conceptualization proceeds smoothly from Descartes and may, in fact, be the inevitable philosophical outcome. For if mind can be separate from the body, and the body can be conceptualized as a machine, when belief in an immaterial mind no longer persists, then all we have left is the machine–and what better machine than one based upon a mathematical model.
He leaves the reader with the following three processes and three questions that one can educe from them:
- Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
- Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
- Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
- What’s more valuable–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?