BOOK REVIEW: HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow
By Yuval Noah Harari. Pages: 449 pages.
Some books are storytellers, others are thought, provokers. Yuval Noah Harari’s books are genuinely thought-provoking ones. His books sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 lessons for the 21st century all hit the best-selling books. They soon attracted the interest of the most influential people in America such as Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the likes.
Within the span of twelve thousand years, humans from hunter-gatherers to moon travellers have developed the means to check on diseases, fight famine and reduce war. Today more people die from the plentiful of food than hunger, more people die at old age than early ages, and more people die of suicides than are killed by wars. Previously humans proved superiority over other species on earth which is what makes us unique simply because our ability to cooperate flexibly on a large scale by putting our heads together using moral dilemmas which is not possible between other animals. This is how far humankind came, but where are we going? Now that we have successfully quietened (although not defeated) hunger, wars and epidemic diseases, the author foresees humans setting sight on becoming supernatural creatures. Yes supernatural. Imagine our ancestors in just two hundred years ago? What about five hundred years back? It was enough miracle for them to hear the quiet voice of a fellow human in the next house let alone travelling between continents in less than just a day.
There is no way they could also imagine the life we are living today with almost everything at our fingertips. Can we even imagine humans in the next half a century or so? The extraordinary thinker Harari asserts that if we better understand our history and how it made us who we are today, we will have a more secure idea of where we will be in the future. Although he calls his predictions un-prophecy, he foresees algorithms and technologies taking over our world. Humans are swapped daily in favour of Artificial Intelligence because we want tasks to be accomplished quickly, efficiently and reliably. We have perfected in creating artificial intelligence AI, and we are now working round the clock to produce General Artificial Intelligence GAI. At that juncture, GAI will be able to produce other machines which will also create even more machines, and this might render humans useless.
In the face of this threat, should we fight back or cooperate with AI? Harari illustrates two ideas: one is to merge with technology to keep pace and cooperate with technology which he terms Techno-humanism. The end goal here is merging with technology to march the power of AI and algorithms. For example, the US Army managed to experiment successfully the use of attention helmet which transmits electrical signals to precise parts of the soldier’s brain to support them stay focused for prolonged periods. This proves that special forces like snipers and drone operators can be as reliable as algorithms. Another idea is to let algorithms rule humans. That is Dataism. This idea purports that everything is either data or data processor. For instance, your shopping, your status, your political views and day to day decisions are all considered data to be utilised. For example, the giant social media platform Facebook treats humans as mere data to be used for business purposes. A study by Kosinski and Stillwell in 2015 found that with just three hundred likes, a Facebook algorithm will better know your self than your spouse does. Of course, this is not a happy thought, but it is a reality. However, the author does not foresee a future where humans are the dominant force anymore but do we face a threat to the extent that we as humans will be wiped out on the face of the earth by our productions? All changes so far had a human touch and will continue to be so I’m obliged to believe.
This is a very brilliant book from a gifted author, full of brainstorming insights. However, as Harari would agree, the book did not come without limitations. Examples include how the author purports liberalism as religion and liberalists as superior in terms of intelligence compared to religious circles since they derive meaning from human experience and not god. Liberals understood humans need moral code to co-exist and cooperate with others through experience while religious scripts made their mark addressing the same story before some millenniums. One might wonder how much time and energy would have been saved and utilised for other purposes if these codes were used to guide our experiments.
Review Contributed by Hassan Abdulle. Twitter: @HasanDarawal