• By: Don MacLean

Brace Yourself (Book Review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari)

Consider some of the recent and dizzying developments from the world of science and technology. Google and Tesla have prototypes for self driving vehicles. Soon – if not now – there will be artificial intelligence (AI) that can design infrastructure – bridges, buildings – in ways that humans cannot even imagine. A Toronto based firm has created technology that can predict a person’s likelihood of developing dementia in the distant future just by scanning his or her face. Researchers working on Google’s Deep Mind have recently announced they have developed AI that can successfully solve novel problems by remembering how it solved previous problems. In other words, it’s increasingly possible to program AI to ‘think’ in ways that mirror how human beings think.

Reaction to science and technology’s accelerating powers is mixed. What’s striking, however, is the profound lag between those powers and our understanding of what it means for human societies and human beings. This is precisely why Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is so timely and ultimately so sobering. Harari is quick to acknowledge the extraordinary benefits of science and technology. Nevertheless he insists that both are ushering profound transitions in how societies conceive of themselves and are governed and what it means to be human. In particular, the combination of technological development and scientific understanding is systematically undermining the foundations of Liberal Humanist orthodoxy. The threat isn’t simply to the Liberal notions of national sovereignty. On the contrary, the original and more frightening idea running through Harari’s book is that science and technology are also rendering Enlightenment based notions like an ‘authentic self’ and ‘free will’ increasingly quaint and obsolete. Instead, according to Harari, there is a profound convergence at play between AI and human beings. For like AI, the biological sciences make clear that humans are comprised of networks of algorithms. From this perspective, the differences between AI and humans, while still profound, are not as quite as profound as once believed and are narrowing at an accelerating pace. Harari thus envisions a future in which our bodies may be ‘upgraded’ but the mind as we conceive of it now will be forgotten. Such disconnects will soon assign Liberal Humanism to the dustbin of history.

Harari’s bold claims about humanity’s future are preceded by sweeping analyses of the past. If we hope to understand where we are headed, it’s vital to understand from where we come: this is one of the book’s most important, if uncontroversial, premises. In a style that often verges on breezy, Harari shares with the reader how the development of writing and the introduction of money changed the nature of human societies. Both are forms of abstraction that facilitated the accelerated development of social organization.

Modernity constitutes another vital chapter in Humanity’s story. Here too, Harari keeps it delightfully, but deceptively, simple. Modernity constitutes a pact. “Humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power,” he writes. In other words, human beings ceased understanding the world based strictly on religious knowledge and traditions. In exchange, our perceived place in the endlessly expanding universe was uprooted. We were rendered isolated and potentially adrift but free to learn about the world and the universe and how to manipulate it.  Liberal-Humanism was hardly the only political philosophy to emerge from this shift, but it was the one most conducive to the flourishing of science and technology. The problem, according to Harari, is that these pillars of Liberal democracies are no longer mutually reinforcing. This has led us to the precarious point at which we find ourselves today.

Harari wisely cautions against predicting the future with any sort of certainty. He’s rightly suspicious of prophecy, not only of the strictly religious variety but also the scientific and technological variety. Yet the reader will be forgiven for thinking that the book is one long prophecy. It would be wrong to suggest that the disconnects of which Harari speaks do not exist. Clearly they do. It doesn’t mean, however, that the entire Liberal Humanist edifice will collapse under the weight of the galloping pace of technological change or new scientific findings. Indeed there are already tensions between what science tells us and Liberal notions of the self. We understand, for example, that criminals have personal histories that often directly correlate to their criminal activity. Sexual abusers, as it turns out, often endured sexual abuse themselves as children. Eliminate that abuse and that person’s life trajectory will likely follow a much different course. This doesn’t mean we reject the idea of human agency and responsibility. The same tension runs through virtually every type of human activity.

More importantly, the notion that free will is illusionary runs directly counter to the lived experiences of those struggling for freedom. Syrians suffering under the weight of Assad’s brutal crackdown are fighting for various forms of freedom, political, individual and religious. They know what free will looks like because it has been so ruthlessly and systematically denied to them. It may be that our biology better explains why people make the choices they do, but it does not make the desire to exercise free will any less powerful or its denial or fulfillment any less palpable.

Similarly, as Harari correctly points out, the ceaseless flow of information and ideas across almost every conceivable border is one of the most vital sources of social and political upheaval. It helps account for the Arab Spring, the collapse of Communism and the profound stresses to which Liberal societies are increasingly subject, among other monumental shifts in the global political landscape. Yet, for all these shifts, the uniquely human aspirations at stake remain the same. Indeed nothing in Harari’s analysis suggests that the struggle for freedom – which consists of, among other things, being able to exercise free will – will not remain the most important idea around which political and social sciences revolve. How do we create the space to exercise our political freedoms? How is individual liberty secured in an era of increasing surveillance? How will the collective and individual liberty be secured in a world of acute environmental stress? How do we successfully accommodate the desire for a better life expressed by the millions of refugees fleeing poverty, oppression and environmental collapse? Today and tomorrow’s vital questions revolve around how the ceaseless flow of information and people across borders and the myriad of technological changes intersect with the old age Liberal themes of individual and political freedoms.  

Harari’s gift for synthesizing also bears a cost, particularly when his gaze shifts towards the future. His speculations about what is to come are occasionally intriguing and sometimes terrifying but too often arbitrary.  To take one example, he repeatedly refers to the anticipated medical breakthroughs that will transform not only medicine’s potential but its purpose. Medicine, we are told, will cease to be about sustaining optimal health for entire populations. Instead, its power will be harnessed to distance the elite from the mass of humanity. The elite – Harari never says who we should expect to comprise this elite – will be superior to the rest of us, cognitively, physically and sexually. They will live to ages hitherto unimaginable. It’s a bleak vision that assumes those invested in medicine – doctors, researchers, private companies and governments – will be entirely motivated by the narrowest of aims.  Yet, at the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, there is equal reason to think that medicine can become more of an equalizer than it already has become. We’re more likely to discover improved therapies  – if not cures –  for some of the most bedevilling diseases such as various types of cancer than we are an antidote to aging.

Likewise, too often Harari writes as though any sort of human enhancement is possible so long as it’s driven by science and technology. Alas, our evolutionary limits will not be so easy to overcome. Just because a billionaire like Peter Thiel is prepared to invest untold millions in medicines and technologies that will allow him to live until he’s 200 years old doesn’t mean he will succeed. He will instead most certainly die within the same age range as the rest of us mortals. In a world of environmental stress and finite resources, this is as it should be. Indeed when considering our uncertain future it might be worth recalling a bit of ancient wisdom. To paraphrase, we need the grace to accept what can’t be changed, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference.