21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

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Summary

In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. Unless you are happy to entrust the future of life to the mercy of quarterly revenue reports, you need a clear idea what life is all about.

The revolutions in biotech and infotech will give us control of the world inside us, and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. Nobody knows what the consequences will be.

Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change.

Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you.

To succeed [in the next decades], you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself.

If you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much luggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.

Book Notes

Shifting authority

The revolutions in biotech and infotech will give us control of the world inside us, and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. We will learn how to design brains, extend lives, and kill thoughts at our discretion. Nobody knows what the consequences will be. Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.

The key invention is the biometric sensor, which people can wear on or inside their bodies, and which converts biological processes into electronic information that computers can store and analyse. Given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external data-processing systems can hack all your desires, decisions and opinions. They can know exactly who you are.

[Big companies developing algorithms that can process a lot of data] such as Netflix and Amazon, could enable them to choose movies for us with uncanny precision, but it could also enable them to make for us the most important decisions in life – such as what to study, where to work, and who to marry. Of course Amazon won’t be correct all the time.

But Amazon won’t have to be perfect. It will just need to be better on average than us humans. And that is not so difficult, because most people don’t know themselves very well, and most people often make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of their lives. Even more than algorithms, humans suffer from insufficient data, from faulty programming (genetic and cultural), from muddled definitions, and from the chaos of life.

Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change.

Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision-making. Once we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work, and who to marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision-making.

Imagine your favourite Shakespeare play with all the crucial decisions taken by the Google algorithm. Hamlet and Macbeth will have much more comfortable lives, but what kind of life will it be exactly? Do we have models for making sense of such a life?

As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer see the world as the playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices. Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system – and then merge into it. Already today we are becoming tiny chips inside a giant data-processing system that nobody really understands.

The biochemical algorithms of the human brain are far from perfect. They rely on heuristics, shortcuts and outdated circuits adapted to the African savannah rather than to the urban jungle.

A.I. and the job market

AI not only stands poised to hack humans and outperform them in what were hitherto uniquely human skills. It also enjoys uniquely non-human abilities, which make the difference between an AI and a human worker one of kind rather than merely of degree. Two particularly important non-human abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updateability.

Since humans are individuals, it is difficult to connect them to one another and to make sure that they are all up to date. In contrast, computers aren’t individuals, and it is easy to integrate them into a single flexible network. Hence what we are facing is not the replacement of millions of individual human workers by millions of individual robots and computers. Rather, individual humans are likely to be replaced by an integrated network.

The job market of 2050 might well be characterised by human–AI cooperation rather than competition.

One new model [to mitigate loss of jobs], which is gaining increasing attention, is universal basic income. UBI proposes that governments tax the billionaires and corporations controlling the algorithms and robots, and use the money to provide every person with a generous stipend covering his or her basic needs. This will cushion the poor against job loss and economic dislocation, while protecting the rich from populist rage.

A related idea proposes to widen the range of human activities that are considered to be ‘jobs’. At present, billions of parents take care of children, neighbours look after one another, and citizens organise communities, without any of these valuable activities being recognised as jobs.

Alternatively, governments could subsidise universal basic services rather than income. Instead of giving money to people, who then shop around for whatever they want, the government might subsidise free education, free healthcare, free transport and so forth. This is in fact the utopian vision of communism.

It is debatable whether it is better to provide people with universal basic income (the capitalist paradise) or universal basic services (the communist paradise). Both options have advantages and drawbacks. But no matter which paradise you choose, the real problem is in defining what ‘universal’ and ‘basic’ actually mean.

The twenty-first century might create the most unequal societies in history. The gap between the rich (Tencent managers and Google shareholders) and the poor (those dependent on universal basic income) might become not merely bigger, but actually unbridgeable. Hence even if some universal support scheme provides poor people in 2050 with much better healthcare and education than today, they might still be extremely angry about global inequality and the lack of social mobility.

Data ownership

The race to obtain the data is already on, headed by data-giants such as Google, Facebook, Baidu and Tencent. So far, many of these giants seem to have adopted the business model of ‘attention merchants’. They capture our attention by providing us with free information, services and entertainment, and they then resell our attention to advertisers. Yet the data-giants probably aim far higher than any previous attention merchant. Their true business isn’t to sell advertisements at all. Rather, by capturing our attention they manage to accumulate immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertising revenue. We aren’t their customers – we are their product.

At present, people are happy to give away their most valuable asset – their personal data – in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. It is a bit like African and Native American tribes who unwittingly sold entire countries to European imperialists in exchange for colourful beads and cheap trinkets.

The key question is: who owns the data? Does the data about my DNA, my brain and my life belong to me, to the government, to a corporation, or to the human collective? How do you regulate the ownership of data? This may well be the most important political question of our era.

The real threat of A.I.

AI often frightens people because they don’t trust the AI to remain obedient. Yet the real problem with robots is exactly the opposite. We should fear them because they will probably always obey their masters and never rebel. There is nothing wrong with blind obedience, of course, as long as the robots happen to serve benign masters.

Intelligence and consciousness are very different things. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love and anger. We tend to confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness. Mammals solve most problems by feeling things. Computers, however, solve problems in a very different way.

Of course, it is not absolutely impossible that AI will develop feelings of its own. We still don’t know enough about consciousness to be sure. In general, there are a few possibilities we need to consider:

  1. Consciousness is somehow linked to organic biochemistry in such a way that it will never be possible to create consciousness in non-organic systems.
  2. Consciousness is not linked to organic biochemistry, but it is linked to intelligence in such a way that computers could develop consciousness, and computers will have to develop consciousness if they are to pass a certain threshold of intelligence.

The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans.

To avoid such outcomes, for every dollar and every minute we invest in improving artificial intelligence, it would be wise to invest a dollar and a minute in advancing human consciousness. Unfortunately, at present we are not doing much to research and develop human consciousness. We are researching and developing human abilities mainly according to the immediate needs of the economic and political system, rather than according to our own long-term needs as conscious beings.

My boss wants me to answer emails as quickly as possible, but he has little interest in my ability to taste and appreciate the food I am eating. Consequently, I check my emails even during meals, while losing the ability to pay attention to my own sensations.

The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentives to expand and diversify my compassion. So I strive to understand the mysteries of the stock exchange, while making far less effort to understand the deep causes of suffering.

In this, humans are similar to other domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk, but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious and less resourceful.

We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential. Indeed we have no idea what the full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind.

The Self illusion

According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.

Have you any idea how many movies, novels and poems you have consumed over the years, and how these artefacts have carved and sharpened your idea of love? Romantic comedies are to love as porn is to sex and Rambo is to war. And if you think you can press some delete button and wipe out all trace of Hollywood from your subconscious and your limbic system, you are deluding yourself.

When you begin to explore the manifold ways the world manipulates you, in the end you realise that your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks.

The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story. Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should observe the actual flow of body and mind.

You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair. And just as you are not the winds, so also you are not the jumble of thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the sanitised story you tell about them with hindsight. You experience all of them, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them.

When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix. Since your brain and your ‘self’ are part of the matrix, to escape the matrix you must escape your self. That, however, is a possibility worth exploring. Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.

Staying relevant

What should we teach that baby that will help him or her survive and flourish in the world of 2050 or of the twenty-second century? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

By 2048, people might have to cope with migrations to cyberspace, with fluid gender identities, and with new sensory experiences generated by computer implants. Such profound change may well transform the basic structure of life, making discontinuity its most salient feature.

Given that life expectancy is likely to increase, you might subsequently have to spend many decades as a clueless fossil. To stay relevant – not just economically, but above all socially – you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty. As strangeness becomes the new normal, your past experiences, as well as the past experiences of the whole of humanity, will become less reliable guides.

How to live in a world where profound uncertainty is not a bug, but a feature? To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and feel at home with the unknown.

The best advice I could give a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama is: don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is going to be different. Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.

So on what can you rely instead? Perhaps on technology? That’s an even riskier gamble. Technology can help you a lot, but if technology gains too much power over your life, you might become a hostage to its agenda.

Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you. Have you seen those zombies who roam the streets with their faces glued to their smartphones? Do you think they control the technology, or does the technology control them?

To succeed in [the next decades], you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself.

If, however, you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much luggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.

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