Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

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Summary

Humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity. We have gone from Amoeba to Reptiles to mammals to Sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station.

Cyborg engineering will go a step further, merging the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes, or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and repair damage.

Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power. In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. humans too are not limited to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want – provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance.

Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.

Where did humans find meaning? In their subjective experience, a new revolutionary religion called humanism.

According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. For example, humanists believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the voters know best, and if something feels good - then you should do it.

However, this belief clashes with more scientific discoveries and a new understanding that we actually never make free choices. We feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in our brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free. We don’t choose our desires. We only feel them, and act accordingly.

So what will replace humanism as a new religion? The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data.

Dataism says that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.

From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips.

If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things.

For the last 70,000 years or so, human experiences have been the most efficient data-processing algorithms in the universe, hence there was good reason to sanctify them. However, we may soon reach a point when these algorithms will be superseded, and even become a burden.

Sapiens evolved in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are just not built to handle twenty-first-century data flows. We might try to upgrade the human data-processing system, but this may not be enough.

The Internet-of-All-Things may soon create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms cannot handle it. When the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens.

Book Notes

Approaching immortality

Humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.

Humans always die due to some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. The main artery is clogged by fatty deposits. Cancerous cells spread in the liver. Germs multiply in the lungs. And what is responsible for all these technical problems? Other technical problems.

Nothing metaphysical about it. It is all technical problems. And every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it.

In the twentieth century we have almost doubled life expectancy from forty to seventy, so in the twenty-first century we should at least be able to double it again to 150. Though falling far short of immortality, this would still revolutionise human society. For starters, family structure, marriages and child–parent relationships would be transformed.

Today, people still expect to be married ‘till death us do part’, and much of life revolves around having and raising children. Now try to imagine a person with a lifespan of 150 years. Getting married at forty, she still has 110 years to go. Will it be realistic to expect her marriage to last 110 years? Even Catholic fundamentalists might baulk at that.

We may well think of the new human agenda as consisting really of only one project (with many branches): attaining divinity. We have gone from Amoeba to Reptiles to mammals to Sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station.

Cyborg engineering will go a step further, merging the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes, or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and repair damage.

The cold hand of the past

Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams.

The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.

Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past. It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine. By observing the accidental chain of events that led us here, we realise how our very thoughts and dreams took shape – and we can begin to think and dream differently. Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.

Animal suffering

Humans can cause tremendous suffering to farm animals in various ways, even while ensuring their survival and reproduction. The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant on human farms.

Farmers routinely ignore these needs, without paying any economic penalty. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply.

Today most sows in industrial farms don’t play computer games. They are locked by their human masters in tiny gestation crates, usually measuring two metres by sixty centimetres. The crates have a concrete floor and metal bars, and hardly allow the pregnant sows even to turn around or sleep on their side, never mind walk. After three and a half months in such conditions, the sows are moved to slightly wider crates, where they give birth and nurse their piglets. Whereas piglets would naturally suckle for ten to twenty weeks, in industrial farms they are forcibly weaned within two to four weeks, separated from their mother and shipped to be fattened and slaughtered. The mother is immediately impregnated again, and sent back to the gestation crate to start another cycle. The typical sow would go through five to ten such cycles before being slaughtered herself.

Attributing emotions to pigs doesn’t humanise them. It ‘mammalises’ them. For emotions are not a uniquely human quality – they are common to all mammals (as well as to all birds and probably to some reptiles and even fish). All mammals evolved emotional abilities and needs, and from the fact that pigs are mammals we can safely deduce that they have emotions.

Mammals can’t live on food alone. They need emotional bonds too. Both the meat and dairy industries are based on breaking the most fundamental emotional bond in the mammal kingdom.

Is human life more precious than porcine life simply because the human collective is more powerful than the pig collective?

The modernity deal

Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Up until modern times, most cultures believed that humans play a part in some great cosmic plan. The plan was devised by the omnipotent gods, or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power. Humans were much like actors on a stage. The script gave meaning to their every word, tear and gesture – but placed strict limits on their performance.

In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. This created some inconveniences, of course, but it gave humans psychological protection against disasters. We are not privy to the script, but we can rest assured that everything happens for a purpose. Even this terrible war, plague and drought have their place in the greater scheme of things.

Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’. If shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not limited to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want – provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance.

If we invest money in research, then scientific breakthroughs will accelerate technological progress. New technologies will fuel economic growth, and a growing economy could dedicate even more money to research. With each passing decade we will enjoy more food, faster vehicles and better medicines. One day our knowledge will be so vast and our technology so advanced that we could distil the elixir of eternal youth, the elixir of true happiness, and any other drug we might possibly desire – and no god will stop us.

Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.

Yes, we moderns have promised to renounce meaning in exchange for power; but there’s nobody out there to hold us to our promise. We think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal, without paying its price.

The price of the Modernity deal

So the modern deal promised us unprecedented power – and the promise has been kept. Now what about the price? In exchange for power, the modern deal expects us to give up meaning. How did humans handle this chilling demand?

Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a new revolutionary religion – humanism.

According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.

The central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God; rather, it was gaining faith in humanity. Humanism has taught us that something can be bad only if it causes somebody to feel bad.

  • Humanist Economics: the customer is always right.
  • Humanist Aesthetics: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
  • Humanist Politics: the voter knows best.
  • Humanist Ethics: if it feels good – do it!
  • Humanist Education: think for yourself!

The humanist belief in feelings has enabled us to benefit from the fruits of the modern covenant without paying its price. We don’t need any gods to limit our power and give us meaning – the free choices of customers and voters supply us with all the meaning we require. What, then, will happen once we realise that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings?

The million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free. I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

In reality, there is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass within this stream, but there is no permanent self who owns the desires, hence it is meaningless to ask whether I choose my desires deterministically, randomly or freely.

The single authentic self is as real as the eternal Christian soul, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Business corporations often sink millions into failed enterprises, while private individuals cling to dysfunctional marriages and dead-end jobs. For the narrating self would much prefer to go on suffering in the future, just so it won’t have to admit that our past suffering was devoid of all meaning.

The end of Liberalism?

3 implications of the recent scientific discoveries that will undermine the liberal philosophy:

  1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
  2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
  3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.

Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or identifying terrorists.

However, we are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that can perform such tasks far better than humans. For all these tasks are based on pattern recognition, and non-conscious algorithms may soon excel human consciousness in recognising patterns. This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important, intelligence or consciousness?

At least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional. Computer algorithms can process in a second more data than a human can in a year, and react to the data much faster than a human can blink.

[In the past] as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines. Yet this is not a law of nature, and nothing guarantees it will continue to be like that in the future.

Humans have two basic types of abilities: physical abilities and cognitive abilities. As long as machines competed with us merely in physical abilities, you could always find cognitive tasks that humans do better.

So machines took over purely manual jobs, while humans focused on jobs requiring at least some cognitive skills. Yet what will happen once algorithms outperform us in remembering, analysing and recognising patterns? The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.

If the algorithm makes the right decisions, it could accumulate a fortune, which it could then invest as it sees fit, perhaps buying your house and becoming your landlord. If you infringe on the algorithm’s legal rights – say, by not paying rent – the algorithm could hire lawyers and sue you in court.

If such algorithms consistently outperform human fund managers, we might end up with an algorithmic upper class owning most of our planet. This may sound impossible, but before dismissing the idea, remember that most of our planet is already legally owned by non-human inter-subjective entities, namely nations and corporations.

Techno-humanism and Dataism

The new projects of the twenty-first century – gaining immortality, bliss and divinity – also hope to serve the whole of humankind. However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.

New techno-religions may conquer the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes. These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion.

Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.

What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? As of 2016, only one candidate is sitting in history’s reception room waiting for the job interview. This candidate is information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data.

Dataism says that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.

Humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. However, Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone into knowledge or wisdom. The work of processing data should therefore be entrusted to electronic algorithms, whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain.

From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips.

If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things. Once this mission is accomplished, Homo sapiens will vanish.

Dataists explain to those who still worship flesh-and-blood mortals that they are overly attached to outdated technology. Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm. After all, what’s the advantage of humans over chickens? Only that in humans information flows in much more complex patterns than in chickens. Humans absorb more data, and process it using better algorithms.

First and foremost, a Dataist ought to maximise data flow by connecting to more and more media, and producing and consuming more and more information. Its second commandment is to connect everything to the system.

The greatest sin is to block the data flow. What is death, if not a situation when information doesn’t flow? Hence Dataism upholds the freedom of information as the greatest good of all.

Freedom of information, in contrast, is not given to humans. It is given to information. So if we want to create a better world, the key is to set the data free.

Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot – find meaning within ourselves. We need only record and connect our experience to the great data flow, and the algorithms will discover its meaning and tell us what to do. No wonder we are so busy converting our experiences into data. It isn’t a question of trendiness. It is a question of survival. We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.

True, for the last 70,000 years or so, human experiences have been the most efficient data-processing algorithms in the universe, hence there was good reason to sanctify them. However, we may soon reach a point when these algorithms will be superseded, and even become a burden. Sapiens evolved in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are just not built to handle twenty-first-century data flows. We might try to upgrade the human data-processing system, but this may not be enough.

The Internet-of-All-Things may soon create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms cannot handle it. When the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens.

If we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms, and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:

  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?

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