Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow -YUVAL NOAH HARARI

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

The near-blasphemous title alludes thus: 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.

Most predictions of the future extrapolate from the past and get it wrong.  This book is probably no exception.

The optimism of this book reminds me of Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature.  Both these books are not realistic about ‘original sin’.

He labours under many errors: spirituality does not grow out of dualism; indeed it seeks to overcome it; official Catholicism does not teach ‘blind obedience to the pope’ (which he clarified later in the book) nor that the Bible was dictated by God. For Muslims, Muhammad did not ‘found’ Islam – he revived it.

Homo Deus argues that through advances in science (plastic surgery, genetic mapping, anti-aging products etc.) we are transforming into something that isn’t quite homo sapien. If you could select a gene for your child that would improve his/her memory, would you? What if everyone else is doing it?

He uses ‘due’ when he means ‘owing’ and puts to much trust in bankers, forgetting the system that props them up..

Apparently, the author is only 40,and is a gay Israeli vegan historian who meditates for two hours a day.

Summary

what we have achieved up until today and where we may take life in the future – from many different perspectives from agriculture, technology, economy, geography and medicine to psychology, politics, sociology, existentialism and science

The next section of the book covers how we brought the world to be in the last 2 or 3 centuries

Ranging from dating to medical diagnosis, from the care of the elderly to household work, entire industries now stand to both benefit and be complemented or even superseded by the march of the machines. Mr. Harari speculates about a bold vision in which most manual labor has been taken over by machines and true human input is limited only to a very limited number of people, many of whom because of their creativity and demand will likely be in the top financial echelons of society. How will the rich and the poor live in these societies?

Quotations:

Given our twentieth-century accomplish­ments, if people continue to suffer from famine, plague and war, we cannot blame it on nature or on God. It is within our power to make things better and to reduce the incidence of suffering even further.

Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

What might have happened if a rare mutation had created a squirrel who, after eating a single nut, enjoys an everlasting sen­sation of bliss? Technically, this could actually be done by rewiring the squirrel’s brain. Who knows, perhaps it really happened to some lucky squirrel millions of years ago. But if so, that squirrel enjoyed an extremely happy and extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation. For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. For exactly the same reason, the nuts we humans seek to gather — lucrative jobs, big houses, good-looking partners — seldom satisfy us for long.

Over those 20,000 years humankind moved from hunting mammoth with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships not thanks to the evolution of more dexter­ous hands or bigger brains (our brains today seem actually to be smaller).” Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another.

Yet of all the projects currently under development, the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn.

“The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens.'”

Biblical Judaism, for instance, catered to peasants and shep­herds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals. People today imagine the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a kind of big syna­gogue where priests clad in snow-white robes welcomed devout pilgrims, melodious choirs sang psalms and incense perfumed the air. In reality, it looked more like a cross between a slaughter­house and a barbecue joint. The pilgrims did not come empty-handed. They brought with them a never-ending stream of sheep, goats, chickens and other animals, which were sacrificed at the god’s altar and then cooked and eaten. The psalm-singing choirs could hardly be heard over the bellowing and bleating of calves and kids. Priests in bloodstained outfits cut the victims’ throats, collected the gushing blood in jars and spilled it over the altar. The perfume of incense mixed with the odours of con­gealed blood and roasted meat, while swarms of black flies buzzed just about everywhere (see, for example, Numbers 28, Deuteronomy 12, and i Samuel 2). A modern Jewish family that celebrates a holiday by having a barbecue on their front lawn is much closer to the spirit of biblical times than an orthodox family that spends the time studying scriptures in a synagogue.

Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stor­ies about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can’t play football unless every­one believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stor­ies. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fic­tion, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

During the Second Temple period a rival religious elite gradu­ally formed. Due partly to Persian and Greek influences, Jewish ars who wrote and interpreted texts gained increasing promin­ce. These scholars eventually came to be known as rabbis, the texts they compiled were christened ‘the Bible’. Rabbin­ic authority rested on individual intellectual abilities rather than birth. The clash between this new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70 while sup­pressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very raison d’être. Traditional Judaism — a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors ­disappeared. In its place emerged a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars.

 

Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s The His­tory of Sexuality or Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto’. Yet Christian true-believers — however progressive — cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to lib­eralism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science. For if you want to understand these breakthroughs, you don’t have much choice — you need to spend time reading scientific articles and conducting lab experiments instead of memorising and debating ancient texts.

That doesn’t mean liberalism can rest on its laurels. True, it has won the humanist wars of religion, and as of 2016 it has no viable alternative. But its very success may contain the seeds of its ruin. The triumphant liberal ideals are now pushing humankind to reach for immortality, bliss and divinity. Egged on by the allegedly infallible wishes of customers and voters, scientists and engineers devote more and more energies to these liberal pro­jects. Yet what the scientists are discovering and what the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws in

 

If the economy doesn’t grow, and the pie therefore remains the same size, you can give more to the poor only by taking some­thing from the rich. That will force you to make some very hard choices, and will probably cause a lot of resentment and even violence. If you wish to avoid hard choices, resentment and viole­nce, you need a bigger pie.

Modernity has turned ‘more stuff’ into a panacea applicable to almost all public and private problems, from religious funda­mentalism, through Third World authoritarianism, down to a failed marriage. If only countries such as Pakistan and Egypt could maintain a healthy growth rate, their citizens would come to enjoy the benefits of private cars and bulging refrigerators, and would take the path of earthly prosperity instead of following the Fundamentalist pied piper. Similarly, economic growth in coun­tries such as Congo and Myanmar would produce a prosperous middle class which is the bedrock of liberal democracy. And in the case of the disgruntled couple, their marriage would allegedly be saved if only they would buy a bigger house (so they don’t have to share a cramped office), purchase a dishwasher (so they stop arguing whose turn it is to do the dishes) and attend expensive therapy sessions twice a week.

Economic growth has thus become the crucial juncture where almost all modern religions, ideologies and movements meet. The Soviet Union, with its megalomaniacal Five Year Plans, was as obsessed with growth as the most cut-throat American robber-baron. Just as Christians and Muslims all believe in heaven, and disagree only about how to get there, so during the Cold War both capitalists and communists believed in creating heaven on earth through economic growth, and wrangled only about the exact method.

 

Evolutionary pressures have accustomed humans to see as a static pie. If somebody gets a larger slice of the pie, so else inevitably gets a smaller slice. A particular family may or may not prosper, but humankind as a whole is not going to produce than it produces today. Accordingly, traditional religions Christianity and Islam sought ways to solve humanity’s pro with the help of current resources, either by redistributing the existing pie, or by promising a pie in the sky.

Modernity, in contrast, is based on the firm belief that economic growth is not only possible, but absolutely essential. Prayers, good deeds and meditation might be comforting inspiring, but problems such as famine, plague and war can o be solved through growth. This fundamental dogma can summarised in one simple idea: ‘If you have a problem, you pro ably need more stuff; and in order to have more stuff, you must produce more of it.’

Modern politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three principal reasons. Firstly, when we produce more, we can consume more, raise our standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life. Secondly, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is needed merely to stay where we are. For example, in India the annual population growth rate is 1.2 per cent. That means that unless the Indian economy expands each year by at least 1.2 per cent, unemployment will rise, salaries will fall and the average standard of living will decline. Thirdly, even if Indians stop multiplying, and even if the Indian middle class can be satisfied with its current standard of living, what should India do about its hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken citizens?

The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?

This is not an entirely new question. People have long feared that mechanization might cause mass unemployment. This never happened, because 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. The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking. The current scientific answer to this pipe dream can be summarized in three simple principles:

  1. Organisms are algorithms. Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
  2. Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which the calculator is built. Whether an abacus is made of wood, iron or plastic, two beads plus two beads equals four beads.
  3. Hence, there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. As long as the calculations remain valid, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon or silicon?

True, at present there are numerous things that organic algorithms do better than non-organic ones, and experts have repeatedly declared that some things will “for ever” remain beyond the reach of non-organic algorithms. But it turns out that “for ever” often means no more than a decade or two. Until a short time ago, facial recognition was a favorite example of something that babies accomplish easily but which escaped even the most powerful computers. Today, facial-recognition programs are able to identify people far more efficiently and quickly than humans can. In 2004, professor Frank Levy from MIT and professor Richard Murnane from Harvard published research on the job market, listing those professions most likely to undergo automation. Truck driving was given as an example of a job that could not possibly be automated in the foreseeable future. A mere 10 years later, Google and Tesla can not only imagine this, but are actually making it happen.

99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.

In fact, as time goes by, it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are professionalizing. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare spear points from flint stones, find edible mushrooms in a forest, track down a mammoth, coordinate a charge with a dozen other hunters and use medicinal herbs to bandage any wounds. However, a taxi driver or a cardiologist specializes in a much narrower niche than a hunter-gatherer, which makes it easier to replace them with AI. AI is nowhere near human-like existence, but 99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it need only outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.

As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality. Alternatively, the algorithms might themselves become the owners. Human law already recognizes intersubjective entities like corporations and nations as “legal persons.” Though Toyota or Argentina has neither a body nor a mind, they are subject to international laws, they can own land and money, and they can sue and be sued in court. We might soon grant similar status to algorithms. An algorithm could then own a transportation empire or a venture-capital fund without having to obey the wishes of any human master. Before dismissing the idea, remember that most of our planet is already legally owned by non-human intersubjective entities, namely nations and corporations. Indeed, 5,000 years ago much of Sumer was owned by imaginary gods such as Enki and Inanna. If gods can possess land and employ people, why not algorithms?

So what will people do? Art is often said to provide us with our ultimate (and uniquely human) sanctuary. In a world where computers have replaced doctors, drivers, teachers and even landlords, would everyone become an artist? Yet it is hard to see why artistic creation would be safe from the algorithms. According to the life sciences, art is not the product of some enchanted spirit or metaphysical soul, but rather of organic algorithms recognizing mathematical patterns. If so, there is no reason why non-organic algorithms couldn’t master it.

There are some safe jobs: the likelihood that algorithms will displace archaeologists is only 0.7 percent.

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution created a huge urban proletariat, and socialism spread because no other creed managed to answer the unprecedented needs, hopes and fears of this new working class. Liberalism eventually defeated socialism only by adopting the best parts of the socialist program. In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.

In September 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, published “The Future of Employment,” in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years, and they estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 percent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 percent probability that the same will happen to sports referees. Cashiers — 97 percent. Chefs — 96 percent. Waiters — 94 percent. Paralegals — 94 percent. Tour guides — 91 percent. Bakers — 89 percent. Bus drivers — 89 percent. Construction laborers — 88 percent. Veterinary assistants — 86 percent. Security guards — 84 percent. Sailors — 83 percent. Bartenders — 77 percent. Archivists — 76 percent. Carpenters — 72 percent. Lifeguards — 67 percent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 percent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition and doesn’t produce huge profits and it is improbable that corporations or government will make the necessary investment to automate archaeology within the next 20 years.

Most of what kids currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.

Of course, by 2033 many new professions are likely to appear — for example, virtual-world designers. But such professions will probably require much more creativity and flexibility than current run-of-the-mill jobs, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old cashiers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if they do so, the pace of progress is such that within another decade they might have to reinvent themselves yet again. After all, algorithms might well outperform humans in designing virtual worlds, too. The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many, if not most, humans may be unable to do so.

The coming technological bonanza will probably make it feasible to feed and support people even without any effort from their side. But what will keep them occupied and content? One answer might be drugs and computer games. Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds that would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside. Yet such a development would deal a mortal blow to the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life and of human experiences. What’s so sacred about useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences?

Some experts and thinkers, such as Nick Bostrom (TED Talk: What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?), warn that humankind is unlikely to suffer this degradation, because once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, it might simply exterminate humankind. The AI would likely do so either for fear that humankind would turn against it and try to pull its plug, or in pursuit of some unfathomable goal of its own. For it would be extremely difficult for humans to control the motivation of a system smarter than themselves.

Even preprogramming an AI system with seemingly benign goals might backfire horribly. One popular scenario imagines a corporation designing the first artificial super-intelligence and giving it an innocent test such as calculating pi. Before anyone realizes what is happening, the AI takes over the planet, eliminates the human race, launches a campaign of conquest to the ends of the galaxy, and transforms the entire known universe into a giant supercomputer that for billions upon billions of years calculates pi ever more accurately. After all, this is the divine mission its Creator gave it.

as time goes by it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are pro­fessionalising. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare stone tools, find edible mushrooms in a forest and track down prey.

a more sinister note, the same study implies that in future presidential elections Facebook could know not only the polit­ical opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how these voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, iden­tify the 32,417 voters who still haven’t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook obtain this priceless political data? We provide it for free.

And this is just the beginning. Today in the US more people read digital books than printed ones. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are read­ing. Your Kindle can, for example, monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kin­dle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it will know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It will know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.”

And this is just the beginning Today in the US more people read digital books than printed ones. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are read­ing. Your Kindle can, for example, monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kin­dle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it will know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It will know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.”

Yet even if we take into account all human species that ever existed, that would not come close to exhausting the mental spec­trum. Other animals probably have experiences that we humans can barely imagine. Bats, for example, experience the world through echolocation. They emit a very rapid stream of high-frequency chirps, well beyond the range of the human ear. They then detect and interpret the returning echoes to build a pic­ture of the world. That picture is so detailed and accurate that bats can fly quickly between trees and buildings, chase and cap­ture moths and mosquitoes, and all the while evade owls and other predators.

Bats live in a world of echoes. Just as in the human world every object has a characteristic shape and colour, so in the bat world every object has its echo-pattern. A bat can distinguish between a tasty moth species and a poisonous moth species by the different echoes bouncing back from their delicate wings. Some edible moth species try to protect themselves by evolving an echo-pattern similar to that of a poisonous species. Others have evolved an even more remarkable ability to deflect the waves of the bat radar, so like stealth bombers they can fly around without the bat knowing they are there. The world of echolocation is as complex and stormy as our familiar world of sound and sight, but we are completely oblivious to it.

One of the most important articles about the philosophy of mind is titled What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ In this 1974 paper, the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that a Sapiens mind cannot fathom the subjective world of a bat. We can write all the algo­rithms we want about the bat body, bat echolocation systems and bat neurons, but that won’t tell us how it feels to be a bat. How does it feel to echolocate a moth flapping its wings? Is it similar to seeing it, or is it something completely different?

Trying to explain to a Sapiens how it feels to echolocate a but­terfly is probably as pointless as explaining to a blind mole how it feels to see a Caravaggio. It’s likely that bat emotions are also deeply influenced by the centrality of their echolocation sense. For Sapiens, love is red, envy is green and depression is blue. Who knows what echolocations colour the love of a female bat for her offspring, or the feelings of a male bat towards his rivals?

Bats aren’t special, of course. They are but one of countless possible examples. Just as Sapiens cannot understand what it’s like to be a bat, we have similar difficulties understanding how it feels to be a whale, a tiger or a pelican. It certainly must feel like something; but we don’t know like what. Both whales and humans process emotions in a part of the brain called the limbic system, yet the whale limbic system includes an entire additional part that is missing from the human structure. Maybe that part enables whales to experience extremely deep and complex emotions that are alien to us? Whales might also have astounding musical experiences that even Bach and Mozart couldn’t grasp.

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