I was interviewing a doctor, a scientist who is an expert in precision medicine – a new way of doing medicine that identifies the causes of disease with much more precision than before, using medication which will bring about a genetic change that will ultimately lead to cure – and it was a fascinating talk. She told me about how the medical community sees the future of mankind and how it is widely believed that during this millennium mankind will achieve immortality. I listened, entranced. In the end she told me “If you are interested in this kind of stuff, you should read Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. You’ll enjoy it”.
I was interested so I ordered it from Amazon in no time. When I received it, I was reading something else that took me a few more weeks, but I kept looking sideways at the pile of unread books beside my bed looking forward to diving into “a brief history of tomorrow” (the book’s subtitle).
I learned the author had written a previous book, Homo sapiens, where he tells the story of the evolution of our species. In his new book he explains how we, homo sapiens, got to the position of domination over all the other animals – simply because we have the ability to network in a large scale, “to connect many humans to one another” where other animals can only do so in small communities and closed groups. This characteristic, argues the author, makes homo sapiens “the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers”. And, he adds, although animals like ants and bees cooperate efficiently, we still have the advantage “ because their cooperation lacks flexibility”, lacking the ability to “reinvent their social system overnight”, as humans have so often done, i.e. when they guillotined a king and queen during the French Revolution, a disruptive event if ever there was one.
The author constantly bases his affirmations in scientific experiment, namely showing examples of how animals seem to have consciousness, and even some levels of self-consciousness, going as far as to plan for the future!
He tells us humans have recently acquired a new “agenda”. For thousands of years humankind was trying to overcome famine, diseases and war and, although these are still making an act of presence in certain regions of the globe, they are no longer seen as unavoidable situations or acts of an angry god, rather like human failures that may be corrected. He goes on to say that today humankind pursues happiness above all things and, in that pursuit, homo sapiens will reengineer himself so that he may enjoy his pleasure forever, thus overcoming death.
This is a fascinating book. We learn about how “humanism – the worship of mankind” has become the most important religion of all, take a look at world politics from a completely different angle and, finally, discover how technology, “in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorythms” will completely change the world as we, homo sapiens, know it. But the picture of this new world is scary, for it is also shown as one where the distance between “super humans”, the elite, those who control knowledge and technology, and the rest – the average ones, the great majority, the “useless” – will widen. It is likely that a great majority of people will become irrelevant, with no absolutely no use – thus with no work -substituted by clever, and infinitely more efficient, algorythms. As I read this, I couldn’t help picturing this unfortunate crowd, wandering aimlessly much like the zombies of “The Walking Dead”. A daunting prospect, no doubt.
Finally, we are shown an eerie vision of a new emerging religion, that will substitute “humanism”: it is called “dataism”, and sees organisms as algorythms and animals and human beings as different methods of processing data, declaring the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. This means human experiences have no value unto themselves, but only regarding their function in data-processing mechanisms. This can ultimately lead to a world where human experiences may count for nothing and may therefore be banned. One can easily imagine an Orwellian world where all the decisions will be made by a single processor…a terrifying thought.
The author ends by saying dataism may do to homo sapiens what homo sapiens has done to other animals. However, he warns, even if Artificial Intelligence and biotechnology will change the world, there may be several outcomes, and a world where most things human become irrelevant only depends on our present and future choices. Finally, we are left with a few questions for reflexion, of which the last is highly troubling “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non conscious but highly intelligent algorythms know us better than we know ourselves?”
As I closed the book I have to confess I felt scared. Even if these are just scenarios, so many of the situations described in this book are already happening all around us. Many people are becoming irrelevant. New elites are developing. Gaps are widening. I remember a time when we saw the future as something brighter, promising. Does this happen now, or does it look somber and menacing? I wonder.
Still, no use doing like the ostrich and burying our head underground. Knowledge is key and this book gives us so much useful information. And it’s a good read too. No wonder it’s a bestseller. It’s thoroughly researched and highly interesting. And when you finish reading it, take a deep breath and do something purely for enjoyment: it may be going out and feeling the sun on your face, or simply smiling at someone or hugging them– just do it while you still can.