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Book Review: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

May 3, 2017

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah HarariHarari hits another home run. I love the subtitle of this book, A Brief History of Tomorrow. And Harari builds a solid case for his views of how the world of technology might blend with or destroy Homo Sapiens. His book is broken into three parts and takes us through human history (much more detail in Harari’s book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind), how we add meaning to the world and then how we lose control.

Premise: The New Human Agenda

In Chapter 1, Harari suggests that there is an entirely new agenda for human beings. What will we strive for? We have never settled for our achievements but rather we crave for more, better, faster, different.

“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.”—Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 21). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The hypothesis is that we will not be satisfied to do any less than continue down the path that technology and so-called Artificial Intelligence is paving for us.

Part I: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World

In Chapters 2 & 3, Harari takes us through a brief history of the Anthropocene period and how the human “spark” ignited the creation of a totally new world. He asks three provocative questions, and then goes about answering them:

  • What is the difference between humans and all other animals?
  • How did our species conquer the world?
  • Is Homo sapiens a superior life form, or just the local bully?

From these questions and Harari’s astute observations, we learn that no matter what we think, we humans will shape our world and create a religion to follow. What will the next religion be?

Part II: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Again, three questions set up this section of the book:

  • What kind of world did humans create?
  • How did humans become convinced that they not only control the world, but also give it meaning?
  • How did humanism – the worship of humankind – become the most important religion of all?

In Chapters 4 through 7 Harari takes us through the history of how humans created meaning for themselves through a framework of beliefs we call religion. From the storytellers to the Humanist revolution, we see how Homo Sapiens wrestle with nature and human nature for control and destiny.

“Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” (p. 199)

Part III: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Up until this section, Harari spent most of his time discussing how we got to where we find ourselves today. And now we find several hypotheses or scenarios for the future. And as usual, three questions:

  • Can humans go on running the world and giving it meaning?
  • How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism?
  • Who might inherit humankind, and what new religion might replace humanism?

Chapters 8 through 11 takes us on a journey from the time bomb in the laboratory (no free will) to the new Data Religion.

“For example, when a neuron fires an electric charge, this may be either a deterministic reaction to external stimuli, or perhaps the outcome of a random event such as the spontaneous decomposition of a radioactive atom. Neither option leaves any room for free will. Decisions reached through a chain reaction of biochemical events, each determined by a previous event, are certainly not free. Decisions resulting from random subatomic accidents aren’t free either; they are just random. And when random accidents combine with deterministic processes, we get probabilistic outcomes, but this too doesn’t amount to freedom.” (pp. 282-283)

In other words, “Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.” This undermines the story we tell about our liberal philosophy and also undermines the concept of the individual.

A scenario for the future is that we humans will become gods in our own minds—for a while at least. Harari suggests that, “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.” He calls this new religion “Techno-humanism.”

Dataism

In Chapter 11, Harari introduces Dataism.

Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. This may strike you as some eccentric fringe notion, but in fact it has already conquered most of the scientific establishment. (p. 367)

Dataism declares that organisms are algorithms. And, Harari states, that this is the current scientific dogma. He goes on to say that, “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.”

Read This Book!

No short review can do this book justice. It is my opinion that we all need to be thinking deeply about this topic. Where are we humans taking our species? How will we find meaning in the future? I leave you with one last quotation from the book:

“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 would not be able to handle them. When cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens.”—Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 388). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I hope you will get the book and make time to give it a thoughtful reading.

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