Friday, March 17, 2017
HOMO DEUS A Brief History of Tomorrow By Yuval Noah Harari Illustrated. 449 pages. Harper. $35.
In retrospect, some books seem tailor-made for the thought-leader industrial complex. Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” which came out in the United States two years ago, was clearly one of them.
It earned Harari an invitation to speak at TEDGlobal in 2015. (Your book doesn’t become the toast of the ruling class if you don’t put in your time on the international yak-yak circuit.) Within a year, the country’s most influential people were reading it. Mark Zuckerberg made it a selection for his online book club. Barack Obama recommended it on television. Bill Gates told The New York Times it would be one of the 10 books he’d bring to a desert island — and why ever not? If you’re going to be Tom Hanks, your volleyball might as well be a breezy history of your missing fellow humans.
What made “Sapiens” so appealing to the smart set was its ability to serve up big ideas — about evolutions and revolutions in human cognition and civilization — into a series of digestible courses, not unlike the playwright David Ives’s condensation of David Mamet’s oeuvre into seven minutes in “Speed the Play.” (The second act of “Oleanna”: “You molested me.” “Didn’t.” “Did.”) The most tantalizing part? “Sapiens” ended with a cliffhanger. After 70,000 years of earthly dominion, we Homo sapiens, Harari seemed to imply, may at last be vulnerable.
“The future masters of the world will probably be more different from us than we are from Neanderthals,” he wrote. “Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike.”
This is precisely where Harari’s sequel, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” picks up. Like “Sapiens,” it is lively, provocative and sure to be another hit among the pooh-bahs. But readers ought to be prepared: Almost every blithe pronouncement Harari makes (that “the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms,” for instance) has been the exclusive subject of far more nuanced books
I do not mean to knock the handiwork of a gifted thinker and a precocious mind. But I do mean to caution against the easy charms of potted history. Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has a gift for synthesizing material from a wide range of disciplines in inspired, exhilarating ways. But an argument can look seamless and still contain lots of dropped stitches.
In a nub: “Homo Deus” makes the case that we are now at a unique juncture in the story of our species. “For the first time in history,” Harari writes, “more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.”
Having subdued (though by no means vanquished) famine, pestilence and war, Harari argues, we can now train our sights on higher objectives. Eternal happiness. Everlasting life. “In seeking bliss and immortality,” he writes, “humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.”
If you’re acquainted with the story of Icarus, you know that these prideful efforts don’t tend to end well. Harari imagines that in attempting to refine ourselves to utter perfection — the logical apotheosis of humanism, whose history and evolution he traces over many pages — we will destroy humanism itself.
Our slow creep toward the uncanny valley has already begun. We take pills that change our affect and select embryos with the best odds for optimal health. Google has an offshoot, Calico, whose modest mission is to slow the aging process. Throw in advancements in biological and cyborg engineering, and our radical transformation, in Harari’s view, seems quite feasible.
“Relatively small changes in genes, hormones and neurons,” he points out, “were enough to transform Homo erectus — who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives — into Homo sapiens, who produce spaceships and computers.” Why should we assume that Sapiens are the end of the evolutionary line?
Yet a question arises: If we aren’t at the end of the line, what comes next?
The short, chilling answer: a future that looks like Westworld, rather than Disney World. A small, breakaway republic of superhumans and techno-elites will eventually split off from the rest of humanity. Those who acquire the skills and proprietary algorithms to re-engineer brains, bodies and minds — the main products of the 21st century, Harari suspects — will become gods; those who don’t will be rendered economically useless and die off.
And then, without our realizing it, we’ll wake up one sunny morning and realize we’ve given ourselves over completely to machines. We just have to pray they don’t go rogue. The nanobots in our bodies tracking cancer could be hacked by North Koreans and start doing lord knows what. “Once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence,” Harari writes, “it might simply exterminate mankind.”
Which at least puts liberals’ current woes in perspective. A world run by strongmen and kleptocrats is nothing compared with a world run by robot overlords. Governments in that situation would be much less powerful than
This dystopian vision rests on many questionable assumptions, of course. One of them is that we don’t have free will, and never did, a philosophical question that Harari insists on treating as settled. Another is that humans will somehow shed their collaborative, social instincts (which, as he stressed in “Sapiens,” are what made us so successful in the first place). Maybe students will eventually learn exclusively from computer programs. But I’m guessing they’ll still crave other students to discuss what they’ve learned. Maybe computers will hand us our medical diagnoses. But we’ll still crave doctors to explain them.
Harari willfully, almost irrationally, ignores this idea. “If your CT indicates you have cancer, would you prefer to receive the news from a cold machine, or from a human doctor attentive to your emotional state?” he asks. “Well, how about receiving the news from an attentive machine that tailors its words to your feelings and personality type?”
I’d still take the flesh-and-blood messenger with the stethoscope, thanks.
Only on Page 399 — three pages before the footnotes begin! — does Harari concede that maybe organisms aren’t even algorithms at all.
Harari promises that “Homo Deus” is not a prophecy. Let’s hope so. After the viral plague of fake news articles and the shame of so many privacy scandals, the peak days of Silicon Valley worship may be behind us. If any part of the future Harari describes is true, all I can say is: #Resist.