Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus is a follow up to Harari’s Sapiens which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet. So whether that first book puts this one in a different context or perspective I’m not in a position to say. Having read this book, however, I’m motivated to dig up that first book so if something changes after getting through it (probably in March) I’ll edit a little here.

For a book that starts with some optimism this turns into a scary damned look at the future of humans. Harari begins by pointing out how things have improved over the past hundred years or so. Lower food insecurity than the 19th century, lower infant mortality, greater survival from improved medical technology. This has the greatest impact in first world countries but ripples globally. Good job, humans.

He then examines what it is about homo sapiens (he generally shortcuts this to simply “sapiens”) that gave it the unique ability to drastically alter Earth, not necessarily for the better. This generally reduces down to an ability to store and exchange information, verbally or in written and electronic form, a knack for giving meaning to actions, and a talent for adaptability. Hold the first concept close, because we’ll be needing it for Harari’s predictions at the end of the book.

Harari then begins to work forward in two directions. In one path he gathers up a great deal of what we can scientifically say about the human mind. In the other he looks at how our expanding knowledge has impacted our general philosophy of humanity and its place in the world.

He segments the stages of this philosophy starting with basic animism, morphing into theism and this transforming into modern humanism. His contention is that our structures of governing have evolved with these changes. Animism tended to pre-date written culture and was the period when sapiens began to spread through the world, changing and adapting into various races and cultures along the way. With the growth of theism and agriculture these divided cultures came back into contact with each other, and the theistic developments added greater layers of meaning to human actions. Ultimately, as science began to question a human/deity relationship we developed a humanistic religion (he says we worship humanity) and began to develop modern classical liberal means of governing societies that gave great prominence to the importance of the individual. Free will was honored, freedoms of thought and action were idealized.

But Harari sees this ready to crumble with several advances in science. First there is growing doubt whether sapiens actually has free will or is simply an evolutionary chemistry set. Second, the development of computer algorithms, particularly data collected on human preferences, indicates that computers can actually to a better job of predicting behaviors and preferences for us than we can do for ourselves. How can we justify governing around something that doesn’t exist for ends that can be predicted by a computer?

Most of the scientific discoveries he uses are recent but broadly discussed in the popular press. Some are still questioned and debated. We can now peek into the human brain and, at least electronically, watch what happens when people go through various experiences or choices. With electronic impulses outside the brain we can also manipulate thoughts and feelings using those same synaptic signals.

We are also sneaking up on the ability to adapt our bodies and brains in various ways. We have the potential to become super-human. We nearly have an obligation, he says, to use technology to extend our lives and make adaptive improvements.

This all may be especially important given the continuing advances in artificial intelligence. He can see a future in which AI kills off humanity and then spends eternity calculating Pi to longer strings of digits because that is, after all, the task given to it by its creator.

Many, maybe most, of the predictions are not original to Harari. Dozens have been considered in one way or another by science fiction writers for decades. He does a compelling job of gathering them into one place. I spent a lot of my reading arguing back with the author, which good books should do. I’m still a theist, putting me back at least two evolutionary steps. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that because electrical brain activity begins before we’re conscious of making a decision that this erases the concept of free will. When he compares the Renaissance with modern times and asks what scientific advances were made by religious figures in the past century my mind immediately went to the Big Bang theory (Catholic priest Georges LeMaitres) and genetics (Augustinian Gregor Mendel).

I think the difference, and perhaps it’s a necessary function of fiction, is that science fiction tends to be more optimistic. After all, it’s humans reaching out and experiencing a future universe. Not always happily but at least we’re part of the game. Harari cautions that our futures are tied to algorithms and information, and if we watch those we may get glimpses of our demise or the evolution of sapiens into a more advanced being.