Human History ‘Will End When Men Become Gods’

Historians in the News
tags: Yuval Noah Harari



Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and the internationally best-selling author of Sapiens, has a new book out about the future of humanity, called Homo Deus. He recently sat down with The WorldPost at a Berggruen Institute salon in Los Angeles. In the following interview, he discusses the new authority of “dataism” and godlike powers of science to redesign humanity and create an inorganic, new species ― artificial intelligence.

WorldPost: In your previous book, Sapiens, you observed that humans are the only species that can organize themselves around abstract ideas or codes ― myth, religion, ideology. In your new book, Homo Deus, you argue that a new ideology has arisen ― “dataism” ― that is the new organizing principle of humanity. 

When big data is married to biology ― happening as we speak ― you worry that it will reduce the biological organism to a set of information that can be organized by programmed algorithms to seek a desired outcome. Those who subscribe to this view that “the organism is an algorithm” believe that the genome of humans and other species can be designed to order and that, if computers can process and place into patterns more information than the human brain can, then we can also create a new non-biological species ― artificial intelligence.

To be sure, deciphering a deadly virus to stem a spreading plague is something humanity would welcome. But what does it mean to be human in the age of the algorithm if all that it means to be human ― love, empathy, creativity, agony ― falls between lines of code? Are such godlike powers then a great benefit to humanity, or do they portend a dark future?

Yuval Noah Harari: Like every major invention, it has both a good and bad potential. But the scale is completely different. I titled the book Homo Deus because we really are becoming gods in the most literal sense possible. We are acquiring abilities that have always been thought to be divine abilities ― in particular, the ability to create life. And we can do with that whatever we want.

You talked earlier about how humans create networks of cooperation around abstractions. I don’t like the word “abstractions” very much because most people don’t think in abstractions. That is too difficult for them. They think in stories. And the best stories are not abstract; they are concrete. If you think about the great religions that have united large parts of humankind, people believe gods are very concrete ― there is an angry old man in the sky, and if I do something wrong, he will punish me.

In the book, I use the term “fiction,” not abstraction, because what really unites humans are fictional stories. That is also the case with the new revolution that is now unfolding. It is not going to be an abstract revolution but a very concrete one.

The basic idea of dataism is a shift in authority. Previously, authority resided above the clouds and descended down to the pope, the king or the czar. Then for the last two or three centuries, authority came down from the clouds and took up residence in people’s hearts. Your feelings became the highest source of authority. The emotions of the voters in a democracy, not his or her rationality, became the number one authority in politics. In the economics of the consumer society, it is the feelings of the customer that drive every market. The feelings of the individual are the prime authority in ethics. “If it feels good, do it” is the basic ethical ideal of humanism.

So authority came down from the clouds, moved to the human heart and now authority is shifting back to the Google cloud and the Microsoft cloud. Data, and the ability to analyze data, is the new source of authority. If you have a problem in life, whether it is what to study, whom to marry or whom to vote for, you don’t ask God above or your feelings inside, you ask Google or Facebook. If they have enough data on you, and enough computing power, they know what you feel already and why you feel that way. Based on that, they can allegedly make much better decisions on your behalf than you can on your own. ...




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