Reviewed in India on 14 October 2018
I got this book as a birthday present from a “devoted” friend, and it promptly reached the top of my reading list. Reading it has been an overwhelming experience.
Yuval Noah Harari, the author, teaches world history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but his knowledge seems to extend far beyond his specialization. Dr Harari is a polymath in the intellectual tradition of giants like Jacob Bronowski, Arthur C. Clarke and Alvin Toffler, all of whom were noted for their visions for the future, arising out of their studies of the past as well as their observations of their own times.
This book begins with a long introductory chapter titled “The new human agenda,” which opens with the sweeping assertion that humans have been facing three major problems through centuries of history: famine, plague and war. After discussing each of these topics, he brings out startling facts to show that the impacts of all three are weakening – consequently “…humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, bliss and divinity.” He talks about the advances in medicine, reaching the extraordinary conclusion that death is “a technical problem that we can and should solve.” Next, he discusses what makes us happy. Finally, to round this chapter, he postulates that organic bodies will get upgraded with non-organic devices like bionic hands and artificial eyes, to create a race of superhumans.
The remainder of the book is divided into three sections. The first of these is “Homo Sapiens conquers the world,” which contains two chapters dealing primarily with agriculture and the commonly accepted differences between humans and animals. Here the author introduces a novel concept that human emotions are nothing but “biochemical algorithms.”
The next section is titled “Homo Sapiens gives meaning to the world,” which consists of four chapters. Here the author starts with the revolutionary concept that the world of Sapiens contains a “web of stories” in which he includes money, gods, nations and corporations! The next chapter describes the relationship between science and religion, “a husband and wife who after 500 years of marriage counselling still don’t know each other.” The succeeding chapter deals with what the author calls “the modern covenant,” summarized as humans agreeing to give up meaning in exchange of power. The last chapter of this section is about the “new religion of humanism,” which affects all aspects of society, including politics, science and art. He further classifies humanism into three branches labelled as liberal, socialist and evolutionary. He goes on to interpret the major conflicts of the 20th century as the outcome of the struggles between the followers of the different branches of humanist thought.
The third and final section is “Homo Sapiens loses control,” where the author’s focus shifts from interpretation of history to extrapolation of present trends for forecasting the future. However, he clarifies that the scenarios outlined here should be regarded as “possibilities rather than prophecies.”
The concluding section consists of four chapters. In the first of these, the author questions the concept of an individual, which is fundamental to the humanist creed. To quote, “The single authentic self is as real as the eternal soul, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.” He goes on to explain that an individual actually comprises an experiencing self and a narrating self, and our identities arise out of the interactions between them. Next, he turns his attention to artificial intelligence and emphasizes that intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. In other words, human beings are losing their value. This leads to various scenarios, each of which represents a threat to humans as well as humanism.
In the penultimate chapter of this book, the focus is on Silicon Valley, where “hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions.” The relatively conservative school of thought is described as Techno-humanism, which believes in upgrading Homo Sapiens to Homo Deus, a superior human model! Finally, the last chapter is about the disruptive “Data Religion,” which declares that the universe consists of data flows. The barrier between animals and machines can be broken as electronic algorithms replace biochemical ones. The author now re-interprets history as the progress of data processing systems!
The last four chapters of this book straddle the worlds of history, technology and science fiction. The reader’s attention is irresistibly drawn to parallels with the works of H.G.Wells, Aldous Huxley and – especially – Isaac Asimov, who dreamt of “positronic robots” and “psycho-history” as far back as the 1940s.
On the whole, this book deserves six stars. The scholarship is impeccable, with copious references to books and journals from a variety of disciplines. The arguments are very well presented and the reader finds himself agreeing with – or at least appreciating – some concepts which might seem outrageous if taken out of context. The author has an excellent command over the English language (although the book was first published in Hebrew, we cannot overlook the fact that he earned his doctorate at Oxford). While I have quoted a few snippets in this review, here are some more passages, which give a better flavour of this monumental work:
“Homo Sapiens does its best to forget the fact, but it is an animal. And it is doubly important to remember our origins at a time when we seek to turn ourselves into gods. No investigation of our divine future can ignore our own animal past, or our relations with other animals – because the relationship between humans and animals is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans…”
“As I have repeatedly stressed, AI is nowhere near human-like existence. But 99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans of the job market it needs only to outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession needs.”
“In the heyday of European imperialism, conquistadors and merchants bought entire islands and countries in exchange for coloured beads. In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”
I look forward to reading other books by Dr Harari.