The multimillion-selling biographer of humanity has concerns about our new robot overlords.
Letter from the future
When I reach him by phone in Paris, the bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari declares free will an illusion, human rights a fiction, and democracy on the verge of obsolescence—all in a single breath. “We are all the outcome of neurological and biological processes in our body and brain,” he tells me with his even-toned, Hebrew-inflected diction. “You cannot choose your desires freely.”
The most appealing aspect of Harari’s authorial voice is the insouciant serenity with which he guides us through the science-fiction world that big data, bioengineering and artificial intelligence are about to bring forth. It is also the most frightening. Harari, 42, whose academic specialisations are medieval and military history, is the author of two multimillion-selling books— Sapiens, which has been translated into nearly 50 languages, and Homo Deus— that trace the development of the human species from “insignificant animals” to godlike entities closing in on “the ability to design and create living beings; to transform their own bodies; to control the environment and the weather; to read minds... and of course to escape death and live indefinitely”.
Harari writes with glibness and epigrammatic elegance—as if Friedrich Nietzsche were to write the history of humanity in a series of daily briefings for Axios—and became the world’s most popular thought leader via TED Talk. He is cheerful as he limns a half-dozen posthuman dystopian scenarios before breakfast. Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are fans.
The central message in his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, concerns the misplaced priorities that have consumed our politics and the disruptive effect that AI will have in the coming decades. “Every minute we spend on Brexit or Trump is a minute we are not spending on thinking about AI. And in 10 or 20 years, people will look back and ask why didn’t we regulate AI in time?
“The victory of democracy was based on the technological reality that you couldn’t process all the information in one place, so free markets and distributed systems of decision-making had an advantage over centralised systems... But AI is going to change all and provides advantages to those who concentrate all the data in one place.”
The great computational apparatus in the cloud can compare and contrast what you see and how you feel with the ever-growing data set of the billions of others it is tracking, building an individualised model of your emotions and desires. Soon we’ll hook ourselves up to biometric sensors that will allow the apparatus to know intimately what is going on inside us. This apparatus, Harari says, will thus come to know us better than we can know ourselves and make better decisions—about where to live, what to do and whom to marry—than any of us can make on our own. It will put to rest the fond illusion of selfdetermination that is the basis of our political, legal, moral and economic systems. We are, he argues, a series of deterministic biochemical-feedback mechanisms whose functioning can be manipulated, an engineering project that is already under way in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. It is Harari’s role as a thinker to make the emerging paradigm accessible to the common reader.
“Until recently, it didn’t matter that we had no free will because nobody outside of yourself could really understand what was happening inside your body and brain,” he says. “We are now acquiring the technological ability to hack human beings... to really understand how somebody feels, what they want and why.”
The antidote that Harari proposes to these encroaching nightmares is to hold fast to a set of human virtues, humility chief among them. “There is a huge mismatch between our power and our wisdom,” he says. “If you have the kind of hubris that caused the Crusades and the Inquisitions, and you also have nuclear weapons and you have artificial intelligence and the ability to genetically engineer humans—that is far more scary. Which means that humility is far more important than it ever was.”