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The mul­ti­mil­lion-sell­ing bi­og­ra­pher of hu­man­ity has con­cerns about our new ro­bot over­lords.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

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.”

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