In a ro­bot show­down, hu­man­ity may hap­pily sur­ren­der

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - TECH­NOL­OGY RE­VIEW BY MATTHEW HUTSON Matthew Hutson is a sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy writer and the au­thor of “The 7 Laws of Mag­i­cal Think­ing.”

Many peo­ple fear that the path of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will even­tu­ally lead to a stand­off be­tween hu­mans and ma­chines, with hu­mans as the un­der­dogs. Con­fronta­tion looms in the fore­casts of fu­tur­ists and in the nar­ra­tives of sci­ence fic­tion movies such as “The Ma­trix,” “The Ter­mi­na­tor” and “West­world.” But there’s an­other way our demise could go down. We could be­gin won­der­ing what makes peo­ple so spe­cial, any­way, and will­ingly give up the ti­tle of supreme species — or even the preser­va­tion of hu­man­ity al­to­gether. This is the path ex­plored by his­to­rian Yu­val Noah Harari in his new book, “Homo Deus.” There’s no need for a Ter­mi­na­tor to come after us when, in­stead of fight­ing the net­work in the sky, we as­sim­i­late into it.

At stake is the re­li­gion of hu­man­ism. Whereas the­ists wor­ship gods, hu­man­ists wor­ship hu­mans. Harari, whose pre­vi­ous book, “Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind,” fore­shad­ows this one, de­fines re­li­gion as any sys­tem of thought that sees cer­tain val­ues as hav­ing le­git­i­macy in­de­pen­dent of peo­ple. “Thou shalt not kill” de­rives its force from God, not from the mor­tal Moses. Sim­i­larly, hu­man­ists be­lieve in “hu­man rights” as things earned au­to­mat­i­cally from the uni­verse, what­ever any­one else says. The right not to be tor­tured or en­slaved ex­ists out­side hu­man con­ven­tion. (Philoso­phers call this bit of mag­i­cal think­ing moral re­al­ism.)

We may take for granted the right not to be tor­tured or en­slaved — or var­i­ous other hu­man­ist doc­trines, such as the idea that we’re all in­her­ently valu­able in­di­vid­u­als with the free will to ex­press our au­then­tic selves — but we have not al­ways done so. Peo­ple were seen as prop­erty even well after that bit about “life, lib­erty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness” was inked to parch­ment. As Harari ar­gues, we’ve lived with al­ter­na­tives to hu­man­ism, and we can again. And iron­i­cally, he writes, “the rise of hu­man­ism also con­tains the seeds of its down­fall.”

That’s kind of a fudge, one of a few in the book. It’s not the hu­man­ist rev­o­lu­tion per se that planted those poi­son seeds. It’s more the (some­what sym­bi­otic) sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion. You don’t need univer­sal rights to study elec­tric­ity and in­vent com­put­ers. Or to ap­ply our in­ven­tions to­ward the ever­green pur­suits of health, hap­pi­ness and con­trol over na­ture (or as Harari calls them, “im­mor­tal­ity, bliss and di­vin­ity”). Nev­er­the­less, sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal progress might even­tu­ally un­der­mine the hu­man­ist ethos.

On the sci­en­tific front, re­search is push­ing back on the idea of free will (as philoso­phers have for ages). The more we can ex­plain hu­man be­hav­ior with neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy, the less room there is for some mag­i­cal hu­man soul.

Mean­while, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is ren­der­ing us use­less, tak­ing the jobs of taxi driv­ers, fac­tory work­ers, stock traders, lawyers, teach­ers, doc­tors and “Jeop­ardy!” con­tes­tants. And, Harari ar­gues, lib­eral hu­man­ism rose on the back of hu­man use­ful­ness. It ad­vanced not on moral grounds but on eco­nomic and mil­i­tary grounds. Coun­tries such as France of­fered dig­nity to all in ex­change for ser­vice to the na­tion. “Is it a co­in­ci­dence,” Harari asks, “that univer­sal rights were pro­claimed at the pre­cise his­tor­i­cal junc­ture when univer­sal con­scrip­tion was de­creed?” But with ro­bots mak­ing and killing things bet­ter than we can, who needs peo­ple? In­tel­li­gence will mat­ter more than con­scious­ness. “What’s so sa­cred about use­less bums who pass their days de­vour­ing ar­ti­fi­cial ex­pe­ri­ences” in vir­tual re­al­ity?

Even if the hu­man species does con­tinue to serve the sys­tem mean­ing­fully, we might not mat­ter as in­di­vid­u­als. Harari sug­gests that al­go­rithms might get to know us bet­ter than we know our­selves. As they col­lect data on our Web searches, ex­er­cise rou­tines and much more, they’ll be able to tell us whom we should date and how we should vote. We may hap­pily take their ad­vice, lit­er­ally ced­ing democ­racy to data­bases. Once our au­then­tic, enig­matic, in­di­vis­i­ble selves are ex­posed as mere pre­dictable com­pu­ta­tions — not just by philoso­phers and sci­en­tists but by our ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion with the world — the fic­tion of free will might fi­nally un­ravel. (Per­son­ally, I’m not sure our brains will al­low this.) We’ll en­list as mere spe­cial­ized pro­ces­sors in the global cy­bor­ganic net­work.

Harari presents three pos­si­ble fu­tures. In one, hu­mans are ex­pend­able. In a sec­ond, the elite up­grade them­selves, be­com­ing es­sen­tially an­other species that sees ev­ery­one else as ex­pend­able. In a third, we join the hive mind, wor­ship­ing data over in­di­vid­u­als (or God). “Con­nect­ing to the sys­tem be­comes the source of all mean­ing,” he writes. In any case, he says con­vinc­ingly, “the most in­ter­est­ing place in the world from a re­li­gious per­spec­tive is not the Is­lamic State or the Bible Belt, but Sil­i­con Val­ley.”

I en­joyed read­ing about th­ese top­ics not from an­other fu­tur­ist but from a his­to­rian, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing our cur­rent ways of think­ing amid hu­man­ity’s long march — es­pe­cially a his­to­rian with Harari’s abil­ity to cap­sulize big ideas mem­o­rably and min­gle them with a light, dry hu­mor.

In “Homo Deus,” Harari of­fers not just his­tory lessons but a meta-his­tory les­son. In school, his­tory was my least fa­vorite sub­ject. I pre­ferred sci­ence, which of­fered ab­stract laws use­ful for pre­dict­ing new out­comes. His­tory seemed a melange of hap­pen­stance and con­tin­gency retroac­tively cob­bled into sto­ries. If his­tory’s arcs were more New­to­nian, we’d be bet­ter at pre­dict­ing elec­tions.

Harari points to an op­pos­ing goal of his field. He writes that “study­ing his­tory aims to loosen the grip of the past,” show­ing that “our present sit­u­a­tion is nei­ther nat­u­ral nor eter­nal.” In other words, it em­pha­sizes hap­pen­stance. That’s a use­ful tac­tic for the op­pressed fight­ing the sta­tus quo. It’s also a use­ful ex­er­cise for those who see the tech­no­log­i­cal sin­gu­lar­ity as a given. We have op­tions.

It’s pos­si­ble we’ll choose to avoid our loss of val­ues. On the other hand, it’s pos­si­ble we’ll choose to ac­cel­er­ate it. Harari, a ve­gan who dis­putes hu­man­ity’s re­served seat atop the great chain of be­ing, briefly pon­ders this op­tion: “Maybe the col­lapse of hu­man­ism will also be ben­e­fi­cial.” In­deed, don’t we owe a chance to an­i­mals and an­droids, too?


As tech­nol­ogy ad­vances, his­to­rian Yu­val Noah Harari writes, hu­man­ism — a be­lief in the pri­macy of peo­ple — is at stake. He en­vi­sions a fu­ture when “con­nect­ing to the sys­tem be­comes the source of all mean­ing.”

HOMO DEUS A Brief His­tory of To­mor­row By Yu­val Noah Harari Harper. 449 pp. $35

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