Sunday, July 9, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. By Yuval Harari

Displaying IMG_20170710_054017.jpgI enjoyed Yuval Harari's first book, Sapiens (reviewed here), so much that I had to get hold of his second book Homo Deus as quickly as I could.  I finished reading it recently on my plane ride back to Toronto from Tel-Aviv.

Harari's first book, Sapiens, is subtitled "A Brief History of Humankind." It is a broad strokes, wide-sweeping tour de force, which covers thousands of years in a relatively short work.  Homo Deus is quite different.  Subtitled "A Brief History of Tomorrow," this is much more of an essay or even a polemic than a history book.  But it is filled with big, challenging ideas and concepts and provides enough discussion material for a seemingly unlimited amount of time.

Of course, as Harari might point out, we may not have that time.  Things are moving at a lightning pace.  Artificial Intelligence is developing at incredible speed.  Humankind is on the precipice of enormous and dramatic change.  Harari tries to sketch out some of these directions and changes and considers their implications.

The book is not really prescriptive.  It is far more descriptive.  While Harari speculates about future direction in belief, scientific development, genetics, artificial intelligence and other areas, Harari does not propose a belief system or moral framework for these changes.  Far from it.  This book is more concerned with trying to sketch out the what, how and why than to deal with questions of "whether."

Much of the first half of the book is somewhat historical.  It traces different aspects of human history to lay the foundations for the discussions of future trends.  Some of these discussions are covered in the first book.

One area of overlap is religion.  Harari's discussion of religion is fascinating.  He is quite adamant that there is little or no historical basis to most of the world's main religions and is very dismissive of any type of literal or truth-based approach to religious belief.  For Harari, since the world's large religions were developed and gained prominence so many years ago, they are necessarily ill-equipped to deal with the scientific challenges of an entirely different world.  What could agricultural based religions possibly have to say about modern genome discoveries?  or space exploration? Or artificial intelligence?  In some cases, if age old religious dogma is based on demonstrably false conceptions (for example, the case of gender equality or the religious belief in gender inequality), then these religious ideas are clearly outmoded and obsolete.

Yet Harari also acknowledges that the power of myth and religion has served a tremendous function. It is the shared belief in religious concepts that, historically, facilitated mass cooperation and even led, ironically enough, to scientific development.  Call this cognitive dissonance, says Harari, but religions have served an important purpose, even if the underlying basis for most of the beliefs is demonstrably false.

Harari argues that true religious belief died a few hundred years ago, and gave way to versions of Humanism. He describes different versions of Humanism and concludes that Humanism, like Deism, is destined to run its course.  Humans have no "soul" or purpose and are really a collection of algorithms, he argues.  In fact, he provides a detailed argument as to why humans may not even really have free will.  Their decisions are based on genetics, randomness or particular stimuli.  I'm not going to elaborate on these arguments further at this point - you will have to read the book if you are interested in these discussions.

The most interesting part of the book is the final third in which Harari discusses alternate new belief systems and ideas around which sapiens are likely to coalesce in the future if they are not already doing so.  Chief among these concepts is "dataism" - the recognition of the importance of data accumulation, analysis and application.

I could not possibly attempt to summarize the book and its various concepts in such a short review. But I wanted to set out just a few of the types of ideas that are raised to provide a flavour of the discussion.  Hopefully the reader will have sense of the types of topics that are covered from my discussion above.

By way of another example, one section discusses the future of various professions as one looks ahead 20 or 30 years from now - or more.  Harari suggests that a significant majority of the professions that people practice today and the jobs that people have will be obsolete.  Computers and artificial intelligence will do many of today's jobs more efficiently, accurately and economically.  Harari also examines topics like AI creation of art and music; the ever increasing use and significance of DNA research; the worldwide drive towards self-driven vehicles; and many other issues.

By the conclusion of the book, the predictions are somewhat grim.  For example, "humans will lose their economic and military usefulness."  But Harari has not put forward his predictions and analysis without careful thought and analysis of current scientific discoveries and trends.  He draws from a variety of disciplines but comes, fundamentally, from a scientific perspective.  This means that he is prepared to point out areas in which we are not able to draw conclusions at the present time.

Like with the first book, that is what makes Harari's books so readable and engaging.  He approaches most questions with a degree of scientific humility.  We may not know the answers to certain things - but we know, almost certainly, which things are wrong, even demonstrably wrong.  We also have theories about what might be right and some of them are very compelling.  Others are less developed.  But the idea is to raise the topics, provide information and context about where we are and then use that to suggest where we are heading.

There are certainly many ideas here that would face quite a bit of resistance.  I can't say that I agreed with everything in the book.  But that is really what makes the book so interesting.  The arguments are well constructed and they develop controversial but stimulating discussion points.  Anyone who reads this book honestly will certainly have a great deal to think about.  Some of the arguments are not easily refutable and some may be unsolvable.  Some are issues about which different people may never agree.  But all of that, for Harari, is almost certainly the measure of  his success.

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