Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Yuval Noah Harari, "Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow"

 – Signal 2017. ISBN 978-0-7710-3870-9; 514p.

Read from May 3rd to June 30th 2018

My rating : 

“Today having power means knowing what to ignore.”

The portrait of mankind I was left with after finishing Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humanity was so gloomy that I have to admit I am ready to believe, with some dark, twisted satisfaction, in the prophecy of its extinction made by the same author in his equally disturbing sequel, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow.

As the title suggests, Harari makes some predictions concerning the future of humanity, based on social, psychological, economical and biological facts, all which seem to point to the same direction – the end of mankind as we know it.

Indeed, after eradicating famine (the famine that still exists in the world is not naturally but politically induced) and war (which is no longer an option even in time of peace like in the past), the new item on the human agenda is the pursuit of happiness. That happiness that seems to forever elude us because of some psychological impulse that makes our expectations exceed objective conditions (whenever we achieve something we want something better) and because of our biological imprint (the pleasant sensations in our body that determine our happiness).

This is why the 21st century science, in its ambition to re-engineer Homo sapiens in order to overcome both psychological issues and biochemistry is ready to adopt one of the following three ways to ensure global happiness: biological engineering (enhancing the potential of our bodies, by rewriting the genetic code, rewiring the brain circuit, altering the biochemical balance, growing new limbs), cyborg engineering (merging the organic body with non-organic devices), or the engineering of non organic beings (developing intelligent software). It goes without saying that the upgrading of Sapiens will be a gradual process, not a robots’ revolt; nevertheless we are rushing towards the great unknown inexorably, first because we don’t understand the system that pushes us forward anymore, and second because stopping will cause the collapse of our economy and society.

The book is structured in three parts, describing the past achievements and future doom of Sapiens: how they conquered the world, how they gave it meaning and how they are now losing control of it.

The period of conquering, called by Harari the Anthropocene, covers the last 70 000 years when Sapiens became “the single most important agent of change in the global ecology”. Until then, since the appearance of life 4 billion years ago, no other species changed the ecology by itself, all changes being made by natural forces (climate change, tectonic plate movement, volcanic eruptions, asteroid collisions).

During the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens began to talk about things that existed only in their imagination, organizing their society and creating gods they held festivals for and offered sacrifices to. Agricultural Revolution replaced these animist religions (“a grand Chinese opera with a limitless cast of colorful actors”) with a theist one (“a bleak Ibsen drama with just two main characters: man and god”). The new religion gave authority to man over the other animals, which, according to it, do not have an eternal soul. When God punished the man, he wanted to erase all the other creatures also.

The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild bears ripe for extermination, and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement.

It was the Scientific Revolution (whose greatest discovery was “the discovery of ignorance”) that began to change the vision and attitude towards God, transforming, metaphorically speaking, the Garden of Eden into the garden of Woolsthorpe (the garden where Newton is supposed to have seen the apple falling, and where Newton, instead of being punished for the knowledge acquired, became God himself):

Untold numbers of teachers throughout the world recount the Newton myth to encourage curiosity, implying that if only we gain enough knowledge we can create paradise here on earth.

Thus, the knowledge formula changed in time. In medieval Europe it was K = Scriptures X Logic (the multiplication sign is used because the medieval scholastic believed that if your logic were 0 you couldn’t understand the Scriptures). The Scientific Revolution proposed a new formula (without erasing the other): K = Empirical Data X Mathematics (which led amazing scientific results but left aside value and meaning – the ethical judgments. This is why the two formulas went along – humanity cannot survive without value judgments). It was the new religion, Humanism, that gave the formula of the modern world: K = Experiences X Sensitivity (life is a gradual process from ignorance to enlightenment by means of emotional, intellectual and physical experiences)

…the modern world… has been created by the covenant of science and humanism. Every scientific yang contains within it a humanist yin, and vice versa. The yang provides us with power, while the yin provides us with meaning and ethical judgments.

If modernity, a race where you have to adapt to new structures every day (governments race toward growth and not equilibrium, individuals towards new standards of living) has not collapsed yet, it is because of this new religion, the humanism. It is the humanism that encourages people to search inside themselves both the sense of their lives and of the universe, what J.J. Rousseau summed up in Émile (“the eighteenth century bible of feeling”), whose hero said he had found the life’s rules in himself. This has changed the perception of morality (murder and theft are wrong not because of the commandments, but because they bring unhappiness to somebody), of art (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – actually a mass-produced urinal – is considered an artistic milestone because it debates the very meaning of art in the eye of the beholder) and so on.

On the other hand, science discovered that our actions are governed by our desires (like any other animal’s), not our free will. Desires we cannot choose. Moreover, humans are not individuals, are a sum of ‘dividuals”, from which two are predominant: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The narrating self chooses from two experiences to eliminate the less pleasant and invests our past sufferings with a meaning.

The narrating self goes over our experiences with a sharp pair of scissors and a thick black marker. It censors at least some moments of horror and files in the archive a story with a happy ending.

Therefore, the liberal belief in the valuable individual could be made obsolete in the 21st century following three practical developments: the loss of the human usefulness for the economical and political system; the preference of the system for the collectivity but not for the individual; the decision to upgrade only valuable individuals instead of the entire humanity. In the 18th century there was a first shift from a deo-centered world to a homo-centered world, which reached its peak in the 20th century, when the protection of human rights was considered a key to the economic growth (liberalization of society and economy). The 21st century could witness a second shift, from a homo-centered to a data-centered world. This shift, initiating rather a practical revolution than a philosophic one, could signal that the age of masses is over, and with it the age of mass medicine. As human soldiers and workers give way to algorithms, at least some elite may conclude that there is no point in providing improved or even standard levels of health for masses of useless poor people, and it is far more sensible to focus on upgrading a handful of superhumans beyond the norm.

Until now, it was thought that from the two basic abilities humans have, physical and cognitive, machines were better in former and humans in latter, belief contradicted now by the science with the three principles of algorithms: any organism is an algorithm shaped by the natural selection; the material a calculator is built does not affect algorithmic calculations; so, what is the difference between non-organic algorithms and organic ones, provided the calculations remain valid?

Sapiens is more and more in danger to become a useless class, for computer algorithms will probably take over almost all current jobs and even if other jobs are invented, algorithms might be better at them, too.

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

Until now, human life has been divided in the period of learning and the period of working. In the future humans might have to learn all their lives and not all of them would be able to do so. They would become useless masses with nothing to do but spending their time in virtual-reality worlds – and this will destroy the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life.

In the heyday of the 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.

The brave new world about to appear would be incomplete, of course, without its own religion: two new types of techno-religions are the natural consequence of the research laboratories activity: techno-humanism (that clings to many traditional humanist values) and data religion (humans are now obsolete and must be replaced with new kinds of entities).

Although techno-humanism still believes that the most important thing is the human will, this belief may be rendered obsolete by the new technologies that promise to supersede any desire that make us uncomfortable (ex. why not make Romeo and Juliet love someone else and all that tragedy?). In this case, humans will become only designer products without will and experience.

On the other hand, there is the Dataist perspective, in which the human species is only a single data processing system. Dataism, initially only a scientific theory, is now becoming a religion whose credo is that information must flow freely, for the information sake (which is not the same as freedom of expression given to humans). After all, scientists discovered that even human feelings are more than a source of poetry, they are an algorithm that encapsulates the voices of ancestors that struggled to survive, thus ensuring Sapiens’ existence.

Everything now falls into an algorithm – life, science, knowledge. Many of the new algorithms that govern our existence (like Google search) cannot be understood by the human brain – they are developed by huge teams each understanding only one part of it. Moreover, algorithms improve themselves and learn form their mistakes independently.

The seed algorithm may initially be developed by humans, but as it grows it follows its own path, going where no human has gone before – and where no human can follow.

Our world’s future is shaped under our eyes by three interlinked processes: the promulgation of the scientific dogma that “ organisms are algorithms and life is data processing”; the decoupling of the intelligence from consciousness and the understanding of the human self by “non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms”.

And like Harari, I wish I knew the answer of the three questions these processes raise:

1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2. What's more valuable - intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Facts and quotes to meditate further on:

  • The nemesis of the modern economy is the ecological collapse. But politicians hope that scientists will make an important discovery that will save the planet when the situation becomes critical, or at least will build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the wealthiest to embark on:

“The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.”

  • Religion often turns factual statements (ex. God wrote the bible) into ethical judgments (you ought to believe that god wrote the Bible) and ethical judgments (like “human life is sacred”) often hide factual statements (like “the human soul is eternal”) considered to have been already proven, although science did not prove it.

  • Darwin’s theory is frightening because it deprived the human being of its soul:

“Natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts.”

  • In the 17th century, René Descartes maintained that only humans can feel emotions and other animals are only automata.
  • The Turing Test, invented in 1950 by the British Alan Turing proves that it doesn’t matter who you really are, but who the others think you are.
  • The long communist domination in Romania could be explained by the control of the loyal communist apparatchiks, the interdiction to create rival organizations, and the support of other communist parties. It crumbled when these conditions were no longer held. The Salvation Front hijacked this revolution.

“The masses who risked their necks in Timisoara and Bucharest settled for scraps because they did not know how to cooperate and how to create an efficient organization to look after their own interests.”

  •  There are three levels of reality: objective, subjective and intersubjective:

“Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans.”

  •  In 1940, after the invasion of France, the Jews tried to cross the border to Spain and Portugal but needed visas. Although the Portuguese government forbade the issue of visas without approval from Foreign Ministry, Aristides de Souse Mendes, the Bordeaux consul, ignored the order (damaging 35 years of diplomatic carrier) and issued thousands of visas before collapsing from exhaustion. He was dismissed, but his visas were respected by French, Spanish and Portuguese (long live the power of bureaucracy) and 30 000 people were saved.

“Souse Mendes, armed with little more than a rubber stamp, was responsible for the largest rescue operation by a single individual during the holocaust.”

  •  In 1884, several European powers laid claim over African territories, dividing Africa without knowing about local religion, history and geography. Most today conflicts result from these arbitrary borders.

“When the written fantasies of European bureaucracies encountered the African reality, reality was forced to surrender.”

  • We sign this modernity deal the day we are born: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” because we know there is no cosmic plan for us, no script for our lives.

“If modernity has a motto it is ‘shit happens’.”

  • Murder is the result of processes in the brain that may be deterministic or random, but not free.

“To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, a hollow term empty of any discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.”

  • It was the biologists who turned the computer revolution into a biological cataclysm, when they decided organisms are algorithms, thus erasing the wall between organic and inorganic.

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