Published March 8, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Cognitive Revolution to Homo Deus
Yuval Harari’s View of History
Inspired by Jared Diamond’s 1997 best seller Guns, Germs, and Steel, 35-year-old Israeli history professor Yuval Noah Hararipublished his first book, Sapiens, a brief history of Humankind (2011 in Hebrew, English edition 2014). He, like Diamond, takes a long view of human history – starting his story with the event which occurred about 70,000 years ago. He dubs it the “cognitive revolution.” It resulted in the replacement of Homo Neanderthalis by the species Homo Sapiens. Harari maintains Sapiens possessed the unique ability to use imagination, to depict abstract ideas, and to create a narrative (not the same as signaling, common to many animal species). Notwithstanding recent dating of some cave “art” (mostly orderly lines and hash marks) as coming from Neanderthals, only Sapiens could sit around a fire and relate stories to family or hunter-gatherer band, says Harari.
The ability to create a narrative, in turn, facilitated cooperation in much larger groups, ultimately leading to settlements, villages, and agriculture. Villages grew into tribes, then kingdoms, then empires. Gods were invented to give order to the world, priests were created to enforce the rules made by those gods.
In his second book, Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari focuses more on what we have come to know as “civilization.” He recounts mankind’s journey from God-and-Nation centrism to the triumph in the late 20th century of “liberal humanism” (or simply, “liberalism”) nearly everywhere. Humanism itself was a creation of the old order, as God was taken as the facilitator of human empowerment. It was really technology, in Harari’s view, that enabled this development. The modern age, the age of science, has now replaced the God of the old order with the notion of progress. In the 21st century, Harari claims, not only God, but nation-states, and even capitalism, will gradually succumb to a world controlled by algorithms – smarter than any humans, yet created by them. Including bioengineering (CRISPR), Harari thinks these technological advances will, by century’s end, mean the beginning of the end of Homo Sapiens, much as the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago spelled doom to Neanderthals. Meanwhile, though, we’ve had a good run. He calls our replacement “homo deus,” man with godlike powers.
Harari is a vegan, he cares as much about animal consciousness as human — and believes that industrial animal farming is essentially a holocaust. His realization that there is no accepted scientific definition of “consciousness” is what led him to the animal rights position. He believes that animals cannot be dismissed as less-than-conscious beings, leading directly to his doubts about the durability of humanism. If you accept the principle that God and religion were invented by man, and religious authority always has been interpreted by humans to advance their own agenda, it is not difficult to understand his position.
Enter the algorithm. Harari posits that there are organic and inorganic algorithms. Biological entities are organic algorithms, machines are inorganic. But, they are all algorithmic — they follow mathematical and physical laws. The universe, in the scientific world view, is composed of algorithms.
What about morality? Ethical principles can survive in a world controlled by algorithms, says Harari. But, we do not yet know how to design an algorithm that would allow a driverless car to swerve to avoid hitting pedestrians, even though it would kill its occupant. Is its occupant the “owner?” That may be the critical question. Does ownership of the algorithm convey property rights which supersede the right-to-life and happiness of any conscious beings using the algorithm? We’re stuck with the humanist dilemma.
Right to happiness, of course, is nothing that Sapiens has been especially vigilant at protecting – even in the modern age. Harari claims that there is no evidence that modern humans are any “happier” than primitive hunter-gatherers. They may live longer, they certainly have more stuff, but are they happier? Like consciousness, happiness is without scientific definition. As to the triumph of liberal humanism, it hascreated a more peaceful world. Fewer humans die violent deaths than in times past. And, Harari claims there is much evidence to support that modern man is less oppressed than in earlier ages, due largely to humanism. But, for all we know, pre-agricultural societies may still have the edge in “happiness.”
Looking to the future, Harari foresees the creation of a “useless class” who are not only unemployed, but unemployable. He expects this group to be very large by mid-century. The culprit is mostly artificial intelligence, which will become so advanced as to reverse the history of technological change. Whereas in the past, technology always created more new opportunities for employment than jobs lost, the story of the 21stcentury may be different. Unlike the loom, the steam engine, or even the computer, AI will ultimately render the entire human race redundant. First to go will be human labor as an economic engine. Already, our growing inequality speaks to the declining value of human labor in the formation of capital. This economic truth is what has led to the downfall of socialist humanism, as opposed to liberal humanism. Workers, even collectively, can’t compete with other means of creating capital – economists call what happens on Wall Street “rent-seeking” – not production in the classic Marxian sense.
Only religious and political enforcement of “individual liberty” (the foundation of liberalism) continues to work in the interests of human beings. What happens when we lose our sense of “self” to the all-powerful algorithm? Individuals become completely predictable. They may continue to be customers, but their consumer behavior, and voting patterns, will be precisely manipulated by the algorithm. No more mysterious “self,” no more “soul.” The species then dies. It will be replaced by a partially organic, partially inorganic, algorithm, which can be sentient, or not, depending on the needs of evolutionary design and the environment.
“Techno-humanism” may be the path forward. If we sapiens can successfully harness the new technology so it remains the servant, rather than master, of our species. A strong ethical imperative may still undergird it. But, more likely, and more ominous, claims Harari, is a new religion he calls “Dataism.” This will replace humanism with belief in the data stream, a supra-conscious entity of which we are all part — cogs in the eternal flow, as it were. His final question: where are ethics and morality in such a religion?