Homo Deus – humanity diminished
Yuval Harari’s ‘brief history of tomorrow’ draws deep on the anti-humanist prejudices of today.
Yuval Harari, an Israeli professor of history, shot to global prominence and became an academic superstar when, in 2014, he published Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He has followed this with a sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which has won him even more critical acclaim. Both these works are linked by the same concern: namely, that we are in danger of becoming slaves to the technologies that allowed us to shape and surpass nature in the first place.
Homo Deus postulates that mankind will engineer a coming epochal event to rival the agricultural and scientific revolutions. That is, our mastery over biotechnology and information technology will give mankind godlike powers unsurpassed in history. But this coming empowerment carries the seeds of our destruction. Why? Because what Harari calls ‘dataism’, the new techno-religion underpinning our prospective new powers, represents a networked, artificial intelligence with far greater capacity for reason than human intelligence. It could therefore end up destroying humanity’s status as the planet’s preeminent lifeform.
The threat, he contends, is that those unable to master the powers of these technologies will face extinction while those who are able to will gain godlike power over creation and destruction. The super rich, particularly the technobarons of Silicon Valley, the new masters of the dataverse, will regard those of us without the wealth to upgrade our brains and bodies (the aim of 21st-century medicine, according to Harari) as an ‘inferior caste’, one whose labour will be redundant having been supplanted by a new breed of thinking, super-efficient machine. ‘Humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow’, warns Harari. And modernity will cease to be a humanist project, with ‘humans agree[ing] to give up meaning in exchange for power’. Welcome to the world of Homo Deus where the majority of us will not be welcome at all.
Homo Deus is a sweeping, apocalyptic history of the human race, which reads more like a TED-talk on acid than a serious historical or scientific investigation. Like so many dystopian tracts, Homo Deus reflects our misanthropic present, where human achievement and ambition are regarded as the sources of catastrophic change. Hence Harari projects a future that is a failure of the present, an imagined world in which mankind has changed (or failed to change), without Harari finding it necessary to explain why this change would have come about.
Why is Harari so convinced that the superhuman race of the future would purposely make sapiens obsolete? Because Harari is an evangelical vegan. He is therefore certain that humanity’s successor will treat humans as humans have treated animals – with, as he sees it, inhumanity. He asks: ‘Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?’ He goes on to ask: ‘Does might make right? Is human life more precious than porcine life simply because the human collective is more powerful than the pig collective?’
Before examining Harari’s assertions about an artificial intelligence having independent needs and desires, it is important to unpick Harari’s misanthropy because it reveals the deep anti-humanist impulse underpinning Homo Deus.
Let’s start with Harari’s claims about pigs. Human life, I would argue, is more precious than porcine life. But not because human society is more powerful, or because might makes right. It’s more valuable because human beings are not animals. Human consciousness, our ability to think abstractly, to imagine our ends in advance of acting upon nature, marks us out from the animal kingdom.
This, of course, does not warrant or justify cruelty towards, or abuse of, animals. To suggest that industrialised livestock farming is caused by human nature, or that it represents exploitation, is to confuse appearance and essence. Animals are farmed, slaughtered and marketed as they are, not because of mankind’s inherent inhumanity towards animals, but because, like everything else in a market economy, they are commodities to be exchanged in pursuit of profit. What looks like inhuman behaviour is actually the result of a society that is based upon commodity production, which dictates and shapes rational behaviour. Concentrating on humans’ treatment of animals skirts over a rather more important inhumanity: namely, the fact that in capitalist society human beings are regarded and treated as commodities. The human ability to labour, which can be bought and sold in the market like every other commodity, is the basis of exploitation because, unlike animals, humans can produce more value than they receive in the form of wages or salaries. Harari’s concern about the super rich being in a position to exploit the rest of us is not a problem for the imagined future – it is actually how society works now.
Harari doesn’t seem to have any problem with this aspect of reality. He simply transforms the present into the determinate past of something yet to come, where a future market-based society will be ruled by an artificial intelligence that threatens the future of mankind itself. Homo Deus is projecting the idea that there is no alternative to the market into the future.
However, the real problem with Homo Deus is not the imagined future or its assertion that mankind will acquire ‘godlike powers’. Rather, the real problem is that Harari’s elevation of the technologies created by man into a dominant force transforms mankind into the object, not the subject, of history. It is a future where algorithms, designed and created by human beings, have acquired autonomy and developed their own distinct wants and needs. This vision has implications for present-day society, curtailing human ambition, reining mankind in, and further institutionalising a culture of limits. This denigration of human agency is the crux of Homo Deus.
Homo minuantur and algorithmic determinism
Harari’s discussion of technology and the algorithmic future recycles many existing studies without exploring them in any real detail. By ascribing intelligence to computational processing – artificial intelligence – Harari rehearses the common assumption that artificial intelligence has already gone beyond human capabilities. Yet he provides no evidence to show that computers display any intentional behaviour. This is hardly surprising given even the most advanced computers are as motiveless as a pocket calculator. The jeopardy- and chess-playing champs such as IBM’s super computers Watson and Deep Blue work the same as microwaves. As the great physicist Richard Feynman pointed out years ago, a computer is ‘a glorified, high-class, very fast but stupid filing system’, managed by an infinitely stupid file clerk (the central processing unit), who blindly follows instructions (the software programme). These strictly symbol-processing machines can never be symbol-understanding machines.
But the reason why Harari talks up the future autonomy of artificial intelligence, complete with its own wants and needs, is because of how he understands human consciousness and rationality. Like too many commentators, he is overly influenced by the growing popularity of what Raymond Tallis usefully called ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’. These related conditions centre on the neuroscientific assertion that all sensations and emotions we experience are actually biochemical data-processing algorithms that have evolved over time.
Two things spring from this assumption: first, we apparently have this computer-like data-processing function in common with all living and sentient beings; and, second (and most importantly for Harari), most of this sensory and emotional data processing, including our ability to initiate actions, is done unconsciously. This allows Harari to conclude that ‘perhaps behind all the sensations and emotions we ascribe to animals – hunger, fear, love and loyalty – lurk only unconscious algorithms rather than subjective experiences’.
This is a remarkably reductionist argument that not only abuses science; it also reduces humanity to little more than unthinking matter, utterly subject to the same laws of evolution, indeed of physics, as every other material object, organic or otherwise. We are therefore thoroughly determined by our ancestry. ‘When you listen to your feelings’, says Harari, ‘you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years’. Mankind, it seems, is processing data in the same way our stone-age ancestors did all those years ago.
How is it possible to explain historical change, technological invention and innovation with this analysis? If the human mind is no more than an evolved physical organ, which responds in the most part unconsciously, then its cause, like the rest of nature, is natural selection. Forget about agency, human imagination, and our ability to shape the world around us which, in turn, has shaped us. Instead, we are reduced and downgraded to predetermined data-processing entities mobilised by nothing more than our brains, which, in turn, are nothing more than physical instruments promoting organic survival.
This is not just homo minuantur, an attack on human agency; it is homo obliterate, the obliteration of agency altogether. In Harari’s dystopian scenario, our mind is not the source of our actions. It’s our brain, and the causal network of which it is part, that really calls the shots. Thinking we are rational, that we exercise free will, that we have moral autonomy and are free to determine history can be dismissed by Harari as a naive, arrogant illusion.
But explaining consciousness in terms of physics is extremely problematic. A complete account of the world in physical terms is a world without appearance and hence a world without consciousness. If the appearance of things was the same as their essence, there would be no need for science, observed Karl Marx 150 years ago. And if everything can be reduced to physical laws, there is no room for spontaneity, invention, discovery and meaning. More importantly, what makes us human is no longer important or critical. The individual is becoming a tiny chip inside a giant system that nobody really understands. Harari argues that the invisible hand of the market is being displaced by the invisible hand of the data flow. ‘Yes, God is a product of the human imagination’, he writes, ‘but human imagination in turn is the product of biochemical algorithms’.
If the human imagination is the product of biochemical algorithms, then change, individual and social, can only be explained in terms of external stimuli. But our experience says differently. This touches on a logical inconsistency at the heart of Homo Deus. How can mankind, if it is being driven by biochemical algorithms, exert any control over the processes it has unleashed and which will lead, according to Harari, to its downfall? Harari constantly points out that he is not saying his dystopian future is a prediction. But the agency – the all-too-human agency – to which he appeals in an effort to avoid the dystopian future is denied by his analysis.
Harari’s techno-religion, dataism, is little more than the new form taken by today’s culture of limits and low expectations. He reflects and, in turn, reinforces the current cultural mood, which eschews progress and is dominated by a fear of change, a sense of limits, a feeling of fragility. The world is turned on its head. Mankind is presented as a non-determining object that, thanks to its arrogant tinkering, has unleashed forces that, if allowed to develop, will destroy it.
Unsurprisingly, given his dismissal of human consciousness, Harari is even prepared to forego democracy. ‘What’s the use of having democratic elections when the algorithms know how each person is going to vote, and when they also know the exact neurological reasons why one person votes Democrat and another Republican?’
But the best riposte to Homo Deus and the authoritarian impulse of algorithmic determinism is something like the vote for Brexit. There we saw a majority of British people counter the chemical signals they had inherited, go against the accepted wisdom and do the unexpected. Where was the biochemical algorithmic determinism there?
Humanism is not dead. Nor is the future a foregone conclusion. Mankind shapes and will continue to shape history. Homo liberari.
Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, is published by Harvill Secker. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).