Thursday, March 23, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow

This is what humanity will aim to accomplish in the not too distant future: immortality, bliss and divinity. The claim was so bold I had to read the book and discover if author Yuval Noah Harari could support it. In his last book Homo Sapiens (a book I reviewed earlier) Harari achieved international bestseller status. That book covered the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the rise of the near god-like technological prowess of human beings. In this latest study, Homo Deus, which the author admits is more an exercise in that most precarious of all academic endeavours predicting the future, Harari looks at global and technological trends and surmises what they suggest about the direction our world is heading in.

The book is full of really interesting ideas (much like the previous Homo Sapiens book). I’ll take a moment to list some that I liked. He plots the advent of our species as supreme over all other sentient life on earth. We are thoroughly now the bosses of this corner of the universe. No controversy there. Harari goes on to make bolder claims about humanism as the great creed of the world; an argument I find convincing with some qualifications. Harari makes interesting use of the idea of algorithms. I have read and reread what he has to say on this topic and it is still not clear to me. My confusion stems from an ambiguity in his argument. Is he making a claim that all things in the universe (from rocks to humans) operate like algorithms or is he making the much stronger claim that the universe is a series of algorithms (what I would call an ontological or metaphysical claim)? What about consciousness? This is something that, notoriously, does not fit well into the algorithm analogy. Once again, Harari makes some audacious assertions. Biology is an elaborate algorithm and consciousness may just be really complicated biology. When we develop super computers perhaps we can reduce history to biology and so history will be an algorithm also (114—151). If after reading these lines you have images of Neo navigating the Matrix (red pill or blue pill?) then you’re not alone. This, to my mind, is the most startling claim of the book: if everything is algorithms, and we as algorithms ourselves come to know this, then we can remake the universe to suit our desires. Wow.

Science had knocked humans off the pedestal of specialness after having first knocked God off of His—much bigger—pedestal. They (the scientists) had told us our planet was just one of billions in an unimportant part of a galaxy that is itself just one of billions of galaxies. Well, that was then. Harari is suggesting humans are about to make a colossal return to specialness status as Homo Deus. Sounds great but there may be a very dark side to this new status—power and corruption and nihilism.

Predictions. These are just predictions. The paradox of knowledge may alter these predictions. What is the paradox of knowledge? It is this: knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless; knowledge that changes behaviour quickly becomes irrelevant (57).  The more we know about the course history is taking (the more data we accumulate) the faster we alter the situation, thus rendering our information and data collection quaint. Karl Marx wrote about an impending revolution in the world order, the great class struggle as he called it—but it never came to pass. Why? Because capitalists also read books. Governments around the world read Das Kapital and his other writings and came up with (socialist) fixes to many capitalist problems and voila, no revolution! The paradox of knowledge.

I like books in the Homo Deus vein. They give me this weird, almost guilty pleasure of seeing the future and knowing something others don’t about where the world is heading. But the prediction game is fraught with difficulties. Most future forecasts never come to pass. Predicting is hard because life has a funny way of grooving along to its own non-algorithm-rhythm. Some of what Harari says may come to pass, technology is sure to impact our lives in ways we can barely conceive. But I think he has the human bit wrong. We are more than biological beings; if pressed (as I’m sure Harari would insist on pressing) to explain the “more” I could offer nothing that would count as scientific—yet we are more. We (every single one of us) is a unique combination of utter contradictions. Predicting what we will do next, even with all the computing power in the universe, is hard (is it impossible?).  Homo Deus is very much worth the read if you enjoy thinking about these ideas.

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