Yuval Noah Harari rose to fame with his debut book Sapiens, his bold reinterpretation of human history. He returned last year with his views on mankind’s future, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
I took the publication of the Korean translation as an opportunity to email with him again. We covered his book, of course, but also a wide range of everyday subjects including his writing process, what he has been reading, and meditation. — Jeon Byung-geun
Sapiens and Homo Deus
I think the books have been so successful because they deal with the most important questions facing humankind today, and they do so in an accessible and engaging way that everybody can easily understand. Technology is now upgrading humans into gods. I mean this literally. We are acquiring abilities that traditionally were thought to be divine abilities. In particular, the ability to engineer and create life. Just as in the Bible God created animals and plants and humans according to his wishes, so in the twenty-first century we will probably learn how to design and manufacture animals and plants and even humans according to our wishes. We will use genetic engineering in order to create new kinds of organic beings; we will use direct brain-computer interfaces in order to create cyborgs (beings that combine organic parts with inorganic parts); and we may even succeed in creating completely inorganic beings. The main products of the twenty-first-century economy will not be textiles, vehicles and weapons, but rather bodies, brains and minds.
In order to know what to do with such immense powers, we need to understand both our history and the options we face in the twenty-first century. And this is what my two books try to do. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind summarizes the history of humans from the Stone Age until today. It explains how we turned ourselves from insignificant apes into the rulers of planet earth, and tries to answer key questions such as why men have dominated women in most human societies, how capitalism spread all over the world, and whether people today are happier than in the Stone Age.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow speculates about what might happen to humans in the twenty-first century. It focuses on the interaction between technology, politics, society and religion. What will happen to politics when Big Data algorithms know our desires and opinions better than we know them ourselves? What will happen to the job market when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and artificial intelligence replaces taxi drivers, doctors, teachers and policemen? What will we do with billions of economically useless people? How will religions such as Christianity and Islam handle genetic engineering and the potential of creating superhumans and overcoming old age and death? Will Silicon Valley end up producing new religions, rather than just novel gadgets?
I address my books not to university professors, but to any inquisitive reader who wants to understand the world in which we live. I often imagine my ideal reader as an intelligent teenager, and whenever I write about some complicated subject such as capitalist economics or brain science I ask myself: “Would a 17-year-old understand this?”. If I cannot explain capitalism to a 17-year-old—then I probably don’t understand the subject well enough.
I trained myself by teaching undergraduate students. If I explain something like “capitalism” and they don’t understand it—it means that I need to think harder. If I say something about “climate change” and they are bored by it—I should show them how it is related to their life. If I say something about “gender relations” and they are very interested—better expand on that particular subject.
Yes, certainly. I am obviously very pleased with my success—it is good to know that after working so hard on researching and writing these books, they actually reach people and help them understand the world better. However, there is also a down side. I have far less time than before, and far more commitments. I travel all over the world, give interviews almost every day, and I also have to disappoint many more people than before. Ten years ago nobody knew who I was, and nobody expected anything from me. Now I receive countless requests for interviews, talks and projects, and I have to say “no” to 95% of them.
Yes, I am very worried about the impact algorithms might have on our lives. By bringing together enough data and enough computing power, corporations and governments could soon create algorithms that know me better than I know myself, and then authority will shift away from me to the algorithm. The algorithm could understand my desires, predict my decisions, and make better choices on my behalf.
For example, let’s say you need to decide what to study at university. This is a very important and very difficult decision. You are under pressure from your parents, your friends, and your teachers, who have different interests and opinions. You also have desires of yourself. What makes it particularly difficult to make a wise decision, is that you do not really know what it takes to succeed in different professions, and you don’t necessarily know yourself very well. What does it take to succeed as a lawyer? How do I deal with failure, and how do I act under great pressure? Many students start law-school because they have a very mistaken view of what being a lawyer actually involves, or because they have a very mistaken view of their own abilities. Other students decide to fulfill their childhood dream and study professional dancing, even though they don’t have the necessary talent and discipline for that. Very often we make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of our life. But in 20 years, we could just rely on Google or Tencent to make these decisions for us.
Google and Tencent will follow us around 24 hours a day, and they will not only read all our emails and monitor everything we buy—they will also track what is happening inside our bodies and brains using biometric sensors. Google or Tencent will know what happened to our blood pressure every time we were in a tense situation, and what areas of our brain lit up when we failed in some task. And whereas we forget almost everything that happens to us, and therefore form very imprecise impressions about ourselves—Google and Tencent will never forget anything, and will be able to know who we really are with frightening precision. They could tell you that you would be wasting your time in law school or in ballet school—but that you might make a fine psychologist or school-teacher. The same logic might eventually enable Google and Tencent to decide for you even whom to marry, or whom to vote for on elections.
Such algorithms have great potential, but also great danger. As algorithms come to know us so well, dictatorial governments could gain absolute control over their citizens, even more than in Nazi Germany, and resistance to such dictatorships might be utterly impossible. Even in democratic countries, people might become the victims of new kinds of oppression and discrimination. Already today more and more banks, corporations and institutions are using algorithms to analyze data and make decisions about us. When you apply to your bank for a loan, it is likely that your application is processed by an algorithm rather than by a human. The algorithm analyzes lots of data about you, and statistics about millions of other people, and decides whether you are reliable enough to give you a loan. Often, the algorithm does a better job than a human banker. But the problem is, that if the algorithm discriminates against some people unjustly, it is difficult to know that. If the bank refuses to give you a loan, and you ask “Why not?”, the bank replies “The algorithm said no”. You ask “Why did the algorithm say no?” and the bank replies: “We don’t know. No human understands this algorithm, because it is based on advanced machine learning. But we trust our algorithm, so we won’t give you a loan.”
In the past, people discriminated against entire groups such as women, gays, and blacks. So the women, or gays, or blacks, could organize and protest against their collective discrimination. But now the algorithm might discriminate against you, and you have no idea why. Maybe the algorithm found something in your DNA or your personal history that the algorithm does not like. The algorithm discriminates against you not because you are a woman, or gay, or black—but because you are you. There is something specific about you that the algorithm does not like. You don’t know what it is, and even if you knew, you cannot organize with other people to protest, because there are no other people. It is just you. Instead of collective discrimination like in the twentieth century, maybe in the twenty-first century we will have a big problem of individual discrimination.
Brain vs Mind
I am most intrigued by the question of mind and consciousness. We have made great progress in understanding the brain, but very little progress in understanding the mind. Many people, including many scientists, tend to confuse the brain with the mind, but they are really very different things. The brain is a material network of neurons and synapses. The mind is a flow of subjective experiences, such as pain, pleasure, anger and love. Science assumes that the brain somehow produces the mind, and that biochemical reactions in billions of neurons somehow produce experiences such as pain and love. However, so far we have absolutely no explanation for how the mind emerges from the brain.
How come when billions of neurons are firing electrical signals in a particular pattern, I feel pain, and when the neurons fire in a different pattern, I feel love? We haven’t got a clue. That’s the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life. And it is a very dangerous lacuna. In past centuries we have gained control of world outside us and reshaped the entire planet, but it didn’t make us happy. Even worse, because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century we might gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but it won’t necessarily make us much happier. Even worse, because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might inadvertently disrupt our entire mental system.
Writing process & meditation
When I am at home, I usually keep the same daily routine. I start my day by meditating for one hour. I then have breakfast and work for about 6–7 hours at my computer. I then do some yoga and take my dog for one hour to walk in the nearby wood. (The dog is just an excuse. It is really a chance for me to see some trees and animals, and not just computers and emails.) Then I sit for another hour of meditation. Then my husband and I sometimes meet friends, or watch a movie. And then we go to sleep.
As you can see, meditation plays an important part in my life. I not only meditate two hours every day, but every year I also go for a long meditation retreat of between 30 and 60 days. That’s my yearly vacation.
I practice Vipassanā meditation, which I have learned from a teacher called S. N. Goenka. In Vipassanā there are no complicated philosophies and no mystical theories. The only guideline is to observe reality as it is: What is happening right now in my body? What is happening right now in my mind?
Vipassanā offers a way to observe the mind in a systematic and objective manner. The mind is constantly in contact with body sensations. In every moment, we always experience some sensation within the body, and the mind reacts to it. Even when we think that we are reacting to what somebody else did, to what we saw on television, or to a childhood memory, we are in fact reacting to some bodily sensation that is present here and now. In Vipassanā one trains oneself to observe in an orderly and objective way the body sensations and the mind’s reactions to them, thereby uncovering our deepest mental patterns. What I have been able to directly observe in meditation has been far more interesting than any technological gadget. For me meditation is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. At least for 2 hours a day I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and funny cat videos.
The most important thing I understood by meditation is that the deep source of all suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by the mind.
From among the books I have read recently, I would like to recommend the following:
1. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu (Knopf, 2016).
2. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, by Tim Wu (Vintage, 2011).
These are very insightful books about the history of information technology from the days of print and radio to the era of Google and Facebook. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the positive and negative potential of the Internet.
3. Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, by Ioan Grillo (Bloomsbury Press, 2016).
A gripping narrative of Latin America’s new crime wars. It challenges our basic concepts of politics, economics and even religion, recounting how criminality mutates into warfare, how drug cartels mutate into multinational corporations, and how gangsters mutate into politicians and even into religious prophets.
4. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil (Crown, 2016).
In this fascinating and deeply disturbing book O’Neil explains how authority is shifting from humans to Big Data algorithms. These algorithms now decide whether to give you a loan, offer you a job, or even lock you in jail. The algorithms promise scientific objectivity, but they have their own built-in biases, which often cause even greater harm than old-fashioned human prejudice.
5. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick (Doubleday, 2015).
I picked this book up with a heavy heart, dreading it would be a sensationalist lightweight playing up to Western fears and biases. It turned out to be a deep, well-balanced and thought provoking account with a genuine feel for Middle Eastern realities.
6. The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, by Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books, 2015).
Whereas the collapse of the Communist block was probably inevitable by the late 1980s, the collapse of the old Russian Empire was anything but. Written like a good thriller, The Last Empire recounts how chance events and quirky personalities led within a few months in 1991 to the disintegration of the empire built and maintained by generations of Russian Tsars and Soviet appartchiks.
1. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – The most prophetic book of the twentieth century. Written in the days of Hitler and Stalin, it envisages a future dystopian world ruled by consumerism and biotechnology, in which happiness is the supreme value. Today many people would easily mistake it for a utopia.
2. Chimpanzee Politics, by Frans de Waal – It narrates the real political struggles within a chimpanzee band over a period of three years, 1976-1978. It completely changed my view of chimpanzees and Homo sapiens alike. Probably the most funny science book I have ever read. A must read for politicians of all species!
3. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond – A book of big questions, and big answers. This is the book that turned me from a historian of medieval warfare into a student of humankind.
4. Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor – The most insightful book I’ve read about Western civilization, and about the way Western people see themselves and the world. But be warned: It’s a VERY dense book.
5. The Art of Living, by William Hart – This is a book to be practiced rather than read. Practicing its teachings profoundly changed my life. It shows both the power of words and their limitations. Words can inspire and guide us, but in the end, they cannot replace action.
I read anything new published by Tim Wu, Frans de Waal, and Jared Diamond.
Suggestions for the young
Nobody really knows what the job market will look like in 2040, hence nobody knows what to teach young people today. Many jobs existing today will disappear by 2040, and we don’t know what new jobs—if any—might replace them. Consequently it is likely that most of what students currently learn at school or college will be irrelevant by the time they are forty.
So what should we teach them instead? My best advice is to focus on personal resilience and emotional intelligence. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. In the first part of life you built a stable identity and acquired personal and professional skills; in the second part of life you relied on your identity and skills to navigate the world, earn a living and contribute to society. By 2040, this traditional model will become obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves again and again. The world of 2040 will be a very different world from today, and an extremely hectic world. The pace of change is likely to accelerate even further. So people will need the ability to learn all the time and to reinvent themselves repeatedly—even at age 60.
Yet after a certain age, most people don’t like to change. When you are 16, your entire life is change, whether you like it or not. Your body is changing, your mind is changing, your relationships are changing, everything is in flux. You are busy inventing yourself. By the time you are 40, you don’t want change. You want stability. But in the twenty-first century, you won’t be able to enjoy that luxury. If you try to hold on to some stable identity, some stable job, some stable worldview—you will be left behind, and the world will fly past you. So people will need to be extremely resilient and emotionally balanced to sail through this never-ending storm.
The problem is that it is very hard to teach emotional intelligence and resilience. It is not something you can learn by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The current educational model, devised during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, is bankrupt. But so far we haven’t created a viable alternative.
So the best advice I could give a young person today is: don’t trust the adults too much. In the past, it was a safe bet to trust adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is going to be different. Whatever the adults have learnt about economics, politics or relationships may be outdated. Similarly, don’t trust technology too much. You must make technology serve you, instead of you serving it. If you aren’t careful technology will start dictating your aims, and enslaving you to its agenda. So you have no choice but to really get to know yourself better. Know who you are, and what you really want from life. This is of course the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. But this advice was never more urgent than in the twenty-first century. Because now you have competition. Google, Facebook, Amazon and the government are all relying on Big Data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. Once Google knows you better than you know yourself, it can control and manipulate you. If you want to stay in the game, you have to run faster than Google. Good luck!
As I explained above, I practice meditation a lot. I would hardly call it a hobby, though. It is the most serious and important work I do.
Thoughts on Korea
I think nowhere are the promises and dangers of twenty-first-century technology clearer than in the Korean peninsula. During the past decades Koreans have used the same technologies to create radically different societies in the North and South. The South is now a vibrant liberal democracy, while the North is a poor and ruthless dictatorship. The differences between them are so big, that they can be seen even from outer space. A famous satellite image shows the Korean Peninsula at night, with South Korea appearing as a sea of light, while North Korea is enshrouded in darkness. The meeting point of these two radically different societies is among the most explosive fault-lines in the world. The peninsula totters on the brink of a nuclear war, reminding us of technology’s power to threaten the very existence of our species.
Humankind is now gaining access to even more powerful technology than nuclear energy, but we are not sure what to do with the new technology. In the coming decades we could use genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to construct either Paradise or Hell. The benefits of making wise choices will be immeasurable, whereas the cost of unwise decisions may be the elimination of humanity itself. It is up to all of us to choose wisely.
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