Occasionally a book comes along that speaks so profoundly to you, that it literally changes your future! This is one of these books.
Appropriately, the subtitle to Yuval Noah Harari’s book is A Brief History of Tomorrow.
Harari is a historian. He is well versed in the kaleidoscopic history of our species, Homo sapiens. His penetrating insight and elegant description leave the reader feeling a participant rather than an observer over many hundreds of centuries of evolution.
The book is not really about yesterday. It starts today, and in unexpected fashion, the historian devotes his attention to our future.
“Success breeds ambition, and our recent achievements are now pushing humankind to set itself even more daring goals.”
The premise of the book is that humankind has advanced so far that we are now poised to tackle three immense new challenges. Having largely resolved poverty, disease and war, Harari predicts that within the next generation, we will address immortality, happiness and our own divinity.
Harari supplements his meticulous logic with a wide range of interesting and pertinent examples. He doesn’t simply prognosticate, he extrapolates real trends to substantiate his far-reaching predictions. This adds enormous color and depth to the intrinsic power of the book.
Despite the almost 500 pages of heavy academic writing, I found the book very easy to read. The plot captured my interest, unfolding with dramatic speed and intense personal relevance.
I don’t agree with all his assumptions. For example, he argues that the absence of definitive proof for the presence of a soul proves its absence. I don’t agree. He would argue that I don’t want to agree, and perhaps this is also true. But my own medical background and experience have brought me close to life, and it is my personal belief that neither the soul nor a divine superpower are simply constructs invented by the human brain to explain things that we cannot understand. As neither of us can prove our opinion, the argument will go unresolved for now. Yet, I don’t support all the downstream assumptions that flow naturally from his position.
“Having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.”
I have closely watched the emergence of augmented reality, machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. My interest has evolved in parallel with a deepening appreciation of our human brain, and so-called natural intelligence.
The exploration of artificial (computer) intelligence serves as a wonderful vantage point for understanding our own natural intelligence.
But here is my problem with the momentum we’ve built up …
We’re developing outside intelligence before we have mastered our own inner intelligence. I’m not a prudish pessimist—complaining about a technological future for which I feel unprepared. It will undoubtedly be a valuable tool for us, and we should proceed at pace (honestly, we couldn’t stop it even if we wanted to).
My strident request will be for us to proceed thoughtfully (pun intended). We don’t yet know what we don’t yet know. We have limited understanding of our own intellect and are birthing immense power in inanimate machines. We must bring the smartest humans we can find to the table, to learn together, to imagine together, and to balance the hugely complex needs of the current species with our excitement for the future species.
Let’s transfer authority of the planet thoughtfully to Homo deus rather than precipitate a terminal battle that we can’t afford to lose, yet simply can’t win.
Have fun (I think),
(Read the review I wrote about Harari’s first blockbuster “Sapiens” here)