I’m a big, big fan of Sapiens. The first of Yuval Noah Harari’s trilogy-of-sorts is a wondrously accessible yet thoroughly analytical exploration of how Homo Sapiens got to the 21st Century, identifying the key ingredient for success: our ability to tell stories. For Harari, human stories come in many forms; a multinational corporation is just as much a story as Lord of the Flies is. Like Lord of the Flies, it does not really exist, only within the spheres of human imagination. It is our capacity to invent fictions and put our faith in them – religions, finance, laws – which has enabled the dominance of the Sapien species.
In Homo Deus, it is time for Harari to tell his own story: where will Sapiens go next?
Being a sequence of predictions, Homo Deus is inherently less satisfying than Sapiens but arguably more thought-provoking. Harari is notable for being big on, err, Big Data, believing that artificial intelligence and technological developments will radically restructure society as we know it. Liberalism, human rights and equality of opportunity are out: techno-fascism, authoritarian capitalism and the ‘useless’ classes are in.
Specifically, though, man will use technology to augment his body and upgrade to Homo Deus. This will create a market for biological augmentation, inevitably leading to the wealthiest becoming cognitively superhuman and therefore more attractive job applicants than the poor Sapiens (presuming societies still function as capitalist). The upgrades will focus on cognition because physical labour will be relegated to the robots, although there will no doubt be a market for people who want super-strength or super-speed.
It is not inconceivable that this will happen. Becoming superhuman is something which man has always dreamed of, from the Greek heroes to the Avengers, as is the elusive key to immortality. In the 21st Century, Harari argues, the ability to live forever will not come from the mythical Fountain of Youth or drinking from the Holy Grail, nor mad prayers before a painting, but from the labs and research facilities in Silicon Valley. Human hubris is well-known and combines poorly with excessive wealth.
It is equally conceivable that mass unemployment will result from automation because it has already begun. Every time you see a self-checkout at a supermarket, or a vending machine, you’re seeing a job done by a robot previously done by a human. A few years ago my Mum almost lost her job managing a volunteer-staffed shop because the hospital intended to replace it with a vending machine, but the plans were scrapped after a local uproar.
What stories like that tell us is that humans will not go down without a fight, a fact that Homo Deus disappointingly overlooks. The displacement of democracy and the end of human rights can only occur through the consent of the masses, explicitly or implicitly. Sure, for the vast majority of human history most people have been unhappy with their lives, but that unhappiness never came from a place of nostalgia. The Industrial Revolution to now is the first period where everybody (in the West) has, in theory, had the access and the ability to get an education, get a job, have a family and live a fulfilling life. Anybody pitching to take all that away will have to tell one hell of a story.
Essentially, the robots will only win the race if we allow it to happen. It’s perfectly possible that we will, either through dreams of a post-work utopia awaiting us at the end, or through sheer negligence (this is likelier), but, in my view, it’s just as plausible that enough influential people will look at this robotic future and get a bad taste in their mouth. More broadly, the predictions which Harari makes can only come to pass if democracy dies but capitalism remains, two outcomes which would have their own intensely complicated series of social, political and economic factors. It should be clear that big changes to the world are coming thanks to AI, but what those changes will be is very much undecided.
Except for the superhumans thing. I am willing to bet a lot of money that will happen.
Perhaps, like the work of Karl Marx, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus will not become relevant for a very long time. The stories of Christianity, capitalism and globalisation have been ongoing for centuries now and it is still not clear that the end is in sight. Just because the predictions within Homo Deus seem unlikely now doesn’t mean they’ll remain so in 2050, or 2100. I think works of futuristic speculation and dialectical analysis still hold value for this reason, and I can certainly see some of what Harari argues coming to pass.
Which is why you should read Homo Deus!