June 11, 2017
By Les Conklin
Hold on there! No so fast. Have you read Yuval Noah Harari’s best seller “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” If you’ve not read it, then put this review aside and read Harari’s blockbuster New York Times best seller, “Sapiens.”
“Sapiens” describes the rise of our species from an insignificant position in the animal kingdom to a position of dominance over the world’s other living things. In “Homo Deus,” Harari discusses how the technology that we humans have created might blend with or replace Homo Sapiens. “Homo Deus” is for readers who are interested in history and are wondering what the world might look like in 100 years.
Will some or all Homo Sapiens be replaced by a new human species, Homo Deus? Read Harari’s new book and you will surely find yourself thinking about the answer to that question. Incidentally, “Deus” means “God,” the divine source of happiness and longevity.
Like “Sapiens,” Harari’s second book delivers a awe-inspiring sweep through human history, culture, thought and technology using words and a writing style that readers will find easy to understand. Also, like “Sapiens,” “Homo Deus” is thought-provoking, to put it mildly.
“Homo Deus” is divided into four parts. The first three parts discuss how humans got to where we find ourselves today. Some, but not all, of the information is similar to that covered in “Sapiens” but presented from a different perspective.
Harari saves the best for the last, breaking new ground in the fourth section. The research that Harari has done is truly remarkable. The examples he cites made me excited about the technologies, scientific discoveries and biological/medical advances humans have made and may create or discover. In the past, our species has been massively victimized by famines, wars, plagues and hunger. Today, humans have largely controlled or conquered these threats to the survival of our species. This final section is a wake-up as to where human societies may change, how are lives might become automated and where current religions may evolve as a result of our advances.
Change and the rate of change are accelerating. Here is a personal story.
Humans have been around for millions of years. I’ve been around for less than 80 years. When I attended college a few computer classes were available to math and engineering majors, e.g. Fortran. If you were majored in business or liberal arts, having anything to do with computers was not on a graduate’s radar. Four years after graduating, in 1964, I was working for North American Aviation on Apollo I as a senior programmer – analyst. The director of the department came to my desk and told me that the local community college, El Camino College, was looking for someone part-time to develop and teach the school’s first business computer programming course, with evening classes and lab. I jumped at the opportunity.
Think of it! That was a little more than 50 years ago. Only big companies and some state and federal governments agencies had computers, large “big iron” mainframe systems. Few humans knew the difference between hardware and software. There was no Internet, software industry, notebooks, laptops, desktops, hard drives, mobile phones, email, or social media.
Today, we have all those things, plus sophisticated global weather forecasting systems, GPS, time and labor-saving business systems (think Amazon), connected human global societies, artificial intelligence, self-driving automobiles, global data processing, and more. Think about “Watson,” IBM’s system that beat the world’s best chess player or another system that beat the Chinese champion at a game much more complex than chess and showcased never-before used tactics to win. Many jobs that required the intelligence of a conscious human being to accomplish are now being done by machines. Harari writes that non-conscious (computer-driven) intelligence “is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively maintain their minds if they want to stay in the game.” What will happen to all those humans that are unable to stay in the game.
Harari describes advances in bio-chemistry and brain research. Technology exists that can interpret and respond to bio-chemical changes in the human body. Companies are working on devices and drugs to upgrade human capabilities and experiences. There is at least one company developing a program to replace humans, one piece at a time as those pieces wear out. Pacemakers, bionic limbs are already common place. The armed services have developed “helmets” that enable the human mind to focus on a task, such as being a sniper or controlling drones. Scientific progress is being made in understanding the relationship between DNA and brain function. And, we are just getting started.
Impacts of Change
Will new devices and advances in bio-medicine be used to upgrade some humans, the wealthy, and not others? Will a special class of humans, with enhanced abilities, control the huge, complex systems that will shape the human lifescape. “With further exponential increase in data proliferation and further advances in complex electronic processing and technology in the future,” Harari postulates how society, politics, our live and even our belief systems might change in the future. Are you ready for “Dataism?”
Undoubtedly, subjects covered by this book are controversial, like religions, forms of government, technological advances, the non-existence of human rights and free will, and the future of our species. The good news is that Harari presents each viewpoint with opinion and respect. The reader is left to ponder and choose between scenarios.
I hope you will include reading Homo Deus in your future. Given the pace at which cultural and scientific changes are taking place, you might consider reading it sooner rather than later.
About Juval Noah Harari
Juval Noah Harari is a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was born in 1976 in Israel and grew up in Haifa as a member of in a Jewish family. From 1993 to 1998, he studied medieval history and military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2002, he was awarded a DPhil degree from Jesus College, Oxford, England.
Harari’s work has been influenced by Jared Diamond, the author of the highly acclaimed “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse.” Harari’s latest book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” was published in Hebrew in 2015. In February 2017, an English translation was published in the United States.
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