Homo Deus was not quite the page-turner Sapiens, also by Yuval Noah Harari, was for me but I still found it very interesting. This “brief history of tomorrow” was certainly thought-provoking, as no doubt it set out to be. I learnt some fascinating things about how far we have already got to in our development and increasing mastery of artificial intelligence among many other amazing achievements; we’ve also made significant advances in, bioengineering, nanotechnologies, the human machine interface, the proliferation of a variety of bots. The speed of breakthroughs in all these domains and the power of their interactions are truly mindboggling.
I had already been made aware of a truly landmark victory of machine over man in the context of the game of go, which is covered in Homo Deus. It had struck me at the time because of something I have noted on a family holiday. Board games are possibly becoming less popular and perhaps in part precisely because they are no longer the reserve of human strategists and quick calculators. As AlphaGo triumphantly demonstrated (after Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparove at chess of course, but barely 20 years on, this triumph was far more spectacular because there are many, many more possible moves in a game of go than in a game of chess) machines are far better suited to those tasks. Incidentally, it is amusing to note that the sale of go boards increased sharply after AlphaGo decisively crushed the reigning human champion. I wonder whether that means that people are keen to pit their wits against machines or if their curiosity for the game was simply aroused by the surrounding publicity. Personally, I love board games even though I’m not very skilled at them – my thirteen year old daughter beats me at chess every time– so either explanation is fine by me, let’s all play more board games, whether we want to prove that we can still beat machines (but don’t hold your breath folks) or whether we just want to spend some fun time interacting with other players, be they human or otherwise.
But I learnt many other things, like the experiments that involved rats being remotely controlled via electrodes in their brain and as a result, behaving in ways they would normally avoid, like jumping off great heights. Or those involving human patients with electronic chips in their brains, some of whom have experienced significant relief from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Note that the humans get a better deal than the rats but Harari, who is clearly someone who has a great respect for all animal species, talks about the ethical issues of the rat experiments especially). Both these experiments seem to me to have come straight out of a science fiction film but they are happening right now and Harari provides many more amazing examples. Homo Deus is however more than a simple inventory of how far Homo Sapiens has gone in what looks like an inexorable progression towards “Homo Deus”. He posits that a number of threats arise, namely that “1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them. 2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals. 3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.” Scary stuff indeed.
The book goes on to provide details on these threats and then discusses consciousness and the triumphant rise, in the face of the increasing irrelevance of both humanism and liberalism, of what the author defines as a new religion: dataism.
Harari’s vey last sentence in his book, the third of three concluding questions, is what got me thinking most: “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?” Indeed. That’s an essay question if there ever was one.
Draw on what you have observed around you and discuss. You have three hours, you may turn your paper over now.