Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Following on from the global success of his book ‘Sapiens’ (2014, http://sbr.lanark.co.uk/?p=5180 ), Yuval Noah Harari (http://www.ynharari.com/about/) offers us a terrifying vision of the life forms to which, even now, we are giving birth.

For 70,000 years Homo sapiens has been the smartest life form on the planet. We love to think so. But one way to depict an intelligent life form is as an algorithm. Within 50 years, more efficient electronic algorithms will outstrip our obsolete biochemical model. Humans will discover that they never have been the apex of creation. That was a self-congratulatory delusion. Robots will out-think and out-power us on every level. As Harari puts it – ‘The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and the Chinese river dolphins in oblivion. Looking back, humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow.’

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow opens with a celebration of mankind’s extraordinary ingenuity and the achievements of our times. For many thousands of years, we suffered from famine, plague and war. But today, argues Harari, these dangers are being tamed. ‘For the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined’, he writes.

It is a similar story with plague. In the 14th century the Black Death wiped out more than a quarter of the population of Eurasia. The diseases carried by European explorers and settlers killed up to 90 per cent of local populations in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands. In 1520 Mexico counted some 22 million people. The disease and exploitation brought by the Spanish conquistadores reduced that country’s population to less than 2 million by 1580. The Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world in 1918 killed somewhere between 50 to 100 million people. Yet now, suggests Harari, most diseases are rapidly identified and cured. ‘The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over’, he writes.

Peace is also a modern success story. We watch horrified by the bloodbath in The Middle East, but globally we have never lived in calmer times. In ancient agricultural societies, human violence accounted for about 15 per cent of all deaths. That had fallen to 5 per cent in the murderous 20th century and is currently running at about 1 per cent in this century. Of the 56 million people who died in 2012, about 620,000 people were the victims of violence. To put that into perspective, some 1.5 million died of diabetes. ‘Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder’, Harari concludes.

Having got on top of the beastly struggle for survival, then, can we look forward to health, happiness and immortality? Can we upgrade ourselves into gods, and turn ‘Homo sapiens’ into ‘Homo deus’. Is the much longed-for apotheosis a reality, no longer Greek mythology? Our increasing mastery awards us the opportunity to merge with robots and computers, giving us the power of gods and the ability to create new forms of life. ‘After 4 billion years of wandering inside the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, and will take shapes that we cannot envision even in our wildest dreams’, writes Harari.

Now, getting ‘uploaded’ and living forever sounds all very dandy but, as Harari explains, it could all go horribly wrong. What happens when machines become even more efficient than humans at processing all relevant data? Will they treat us tomorrow as we treat chickens today? Harari suggests that humans could become functionally irrelevant, and actually obsolete. Our best hope is that we merge into a kind of ‘Infomatic’ being, a cyborg.

Another scenario envisions an uneven distribution of cyborg-incorporated benefits. If we think that inequality is bad today, just wait until we have a ‘biologically based caste system’ in which the rich will be able to guarantee their superiority through enhanced technology. No amount of luck, hard work or perseverance could render someone competitive against a stratum of people who have been engineered for vigorous health, better looks, augmented cognition and powerful bio-electronic connectedness with machines.

For the moment, the rise of populism, the rickety architecture of the European Union, the bloodbath in the Middle East and the competing claims on the South China Sea will consume most politicians’ attention at the international level. Your own attention is more likely sucked away with paying the bills, coping with the children, and maintaining a social presence in your community. But at some time soon, our societies (and your children) will be impacted by the coming cyborgs. Playing God is a dangerous game. It’ll be the end of humans. Your best hope, actually, is to die before it happens.

This review has been written by an algorithm. The erstwhile human, ‘Main’, has been assimilated.

Enquire at your local ‘data centre’. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

Otherwise consult https://www.amazon.co.uk/Homo-Deus-Brief-History-Tomorrow/dp/1910701874/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1482049547&sr=8-1&keywords=homo+deus for further bibliographic detail

448 pages in Harvill Secker

First published 2016

ISBN  978-1910701874

Professor Yuval Noah Harari

Scroll to Top