Are Humans Becoming More God-Like?

Extract from an interview with Yuval Noah Harari, Professor of History, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, November 15, 2015, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

yuval-noah-harari…Throughout history, the only intelligent entities have been conscious entities. But intelligence is now decoupling from consciousness. We are developing non-conscious algorithms that can play chess, drive vehicles, fight wars and diagnose diseases better than we can.

When the economy has to choose between intelligence and consciousness, the economy will choose intelligence. Once self-driving cars and doctor-bots outperform human drivers and doctors, millions of drivers and doctors around the world will lose their jobs, even though self-driving cars and doctor-bots have no consciousness.

Many new kinds of jobs might appear, but that won’t necessarily solve the problem. Humans have basically just two types of skills – physical and cognitive – and if computers outperform us in both, they might outperform us in the new jobs as well.

So what will be the use of humans in such a world? What will we do with billions of economically useless humans? We don’t have any economic model for such a situation. This may well be the greatest economic and political question of the 21st century.

You’ve suggested that Silicon Valley is developing a sort of “techno-religion,” viewing even death as a technological problem. What role should morality have in such transformational innovations?

In all likelihood, the new techno-religions will also create new techno-moralities. We already see it happening.

Humans rarely manage to come up with a completely new moral value. The last time this happened was in the 18th century, when the humanist revolution preached the stirring values of human equality, liberty and fraternity. All subsequent conflicts and struggles have been conducted either in the name of the three humanist values, or in the name of even older values – such as obeying God or serving the nation.

But the hacker movement has created the first new value since 1789: freedom of information. We mustn’t confuse freedom of information with the old humanist value of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was given to humans, and protected their right to think and say what they wished – including their right to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves.

Freedom of information is not given to humans. It is given to information. Moreover, this novel value may impinge on the traditional freedom of expression, by privileging the right of information to circulate freely over the right of humans to own data and to restrict its movement. Given that most humans may also become militarily and economically useless, we may well enter a post-human era, in which information is valued more highly than human beings. Indeed, both biologists and computer scientists increasingly see humans as biochemical algorithms, which should be evaluated strictly according to their data-processing capacities.

We should make technology serve us, instead of us serving technology. For that, we need new and much stronger global political authorities. The new opportunities and threats of the 21st century – from global warming to artificial intelligence – are all global in nature. If you want to do something serious about them, you must have effective global governance.

You can see a compelling interview with the author at CBC News, “Yuval Harari | technology will help us cheat death.” 


4 responses to “Are Humans Becoming More God-Like?

  1. Very impressive, but… Why does he think there is a dichotomy between “freedom of information” and “freedom of expression?” Are the two concepts not connected? The former is the quid pro quo of the latter…

  2. Could it be that he thinks of information as a concrete commodity — consisting of measurable data — and expression as an unmeasurable abstraction. But to know the answer to your question, I suppose we will have to read his book!

  3. I’ve proposed his book for my book group. We are a bunch of cynics, so it will be interesting.

  4. I read Sapiens and liked it because it is full of novel ideas and original points of view. Yuval is a good writer, too. Although many of his claims are unprovable, they are always stimulating. He not only has interesting things to say about our historic and future relations to technology (as in the interview above) but also about our interactions over the centuries with the other sorts of animals on the planet. Few historians dare to take up the really big questions about human existence, the way Yuval does, and that’s a pity!