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Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

March 3, 2018


Homo Deus is much-lauded, sprawling survey of the march of progress for our species and what the future holds. Harari, a historian and anthropologist, pulls from the fields of history, sociology, biology, economics, religion, philosophy, behavioral science and technology to lay out, in short, where we’ve been and where we’re likely to go.

Like Steven Pinker, Harari makes the case that despite the rather glum coverage of the state of our world, humans have actually made incredible progress. Disease, war and famine, which used to regularly decimate large swaths of the population, are much less significant today. We live in a time of abundance, of relative peace and security, of exponentially accelerating technology. Diseases—even epidemics—are wiped out faster and faster. The likelihood of another Black Plague or Spanish Flu is very low.

And the occurrence of war had decreased significantly. With the relative scarcity of the past, wars of plunder were common. It was common for one country to invade another to steal its resources, enslave its people, or capture its land. National borders shifted regularly. It is not the case any longer. In the developed world specifically, there is more stability than there ever has been. We are far more likely to die from overconsumption of food than starvation. And despite the hype terrorism receives, “for the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than Al Qaeda.”

The second part of the book dives into liberal humanism, where Harari attacks the notion that we have free will. He makes the argument that humans are controlled by biological algorithms, that we are products of our DNA, making every decision according to our hard-coding. He chides those who cling to a belief in free will, comparing them to the churches clinging to the notion that God literally created all the animals despite the evidence of Darwin, etc. (“Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse.”) To Harari, this is a settled matter—we may believe we operate with complete freedom, but science shows otherwise.

In the third section, Harari looks at the future, suggesting that, “the same technologies that can upgrade humans into gods, might also make humans irrelevant.” We may all be replaced by robots, not just in our jobs but in our lives. We always assume that we are the end result of evolution, but it’s much more likely that we are just another step on the way to a higher-order species in the same way the Neanderthal was a step toward Homo sapiens. And the next evolution may be as much technological as biological.

This is an incredibly thought-provoking book. The second and third sections are much more speculative. I’m not sure if I fully buy Harari’s argument that humans are purely algorithmic creatures. And although he posits that his predictions are more than just futurism, it’s hard to see much of a difference. Still, it’s a mind-expanding read. He dabbles in all sorts of trivia and threads interesting tangents throughout. He forces us to question many of the things we take for granted in our day-to-day lives, including that our day-to-day lives actually exist:

“For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a virtual world. A game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early 21st Century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario, mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion. Since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.


Related Reads: 

How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

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