Homo Deus – Saved by the algorithm?
More and more people are asking questions about the future of insurance and about the words “digital”, “big data”, “connected objects”, etc., predicting an upcoming revolution. Many think that the revolution is already well underway and that it is high time to create a little (science) fiction to imagine what awaits us. Since 2010, two television series have portrayed a vision of the future governed by algorithms – Black Mirror and more recently Westworld. Next September the follow-up to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind will be published in French and promises to herald the arrival of a new religion, “dataism”. In this article we shall discuss Yuval Harari’s two books, the first on the (past) history of humankind and the second on the history of the future.
From Black Mirror to Westworld
A few days ago, we found out that Japanese engineers had managed to create pollinating mini-drones to take the place of bees (Science et Avenir, 2017). Anyone who saw “Hated in the Nation”, the last episode of Black Mirror, will find this familiar. In this episode, the bee-drones are hacked so that they kill the person who receives the most #DeathTo hashtags on a Twitter-type social network. Increasingly, daily life seems reminiscent of the plots of films or science fiction series.
One science fiction book that made history was the novel published in 1818 by Mary Shelley. In this work, Victor Frankenstein creates an artificial creature who gradually gains self-consciousness. Fritz Lang reworked this myth in 1927 with his film Metropolis, in which a seductive female robot causes chaos throughout the world rather than actually killing. A modern version of this character can be found in the film Ex-Machina and above all in the series Westworld, revealing an artificial world in which humanoids run a futuristic Wild West-style amusement park, following a common thread while at the same time adapting to the desires of those seeking entertainment. However, despite many precautions being taken, some of the park’s humanoids acquire a form of memory and consciousness, which leads them to rebel. And this awareness actually comes from their memories, which are supposedly deleted every evening.
The importance of memory and history is an essential point. It was therefore not surprising to see the publication of two superb books by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari. In the first tome, he retraced the history of Homo sapiens, while in the second (to be published in French in September) he offers a fascinating discussion of artificial intelligence and the future of the human race. “Over the last decades there has been an immense advance in computer intelligence, but there has been exactly zero advance in computer consciousness. As far as we know, computers in 2016 are no more conscious than their prototypes in the 1950s.” As a historian, he invites us to think about our future.
A brief history of the past
Jacob Bronowski was a philosopher and mathematician (he worked with the statistician Jerzy Neyman and the founder of game theory John von Neumann). His work on popular science made him well known among the general public, particularly his 1974 book The Ascent of Man, which was used as the basis for a BBC television series. In this book (whose title is a reference to Charles Darwin’s book The Descent of Man), Jacob Bronowski retraces the history of humanity, linking it to scientific discoveries. In 2011, Yuval Noah Harari attempted the same task but from a slightly different angle when he published Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This book originally appeared in Hebrew before being published in English in 2014 and in French in 2015.
In this first tome, which sold millions of copies all over the world, Harari retraces the history of Homo sapiens, which began 70,000 years ago with the cognitive revolution that launched the history of our species. This revolution was based on a genetic mutation that enabled humans to think and above all to communicate using a very different language from those used by other species. Homo sapiens can transmit information but above all is capable of creating imaginary worlds and myths. According to Yuval Harari’s theory, our capacity to tell stories and create myths is what made Homo sapiens what s/he is. Chimpanzees share a great deal of the same genetic code as us but cannot function effectively in groups containing more than 150 individuals. But Homo sapiens manage to achieve this. We also use our unique linguistic skills (at the species scale) to create myths – justice, human rights, money, religion, nationality – which unite us and enable us to cooperate on a large scale. For example, the “myth of human rights” is imposed on us as a set of “natural” rights that human beings are supposed to possess, but which would surprise the Greeks of Aristotle’s era or members of many tribes in the Pacific.
Another recent and important myth evoked by Yuval Harari is linked to capitalism – the “myth of romantic consumerism”. An alpha male chimpanzee would never use his power to go on holiday in the territory of a neighbouring group of chimpanzees. However, Homo sapiens do this and it seems quite “natural” to them. Buying things solves every problem: buying a car, a telephone or a yoga class. Or even better, a holiday, the strongest symbol of this “myth of romantic consumerism”. Romanticism incites us to seek an ever greater variety of experiences (e.g. culinary or musical) and to break with our familiar daily routine: the watchword is “experiment”. Consumerism tells us that to be happy we need to consume products, services and indeed “experiences”. Going to India for two weeks is no longer just a holiday; it is an “experience”. And this kind of consumerism, which is going to broaden our horizons, can only make us happy. However, this is a new vision of things. During the era of the Egyptian pharaohs, a rich man did not take his wife shopping in Babylon but instead perhaps thought about having a magnificent tomb built. Cultures change and new myths replace the old ones.
One interesting point to end with here is the importance of technology and sciences in human history. As Yuval Harari notes, “this is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world”. Humans have a need to understand and sciences have developed along those lines, with technologies following suit. Their impact has gone further than the traditional field of the sciences. In 1850, socialism was a marginal movement that developed and revolutionized the world in its way. During the same era, Muhammad Al- Mahdī (محمد أحمد ابن عبد الله) claimed to be the Mahdi whose coming was predicted by Islam and attempted to revolutionize the Arab world, while in China Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全) proclaimed himself the “Heavenly King” and launched the Taiping Rebellion. However, only Karl Marx succeeded. Yuval Harari’s explanation for this is that Marx, Engels and Lenin had understood the importance of technology. As Lenin said, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. In other words, there could be no Communism without electricity, railways and radio. Yuval Harari considers computing to be the equivalent of railways and electricity and 2017 to be the equivalent of 1850. He thus asks what our future might be, following on from the revolution through which we are living.
A brief history of the future
Shortly after the English publication of his first book, Yuval Harari published a second tome on the “following revolution”, which is currently occurring. When the book came out, many saw Homo Deus as a book about “the end of history”, in the sense intended by Francis Fukuyama. However, it is not about the end; on the contrary, the world (and technology in particular) is evolving so quickly that it is impossible to predict what the future may bring, though we may attempt a little science fiction. Continuing with his theory on myths, Yuval Harari claims that a new myth is being born: “dataism”.
Dataism is a sort of religion. Agricultural divinities were replaced by the spirits of the hunter-gatherers, and later on the world religions established themselves in the history of humanity. Islamic fundamentalists have long repeated the mantra that “Islam is the answer” but in 2017 might we not be moving towards “Google is the answer”? The traditional religions explained that every word and act were part of a great cosmic plan and that God observed us every minute and was concerned about all our thoughts and feelings. The religion of data now says that every word and action is part of the great flow of data, that algorithms observe you and are concerned about what we do and feel. The algorithm is “probably the most important concept in our world” today, as Yuval Harari puts it. And yet an algorithm is simply a mathematical model used to solve problems mechanically and automatically. Until very recently, the best solution for solving problems on earth was the human brain – if possible in cooperation with others. Now, however, algorithms are better than us at an ever growing list of cognitive tasks. They carry out financial transactions for us – several companies have even put an algorithm on their board of directors. These algorithms no longer look for meaning: instead they look for correlations and proximities so that they can plan ahead as effectively as possible. In this sense, this actually is a revolution.
While capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market, dataists believe in the invisible hand of the data flow and in the algorithm that could regulate and avoid traffic jams or optimize our schedules. Like capitalism, dataism also began as a “neutral” scientific theory but is now mutating into a religion that claims to be able to determine good and evil. This new religion’s supreme value is the “information flow” and it is not surprising to see that “freedom of information” has become so important. To reiterate the parallel drawn by Yuval Harari, just as the dawn of the early modern period saw European imperialists travelling to Africa and buying whole countries for a few pearls, we now give away important possessions – our personal data – to Google and Facebook in exchange for a few videos of cats. We seem to have lost sight of what is at stake and it is very difficult to start to think out the politics in these early years of the twenty-first century. What makes things even worse is that the big decisions are no longer made by governments but by “a small international caste of business people, entrepreneurs and engineers”. These people seem to have a vision of the future similar in some ways to Yuval Harari’s (on eternal life, artificial intelligence, etc.), while governments have become simple administrators.
The changes described by Harari and our inability to adapt to the pace of such changes could also have major economic consequences. He considers it highly probable and “frightening” that automatization will lead to mass unemployment and the creation of a “useless class” made up of billions of people with no economic or political value. This has already started with the working class, which is becoming the “unworking” class. They will be the first part of the useless class, but this phenomenon has also started to spread to the middle classes.
hat would you say about an enhanced Amazon Kindle that could read your emotions while you are reading a book? By using various body sensors, this device could determine which parts of the book make you laugh or cry, when it speeds up your pulse or when you are bored or, alternatively, stimulated. It would be able to read and remember our reactions better than our conscious brain. Yuval Harari sees several sources of extreme danger in the fact that Homo sapiens are losing the capacity to make free choices. What will happen when we realize that clients and electors never make free choices and what will happen when we have the technology to calculate, conceive of, or foil their feelings? Game theory is quite pessimistic on this point because the only unpredictable decisions are those which are totally random. “The second threat facing liberalism is that in the future”, he suggests, “while the system might still need humans, it will not need individuals”. And once an artificial intelligence device becomes essential, then it is no longer a gadget and becomes the rule. “Once Google, Facebook and other algorithms become all-knowing oracles, they may well evolve into agents and finally into sovereigns.” And that is indeed frightening …
Anderson, W. The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. Wired, 2008.
Wortham, J. “‘Black Mirror’ and the Horrors and Delights of Technology”, The New York Times, 30 January 2015.
Science et Avenir, Des mini drones pollinisateurs à la rescousse des abeilles, 2017.
This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.