What you’ll learn
Historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari offers a vision of humanity’s future that is radically different from its past by just about every conceivable metric. He argues that biology and information technologies are growing and blending so quickly that we are likely to see the emergence of a new caste of upgraded humans, and that the enhancements could be significant enough to warrant labeling them a new species: Homo deus. Harari maps out the pathways that have led us to this point, and shows how Homo deus will emerge if present trends continue.
1. Humanity is hungry for a new goal to chase now that it has decisively reduced the risks of famine, plague, and war.
Famine, plague, and war have long been considered givens in a Sapiens-inhabited world. We have created institutions, technologies, and religions to manage them, and sages have explained their persistence, but until recently, no one would have presumed to eliminate them.
But as the 21st century begins, Sapiens has arrived at a significant realization: We have begun dealing decisively with famine, war, and plague. None has been completely eradicated yet, but during the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, these fierce and bewildering forces long considered beyond human control have become mere puzzles awaiting the proper technical solution.
Eliminating famine, plague, and war is obviously not a tidy, failure-free process, but numerous markers of human wellbeing show that the trends are, quite hearteningly, up and to the right for Homo sapiens.
In an unprecedented turn of events, people are more likely to die from overeating than not finding enough to eat and more likely to kill themselves than be killed by someone else. For most of our history, crops failed or tensions escalated into armed conflict and people took starvation or war as a matter of course. It was fate, or a curse, or retribution of an angry local deity. Nowadays we are more likely to call those events “miscalculations” and look to blame someone for allowing such a tragedy to happen.
No longer can we hide behind Nature or a god or destiny as excuses for catastrophes like famine, war, and poverty. Those problems are all within our ability to improve and even solve.
We now find ourselves in a bizarre predicament for humanity: Homo sapiens will find themselves asking, “What else do we have to do now that our most formidable problems are on their way out? In an increasingly peaceful world with increasingly healthy, longer living people, what do we do now?” Maybe humanity will peacefully settle down and enjoy discovering newer and more efficient ways to resolve impediments to human wellbeing. A pleasant but unrealistic prediction. Humanity will never shake off the itch to explore or the ambition to achieve.
The ancient maxim still rings true that nature abhors a vacuum. We need to find something else to do, but what will that thing be?
2. Immortality is the new frontier that humanity is chasing instead of equality.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the nearest humanity has come to an international constitution. The document stipulates that “the right to life” is humanity’s most basic value. Death, then, is an ongoing assault on our right to life that, like plague and famine, was seen as perennial and unsolvable. Many religions dignify or even celebrate death because they cannot beat it.
There is, however, a growing minority of individuals and companies who refuse to wait for an eschaton or apocalypse to usher in the death of death. They want immortality and are investing billions in cutting-edge science to achieve it. This is not science fiction or ancient lore: Many of these figures chasing eternal youth or predicting its advent believe the fountain of youth is somewhere in Silicon Valley. The Google subsidiary Calico has made “solv[ing] death” its controlling occupation. The Google spin-off Google Ventures dedicates more than a third of its billions to projects in the life sciences domain and funds numerous longevity-extending initiatives. Google Ventures’ first CEO, Bill Maris, strongly believes that immortality is possible, and he himself hopes to live a modest five centuries. Silicon Valley darling Peter Thiel reasons that if humanity’s options are to accept death, run from it, or fight it, he wants to fight it.
Depending on whom you ask, immortality is in the distant future or right around the corner. Some predict 2200 or 2100. Others, like inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, predict that those with fit bodies and sizable bank accounts in the year 2050 may never die.
If we want to get technical, these upgraded forever beings would be “amortal” rather than “immortal,” as death is still possible through some unforeseen accident. But so long as one is not in a fatal car wreck or stabbed to death, the idea is that life could continue indefinitely. Life extended or indefinite will be a feature of the new species Homo deus that is emerging, and longevity research is paving the way for the planet’s new rulers.
We can only imagine what the implications of this would be for a new class of amortals. One point of speculation is that the possibility of death might make amortals even more risk averse than mere mortals. If you know you are going to die some day, you take chances everyday, whether you climb a mountain or cross a busy street. Life is too short to sit at home all day for fear of a slip or inattentive driver. But others will be able to respond, “Actually, life is not too short, and mine has the potential to be infinite if I’m careful.” Life will become an asset that amortals will want to guard jealously.
Family dynamics is another domain of life that would radically change if we achieved eternal youth or even extended longevity. In just one century, human life expectancy nearly doubled from 40 to 70. Give it another century and we could double that again. What would this do to family structure, where parents traditionally spent a significant chunk of their lives raising kids and then used what was left in retirement? The time you spent raising a child you had in your 20s or 30s would probably be a wisp of a memory a century later, and you would still be in the autumn of your life. And if life lasted twice as long, how feasible would “till death do us part” be when someone could be married for well over a century? Serial marriages would probably become increasingly common and judgment for those who did not stay married a century-plus would probably wither away as an old and unrealistic expectation. It is hard to fathom all the change that would come, but it is safe to say that the shifts would be radical.
3. Humanity will be less comfortable basing its worth on its power when more powerful life forms supplant it.
At the moment, no species on earth comes close to rivaling Homo sapiens in power. The presumption of moral superiority over other animals on the basis of power is dubious at best, but the presumption persists in the ways we treat other animals, and even members of our own species. The United States is far more powerful than Uzbekistan, but does that make the U.S. citizenry more valuable? In principle, many people would say, “no,” but practice reveals the uncomfortable connection between people’s power and their value. An American receives far more in education, health care, and protection than someone in Bangladesh. The kidnapping of an American makes far more of a splash in the media and in political circles than that of an Afghan.
This raises some unsettling questions for us. If power is the basis of our superiority over animals, would we have a right to object if information systems and computers became more intelligent and powerful than we are, began to enslave us for their own ends, and treated us like, well, animals? On what grounds would we object?
The monotheists argue that we have a right to claim moral supremacy and assert dominance over other species because that is the God-ordained order of things. They argue that we possess some spark of the divine within, an eternal soul that survives bodily death. Humans have it, animals do not—end of story. The fiction of the soul has shaped institutions, laws, religions, and democracy and led us to insist that, at bottom, there is an indivisible self in each of us. But thousands of experiments later, serious scientific inquiry has failed to uncover any evidence for an entity remotely soulish.
If there really is some spark that makes humans special, it is hard to locate or explain where it would have come from. And if there is such a thing as a soul, why do people insist so vehemently that artificial intelligence could not acquire it, too? Would we be right to object to computers colonizing or enslaving us if they managed to become smarter and more powerful than we are?
Humanity may not preside over the animal kingdom much longer. It would be prudent for us to contemplate our relationship to so-called lower life forms, because we are on the verge of becoming one ourselves. How we humans treat chickens and pigs and cows could be an ominous glimpse into what the future holds for Homo sapiens when upgraded Homo deus replaces them at life’s apex.
4. Humanism changed the source of ultimate authority from the heavens to the human heart, but the appeal to feelings could be humanism’s downfall.
Many people laud capitalism as humanity’s savior and point to it as the economic tide that has raised all boats. But the tide would never have risen without humanism, which imbued institutions and interactions with a trust in fellow humans. The invisible hand moves in mysterious ways, but it moves in nefarious ways when anything and everything is for sale. If you can buy judges, politicians, and slaves, trust evaporates and so do reliable businesses and lines of credit. Faith in humanity was a prerequisite for the emergence of the modern world as we know it.
Humanism was not just a rejection of faith in God but a growing faith in humanity—in humanity’s capacity to grasp the deeper things of life. Many a medieval believed that human hearts were full of corruption and fickleness and little more. Something would mean everything to a person one week and nothing the next. It was best to have eternal truths from a divine source to stabilize the religious-political landscape.
So humanism arose as a cultural response to the dimmer medieval view of people as incapable and immoral, prone to animalistic pleasure and wonton profligacy. The world is different today. Since the 1300s, humanism has opened the world to human potential and elevated human feelings.
Despite the warnings and finger wagging of philosophers and prophets, the oft-discussed death of God did not rupture some cosmic damn holding back the forces of immorality and societal disintegration. Humanity is still okay. Many people manage to live meaningful, altruistic lives without tying their lives to God. If anything, our far greater existential threat comes from the religiously calcified who wish to superimpose their god’s will on others.
Syria and Saudi Arabia, for example, are full of people convinced of God’s plan, but these nations are far less safe than a secular country like Denmark or Norway. Humanism is the revolutionary new religion that has allowed for people to have their cake and eat it too. Instead of putting trust in the edicts of a deity or divine messenger, people have begun to trust themselves. The messaging people listen to is not from the clouds above, but the heart within.
Think about how people handle ethical dilemmas today. They used to consult a priest who would tell them whether God condoned or condemned their actions and thoughts. Now, when a woman having an extramarital affair wonders about the way forward, she consults her feelings—not a sacred book. If she is not sure after consulting her feelings, she talks about it with a friend over a drink and then a therapist if still mystified. But even her therapist will never tell her what to do or judge what she has done. He will simply help her discern her truest feelings. At every turn, she consults other humans about her feelings—not God.
The humanist impulse shines forth brilliantly not just in personal relationships, but in markets and elections. Customers and voters listen to their hearts (these decisions are far more emotional than we care to admit), and make a decision based on what gurgles up from the internal depths. The humanist ethos is enshrined in our catch phrases like “Your vote counts” or “The customer is always right.” Tech tycoons and politicians create products and platforms around people’s feelings.
There is a catch to building our institutions around human feelings—and an unsettling irony. Seeking to accommodate the humanistic impulse could be its own undoing. AI and biotechnologies are natural outcomes of a humanistic religion. Extending life, improving life, and making us more satisfied with life are obviously downstream from humanism. But what happens when these algorithms and technologies designed to enhance our happiness become better at telling us what we really want than our own feelings?
As a species, we began with commands from above the clouds and moved to the dictates of the heart. And yet again our guidance is coming from the clouds—from Google’s, Amazon’s, and Apple’s clouds, that is.
5. The two religions that will replace the religion of humanism will either be “techno-humanism” or “Dataism.”
Recent decades’ breathtaking advancements in biology and technology are stirring up a series of political changes that will progressively remove the individual (and his feelings) from life’s center stage. This will manifest in at least three ways. One change is that the systems of the modern age will be increasingly dependent on machines and computers for military and economic activities, rather than on humans. A diminishing dependence on human contributions to the maintenance of political and economic systems will also lessen the value of individuals. Another change is that major systems of power will be sensitive to the crowds but not to the individual. Such systems also will find use for select individuals who rise above the huddling masses. These few who are selected will be enhanced übermenschen of sorts, a superhuman elite, Homo deus.
All of these changes mark the bell tolling for older forms of humanism, and beg for a new religion to fill the space that dying humanism leaves vacant. The new religion will not come down from the mountains or from deep in a cave as in the past. It will be engineered in a lab. The hope for deliverance will come from information and biology.
There are two religions that will likely replace humanism: “techno-humanism” and “data religion.” Let’s look at the more modest religion of techno-humanism first.
Techno-humanists hold humanity in a position of preeminence and look to genetic engineering and sophisticated information systems to advance human interests. They welcome the Homo deus, but see them as still fundamentally Homo sapiens,just with more bells and whistles, like greater strength, intelligence, and longevity.
Seventy-thousand years ago, an obscure ape in Africa now known as Homo sapiens gained a heightened level of cognition that enabled it to become the most dominant, world-changing animal on the planet. This was the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution. Today, techno-humanists argue that if this change required simply a few tweaks to the ape’s genetic structure and neural pathways, then maybe we are just a few more tweaks away from Cognitive Revolution Number Two.
Creating superhumans was Hitler’s dream, too. A century later, people are looking to design them without war and genocide, via nanotechnology, genetic alterations, and brain-computer fusions. But difficulties that come with reprogramming people are too vast to list. Such change to humanity would be dangerous and unpredictable. There is so much we still do not know. We can conjure some emotional states, replicate them, and locate the firings of the brain’s gray matter that accompany or produce them, but we can’t know the full implications of experimenting with those states. We are only partially aware of a sliver of the mental states available to and experienced by humans. Moreover, the mental states we study most regularly are either from WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) or the stuff abnormal psych books are made of. If what we know of human consciousness is a small pond’s worth, ocean depths remain undiscovered.
The techno-humanist sees technology as the key to the continued advancement of human interests—including convenience-enhancing algorithms and immortality. But here lies the conundrum inherent in the techno-humanist religion: Human will and experience are top priorities, but sometimes we like to control and modify what we care about most. If the techno-humanist succeeds in designing and altering the will, haven’t they simply turned the all-important human into a product like any other? It is more of a denigrating than an upgrading.
The religion of “Dataism” takes optimism about technology’s potential a step further by rejecting the idea that human concerns are top priority. The dataist is willing to let life play out without returning to human wellbeing as the touchstone for decision-making. Dataism essentially smashes together biology and computer science, opting to see organisms as biochemical algorithms without prioritizing one species over another. The dataist submits to information flow above God and humanity as the arbiters of truth. The grandest visions for the world during the 20th century ended in starvation, gulags, and atom bombs. In the 21st century, the most powerful governments are little more than petty bureaucracies. There’s so much data available to politicians, but it is almost too much for them to manage. Humanity does not know what to do with the growing torrent of information, but increasingly intelligent computers can readily distill oceans of information.
It is not an exaggeration to call Dataism a religion. It might have begun as a modest scientific hypothesis like any other, but it has taken on a life of its own. Silicon Valley gurus employ religious apocalyptic language to describe what is coming. When Ray Kurzweil describes the coming of a cosmos-encompassing data processing system that pulls every thing and organism through its algorithms, he literally and very intentionally mimics the Hebrew prophet who declared: “The kingdom of heaven is near.”
Time will tell what form religion will take: the more modest, human-centered techno-humanism, or the more radical Dataism. Either way, humans as we have known them are on the verge of becoming a thing of the past.
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