Saturday, March 16, 2024

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: Is the future a utopia or dystopia?

Is Yuval Noah Harari an ideologue and futurist, or is he a charlatan and a dreamer? The line that separates an ideologue from a charlatan, and a futurist from a dreamer is really thin, and it is probable that Harari has traits of all four. He is an ideologue, a futurist, a charlatan and a dreamer. 

Harari’s book Homo Deus deals with philosophical issues like humanism, individualism, transhumanism, mortality, nature of consciousness and intelligence, and the future of mankind. ’Homo’ means man, Deus means ‘God.’ One of the issues that the book examines is modern man’s quest to transcend the fear of death, and be an immortal like the Gods. 

According to Hariri, these transhumans—the Gods of the future—will not be anything like the omnipotent and omniscient deity of Abrahamic religions. The modern immortals, if they come into being, are likely to resemble the Hindu God Indra and the Greek God Zeus. They will have the power to do good and unleash destruction on an epic scale.

The history of the 21st century might not be underlined by wars, revolutions and the fight against famines and disease—war is obsolete, famine is rare and disease is on the retreat, says Hariri. He foresees the history of the 21st century being underlined by the desperate desire of the elites to become immortal. He cites some Silicon Valley tycoons who believe that they could be the first of human immortals. These tycoons often brag that they don’t intend to die ever. 

Harari takes note of the social, economic and political imbalances that must occur if a tiny elite section of society finds ways of extending their life to 200 or more years. If those who control the levers of political and economic power do not retire or die for 200 or more years, then how will political and economic transformation happen? Won’t civilization stagnate and decay?  

Another important issue that Harari examines is the connection between intelligence and consciousness. In the 21st century, mankind is engaged in building artificial systems (AI) which are intelligent but not conscious. The AI is capable of managing complex data but, as of now, it is incapable of doing things like falling in love, having political ambitions. 

Harari rejects the idea that humans are made by divine intervention; he sees humans as a form of artificial intelligence, or data-processing machines, created by fluke accidents in the natural processes of evolution. But we have consciousness, we have the capacity to fall in love, we have political ambitions and we have the will to choose whether we want to be good or destructive. 

What if the man-made AI manages to develop these human traits? What happens to the world if AI becomes conscious? How will this AI treat humans? Hariri says that to find the answer to this question we have to look at how humans treat other creatures. He believes that the progress of science and technology might lead to the decoupling of intelligence and consciousness. 

Homo Deus is an interesting book. Hariri writes with the flourish of a pulp fiction writer. But the content of his book is deflating and depressing. His materialist conception of a future world owned and run by machines is nihilistic and inhumane. Humans like us would be obsolete in this future world. If they continue to exist in this future world, they would live like the animals live today—we would be at the mercy of the machines. 

Political and economic power would be in the hands of intelligent machines and a tiny band of human elites who control the resources to upgrade themselves through the use of technology. In this future world, a tyrannical government won’t be necessary to suppress the masses and maintain order—people would be transformed through manipulation of data. 

“The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within,” Hariri writes. Ultimate form of collectivism would be the reality of the world where intelligence has been severed from emotions and consciousness. Will this future world be a dystopia or a utopia? Hariri does not take a clear stand. He is groping in the dark, at times sounding optimistic, at times pessimistic. His future world is dominated by powerful entities (AI or AI-powered humans) as different from us as we are from the neanderthals. 

I believe that the single biggest truth of history is that the intellectual and political elites always fail to predict the future. I believe that this will hold true in Hariri’s case as well. His predictions on the power of AI and the end of humanism will fail to materialize.

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