Anant Jain

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Book Review

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is an excellent sequel to Sapiens. You may find small parts of it repetitive, but I’d argue that the spaced repetition helps solidify certain ideas in the head. While Sapiens was a brief history of the humankind, Homo Deus is all about what happens from here on.

The biggest problems for humanity so far were plague, famine and war. To a large extent, it’s not inaccurate to say that we’ve solved all three. Famine, plague and war will probably continue to claim millions of victims in the coming decades. Yet they are no longer unavoidable tragedies beyond the understanding and control of a helpless humanity. Throughout history people felt these were unsolvable problems, so there was no point trying to put an end to them. Today, if a plague, famine or war breaks out, we largely know how to rein it in.

Success breeds ambition, and the new human agenda for the twenty-first century is going to be focussed on immortality, happiness and becoming Homo Deus — a species farther away from Homo Sapiens, than Homo Sapiens is from our ancestors Neanderthals. This is what this book is about. It’s divided into three parts:

The first part attempts to look at the relationship between Homo sapiens and all other animals — how did our species conquer the world, and is Homo sapiens a superior life form, or just the local bully? Homo sapiens does its best to forget the fact, but it is an animal. And we cannot ignore our own animal past, or our relations with other animals — because the relationship between humans and animals is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans.

The second part examines the bizarre world we have created in the last millenia. How did humanism — the worship of humankind — become the most important religion of all? How did we convince ourselves that we not only control the world, but also give it meaning?

The third and last part of the book delves into how the search for immortality, bliss and divinity would shake the foundations of our belief in humanism. How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism? And if humanism is indeed in danger, what might take its place? (Hint: Data Religion)

Instead of answering these questions for you here, I would recommend you read the book to find out. I would leave you with three of my favorite paragraphs from the book, and a line or two about them:

Art is often said to provide us with our ultimate (and uniquely human) sanctuary. In a world where computers have replaced doctors, drivers, teachers and even landlords, would everyone become an artist? Yet it is hard to see why artistic creation would be safe from the algorithms. Why are we so confident that computers will never be able to outdo us in the composition of music? According to the life sciences, art is not the product of some enchanted spirit or metaphysical soul, but rather of organic algorithms recognizing mathematical patterns. If so, there is no reason why non-organic algorithms couldn’t master it.

I’ve have had long discussions with some of my closest friends about art and if it’s a uniquely human thing or not in the context of auto-generating art. This paragraph reaffirmed my very strong belief that all art is automatable, personalizable and even transferrable — given what music you like, soon an algorithm should be able to generate what paintings or visual patterns or virtual worlds should please you.

Indeed even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific world view refuse to abandon liberalism. After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century, as if all the amazing discoveries of evolutionary biology and brain science have absolutely no bearing on the ethical and political ideas of Locke, Rosseaeu and Jefferson.

Love the shade — that too on two of my other favorite authors. This was probably my favorite line from the book!

In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station — and this will probably the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it you need to understand twenty-first century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.

Gives you chills when you think about it. Yuval Noah Harari genuinely believes that Silicon Valley is the most important place in the world right now when it comes to deciding the future of humanity. Companies at the intersection of biotechnology and artificial intelligence are developing capabilities that will upgrade us to Homo Deus. In particular, in addition to the giants like Google, smaller groups like Neuralink are working towards the ambitious goals of developing Brain-Machine Interfaces. I strongly urge you to read this 38,000 word long (but funny in the unique Tim Urban-style) post on Wait But Why: Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future.

This is how Yuval concludes the book:

If we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

Lastly, I decided to read these two books (Sapiens and Homo Deus) after watching a conversation titled “Death is Optional” between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate who wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow (review). It’s riveting to see two of the best minds riffing on a topic no less profound than the future that’s upon us. Here is the link:

This is #15 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.

Coming soon to a planet near you :) (Credit: Daniel Cheung)