Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading Harari’s previous book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari discussed the progression of humankind and posed thought-provoking questions such as how humans became the most dominant species of the planet and what are the associated consequences. A sneak peek of Harari’s following book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow was included in Sapiens. It briefly discussed how human’s behavior can subconsciously be impacted by the history of humankind. It then poses further questions on where humankind is heading towards based on past progression as well as the development of artificial intelligence. I’m not particularly interested in reading one person’s speculation of the future so I didn’t end up getting the book. But thanks to my friends, Annie and Patrick, for getting me this book for my birthday I ended up reading it and will share my takeaways below.

This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.

Homo Deus

Harari discussed the possibility of humans being upgraded to superhumans or human god (“Homo Deus”) with the help of technology. Humans have reduced mortality from starvation, disease, and violence and our next challenge can be to overcome old age and to prevent death itself. After all, the cause of human death can always be boiled down to some sort of malfunction or degradation of the human body such as the heart stops pumping blood and cancerous cells. It might seem farfetched, but death is essentially caused by numerous technical problems which can all be worked on and possibly resolved.

Besides using technology to cure wounds, eliminate diseases, and possibly cheat death, technology can also be used to upgrade humans. With implants and prosthetic limbs, technology has already restored and in some cases upgraded human’s ability to perform daily tasks. The growing understanding of the brain and human genome can possibly help us engineer superhuman with the preferential genes that can outperform “regular” humans.

Although this does paint an optimistic future for humankind, it does present new challenges. If we gain the ability to upgrade our cognitive abilities or to select the genetic makeup of our children, what will be the impact on the non-upgraded humans? As technologies have usually shown to be first available to the wealthiest in the past, will this cause a bigger divide in society and stall social mobility?

Human’s Role Going Forward

Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.

Artificial intelligence has been the big topic for several years now and there are more and more resources invested in this field. An AI defeated a chess grandmaster for the first time in 1988 and a reigning human world chess champion in 1997. And in 2016, it defeated one of the world’s top player in go, which is widely regarded as one of the most complex board games.

With the development of artificial intelligence, more and more tasks can be performed by machines. There might come a point where the vast majority of tasks will be performed by machines. If we do get to that point, what will be the roles of humans going forward?

Our current education system have us spending years obtaining degrees and skills to be prepared for the job market. However, in the future, the time for us to obtain a skill might outlast the time it takes for machines to render that skill obsolete. In this case, our only way to maintain our value in the workforce might be to constantly reinvent ourselves.

And let’s say that machines are able to do most of the tasks humans are able to do more effectively but humans still maintain control. In that case, what will be the purpose of humans when our problems are left for the machines to solve. What challenges can we take on?

Summary

Homo Deus is another thought-provoking book by Harari. Harari provided speculations on the future based on what has happened in the past. He’s not concerned about being right but on creating discussions around the potential future challenges of humankind.

Having read Sapiens, I found there to be too many overlapping contents. Homo Deus is a good book, but I would enjoy it much more if I haven’t read Sapiens first. If it’s me I would recommend Sapiens over Homo Deus as Sapiens is more information-heavy whereas Homo Deus has more speculation.

Have you read this book? And is there any book you would recommend? I’ll love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

I’m currently reading Upheaval by Jared Diamond.

Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is an international bestseller on the history of humankind. Sapiens is categorized into four parts: The Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution, The Unification of Humankind, and The Scientific Revolution. Yuval studies how humans have evolved into the most powerful animal on earth and the impact of it.

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The Power of Shared Myths

One of the most important things that set us apart from other animals is our effectiveness in cooperating in large numbers, which Yuval argues is due to our unique ability to believe in shared myths. Ants and bees can cooperate in large numbers but can only do so with close relatives and in a very rigid manner. Chimpanzees can cooperate more flexible than ants and bees but mostly with those who they know intimately. Humans, on the other hand, can cooperate on a much larger scale and even have the ability to cooperate with complete strangers. Thousands of people have worked together to achieve the vision of their corporation. Millions of people have cooperated to fight for their country or to defend their religious beliefs. And billions of people are able to exchange goods and services without knowing each other. This is all possible due to our ability to believe in shared myths.

What are corporations? Unlike things like bananas and refrigerators that have intrinsic value, corporations aren’t tangible things you can see or touch. It is simply a shared fiction defined by legal documents that exist in the mind of people. Even though nations and corporations are shared fictions, it is the reason why my co-workers and I can cooperate to achieve a common mission and why millions of people support and cheer for the same national team.

The most powerful shared myths above all are perhaps money. People work in exchange for money which in today’s age mainly refers to cash or electronic payments. Why would anyone work for the majority of their lives to get “colored papers” or electronic payments which don’t have any intrinsic value? This is all due to our shared belief in money and the value that it has. If tomorrow, nobody believes in the value of the dollar bills that you have or in the banking system, your savings will essentially be almost worthless.

There are other factors such as intelligence and communication that contributed to humans rise to power. But without the ability to believe in shared beliefs, our ability to cooperate will be greatly reduced and we’ll not be where we are today.

Human Happiness

Since 500 years ago, we have had numerous technological advances. Transportation is much more convenient with cars and planes. Communications is much quicker with the invention of phones and the internet. And with a global economy, a product that is only produced in certain parts of the world can easily be attainable via online shopping.

But are we any happier than we were 500 years ago? As there is no way to measure happiness, nobody can say for sure. With so much scientific and technological advances, one would think that humans are happier now. After all, what is the value of these technological advances if it makes our lives more miserable? I’m sure most people have either complained about the transportation system or heard about these complaints. When your commute to work gets delayed by 1 hour due to public transportation, you most likely won’t feel any less frustrated if someone were to remind you that 500 years ago your commute would’ve taken 10 times the time it takes now. That is because happiness is not really dependent on objective conditions such as wealth, but more so on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. So even though the scientifical and technological advances have brought us greater objective conditions, it also raised our subjective expectations too. With social media, people can be more expressive than ever, but it also exposes ourselves to others’ opinions of us. With phones and emails, we can communicate with our friends and loved ones instantly. However, because of these communication tools, people nowadays expect you to reply instantly as well.

More and more scholars have begun to study the history of happiness, so maybe one day we will be able to measure and understand the factors that impact happiness and how the factors have evolved over time.

Natural Selection

Natural selection : the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring

We have gained so much power that you can arguably say that we have affected natural selection. The evolution of other animals is increasingly impacted not by their natural environment, but by the needs of humans. It would be rational to think that chickens on average will become faster as the slower ones will have a harder time to survive and therefore not make it through natural selection. However, due to our chicken consumption, selective breeding is done where the fattest hen are mated with the slowest cock. And throughout history, it’s shown that once humans set foot in an area it drives most large animals of that area to extinction. On the other hand of the spectrum, domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, and pigs grow in numbers.

With the advances in the field of biological engineering, we have even gained the ability to genetically modify animals. This raises questions that pertain to our responsibility towards the planets and especially the other animals that are negatively impacted by our behavior.

Summary

Yuval discussed the history of humankind and offered his unique perspective on it. It puts into perspective how long humans have been around and makes you think about the impact we are making and the history we are leaving behind us. It’s a very thought-provoking book and I’ll recommend it to people who are interested to learn about the history of humankind and its impact.

I’m currently reading La Espía by Paulo Coelho.