Yuval Noah Harari
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Yuval Noah Harari (born 24 February 1976) is an Israeli professor of history and the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He teaches at the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
- Harper, 2011. ISBN 978-0062316097
- Seventy thousand years ago, homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.
- Understanding human history in the millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.
- Yet from the viewpoint of the herd, rather than that of the shepherd, it’s hard to avoid the impression that for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe. Their evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks. The contented rhinoceros is no less content for being among the last of its kind. The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures.
- The food surpluses produced by peasants, coupled with new transportation technology, eventually enabled more and more people to cram together first into large villages, then into towns, and finally into cities, all of them joined together by new kingdoms and commercial networks.
- Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community.* Most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they worked in their neighbours’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.
- Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.
- Homo erectus, 'Upright Man,' [survived] for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. This record is unlikely to be broken even by our own species. It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.
Introduction to Animal Liberation
- Introduction to Peter Singer's Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, Random House, 2015. ISBN 9781473524422
- Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history.
- Today more than ninety per cent of all large animals are domesticated. Consider the chicken, for example. Ten thousand years ago it was a rare bird confined to small niches of South Asia. Today billions of chickens live on almost every continent and island, bar Antarctica. The domesticated chicken is probably the most widespread bird in the annals of planet Earth. If you measure success in terms of numbers, chickens, cows and pigs are the most successful animals ever. Alas, domesticated species paid for their unparalleled collective success with unprecedented individual suffering.
- The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant in human farms. Farmers routinely ignore these needs without paying any economic price. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities.
- The fate of farm animals is not an ethical side issue. It concerns the majority of Earth's large creatures: tens of billions of sentient beings, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, but who live and die as cogs in an industrial production line.
- Doubts about the existence of free will and individuals are nothing new, of course. More than 2,000 years ago thinkers in India, China and Greece argued that ‘the individual self is an illusion’. Yet such doubts don’t really change history much unless they have a practical impact on economics, politics and day-to-day life. Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament. Just as Christianity didn’t disappear the day Darwin published On the Origin of Species, so liberalism won’t vanish just because scientists have reached the conclusion that there are no free individuals.
- In the past there were many things only humans could do. But now robots and computers are catching up, and may soon outperform humans in most tasks. True, computers function very differently from humans, and it seems unlikely that computers will become humanlike any time soon. In particular, it doesn’t seem that computers are about to gain consciousness and start experiencing emotions and sensations. Over the past half century 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. However, we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their economic value because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
- Of course, by 2033 many new professions are likely to appear, for example, virtual-world designers. But such professions will probably require much more creativity and flexibility than current run-of-the-mill jobs, and it is unclear whether forty-year-old cashiers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if they do so, the pace of progress is such that within another decade they might have to reinvent themselves yet again. After all, algorithms might well outperform humans in designing virtual worlds too. The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.20
- ...Suppose you have two free hours a week, and are uncertain whether to use them playing chess or tennis. A good friend might ask: ‘What does your heart tell you?’ ‘Well,’ you answer, ‘as far as my heart is concerned, it’s obvious tennis is better. It’s also better for my cholesterol level and blood pressure. But my fMRI scans indicate I should strengthen my left pre-frontal cortex. In my family dementia is quite common, and my uncle had it at a very early age. The latest studies indicate that a weekly game of chess can help delay its onset.’
- Capitalism did not defeat communism because capitalism was more ethical, because individual liberties are sacred or because God was angry with the heathen communists. Rather, capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological change. The central committee of the Communist Party just could not deal with the rapidly changing world of the late twentieth century. When all data is accumulated in one secret bunker, and all important decisions are taken by a group of elderly apparatchiks, they can produce nuclear bombs by the cartload, but not an Apple or a Wikipedia.
- ...Meanwhile in the USA paranoid Republicans have accused Barack Obama of being a ruthless despot hatching conspiracies to destroy the foundations of American society – yet in eight years of his presidency he barely managed to pass a minor health-care reform.
- From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips. If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system through four basic methods:
- 1: Increasing the number of processors.
- 2: Increasing the variety of processors.
- 3: Increasing the number of connections between processors.
- 4: Increasing the freedom of movement along existing connections.
- Without criticising the liberal model, we cannot repair its faults or go beyond it. But please note that this book could have been written only when people are still relatively free to think what they like and to express themselves as they wish. If you value this book, you should also value the freedom of expression.
- In the beginning, the liberal story cared mainly about the liberties and privileges of middle-class European men, and seemed blind to the plight of working-class people, women, minorities and non-Westerners. When in 1918 victorious Britain and France talked excitedly about liberty, they were not thinking about the subjects of their worldwide empires.
- But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption. Liberalism traditionally relied on economic growth to magically solve difficult social and political conflicts.
- The loss of many traditional jobs in everything from art to healthcare will partly be offset by the creation of new human jobs. GPs who focus on diagnosing known diseases and administering familiar treatments will probably be replaced by AI doctors. But precisely because of that, there will be much more money to pay human doctors and lab assistants to do groundbreaking research and develop new medicines or surgical procedures.
- As algorithms come to know us so well, authoritarian governments could gain absolute control over their citizens, even more so than in Nazi Germany, and resistance to such regimes might be utterly impossible. Not only will the regime know exactly how you feel – it could make you feel whatever it wants. The dictator might not be able to provide citizens with healthcare or equality, but he could make them love him and hate his opponents. Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form, or humans will come to live in ‘digital dictatorships’.
- But in reality, there is no reason to assume that artificial intelligence will gain consciousness, because intelligence and consciousness are very different things. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love and anger. We tend to confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness. Mammals solve most problems by feeling things. Computers, however, solve problems in a very different way.
- The race to obtain the data is already on, headed by data-giants such as Google, Facebook, Baidu and Tencent. So far, many of these giants seem to have adopted the business model of ‘attention merchants’. They capture our attention by providing us with free information, services and entertainment, and they then resell our attention to advertisers. Yet the data-giants probably aim far higher than any previous attention merchant. Their true business isn’t to sell advertisements at all. Rather, by capturing our attention they manage to accumulate immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertising revenue. We aren’t their customers – we are their product.
- What will happen once we can ask Google, ‘Hi Google, based on everything you know about cars, and based on everything you know about me (including my needs, my habits, my views on global warming, and even my opinions about Middle Eastern politics) – what is the best car for me?’ If Google can give us a good answer to that, and if we learn by experience to trust Google’s wisdom instead of our own easily manipulated feelings, what could possibly be the use of car advertisements?
- The so-called Facebook and Twitter revolutions in the Arab world started in hopeful online communities, but once they emerged into the messy offline world, they were commandeered by religious fanatics and military juntas.
- In less than a hundred years the Germans organised themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel?
- I cannot name the 8 million people who share my Israeli citizenship, I have never met most of them, and I am very unlikely ever to meet them in the future. My ability to nevertheless feel loyal to this nebulous mass is not a legacy from my hunter-gatherer ancestors, but a miracle of recent history.
- If Greeks and Germans cannot agree on a common destiny, and if 500 million affluent Europeans cannot absorb a few million impoverished refugees, what chances do humans have of overcoming the far deeper conflicts that beset our global civilisation?
- Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people.3 So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?
- In the 1930s Japanese generals, admirals, economists and journalists concurred that without control of Korea, Manchuria and the Chinese coast, Japan was doomed to economic stagnation.8 They were all wrong. In fact, the famed Japanese economic miracle began only after Japan lost all its mainland conquests.
- When I think of the mystery of existence, I prefer to use other words, so as to avoid confusion. And unlike the God of the Islamic State and the Crusades – who cares a lot about names and above all about His most holy name – the mystery of existence doesn’t care an iota what names we apes give it.
- Not visiting any temples and not believing in any god is also a viable option. As the last few centuries have proved, we don’t need to invoke God’s name in order to live a moral life. Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.
- The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Seculars strive not to confuse truth with belief.
- I have participated in numerous private and public debates about gay marriage, and all too often some wise guy asks ‘If marriage between two men is OK, why not allow marriage between a man and a goat?’ From a secular perspective the answer is obvious. Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth. A marriage lacking such depth will make you frustrated, lonely and psychologically stunted. Whereas two men can certainly satisfy the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of one another, a relationship with a goat cannot. Hence if you see marriage as an institution aimed at promoting human well-being – as secular people do – you would not dream of even raising such a bizarre question. Only people who see marriage as some kind of miraculous ritual might do so.
- One would have thought that conservatives would care far more about the conservation of the old ecological order, and about protecting their ancestral lands, forests and rivers. In contrast, progressives could be expected to be far more open to radical changes to the countryside, especially if the aim is to speed up progress and increase the human standard of living. However, once the party line has been set on these issues by various historical quirks, it has become second nature for conservatives to dismiss concerns about polluted rivers and disappearing birds, while left-wing progressives tend to fear any disruption to the old ecological order.
- Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they stay in the centre of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. And the problem will only get worse. In the coming decades, the world will become even more complex than it is today. Individual humans – whether pawns or kings – will consequently know even less about the technological gadgets, the economic currents, and the political dynamics that shape the world. As Socrates observed more than 2,000 years ago, the best we can do under such conditions is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.
- Drinking lots of Coca-Cola will not make you young, will not make you healthy, and will not make you athletic – rather, it increases your chances of suffering from obesity and diabetes. Yet for decades Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in linking itself to youth, health and sports – and billions of humans subconsciously believe in this linkage.
- In the early twenty-first century, perhaps the most important artistic genre is science fiction. Very few people read the latest articles in the fields of machine learning or genetic engineering. Instead, movies such as The Matrix and Her and TV series such as Westworld and Black Mirror shape how people understand the most important technological, social and economic developments of our time.
- In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
- Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.3 More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.
- So at twenty-five you introduce yourself on a dating site as ‘a twenty-five-year-old heterosexual woman who lives in London and works in a fashion shop’. At thirty-five you say you are ‘a gender-non-specific person undergoing age-adjustment, whose neocortical activity takes place mainly in the NewCosmos virtual world, and whose life mission is to go where no fashion designer has gone before’.
- For years I lived under the impression that I was the master of my life, and the CEO of my own personal brand. But a few hours of meditation were enough to show me that I hardly had any control of myself. I was not the CEO – I was barely the gatekeeper. I was asked to stand at the gateway of my body – the nostrils – and just observe whatever comes in or goes out. Yet after a few moments I lost my focus and abandoned my post.
- The typical scientist doesn’t actually practise meditation herself. Rather, she invites experienced meditators to her laboratory, covers their heads with electrodes, asks them to meditate, and observes the resulting brain activities. That can teach us many interesting things about the brain, but if the aim is to understand the mind, we are missing some of the most important insights.
- If we are willing to make such efforts in order to understand foreign cultures, unknown species and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.