Review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow “The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.”

Friday, November 03, 2017

In January 2013 a 26-year-old named Aaron Swartz committed suicide in the United States. He was facing prison for hacking computers at America’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology and making academic papers available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Capitalism traditionally holds that there are two types of resources: raw materials and energy. Countries have been colonised, peoples enslaved, and wars fought in their pursuit. A lot of misery has been caused.

There is a third resource: knowledge.

Raw materials and energy become depleted through use, but knowledge is a resource that grows. The more you use, the more you get.

Unlike energy or raw materials there is no reason to go to war for knowledge. A rapacious foreign power can’t invade California’s Silicon Valley and seize stockpiles of it. Contrary to the warmongery long implicit in the control of other resources, knowledge must be nurtured in a safe and secure environment. And it must be shared. In these conditions it thrives, to the benefit of everyone. For the time being at least.

Just as capitalists believe the wellbeing of humanity depends on economic growth, “dataists” see freedom of information as the key to everything, economic growth included. It was this article of faith that motivated Swartz to commit his crime, the Marxian imperative to seize the means of production.

Humankind has always been plagued by the triumvirate of war, disease, and famine. These threats are yet to be completely eliminated, but for the first time in history they are no longer the Damoclean trident that hung permanently over our ancestors’ heads.

Yes, there are people starving to death as you read this, but not because humankind is incapable of producing enough food. Every day we dump food and crops that would more than fill every hungry belly on the planet. In fact, more people suffer from an excess of food than a lack of it today. Dietary-related diseases pose a greater threat to more people than war or famine. To paraphrase author Yuval Noah Harari, we live in a world where Coca-Cola kills more people than bullets.

Homo Deus is hugely ambitious in the breadth of topics and disciplines it covers, tracing how we got where we are today as a civilisation in order to better understand the possibilities and pitfalls that await us in the future.

One of the many key points Harari makes is that the humanist belief in the rights of individuals to have access to food and education arose contiguously, and not uncoincidentally, with the industrial revolution and the establishment of a system that required healthy, educated humans to provide manpower for the industries and armies needed to process and control raw materials and energy.

Human rights is a story that has been useful to capitalism, but one that might quickly lose its relevance. Machines will soon outperform humans on almost any metric we choose to mention. In many cases they already do.

One of the driving forces behind the rise of machines is an increasingly mechanistic worldview. Almost every country in the world has embraced the primacy of scientific inquiry. The key is knowledge, information, the ability to exploit data.

We have never lived in such an information-rich world. We very literally have the sum of all human knowledge available at our fingertips. And we are adding more every day.

Household appliances will send information about their users’ habits to manufacturers, and anyone else with cash or influence interested in that information.

With every Google search, every link clicked, every post “liked”, complicated algorithms learn more about us and use the generated data to build aggregated models of our behaviour.

Based on YouTube or Spotify use we receive suggestions that are uncannily on point. Self-driving cars gather information that is used to make updates overnight. People date and even marry one another because an algorithm matched them to a suitable partner. If you’re reading this online it’s largely because algorithms have “decided” you should see the link you clicked to get here.

Soon algorithms will know us better than we know ourselves. In some cases they already do. The risk is that the more we delegate the important decisions in our lives the more we second-guess ourselves. Algorithms become our overlords, but they are heartless ones. We can’t make machines feel, or need, or want anything, because we don’t understand how, or even why, this works in ourselves.

Homo Deus is a fascinating read that brings us to the cusp of a very uncertain future. Both the author and the translator (Hebrew to English) have done an incredible job. The writing is penetratingly lucid and clear-sighted. Given the scope of its range it is difficult to classify Homo Deus, but above all, it is a book about moral values and what it means to be human. A must-read for any serious thinker.

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Author: Marc De Faoite