In his 2014 international best seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari gave us a riveting and detailed account of the biggest questions in the modern world and explored what exactly makes us human and why we Homo Sapiens became the dominant species when 100,000 years ago there were in fact six other human kinds. It is one of the most relevant pieces of non-fiction available on the bookshelf of your local Waterstones, and moving on from it’s success Harari’s second offering Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is no less thought provoking and stimulating than his last effort, but paints a rather bleak future as man becomes God.
In Sapiens, Harari looked at how our ancestors united to create cities and kingdoms, how we created the structures in society and the role of religion and our unwavering belief in Gods. In Homo Deus, he explores the concept of man as a Godlike being, able to create life that will very likely replace us. Like many a doomsday Sci-fi novel scenario, artificial intelligence has long been seen as the beginning of the end of mankind as we understand it. However the manner in which this occurs and the role we play in our said demise has never been so transparent. In a recent interview with the WorldPost Harari is quoted,
“Data, and the ability to analyze data, is the new source of authority. If you have a problem in life, whether it is what to study, whom to marry or whom to vote for, you don’t ask God above or your feelings inside, you ask Google or Facebook. If they have enough data on you, and enough computing power, they know what you feel already and why you feel that way. Based on that, they can allegedly make much better decisions on your behalf than you can on your own.”
Indeed it has become our pre-requisite to rely on our computers and smartphones to guide and instruct us through our daily lives. And with each occasion that we input our questions and thoughts into the system we create packaged and polished summary of our inner most concerns and objectives that is stored and filed. This ‘dataism’ reflects a shift in authority, when previously we looked up to the clouds for guidance we now log in to a cloud where all of our information is stored and in turn creates an algorithm that will decide our direction. And it is not just what to buy, where to eat etc. as Harari explains,
“If you apply to the bank for a loan or for a job at a big corporation, very likely your application is being processed by an algorithm and not by a human being. Let’s say the algorithm refuses you, and you are not hired. You go to the company and ask why, and they say, ‘Because the algorithm said no.’ And then you ask, ‘Why did it say no?’ And they will say, ‘We don’t know. If we thought we could get a good reading by ourselves, we wouldn’t need an algorithm.”
It is our cognitive perception and abilities that remains our standout quality, throughout history humans evolved with the ability to perform multiple tasks, to sense danger and use our emotions to guide us to a place of safety and our instincts to ensure we have food and water. Our ability to build, carve and craft and our propensity to constantly seek solutions to problems we created, make us uniquely human. Which raises the question of AI versus man in the workforce? We’ve long since built machines that could outperform humans in extremely physical and repetitive motions, but now as artificial intelligence becomes more and more advanced the need for humans in the job market is becoming increasingly less relevant. In an article in The Guardian Harari stated,
“Children alive today will face the consequences. Most of what people learn in school or in college will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40 or 50. If they want to continue to have a job, and to understand the world, and be relevant to what is happening, people will have to reinvent themselves again and again, and faster and faster.”
As Harari explains in greater detail on his website, a ‘useless class’ of human will evolve from our pursuit of divine status,
“Success breeds ambition, and humankind will next seek immortality, boundless happiness and divine powers of creation. But the pursuit of these very goals will ultimately render most human beings superfluous.”
As robots and artificial intelligence take over more and more of the roles previously performed by homo sapiens, the question becomes centred very much around our value and purpose in the world. The very wealthy will be in a position to pursue healthcare and physical upgrades that will transform them to a god like status, aesthetic enhancements that will quench the desire for perfection, but this of course will not be an option for all, therefore creating a group within society of superhumans.
It’s a bleak portrait but an an eye opening and stimulating perspective all the same, that will raise necessary and relevant questions that all of us should be concerned with. On a lighter note, we’re not sure the Robot Cup will be challenging the Premier League anytime soon.