Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Fast Company | Yuval Noah Harari: Humans are on the verge of merging with machines
The New York Times | Yuval Noah Harari Believes This Simple Story Can Save the Planet
Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens is a masterpiece on the history of humanity as well as the questions we need to ask ourselves about our collective future in the 21st century and beyond as technology gets more powerful but we are plagued with multiple problems from human suffering to inequality to old outdated socio-economic and political structures. Sapiens is ultimately a book about what it means to be human in the 21st century, a reflection of our past, and a questioning of our current trajectory and values as well as the refreshing need for new narratives which may change the course of history as well as our collective destiny as we grapple with multiple challenges and must pioneer a better and more hopeful future.
The Frankenstein Prophecy
In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who tries to create a superior being and instead creates a monster. In the last two centuries, this story has been told over and over again in countless variations. It has become a central pillar of our new scientific mythology. At first sight, the Frankenstein story appears to warn us that if we try to play God and engineer life we will be punished severely. Yet the story has a deeper meaning.
The Frankenstein myth confronts Homo sapiens with the fact that the last days are fast approaching. Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, so goes the story, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds. This is something most Sapiens find extremely disconcerting. We like to believe that in the future people just like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships. We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our own.
We seek comfort in the fantasy that Dr Frankenstein can create only terrible monsters, whom we would have to destroy in order to save the world. We like to tell the story that way because it implies that we are the best of all beings, that there never was and never will be something better than us. Any attempt to improve us will inevitably fail, because even if our bodies might be improved, you cannot touch the human spirit.
We would have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that will look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals.
We cannot be certain whether today’s Frankensteins will indeed fulfil this prophecy. The future is unknown, and it would be surprising if the forecasts of the last few pages were realised in full. History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass. When the nuclear age erupted in the 1940s, many forecasts were made about the future nuclear world of the year 2000. When sputnik and Apollo II fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies on Mars and Pluto. Few of these forecasts came true. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet.
So don’t go out just yet to buy liability insurance to indemnify you against lawsuits filed by digital beings. The above fantasies - or nightmares - are just stimulants for your imagination. What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question. How long do we have? No one really knows. As already mentioned, some say that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal. Less radical forecasts speak of the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of Sapiens history, what are a few millennia?
If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people. After all, today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens. If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female.
And yet the great debates of history are important because at least the first generation of these gods would be shaped by the cultural ideas of their human designers. Would they be created in the image of capitalism, of Islam, or of feminism? The answer to this question might send them careening in entirely different directions.
Most people prefer not to think about it. Even the field of bioethics prefers to address another question, ‘What is it forbidden to do?’ Is it acceptable to carry out genetic experiments on living human beings? On aborted fetuses? On stem cells? Is it ethical to clone sheep? And chimpanzees? And what about humans? All of these are important questions, but it is naïve to imagine that we might simply hit the brakes and stop the scientific projects that are upgrading Homo sapiens into a different kind of being. For these projects are inextricably meshed together with the Gilgamesh Project. Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives. Even though the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far more dramatic than curing psychiatric illnesses, this is the standard justification given, because nobody can argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein.
The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.
Afterword: The Animal that Became a God
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.
Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.
In the last few decades we have at last made some real progress as far as the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in the lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of.
Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles - but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?