Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of Yuval Noah Harar's new book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Harari is careful not to predict that these outlandish visions will come to pass. The future is unknowable, after all. He reserves his strongest opinions for what all this should mean for the current state of relations between humans and animals. If intelligence and consciousness are coming apart then this puts most human beings in the same situation as other animals: capable of suffering at the hands of the possessors of superior intelligence. Harari does not seem too worried about the prospect of robots treating us like we treat flies, with violent indifference. Rather, he wants us to think about how we are treating animals in our vast industrialised farming systems. Pigs unquestionably suffer when living in cramped conditions or forcibly separated from their young. If we think this suffering doesn’t count because it is not allied to a higher intelligence, then we are building a rod for our own backs. Soon the same will be true of us. And what price our suffering then?

This is a very intelligent book, full of sharp insights and mordant wit. But as Harari would probably be the first to admit, it’s only intelligent by human standards, which are nothing special. By the standards of the smartest machines it’s woolly and speculative. The datasets are pretty limited. Its real power comes from the sense of a distinctive consciousness behind it. It is a quirky and cool book, with a sliver of ice at its heart. Harari cares about the fate of animals in a human world but he writes about the prospects for homo sapiens in a data-driven world with a lofty insouciance. I have to admit I found this deeply appealing, but that may be because of who I am (apart from anything else, a man). Not everyone will find it so. But it is hard to imagine anyone could read this book without getting an occasional, vertiginous thrill. Nietzsche once wrote that humanity is about to set sail on an open sea, now that we have finally left Christian morality behind. Homo Deus makes it feel as if we are standing at the edge of a cliff after a long and arduous journey. The journey doesn’t seem so important any more. We are about to step into thin air.

- Review of Yuval Noah Harar's new book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

No comments: