In the everlasting search for perfection, humans are essentially algorithms trying to upgrade themselves into immortality. But if we reach that perfection, we will lose our humanness. That’s the thesis of “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book which has sold three million copies and won the 2017 Business Book Prize awarded by Handelsblatt, Goldman Sachs and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Mr. Harari’s previous book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” sold more than six million copies worldwide. A professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Harari is vegan and meditates, which helps him tune out the modern world and better understand the essence of our era. In a telephone conversation with Handelsblatt Global’s publisher Gabor Steingart, he reflects on politics in the modern age.
Handelsblatt: Where are you?
Yuval Noah Harari: I’m in India on a two-month meditation retreat I take every year. No emails, no computer, no phones, not even books. No talking, just trying to observe the reality of the present, what’s happening in my body, what’s happening in my mind. Some people think that mediation is an escape from reality, but for me it’s the one opportunity to really get in touch with reality. And as a historian, it’s crucial for me to understand the human mind because that is really the engine of history. Our desires and passions and anger and fear drive human history.
Would you say that a good author should first sit down in the silence of his own thoughts?
I don’t go to a meditation retreat to think about the book or for research. I really try to understand the realities of the truth about myself. But sometimes books come out of it. It’s not a promise. It doesn’t happen to everybody who goes to a meditation retreat. But certainly, without my practice of Vipassana – the meditation I’ve been doing for 17 years – I could not have written “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus.” Especially because you need a lot of focus to write about such broad subjects. I mean, how not to be distracted, how to really focus on the most important things. And one of the benefits I got from the practice of meditation is really the ability to focus.
So meditation is the beginning of research.
It’s giving yourself the time, the space to just observe. Very often we rush to make judgements and to do things and to reach conclusions. And very often, if you take the time just to be there, without rushing to conclusions – just keep observing, keep the window open – see what happens, then surprising and creative things emerge out of that. Because if you don’t give yourself the time, you usually just say or do the usual things. When you don’t give yourself the opportunity, you simply repeat the same patterns. It is extremely difficult to de-condition the mind.
Putting the future of the world into one book is a big achievement. How would you describe the tone of your book?
I tried to write in a balanced way without being afraid of difficult ideas, but also with a light touch. I don’t want to succumb to the idea that we are all heading towards destruction. When I look at history, I see that there are always two sides to every revolution, to every big change. There are very few revolutions or processes in history which were entirely bad or entirely good.
Every technology, every change has both very positive and very negative potential. If you look at the 20th century and the industrial revolution, all the big inventions of electricity and radio and cars and trains, some people could take this and build communist dictatorships or fascist regimes or liberal democracies. The technology itself doesn’t tell you what to do with it. If you look at South Korea and North Korea today, they have access to exactly the same technology. The difference between Pyongyang and Seoul is not a difference in technology; it’s what people do with the technology. It’s the same with the big new inventions of the 21st century: Biotechnology and artificial intelligence are not antagonistic. I think there are amazing achievements humankind has attained, and we also have examples of the immense power of human stupidity.
Nationalism in Germany, for example.
We should never underestimate human stupidity. But we shouldn’t underestimate human wisdom. Fifty years ago, people were convinced at the height of the Cold War that the world would end in nuclear catastrophe. But it didn’t. Humans had enough wisdom to end the Cold War in a relatively peaceful way. So we can do it again.
"We should never underestimate human stupidity. But we shouldn’t underestimate human wisdom."
We implement new technologies very quickly into our lives. Should there be more political discussion about this?
Yes. The political system in much of the world is broken, unable to produce meaningful visions for the future. Beyond the day-to-day management of the country, the political system needs to look 20, 30 years into the future and produce a vision of where we want to go, then to try to implement this vision. In the 20th century you had great visions for the fate of humankind – not all of them good – but they were certainly very ambitious. You had the communist vision, the fascist vision and the liberal vision; politics was a battleground between the great visions of the future.
Because we stumble from one crisis to the next, and politicians struggle just to manage day to day.
The only visions are nostalgic, like Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The only place you get meaningful visions of the future is in the private sector, from people in places like Silicon Valley. And it’s very good, I think, that people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are thinking seriously about what technology will do to the future of humankind. But it’s very bad that almost no politicians care about these issues, even though artificial intelligence and bioengineering are going to change the world even more than steam engines and trains and radios.
Now governments in Germany and the US are trying to take back control.
It’s almost too late. Today the biggest political question in the world is “who owns the data?” And it’s not very important in the politics of most countries. I mean, if you think back a thousand years to the Middle Ages, the No. 1 political question was “who owns the land?” If too much land was owned by too few people, you got a very hierarchical society of aristocracy and peasants and commoners. Then you had the struggle between communism and capitalism about who owns the factories. If too much is owned by too few people, you get a very unequal society. Now the No. 1 asset is data, and more and more of the data is being monopolized by a fraction of humanity, by a few companies and governments.
You’re focusing on how humans are coming together with machinery, software and technology.
We are now experiencing the confluence of two immense scientific revolutions: the first in biology and the second in computer science. And when you put the two together, when biotech and infotech merge, what you get is the ability to design life, to control life. In the past, humans gained the power to control the world outside us. We had the power to control rivers and forests and animals, but we had very little control over the world inside us.
The main product of the economy in the 21st century will not be textiles and weapons and vehicles but bodies and brains and minds. We are learning how to design and manufacture them. We are going to see humans manipulate and change their bodies and create superhumans. We will create cyborgs which are partly organic and partly inorganic. We are going to start to see more and more inorganic entities, like artificial intelligence. This is the biggest revolution in biology since the beginning of life. For four billion years, all of life was confined to the organic realm and all of life evolved by natural selection. Now we are breaking out of the organic realm and into the inorganic realm. We are starting to create inorganic life forms and they are not evolving by natural selection. They will increasingly evolve according to intelligent design.
"The main product of the economy in the 21st century will not be textiles and weapons and vehicles but bodies and brains and minds."
Will we have technology inside our brains?
Very likely. There are three main ways for this to happen. The first is bioengineering – to take the brain and change it with things like genetic engineering. Secondly, you can connect organic bodies with inorganic devices, like brain implants and brain-computer interfaces, and this creates cyborgs. And the most radical way is to create completely inorganic life forms like artificial intelligence.
This touches on the question of ethics, morals and even religion. Should it be allowed?
You can’t just stop all research into biology or computers. The really interesting question is, how can we use it? Questions that have bothered philosophers for thousands of years are now becoming practical questions. All kinds of debates that Socrates and Confucius had about free will are becoming relevant for engineers.
Is the populist movement a kind of reaction to a world that has changed so dramatically?
Certainly. People want stability. They want a clear vision of where they are going. If the political system is unable to provide it and technology is changing too rapidly, people will try to find stability by going back to supposedly eternal and national identities. This is very dangerous. Not because there is something inherently wrong with religion or nationalism – I think in many ways they have been forces for good for human history – but because they don’t have answers to the questions of the 21st century.
Does anyone come close to your idea of what a modern politician could be?
Maybe the only place in the world where you see politicians really taking these things very seriously with a long-term viewpoint is China. They have the luxury of being able to think in these terms without having to worry too much about the next election cycle.
I’m certainly not saying it’s free of problems, and I’m certainly not recommending China’s type of authoritarian rule to the rest of the world. There are a lot of problems. But there is something broken in the democratic system, which functioned amazingly well given all the alternatives during the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. But like all good things, you begin to take it for granted, become conservative. The system is no longer adapting. I’m not saying we should give up on liberal democracy – it has been the best system in history to date – but it needs to adapt. If it doesn’t, it will collapse.
Gabor Steingart is publisher of Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org