Hacking Humanity: The Author of 'Homo Deus' Discusses Tech-Powered Everlasting Life

By JP O Malley on at

Over the last few decades — through drastic improvements in scientific knowledge, economic growth, and the spread of stable systems of statecraft — humanity has managed to rein in three of its biggest self-destructing time bombs: famine, plague and war.

To put it into perspective, for the first time in human history, more people die each year from eating sugar than they do from not eating at all. And fast food presently kills more people across the planet than bullets do.

The world is certainly not the utopian-free-market paradise that neo-liberals keep claiming it is. Still, over the last few decades, living standards across the globe — overall — have risen exponentially.

Watching the 24-news-cycle all day, and constantly being connected to Twitter, certainly won't convince you of this. But the statistics are there: millions have been lifted out of poverty, while famine and disease are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

If the human animal just so happened to be a content species, it's most likely — given these recent achievements in progress — that humanity would pat itself on the back, hold its head high, enjoy the steady life, and try and hold onto at least some semblance of ecological and social equilibrium.

But, as Sigmund Freud once taught us: humanity and contentment don't get along very well. Humans have an insatiable appetite that can never be satisfied, constantly craving what they cannot attain.

In fact, humanity is usually only approaching contentment when attempting to take control of something it hasn't already firmly possessed. Right now, its eyes are feasting on a single prize: everlasting life.

In his latest book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari admits that, traditionally, society may have left the subject of death to priests, rabbis, and theologians.

But times have changed. Scientists and biotech-engineers no longer view death as some metaphysical mystery. Investing billions of dollars figuring out how to beat death has now become a serious priority: most notably in Silicon Valley.

PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, for example, recently confessed that he wants to live forever. And Ray Kurzweil — currently director of engineering at Google — in recent years, helped launch a sub-company called Calico, whose mission is to solve death.

So, can it be done?

“I think it's a feasible project,” says Harari enthusiastically, sitting in his publishers office in central London. “But I don't think it will happen in the next few decades,” he adds.

This is not some science-fiction hollywood-esque doomsday scenario. There is a serious chance, Harari believes, that in, say, a century or two, we will gain a good enough understanding of the human body, human bio-chemistry, and brain functioning, that the concept of hacking humanity — and overcoming old age — could actually become a plausible concept.

“My guess is that it will take more than a few decades,” says Harari. “So people in Silicon Valley — like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel — who expect it to happen in their life time, are going to be disappointed.”

Harari's latest book is an ambitious one. At times, he has a tendency to make lazy and sensationalist generalisations on certain subjects. His fawning over what he sees as the perpetual progress of the capitalist system, for instance, is a little bit too one-dimensional for my liking.

Nevertheless, faults and all, the book is a fascinating read. And it continues to ask some of the most pressing questions of our age by using a nice mix of philosophy, history, and science, to further that understanding.

The book places just as much importance on asking questions as it does with coming to definitive conclusions. Moreover, it leaves room for nuance, and admits to gaps in information, when answers are simply not available.

The basic premise of Harari's thesis is as follows: to understand the future of humanity we need to understand its past with a fine-tooth comb.

In parts, the subject matter overlaps with the material that Harari covered in a book he published two years ago called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sapiens-Humankind-Yuval-Noah-Harari/dp/1846558239

Predominately, Harari's work fixates on two major questions: what makes Homo sapiens so special from other species on planet earth? And, how did Homo sapiens come to believe that the entire universe resolves around them alone?

A novel representation of the tree of life. (Click to see larger view.) Via Wikipedia

The answer to that question requires an understanding of the history of the tree of life.

For four-billion years, natural selection — that is the non-random differential reproduction of genes that has built our species — has been tweaking and tinkering with organic bodies. The end result is that we have transformed from amoeba to reptiles, to mammals to sapiens.

However, in Harari's opinion, there is no reason to believe that sapiens is the last stage in evolution. Relatively small changes in genes, hormones, and neurones, for instance, were enough to transform Homo erectus into Homo sapiens.

And so, as bioengineers take the old sapiens body and rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance, and grow new limbs, Homo sapiens — Harari is predicting — will transform into what he calls Homo deus. This, he thinks, is a new species that will see cyborg engineering merging the organic body with non-organic devices.

Put another way: humankind is now poised to replace natural selection with intelligent design.

It was Richard Dawkins in his 1976 best-selling book, The Selfish Gene, who first popularised the idea of natural selection in the form of a science fiction narrative.

Human bodies, wrote Dawkins four decades ago, are merely survival machines: robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.

Similarly, Harari uses a science-fiction narrative in his own book. But instead of calling humans survival machines, Harari says we should see humans as algorithms that produce copies of themselves.

An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems, and reach decisions.

“The algorithms of humans are far more complex than the algorithms of, say, vending machines, because the algorithms of humans have been shaped by natural selection over millions of years,” Harari explains. “But at the basic level — at least this is a scientific view — they are similar. They work on the same mathematical principles,” he adds.

However, Harari claims the really big difference between humans and vending machines — which science at present is unable to explain — is that humans have a subjective sphere of feelings and emotions that can be surmised in one word: consciousness.

“Vending machines do not have consciousness. Nor do they have any feelings or any emotions”, says Harari, which should help to steer the thoughts of any of his readers who may have had an obsessional crush with that sexy coffee machine in the work canteen. Harari contends that scientists should be honest about their lack of understanding consciousness.

I mention to Harari that I interviewed the American philosopher Daniel Dennett three years ago.

Daniel Dennett. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Dennett has made an entire career claiming to understand the basic premise of consciousness. In brief, it draws from Darwin’s theory. If natural selection can create life through an algorithmic process, Dennett asks: why then shouldn’t the brain be able to create consciousness?

Harari, however, is not entirely convinced of this hypothesis. And to progress on this issue, we really need to fully understand it, he believes.

“At present we don't have any good scientific theory that explains why, when billions of neurons in the brain fire electric charges, how it then creates the subjective feeling of, say, love, hate or joy.

“This is why I am sceptical when people say we can upload consciousness into a computer.”

Harari believes it's important to make a clear distinction when talking about Artificial Intelligence: this does not mean artificial consciousness.

“What we are now seeing in the world is the de-coupling of intelligence from consciousness,” says Harari. “Many people confuse the two terms. In computers we see an immense development of intelligence, but zero development of consciousness. Computers today are millions of times more intelligent than in the 1950s. But they still have zero [capacity] for consciousness.”

The power of fiction and mythology is another subject that Harari covers in considerable detail throughout this latest book too.

Ancient cave paintings in India. Image via Wikimedia

Stories — so the historian's argument goes — have served as the foundations and pillars of human societies for several millennia now. And while science certainly changed the rules of the game somewhat in recent centuries, mythologies still continue to dominate humankind, he believes.

Actually, science only makes these myths stronger. In fact, thanks to computers and bioengineering, the difference between fiction and reality will continue to get even murkier in the coming years ahead, Harari believes.

He cites the current Pokémon craze as a typical example of this.

“Three-dimensional realities — which are becoming more powerful and ubiquitous in our society in recent decades — are ensuring that the boarders between virtual reality, and actual reality, are being obliterated: people can no longer see the difference,” says Harari.

“This is quite similar to what religions have been doing for thousands of years,” he says. “But the potential that computer technology is giving us is far greater than anything that traditional religion had at its disposal.”

Bio-technology is also very helpful in this regard, Harari maintains. Primarily because it gives one the power to start making mythologies and dreams come true: right now here on earth.

“You no longer have to postpone all your dreams until after you die,” says Harari. “Bioengineers are now saying: if you want to live indefinitely, have super sexual powers, or super memory power, well, with the help of technology, we can start re-engineering the human body to realise these fantasies.”

As a historian, Harari believes it's worth studying social systems of the past to understand where our future is headed.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow dedicates an enormous amount of time debating and arguing about the legitimacy of the humanist creed of liberalism; it's an ideology Harari claims is a kind of religion in itself.

During the 20th century, liberalism became the dominant ideology in western culture: infiltrating economics, politics, sexual identity, and art, in equal measure.

“Humanism believes that we each have this different inner authentic voice,” says Harari. “And that we need to just discover what that inner voice is telling us. As the saying goes: if it feels good, do it.”

The new scientific view, however, does not sing from the same hymn sheet. Science, Harari posits, says the inner voice is just a product of all kinds of biochemical processes in one's body and brain. Moreover, there is no reason to think this is the highest source of authority in the world. Therefore, in science's world view: why should we be enslaved by these inner voices?

Sometimes — according to science at least — these inner voices tell us to do very inappropriate things. They can make people suffer from psychiatric disorders, or steer us to make bad judgements in our lives about relationships, careers, and other life-changing decisions.

Therefore the number one humanist commandment (listen to what your so called “self” is telling you) is, according to Harari at least, no longer a self evident maxim. In our rapidly changing world, as technology and computers influence and shape the human mind like no other time in human history, the rules of the game have changed.

“What we are seeing here is a shift in authority: from our authentic inner selves, to external algorithms,” Harari defiantly argues.

“So what is emerging in our culture is a preference to give authority to the voice of external algorithms, and not to these inner voices. Because these external algorithms understand us better than we understand ourselves.

“This shift will allow Google, Facebook, Apple, [and other tech companies] to choose for us not only books and music. But also the best careers, the best mates, and the best political views that fit us and our real needs.”