black book cover with red font

Homo Deus: notes on Yuval Noah Harrari 2017 book

Advancements in artificial intelligence could bring about a world in which humans are secondary to self-learning algorithms.

That’s one of the big themes in the 2017 book Homo Deus, a followup by historian and popular intellectual Yuval Noah Harrari on his 2014 book Sapiens. Even more than his first, Homo Deus has been criticized for its wide-sweeping generalizations and his science generalizations. Harrari is one of the chief architects of a kind of techno-pessism so I still find his approach helpful to follow.

He’s a great storyteller, and beyond any debunked science, he engages with concepts I found interesting. I’m sharing notes here for myself. The book is worth reading if only to grasp a view on the treacherous waters some fear are coming due to technical advancements.

Here are notes for my own purposes:

  • Famine, plague and war are no longer assumed to happen, now they’re viewed as mistakes. That’s a fundamental shift reflecting the new age we are in.
  • In 1694, millions of French residents died of starvation while “in 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition.”
  • On March 5 1520, slave Francisco de Eguia (is said to have) brought smallpox to Cempoallan, Mexico. In September 1520, it reached Tenochtitla. For context, in March 1520, 22 million indigenous people lived in Mexico. By December that was reduced to 14 million. By 1580 it was just 2 million
  • January 18 1778, Cook arrived on Hawaii with 500k residents. By 1853, just 70k survived
  • 1979 smallpox eradicated
  • “In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them die due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder”
  • War isn’t as profitable as it once was: you can acquire oil fields through war but you cannot acquire intelligence
  • Jeremy Bentham (1748-1842): supreme goal for the state and markets is for maximum happiness for maximum people
  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1868) on happiness being in-born, so too today’s understanding of biochemistry is happiness and pain. We control in different ways (Ritalin and LSD); this will continue to pursue controlled happiness.
  • Epicurious 2300 years ago wrote about happiness being in-born and not from heavenly or gods.
  • Buddha argued pursuit of short term happiness is empty, as its short term. It is an internal journey
  • “This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless. But knowledge that changes behavior quickly loses its relevance.”
  • If we don’t think AI should ever subjugate humans why do humans subjugate pigs?
  • Large scale, flexible cooperation is the ultimate human strength. (Honeybees and ants are large-scale but not flexible; chimpanzees and elephants are flexible but not large-scale)
  • If humans are special only for our collective action then is any one of us actually more special than a chimpanzee outside of stories we tell? A beehive is more powerful than a butterfly but we don’t think of the bee as more hallowed than a butterfly
  • Large groups operate differently than small (more egalitarian) groups. Large groups believe stories. It’s why Ultimate Game of equal giving doesn’t follow at a societal level (we allow more inequality)
  • Subjective and objective and inter subjective (money and religion)
  • “No other animal can stand up to us not because they lack a soul or a mind but because they lack the necessary imagination”
  • Sobek and other ancient gods (that owned lands and levied taxes by priests in their name) are quite similar to Google and Microsoft today (fictitious entities from stories we tell ourselves and people do action in their name). Elvis Presley is Ike an Egyptian pharaoh. The story goes beyond the actual man. Brands are intersubjective fictions that allow humans to do remarkable things
  • Religion is any all encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values
  • “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him”
  • If an Inuit believes life begins after naming a child and they commit infanticide due to economic and health concerns, they might still believe life is sacred, just like Christians believe it is at conception and liberals believe at birth. These are stories we tell.
  • Modernity trades meaning for power (we don’t believe in Heaven but we can research ways to make living on earth more Heaven like). This keeps us balance by between a belief in control and risk of falling into the abyss of nothingness
  • Capitalism’s religious fundamental belief is economic growth and this has created miracles but its perpetual nature means we all must invest in productivity gains
  • “The greatest scientific discovery was ignorance.” The enlightenment’s focus on that which we do not know has fueled everything since (instead of the Bible offering all answers or any other religion)
  • Why didn’t society breakdown as wealthy countries became less religious? Humanism, or a new modern religion that believes in the sanctity of life. This has been a new way to find meaning in life as we’ve traded old meaning for power. Instead of gods giving the cosmos meaning for humans now humans themselves give cosmos meaning
  • The primary humanist commandment is to create your own meaning in a meaningless world
  • Religions thrive when they respond to technology, the threats that social upheaval portends. Christianity gave the idea of every man equal under god; Marx thought of industrial revolutions impact; liberalism gave us individual rights. With time religion evolves into being a reactive rather than a creative force
  • If the humanist belief is that feelings and free choice must be defended what happens when we realize that there is no free choice and instead we are designing and manipulating that choice with AI and data science?
  • Our desires come from firing neurons powered by determinism and/or randomness but we do not choose our desires; we act on our desires. (This point of his is challenged by many in science)
  • There Is no “I,” as the experiencing and narrating self are somewhat different. The narrator self uses “peak-end” memories not an average of the experience itself
  • It would be difficult to create a AI robot to replace hunter gatherers but now our professional work is very niche
  • Socialism responded to industrial revolution and liberalism adopted many socialist tenets (free public education)
  • Instead of liberalism giving all the same equal outcome we weight all experiences th same (the peasant and the billionaire each should get just one vote)
  • Techno humanism believes technology will enhance super humans
  • Dataism believes humans can no longer turn data into information into knowledge into wisdom because there’s too much data Now. Trust in big data
  • The extreme of centralizing taxes and too many decisions with government ensures too much power and Decision making with one entity (government) rather than distributing
  • “Government has become mere administration. It manages the country but it no longer leads it.” (Because data flows overwhelm and so no coalition or grand vision can be sustained)
  • Capitalism and democracy won not because they are “good” but because they allowed for freer flow of information
  • Dataism’s key value : freedom of information and its flows
  • Aaron Swartz was the first martyr of dataism
  • Humans are just outdated organic grouping of algorithms , once state of the art. “ for millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world.” Honed thru evolution