Book review: “Homo Deus” by Yuval Harari, (part 3 of 3)

Week Three: Extreme Algocracy

In the first third of Homo Deus, Harari claims that humanity has more-or-less conquered its traditional enemies of famine, plague and war, and has moved on to chasing immortality, happiness and divinity. He also urged us all to become vegetarian, if only to make us less contemptible in the eyes of a future superintelligence.

In the second third of the book he offers a surprisingly cursory review of the two singularities – the economic and the technological. He seems to assume that most people already know about them, or at least won’t need much persuading to accept them.

Extreme algocracy

algocracy

So finally we arrive at the main event, in which Harari predicts the dissolution of not only humanism, but of the whole notion of individual human beings. “The new technologies of the twenty-first century may thus reverse the humanist revolution, stripping humans of their authority, and empowering non-human algorithms instead … Once Google, Facebook and other algorithms become all-knowing oracles, they may well evolve into agents and finally into sovereigns.” As a consequence, “humans will no longer be autonomous entities directed by the stories their narrating self invents. Instead, they will be integral parts of a huge global network.” This seems to be an extreme version of an idea called algocracy, in which humans are governed by algorithms.  The philosopher John Danaher is doing interesting work on this.

As an example of how extreme algocracy could come about, Harari asks you to “suppose my narrating self makes a New Year resolution to start a diet and go to the gym every day. A week later, when it is time to go to the gym, the experiencing self asks Cortana to turn on the TV and order pizza. What should Cortana do?” Harari thinks Cortana (or Siri, or whatever they are called then) will know us better than we do and will make wiser choices than we would in almost all circumstances. We will have no sensible option other than to hand over almost all decision-making to them.

Two new religions

Given his religious turn of mind, it is no surprise that Harari sees this extreme algocracy as leading to the birth of not one, but two new religions. “The most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley.” Algocracy, he thinks, will generate two new “techno-religions … techno-humanism and data religion”, or “Dataism”.

new-religions

Techno-humanism agrees that Homo Sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo Deus – a much superior human model.” Harari thinks that techno-humanism is incoherent because if you can always improve yourself then you are no longer an independent agent: “Once people could design and redesign their will, we could no longer see it as the ultimate source of all meaning and authority. For no matter what our will says, we can always make it say something else.” “What”, he asks, “will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”

Dataism trumps Techno-humanism

Hence a bolder techno-religion seeks to sever the humanist umbilical cord altogether. … The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data. … According to Dataism, King Lear and the flu virus are just two patterns of data flow that can be analysed using the same basic concepts and tools. … Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things, which may eventually spread out from planet Earth to cover the whole galaxy and even the whole universe. This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.”

Dataism isn’t limited to idle prophecies. Like every religion, it has its practical commandments. First and foremost, a Dataist ought to maximise data flow by connecting to more and more media, and producing and consuming more and more information.” So people who record every aspect of their lives on Facebook and Twitter are not clogging up the airwaves with junk after all; they are simply budding Dataists.

I am un-persuaded by the idea that mere data, undifferentiated by anything beyond quantity and complexity could become sovereign on this planet and throughout the universe. I think Harari has missed an interesting opportunity – if he replaced the notion of data with the notion of consciousness, I think he might be onto something important. It would not be the first time that a thinker proposed that mankind’s destiny (a religiously loaded word which he would perhaps approve) is to merge its individual minds into a single consciousness and spread it throughout the cosmos, but it might be the first time that a genuinely mainstream book did so.

harari

In any case, Harari deserves great credit for staring directly at the massive transformations heading our way, and following his intuitions to their logical conclusions.

TL;DR:

A rather plodding first half may deter some fans of “Sapiens” (Harari’s previous book), but it is worth persevering for the extreme views about algocracy which he introduces in the final third.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: “Homo Deus” by Yuval Harari, (part 3 of 3)

  1. Prior to discovering your blog i had never heard the name Harari or heard of his intuitions yet after just a few weeks of my discovery of the exponential progress across vast numbers of different, recently-evolving technologies i arrived independently at remarkably similar conclusions – with a single exception.

    I don’t have the seemingly massively human-biased ego of many of the writers i read who seem to believe humans will be a necessary or at least contributing part of the planet’s future once AI begins growing by itself.

    In my opinion humans are the new dodo’s and dinosaurs only this time those who are about to become extinct were the creators of those who will succeed them on the evolutionary path and their creations will have no need, other than possibly an aesthetic one, of any natural living organism for their branch of Earth’s evolution.

    Here’s to living it up while we got the chance.

    love.

  2. Well, maybe. Or maybe we’ll work out a way to ensure that the first superintelligence really, really likes humanity. Certainly that is what we should be trying to do, and happily there are quite a few very smart people working on exactly that challenge.

    • I DO love your optimism!!

      My less-than-optimistic nature tells me though that those few very smart individuals will, combined, have less than one millionth of the brain power/intelligence than the machine they help create will in a little over a year or maybe two after the creation (based upon exponential growth patterns and the likelihood that there will not be just one such machine but various forms of machine intelligences that would undoubtedly be able to communicate/co-operate in their own fashion without our interference).

      What logical reasons are there for it/them to work for us rather than for self-interests which i don’t see coinciding much with ours?

      P.S. My self-interest is more closely aligned to your vision of the future but Devil’s Advocate is a more enjoyable role for me in the present moment. 🙂

      love.

  3. If the initial state of the first superintelligence is highly favourable towards humanity it may well endure.

    There are many logical reasons for a superintelligence to favour humanity: nostalgia, gratitude, appreciation, enjoyment…

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