HOMO DEUS by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage Books, 2017)
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Subtitled ‘a brief history of tomorrow’, Harari’s sobering study of where humankind is heading envisages a future in which secular sapiens are increasingly marginalised by the by now unstoppable march of technological innovation.

It is a quirk of human nature that we all like to think of ourselves as individuals. In reading this book you’ll quickly realise that we’re not as unique and irreplaceable as we’d like to imagine.

Although each of us has a unique DNA, the evidence of our online activity proves that our goals, desires and actions follow relatively rigid and wholly predictable patterns .

We learn how algorithms can already be written to replicate the majority of human behavior and computers can even be programmed to undertake creative tasks like making art or music. Machines can beat chess masters and it’s long been evident that humans are unable to compete with the scope and speed of artificial intelligence.

There are not (yet) robots with the capacity to dream, love, hate or deceive but for most work tasks these qualities are handicaps rather than assets. Harari notes that “99% of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs”. This explains why the author bluntly affirms that “intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional”.

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Readers of Homo Deus are unlikely to buy T-shirts like this! 

In consequence, AI seems destined to take over most of the gainful employment which has, up till now, given humans, if not fulfillment, at least with something to occupy their time. As this enforced leisure is unlikely to accompanied by greater personal wealth the potential for a crisis of identity and purpose is obvious.

Harari adopts a cheery, anecdotal tone but offers few reassurances on this score. He writes how “we want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head”. Instead, he gives it to us straight: “Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”.

The quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth is indicative of the human need for an eloquent and poetic setting for the tragedy of our existence. There’s a parallel to this in Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark which I am currently reading. Gray writes: “A story can always end happily by stopping at a cheerful moment. Of course in nature the only end is death, but death hardly ever happens when people are at their best. That is why we like tragedies. They show men ending energetically with their wits about them and deserving to do it”.

Hamlet famously asked himself the question ‘To be or not to be?’ and on the basis of the information contained in Homo Deus one might to tempted to advise the Dane to opt for the second of these two options. If our lives have no meaning what is the point in living?

Harari presents some stark truths but he is not setting out to encourage suicide or present reasons for total despair. He explains why and how scientists are achieving the kind of advances that have previously been considered to be the sole province of a supreme being.

All the indications are that religious faith may delay but will not halt these experiments. Throughout, Harari adopts an unambiguously atheistic perspective. “God is dead”, he confirms blithely “it’s just taking a while to get rid of his body” and he further makes the accurate observation that the greatest threat to the future of humanity is not from non believers but from religious extremists clinging desperately to a blind faith in some cosmic master plan in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

To substitute the fiction of the holy trinity, science is now occupied in seeking its own version of immortality, bliss and divinity. Medical advances have eliminated or contained most diseases to the point that we have now doubled life expectancy. The cure for cancer and AIDS is still elusive but there is good reason to expect that these will also be conquered.

Slowing down or even reversing the ageing process used to be the stuff of Sci-Fi novels but , having cracked the human code, it is only ethical reservations that have stopped humans playing god. Cloning and genetic engineering is widely used on animals and it’s only a question of time before this extends to human beings in a significant way. History shows that moral concerns get swept aside in the name of self-interest and/or for economic gain.

Since many of the arguments and predictions of Homo Deus are the same of those in Sapiens, reading the two back to back (as I did) means that there’s a certain amount of repetition. Nevertheless I’d still recommend reading both unless you’re looking for the meaning of life in which case I can tell you  ……. spoiler alert …….. there isn’t one.

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