WHAT WILL THE FUTURE BRING? LOOKING FORWARD WITH ‘HOMO DEUS’
Last June, I wrote a review of Yuval Harari’s New York Times bestseller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind.” We’ve moved on to other authors in the editions since then, but in the spirit of starting a new decade, I wanted to return to Harari and his eye-opening research on the human experience. But this time, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor isn’t turning his sharp eye back on where humanity came from but instead where we’re going. For his follow up work “Homo Deus,” the historian pulls from his research on the past to project thoughts on the future. The result is a book that is at once fascinating and deeply terrifying. The drama begins with the title itself. Where homo sapiens translates to “wise man,” homo deus is Latin for “god man.” Now, “Homo Deus” isn’t literally claiming we will somehow ascend godhood in a biblical sense. But Harari is arguing that scientific advances are reaching the point where we humans increasingly have capabilities our ancestors ascribed to the deities. The world’s knowledge at our fingertips, the ability to genetically engineer crops, our capacity for nuclear war — in many ways, we as a species have already begun seizing what the author calls “the divine abilities of creation and destruction.” And we’re poised to go far further, possibly transcending what we today would recognize as human.
be a fortune teller, per say. As he states in the book’s summary, one studies history “not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.” “Homo Deus” isn’t about what will happen, but rather what may happen if we continue to make the mistakes of our past and present. On the surface, many of the changes Harari predicts sound utopic. The continued decline of armed conflict around the world, advances in medicine preserving our youth, and the eradication of famine around the globe all sound like an ideal existence. But Harari doesn’t see things that way. After all, our existence in the 21st century would be seen as utopian to people living less than 100 years ago. But ask anyone on the street if we’re living in a perfect world, and you’re sure to get an earful. “Dramatic improvements in conditions … translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment,” Harari points out, concluding “our future achievements too might leave us as dissatisfied as ever.” But being unsatisfied with positive advancements may be the least of our problems. “Homo Deus” spends a significant amount of time dwelling on trends that may have a destructive impact on the future. For example, the predictive algorithms used by sites like Amazon.com to recommend products you’re likely to buy are getting more finely tuned
every year. As the author asks, “What will happen to society, politics, and daily life when nonconscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?” And algorithms are just one trend the book explores. Everything, including growing wealth inequality, automated labor, and genetic modification comes under Harari’s academic and philosophical lens. While the potential future of these world-shaping advances are innumerable, the book reaches a single conclusion: our power to shape the future. Harari says it best, writing “If you look back to the 20th century … you could use trains and electricity to build a communist dictatorship, or a fascist regime, or a liberal democracy. The trains don’t tell you what to do with them.” If you want to be more conscious of the ways we as a species are moving toward the future, this book is a great place to start.
One thing professor Harari is clear about from the beginning is that he is not trying to
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