Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) by Yuval Noah Harari, follows on from his 2016 book ‘Sapiens’. While Sapiens examines the history of our species, Homo Deus projects on the future. Harari explores what new technologies the world faces and how they may shape our health, well-being and belief systems. It is the latter which matters most.
Homo Deus begins by discussing the three universal challenges of the past – war, famine and disease. Modern technology has curtailed them all. I admit this seemed ironic in the era of Covid and Russo-Ukrainian War. However, the facts remain the same in 2016 as of 2022. Suicide kills more than war, obesity more than starvation. Modern medicine has curtailed the past’s most vicious diseases. We will see what comes of grain shortages and monkeypox.
Homo Deus has 7 chapters:
- The New Human Agenda – eternal happiness, perfect health and immortality.
- The Anthropocene – evolution of human society.
- The Human Spark – modern science and the nature of consciousness.
- The Storytellers – rehashes many of the ideas laid out in Sapiens, in particular our ‘intersubjective’ reality.
- The Odd Couple – the difference between science and religion.
- The Modern Covenant – how modernity trades meaning for power.
- The Humanist Revolution – our modern belief system.
- The Time Bomb in the Laboratory – how new scientific discoveries will challenge our humanist worldview.
- The Great Decoupling – the power of the AI algorithms.
- The Ocean of Consciousness – techno-humanism, what it is and how it might evolve
- The Data Religion – how data drives the universe.
To discuss the future, Homo Deus delves into the past and present to explain where we might go next. It highlights profound ethical considerations; discussing philosophy, science and evolution in the spheres of biological engineering and AI.
The book’s second half is particularly chilling. AI algorithms are outpacing human beings. Not only can they play chess, solve equations or drive better than us, but computers can surpass people in realms we deem quintessentially human, such as art and music. When machines do everything better than humans, what value do we have? The question should concern us more than our ability to reverse ageing, travel in space or edit our genes. Most chillingly, it is inevitable.
Harari’s narration comes across as cold and detatched, as if he were an objective algorithm detailing the history of intelligent beings, and not a Homo Sapiens himself. He maintains the accessible style of Sapiens when tackling sophisticated concepts – which is most of the book. The style is accessible, but the tone is scientific. By reading between the lines, however, one sees Harari is only describing our state of affairs; what the reader makes of it is up to them.
Homo Deus is an intriguing book for anyone interested in the future of our species. Harari is an historian, however, not a life scientist, and we have more data on the past than future. For these reasons, Homo Deus does not hold up to Sapiens, nor should it be the authority on the implications of AI and the changing pace of the planet. It still remains a good read.