«Homo Deus» and the Impact of Digitalization on Society

Synpulse Management Consulting's “The Magazine”

Digitalization surrounds us all the time. We depend on it and we are enhancing it. With
modern technology, humankind will adopt godlike skills, which even might allow us to
postpone death. In his worldwide bestseller «Homo Deus», the historian Yuval Noah Harari
philosophizes about how our lives will change in the course of digitalization.

Wherein do you see the link from deity – which you describe in
your book – to a new stage of human evolution in the age of
digitalization and the Internet of Things?

Homo Deus means «man-god». It refers to humans who
possess divine abilities. We are not there yet, but we are on the
way to become gods. I mean this literally. We will acquire
abilities that traditionally were thought to be divine abilities –
in particular, the ability to engineer and create life. Just as in
the Bible God created animals, plants, and humans according
to his wishes, in the 21st century we will probably learn how to
design and manufacture animals, plants, and even humans
according to our wishes. This will not just be the greatest revolution
in history, but the greatest revolution in biology since
the appearance of life on earth. For four billion years, the laws
of natural selection governed life. No matter what strange and
bizarre shapes life undertook, it remained confined to the
organic realm. Now science might replace natural selection
with intelligent design and might even start creating nonorganic
life forms with the help of genetic engineering. We will
use direct brain-computer interfaces in order to create cyborgs
(beings that combine organic parts with inorganic parts) and
we may even succeed in creating completely inorganic beings.
The main products of the 21st century economy will not be
textiles, vehicles, and weapons but bodies, brains, and minds
instead. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural
selection, science is ushering in the era of inorganic life
shaped by intelligent design.

Do you think that there are limits to technological development?

I don’t know. Given enough time, almost anything might be achieved.

In your opinion, from which technological invention has
humankind already benefited in this age of digitalization?

From many inventions. Thanks to new technologies, today
more people are dying from eating too much than from eating
too little and more people are dying of old age than from infectious
diseases for the first time in history. There are still billions
of poor people in the world suffering from malnutrition, but
mass famines are becoming rare. In the past, every few years
there was a drought or flooding or some other natural catastrophe,
food production sharply declined, and millions of
people starved to death. Today, humankind produces so much
food and can transport it so quickly and cheaply, that natural
disasters by themselves will not result in mass starvation anymore.
There are no longer any natural famines in the world –
there are only human-made ones. The difference between earlier
days and today is, that humankind would be capable of preventing
such famines, e.g. through politics and sustainable behavior.

Looking ahead, humankind will have huge power and responsibility
due to digitalization. How do you think people will use
that power in the future, when visualizing the best case?

Technology could certainly help us to deal with the major
problems of the 21st century. Take climate change, for
example. The only way to stop climate change is to stop
economic growth. However, no government can do that and
remain in power. Therefore the only realistic hope of stopping
climate change is to develop new eco-friendly technologies
that can sustain economic growth without destroying the
Diseases are another obvious example. By constantly monitoring
your body with biometric sensors and by sharing and comparing
your data with those of millions of others, corporations
and governments could offer you much better healthcare than
ever before. They could e.g. detect cancer when it is only
beginning to spread in your body and when it is very easy to
cure. They could similarly warn you against impending heart
attacks, tell you exactly what to eat and when, and advise you
about what kind of climate and work suits you best. However,
to enjoy such wonderful healthcare, you will have to give up
your privacy, and allow the government or the corporation to
constantly monitor you and to know you better than you know
yourself. It is a hard and frightening choice.

What social consequences does progressive digitalization
have in your opinion? Will there be bigger class distinctions in
the future? How will those differences become noticeable as
seen in concrete examples?

There is a danger that digitalization will result in much bigger
class differences. Economic and political power might be
concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. Most people might
become economically useless and politically powerless. As
biotechnology improves moreover, it will be possible to extend
human lifespans and to upgrade human abilities, but the new
wonder treatments might be expensive, and might not be
freely available for everybody. Therefore human society in the
21st century may be the most unequal in history since the
upper classes will not only be richer than the rest of humankind,
but will also live much longer and be far more talented.
For the first time in history, economic inequality will be translated
into biological inequality. Hence humankind will split into biological
castes – an upper caste of upgraded superhumans,
and a massive lower class of useless people. We may
eventually enter a post-work world.

Will it soon be possible to postpone death using modern technology?
What will the life expectancy of humankind then be?

For most of history, death was seen as a metaphysical phenomenon.
We die because God decreed it. People believed
that death could only be defeated by some grand metaphysical
gesture such as Christ’s Second Coming. Lately science has
redefined death as a technical problem and believes that
every technical problem has some technical solution. We do
not need to wait for God in order to overcome death, a couple
of geeks in a lab could do this. A number of very serious scientists
believe that we should at least be able to dramatically
increase human lifespans in the 21st century, even if we don’t
overcome death altogether. They point out that, in the 20th
century we have doubled the average life expectancy from
about 35/40 to 75. Thus, we should at least be able to do so
again. Personally, I am more skeptical. It is true that over the
last 100 years the average life expectancy has doubled, but it is
dangerous to extrapolate and conclude that it will be easy to
double it again. In pre-modern societies, the average life
expectancy wasn’t high, because people died young from malnutrition,
infectious diseases, and violence. Yet those who
escaped famine, plague, and war could live well into their seventies
and eighties, even in ancient times. The average natural
lifespan of «Homo sapiens» seems to be somewhere between
70 and 90. So far, modern medicine has not extended this by
one single year. For that, medicine will need to reengineer the
most fundamental structures and processes of the human
body. I doubt we can do that by 2050 or 2100. However, within
another century or two, it might well be possible to grant
unlimited lifespans, at least to the rich, who could afford the
necessary treatments. Therefore, my position is that humankind
has the potential to overcome old age and death, but it
will probably take a few centuries rather than a few decades.

In which social areas have humans already become unnecessary?
In which areas will humans always be essential?

Many professions are already in the process of disappearing –
from farm workers to travel agents. I do not think there is any
area in which humans will always have an edge. Automation
threatens to replace not just taxi drivers and textile workers,
but also teachers, lawyers, and doctors. For example, the first
and foremost task of most physicians is to diagnose diseases
correctly and then suggest the best available treatment.

If I arrive at the clinic complaining of fever and diarrhea, I might
be suffering from food poisoning. My physician has only a few
minutes to make a correct diagnosis and to cross-reference
this information with my medical history and with the vast
world of human maladies. The same symptoms might result
from a stomach virus, cholera, cancer, or some unknown new
disease. Alas, not even the most diligent doctor can remember
all my previous ailments and checkups. Similarly, no doctor
can be familiar with every illness or drug, or read every new
article published in every medical journal. To top it all, doctors
are sometimes tired or hungry or perhaps even sick, which
affects their judgments.
Now consider IBM’s famous Watson – an artificial intelligence
system that is now groomed to do more serious work, particularly
in diagnosing diseases. An Artificial Intelligence (AI) such
as Watson has enormous potential advantages over human
doctors. In its databanks, it can hold information about every
known illness and medicine in history. It can update these
databanks daily, not only with the findings of new researches,
but also with medical statistics gathered from every linked-in
clinic and hospital in the world. Watson will also be intimately
familiar with not only my entire genome and my day-to-day
medical history, but also with the genomes and medical histories
of my parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, and friends. It
will know instantly whether I visited a tropical country recently,
whether I have recurring stomach infections, whether there
have been cases of cancer in my family, or whether people all
over town are complaining about diarrhea this morning.
Besides, Watson will never be tired, hungry, or sick, and will
have all the time in the world for me. I could sit comfortably on
my sofa at home and answer hundreds of questions, telling it
exactly how I feel. Indeed, an AI system will not need to wait
until I feel pain and start complaining. It could monitor my
blood pressure, heart rate, sugar level, and brain activity 24
hours a day via biometric sensors. Therefore, it could diagnose
diseases when they are just beginning, and when it is still
cheap and very easy to deal with them. A plethora of tough
technical problems still prevent AI systems like Watson and its
ilk from displacing most doctors tomorrow morning. Yet these
technical problems – however difficult – only need to be solved
once. The training of a human physician is a complicated and
expensive process that lasts years, and in the end, all you get
is one doctor. If you want two doctors, you have to repeat the
entire process from scratch. In contrast, if and when you solve
the technical problems which are still hampering AI from displacing
most doctors, you will get an infinite number of doctors,
available 24/7 in every corner of the world.

Will Artificial Intelligence ever be able to replace human emotions
and empathy?

As explained in the example above, AI will be able to acquire
emotional intelligence and to understand human emotions
even better than we can. Sticking to the Watson example, some
people argue that an algorithm could never replace human
empathy. If your CT indicates that you have cancer, would you
prefer to receive the news from a cold machine, or from a human
doctor attentive to your emotional state? How about receiving
the news from an attentive machine that tailors its words to
your feelings and personality? Emotions are biochemical phenomena
and an AI system could detect your emotions with the
same accuracy as it detects your tumors. A human doctor recognizes
your emotional state by analyzing external signals such as
your facial expression and your tone of voice. An AI system could
not only analyze such external signals more accurately than a
human but simultaneously analyze numerous internal indicators
by monitoring your blood pressure, brain activities,
and countless other biometric data. Hence, an intelligent IT
system could know exactly how you feel and could then tell you
precisely what you need to hear in just the right tone of voice.
For all their vaunted emotional intelligence, human beings are
often overwhelmed by their own emotions and react in counterproductive
ways. For example, when encountering an angry
person, they start shouting, and when listening to a fearful person,
they let their own anxieties run wild. Watson would never
succumb to such temptations. Having no emotions of its own,
it would always offer the most appropriate response to your
emotional state. However, it seems far less likely that AI will
develop emotions of its own. We should not confuse intelligence
with consciousness. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.
Consciousness is the ability to feel things, such as pain, joy,
love, and anger. In mammals, the two go together. Consequently,
high intelligence has always gone hand in hand with consciousness
until now. However, intelligence is now decoupling
from consciousness. We are developing non-conscious algorithms
that can play chess, drive vehicles, fight wars, and diagnose
diseases better than we can. Science fiction movies generally
assume that in order to match and surpass human
intelligence, computers will have to develop consciousness. But
real science tells a different story. There might be several alternative
ways leading to super-intelligence, only some of which
pass through the straits of consciousness. For millions of years,
organic evolution has been slowly sailing along the conscious
route. The evolution of inorganic computers may completely
bypass these narrow straits, charting a different and much
quicker course to super-intelligence.

In the course of your life, which technological achievements
affected you significantly?

I value antibiotics and vaccinations highly because without
the help of modern medicine I would probably have died long
ago. I also value the invention of the internet since I met my
husband online.

Could you imagine living with a yet undetected native tribe in
the Brazilian primeval forest in harmony with nature and without
any form of technology?

At 41, there is no way I can acquire the necessary skills to
survive in a primeval forest. However, if I could live as a
hunter-gatherer there, I would most value the physical and
mental skills such a lifestyle develops. In particular the ability
to pay attention, to smell, to see, and to hear. When ancient
foragers and peasants found a mushroom, for example, they
ate it with the utmost attention, aware of every little nuance of
flavor, which could distinguish an edible mushroom from its
poisonous cousin. Today we do not need such keen awareness.
We can walk into a supermarket while texting messages
and buy any of a thousand different dishes. Whatever we
choose – Italian pizza or Chinese noodles – we are likely to eat
in haste in front of the screen, checking emails, or watching
some television show, while hardly paying attention to the
actual taste. I would also like to note that all human societies –
including hunter-gatherer tribes in the primeval forest – rely
on some sort of technology (bows and arrows, flint knives,
clothes, etc.). Similarly, it is a fantasy to imagine that huntergatherers
have always lived «in harmony with nature». Even
before the Agricultural Revolution, human hunter-gatherers
had driven to extinction about half of the large land mammals
of the planet. Mammoths, for example, were eliminated by
hunter-gatherers rather than by modern industry.

Do you sometimes take a deliberate timeout from our technological

I dedicate two hours every day to meditation, and every year
I take a long meditation retreat for 30, 45 or 60 days. I practice
Vipassana meditation, which I have learned from a teacher
called S. N. Goenka. Vipassana is a method for observing the
mind in a systematic and objective manner. The mind is
constantly in contact with body sensations. In every moment
we always experience some sensation within the body,
and the mind reacts to it. Even when we think that we are
reacting to an email or a tweet or a YouTube video, we are in
fact responding to some bodily sensation that is present here
and now. In Vipassana one trains oneself to observe the body
sensations and the mind’s reactions to them in an orderly and
objective way, thereby uncovering our deepest mental
patterns, and helping us to see reality as it is rather than our
own imaginations. Thus meditation is a timeout from technological
society, but it is not an escape from reality. It is getting
in touch with it. At least for two hours a day I actually observe
reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed
by emails and tweets and funny cat videos.