Notes: Homo Deus

Took me 3 years to finish this book because I kept putting it off in favor of more interesting things. The truth is, it was too real and required so much of my brain power, that I needed my entire will power to see it through (as I typically read books for leisure and not necessarily learning). This book made me think a lot so I wanted to save the notes I wrote down on my little notebook and asked my brother to type (haha). He had time because of the lockdown. I’ve not put an effort to summarize this book as I think it would be a lie to pretend that I’d be able to summarize all the ideas it put forth. Every single statement I saved here is worth a separate conversation altogether.

———————–

“Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder”

“Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way.”

“Logic bombs are malicious software codes planted in peacetime and operated at a distance.”

“In essence, terrorism is a show. Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and makes us feel as if we are sliding back into medieval chaos.”

“Humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.”

“If traditionally death was the specialty of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over.”

“If people can live longer [closer to forever], people will have much longer careers and will have to reinvent themselves again and again even at the age of ninety.”

“The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time.”

“Skepticism about the afterlife drives humankind to seek not only immortality, but also earthly happiness.”

“The average American thus uses sixty times more energy than the average Stone Age hunter gatherer.”

“It appears that our happiness bangs against some mysterious glass ceiling that does not allow it to grow despite all our unprecedented achievements.”

“The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by 2 stone pillars; one psychological and the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations. On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry.”

“What might have happened if a rare mutation had created a squirrel who, after eating a single nut, enjoys everlasting sensation of bliss?…But if so, that squirrel enjoyed an extremely happy and extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation. For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates.”

“But each year new drugs are born in the research lab of universities, pharmaceutical companies and criminal organizations, and the needs of the state keep changing. As the biochemical pursuit of happiness accelerates, so it will reshape politics, society and economics, and it will become ever harder to bring it under control.”

“Whatever you are today – be it a devout Hindu cricket player or an aspiring lesbian journalist—in an upgraded world, you will feel like a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street. You won’t belong…you cannot count on death to save you from becoming completely irrelevant.”

“An economy on everlasting growth needs endless projects—just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.”

“[on bioengineering] No clear line separates healing from upgrading.”

“This is why it is so vital to think about humanity’s new agenda. Precisely because we have some choice regarding the use of new technologies, we had better understand what is happening and make up our minds about it before it makes up our minds for us.”

“For what is the use of new knowledge if it doesn’t lead to novel behaviors? Alas, once people change the way they behave, the economic theories become obsolete.”

“This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless. But knowledge that changes behavior quickly loses its relevance.”

“This is the best reason to learn history not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course this is not total freedom—we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none.”

“Yet the rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall. Due to an uncompromising humanist belief in the sanctity of human life, we keep people alive till they reach such a pitiful state that we are forced to ask what exactly is sacred here?”

“Not that our ancestors planned on wiping out the mammoths, they were simply unaware of the consequences of their actions.”

“The Agricultural resolution gave humans the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their [animals] subjective needs.”

“What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms.”

“Theist religions justified the agricultural economy through new cosmological myths. Theist religions rewrote the script turning the universe into a bleak drama with just 2 main characters: man and God.”

“The Bible thinks it is perfectly all right to destroy all animals as punishment for the crimes of Homo Sapiens, as if the existence of giraffes, pelicans and ladybugs has lost all purpose if humans misbehave. The Bible could not imagine an alternative scenario in which God repents having created Homo sapiens, wipes this sinful ape off the face of the earth and then spends eternity enjoying the antics of ostriches, kangaroos and panda bears.”

“During the agricultural revolution, humankind silenced animals and plants. During the scientific revolution, humankind silenced God.”

“Whereas the agricultural revolution gave rise to theist religions, the scientific revolution gave rise to humanist religions in which humans replaced gods.”

“In recent years, as people began to rethink human-animal relations, such practices have come under increasing criticism. We are suddenly throwing unprecedented interest in the fate of so called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one. If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we will value humans? Would it be okay for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to kill and exploit pigs?”

“Even though the sending and receiving of each electric signal is a simple phenomenon, the interaction among all these signals creates something more complex—the stream of consciousness.”

“The whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experiences and few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities.”

“We seem to be trapped in a vicious circle. Starting with the assumption that we can believe humans when they report that they are conscious, we can identify the signatures of human consciousness, and then we use these signatures to prove that humans are indeed conscious. But if an AI self-reports that it is conscious, should we just believe it?”

“According to Turing, in the future, computers would be just like gay men in the 1950s. It won’t matter whether computers will actually be conscious or not. It will matter only what people think about it.”

“Skeptics dismissed these results, arguing that the tree rat liberated the prisoner not out of empathy, but simply in order to stop the annoying distress signals. The rats were motivated by the unpleasant sensations they felt, and they sought nothing grander than ending these sensations. Maybe. But we could say exactly the same thing about humans.”

“Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers. Intelligence and toolmaking were obviously very important as well.”

“Only sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.”

“Revolutions are usually made by small networks of agitators rather than by the masses. It is one thing to bring 100,000 people to Tahir square and quite another to run a country effectively.”

“Sapiens don’t behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions.”

“Most human kingdoms and empires were extremely unequal, yet many of them were surprisingly stable and efficient.”

“All large-scale human cooperation is ultimately based on our belief in imagined orders.”

“As long as all Sapiens in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behavior of strangers and to organize mass cooperation networks.”

“How come thirty years ago people were willing to risk nuclear holocaust because of their belief in a communist paradise? A hundred years hence, our belief in democracy and human rights might look equally incomprehensible to our descendants.”

“Really important human organizations are not necessarily clear-sighted. Much of their power rests on their ability to force their fictional beliefs on a submissive reality.”

“History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.”

“Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states, or corporations, no complex society can function.”

“But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or yardsticks. Whe new forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality.”

“Religion is any all encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimizes social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.”

“Thanks to computers and bioengineering, the difference between fiction and reality will blur as people reshape reality to match their preferred fictions.”

“Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.”

“Religions seek to cement the worldy order whereas spirituality seeks to escape it.”

“From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always traffic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions and those who fume against stultified religious structures often end up new structures in their place.”

“In truth, it is not always easy to separate ethical judgment from factual statements. Religions have the nagging tendency to turn factual statements into ethical judgments, thereby creating serious confusions and obfuscating what should have been relatively simple debates.”

“Although science has much more to contribute to ethical debates than we commonly think, there is a line it cannot cross at the least not yet. Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.”

“Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.”

“The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness.”

“Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.”

“Credit is the economic manifestation of trust.”

“Evolutionary pressures have accustomed humans to see the world as a static pie. If somebody gets a larger slice of the pie, somebody else inevitably gets a smaller slice.”

“Modern politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three principal reasons: firstly, when we produce more, we can consume more, raise our standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life. Secondly, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is needed merely to stay where we are.”

“If the economy doesn’t grow, and the pie therefore remains the same size, you can give more to the poor only by taking something from the rich. That will force you to make some very hard choices, and will probably cause a lot of resentment and even violence. If you wish to avoid hard choices, resentment and violence, you need a bigger pie.”

“This obsession with growth might appear self-evident, but only because we live in the modern world. It wasn’t like this in the past.”

“The credo of ‘more stuff’ accordingly urges individuals, firms, and governments to disregard anything that might hamper economic growth, such as preserving social equality, ensuring ecological harmony or honoring one’s parents.”

“Capitalism did make an important contribution to global harmony by encouraging people to stop viewing the economy as a zero-sum game, in which your profit is my loss, and instead see it as a win-win situation. This mutual benefit approach has probably helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.”

“In order to ensure perpetual growth, we must somehow discover an inexhaustible store of resources.”

“There are 3 kinds of resources: raw materials, energy and knowledge. Raw materials and energy are exhaustible—the more you use, the less you have. Knowledge in contrast, is a growing resource—the more you use, the more you have.”

“The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realized how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.”

“We therefore have a good chance of overcoming the problem of resource scarcity. The real nemesis of the modern economy is ecological collapse.”

“Managing this double race becomes more difficult by the year, because every stride that brings the Delhi slum dwellers close to the American dream also brings the planet closer to the brink.”

“If previously it was sufficient to invent something amazing once a century, today we need to come up with a miracle every 2 years.”

“Paradoxically, the very power of science may increase the danger, because it makes the rich complacent.”

“And what about the poor? Why aren’t they protesting? In a capitalized world the lives of the poor improve only when the economy grows. Hence they are unlikely to support any steps to reduce future ecological threats that are based on slowing down present economic growth. “

“In the modern world, we humans run the business so we are under constant pressure day and night.”

“Capitalism has thus sanctified a voracious and chaotic system that grows by leaps and bounds, without anyone understanding what is happening and whither we are rushing.”

“Yet criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and advantages.”

“The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism.”

“From infancy we are bombarded with a barrage of humanist slogans counselling us ‘listen to yourself’, ‘be true to yourself’, ‘trust yourself’, ‘follow your heart’, ‘do what feels good’.”

“Whereas medieval priests had a hotline to God and could distinguish for us between good and evil, modern therapists merely help you get in touch with our own inner feelings. This partly explains the changing of fortunes of the institution of marriage.”

“Humanism has taught us that something can be bad only if it causes somebody to feel bad.”

“Our feelings provide meaning not only for our private lives, but also for social and political processes. When we want to know who should rule the country, what foreign policy to adopt and what economic steps to take.”

“We hold democratic elections and ask people what they think about the matter at hand.”

“Art is anything people think is art, and beauty is in the eyes if the beholder.”

“Modern humanist education believes in teaching students to think for themselves.”

“It may not always succeed, but that is what humanist education seeks to do.”

“When Nietzsche declared that God is dead, this is what he meant. At least in the West, God has become an abstract idea that some accept and others reject, but it makes little difference either way.”

“Either way, the real source of authority is my own feelings. So even while saying that I believe in God, the truth is I have a much stronger belief in my own inner voice.”

“The scientific formula for knowledge led to astounding breakthroughs in astronomy, physics, medicine and multiple other disciplines. But it has had one huge drawback: it could not deal with questions of value and meaning.”

“Scientists cannot deliver such ethical judgments. Yet human societies cannot survive without such value judgments.”

“Humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences.”

“For thousands of years, when people looked at war, they saw gods, emperors, generals and great heroes. But over the last 2 centuries, the limelight has shifted onto the common soldier and his experiences.”

“Religion and technology always dance a delicate tango.”

“Technology depends on religion because every invention has many potential applications. But as the 20th century proved, you can use these very same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships and liberal democracies. Without religious convictions, the locomotives cannot decide which way to go.”

“But religions that lose touch with technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked.”

“That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to liberalism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or AI, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science.”

“Liberals value individual liberty so much because they believe humans have free will.”

“If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?”

“If organisms indeed lack free will, it implies that we can manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.”

“People may well manipulate their brains’ electric circuits not just to shoot terrorists more proficiently, but also to achieve more mundane liberal goals. However, it and when such manipulations become routine, the supposedly free will of customers will become just another product to purchase.”

“Crucially, the narrating self is duration-blind, giving no importance to the differing lengths of the 2 parts. Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the peak-end rule—it remembers only the peak moments and the end moment and assesses the whole experience according to their average.”

“So what do the patients prefer; to have a short and sharp colonoscopy or a long and careful one? There isn’t a single answer to this question because the patient has at least 2 different selves (experiencing and narrating selves) and they have different interests.”

“Evolution discovered this trick aeons before…given the unbearable torments that many women undergo during childbirth, one might think that after going through it once, no sane woman would ever agree to do so again. However, at the end of the labour and in the following days the hormonal systems secretes cortisol and beta-endorphins which reduce the pain and create the feeling of relief and sometimes even elation.”

“The different meanings ascribed to our hunger by the narrating self create very different actual experiences.”

“It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.”

“If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.”

“Not only governments fall into this trap. Business corporations often sink millions into failed enterprises, while private individuals cling to dysfunctional marriages and dead and jobs. Our narrating self would much prefer to continue suffering in the future, just so it won’t have to admit that our past suffering was devoid of all meaning. Eventually if we want to come clean about past mistakes, our narrating self must invent some trust in the plot that will infuse these mistakes with meaning.”

“We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from, and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our own genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.”

“Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament.”

“[For AIs] Intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.”

“However over the last few thousand years we humans have been specializing…which makes it easier to replace them with AI. For Ai to squeeze humans out of the job market it needs only to outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.”

“As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality.”

“Traditionally, life has been divided into 2 main parts; a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete; and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.

“In exchange for such devoted counselling services, we will just have to give up the idea that humans are individuals, and that each human has a free will determining what’s good, what’s beautiful and what is the meaning of life. 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.”

“Liberalism will collapse on the day the system knows me better than I know myself. Which is less difficult than it may sound, given that most people don’t really know themselves well.”

“In the 21st century, our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”

“The new technologies of the 21st century may thus reverse the humanist revolution, stripping humans of their authority, and empowering non-human algorithms instead.”

“The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous governmental decision, but due to a flood of mundane personal choices.”

“The great human projects of the 20th c –overcoming famine, plague and war—aimed to safeguard a universal norm of abundance, health and peace for everyone without exception. The new projects of the 21st century—gaining immortality, bliss and divinity—also hope to serve the whole of mankind. However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding, the norm they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than 19th c Europeans treated Africans.”

“Just as the spectrum of light and sound are far broader than what we humans can see and hear, so the spectrum of mental states is far larger than the average human perceives.”

“The spectrum of possible mental stats may be infinite but science has studied only 2 tiny sections of it; the subnormative and the weird (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies.”

“The second cognitive revolution, dreamed up by techno-humanists, might do the same to us, producing human cogs who communicate and process data far more effectively than ever before, but who can hardly pay attention, dream or doubt.”

“Indeed, we sometimes don’t really want to hear our authentic voice because it might disclose unwelcome secrets and make uncomfortable requests. Many people take great care not to probe themselves too deeply.”

“Technical progress has a very different agenda. It doesn’t want to listen to our inner voice. It wants to control them.”

“Dataism therefore collapses the barrier between animals and machines, and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.”

“It is dangerous to trust our future to market forces because these forces do what’s good for the market. Rather than what’s good for humankind or for the world. The hand of the market is blind as well as invisible, and left to its own devices, it may fail to do anything at all about the threat of global warming or the dangerous potential of AI.”

“Freedom of expression was given to humans and protected their right to thank and say what they wished. Freedom of information in contrast is not given to humans. It is given to information.”

“Dataism is neither liberal or humanist, but dataism isn’t anti-humanist. It has nothing against human experiences. It just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable.”

by Yuval Noah Harari

2 thoughts on “Notes: Homo Deus

  1. Hi Christine,
    Great post!

    “Every single statement I saved here is worth a separate conversation altogether.”

    How right you are… 🙂

    Dataism? … very interesting notion.

    Do you suppose the book to be Yuval Noah Harari’s attempt at playing God by (virtually) imposing his thoughts on humanity, in an effort to paint a picture of the future he would like to see? Or would you say his work here was a valid study of the human condition and it’s connection to technologies – a very likely glimpse into the future?

    I don’t normally think myself to be a Luddite, but I come away from reading these comments with the thought that any belief system that trusts in human (and consequently A.I.) algorithms may ultimately fall short of success if it chooses to lose sight of the true driving force of our reality; those powers that will always be far out of reach of a human-born breed of lesser Gods.

    The book is obviously quite deep – thanks for sharing these thought provoking snippets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Michael! Apologies for the very late reply, I was occupied with work the past few days. :\ Great point, I did watch an interview of him being asked a similar question – is he aware of the story he is trying to perpetuate himself by writing this. I think he uses facts as his premise, but he doesn’t necessarily draw a lot of conclusions. He did provide a disclaimer that this was his prediction about the future, but he couldn’t say for sure. I didn’t necessarily think he was trying to play God, but of course he is presenting an idea that is contrary to religious beliefs. The text I’ve lifted might be read out of context as well so perhaps to give a fair judgement of him you’d have to read it, or watch his interviews (he usually talks about most of his ideas during his book tours :)). I don’t think I concluded anything after reading it, it just made me think a lot

      Liked by 1 person

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