I used to believe that you should only predict how the world will look in five years or five hundred, anything in between destined to fail except if you happen to be the rare McLuhan-ish thinker.
It’s time for me to retract the five-year part. Go back to 2012 and tell me anything vital about how we live now in America seemed possible. Yes, the decline of the GOP, the anarchy of the Internet, the Reality TV culture couldn’t be viewed as positives, but that these elements and others would congeal in just this way seems implausible even now.
Freeman Dyson only speculates about the far end of the spectrum, wondering about a time when we can control evolution, human and otherwise. In “The Green Universe: A Vision,” a 2016 New York Review of Books piece, the physicist imagined a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the universe with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth,” he predicted.
Who knows? Not theoretically impossible, although we will all be dead by then, and maybe the species will be extinct if we don’t act urgently to curb climate change, something Dyson has a spotty-at-best record on.
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari speculates in the same head-spinning manner as Dyson, though his timeline is much more ambitious–perhaps too much so. The academic acknowledges he’s not an expert in AI and technology and when he makes predictions about the future, positing, for instance, that a post-human society is upon us, he takes for granted the accuracy of the experts in those fields. He argues that “you don’t really need to know how a nuclear bomb works” to understand its impact. Sure, but there’s specific science behind nukes, not so with these other areas. Harari is brilliant and fascinating, though that doesn’t mean that projections from the end of Sapiens and throughout Homo Deus are necessarily right.
In “Inevitably Posthuman,” Lawrence Klepp of the Weekly Standard is willing to wager Harari is as mistaken as Edward Bellamy and other futurists, arguing that the academic is “extrapolating current technological and social tendencies and cutting and pasting them onto the blank slate of the future, and his chances of being right are not any greater than theirs were.”
Odds are that Klepp is correct, although he lists Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the books that was “wrong” about the future, which seems to be a simplistic reading of that title and its warnings. At the very least, Harari’s writings should be similarly viewed as cautionary tales.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of futurology, the utopian and the apocalyptic. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari, like the Book of Revelation, offers a bit of both. And why not? The function of imaginary futures is to deliver us from banality. The present, like the past, may be a disappointing muddle, but the future had better be very good or very bad, or it won’t sell.
Harari, an Oxford-educated Israeli historian who teaches in Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens (2015), a provocative, panoramic view of human evolution and history upward from apedom. It became an international bestseller, recommended by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama. Harari’s style is breezy and accessible, sprinkled with allusions to pop culture and everyday life, but his perspective is coolly detached and almost Machiavellian in its unflinching realism about power, the role of elites, and the absence of justice in history. He is an unapologetic oracle of Darwin and data. And he is clearly a religious skeptic, but he practices a form of Buddhist meditation, and among the best things in his new book, like his previous one, are his observations on the varieties of religious experience.
Harari begins by assuring us that humanity is on a winning streak. Famine and plague, two historical scourges, are disappearing, and a third, war, is no longer routine statecraft. For the first time in history, more people die of eating too much than eating too little. More people succumb to ailments related to old age than to infectious diseases. Victims of all kinds of violence are, as percentages of the population, at historical lows in most places. The next stop, presumably, is Utopia.
But if it’s the best of times, it’s also the worst of times—at least for other species. In the present era, which Harari follows other writers in calling the Anthropocene epoch, a dominant, overbreeding humanity is playing the role of the dinosaur-dooming asteroid 65 million years ago. We’re transforming the planet. Many species of larger wild animals are reaching the vanishing point, while the now far more numerous domesticated animals raised for food have been bred into miserable, bloated, immobilized travesties of their wild ancestors. We live in an age of mass extinctions. The question Harari raises is whether we are going to be the next victims of our own success.
In a few decades, we might have a new caste society that, in Harari’s account, looks something like the Egypt of the pharaohs. Most of humanity, made redundant by artificial intelligence and robots, will be ushered into subservience or virtual-reality obliviousness. But there will be a rich elite whose technical mastery will bring them something approaching omniscience. They will periodically arrange complete biochemical makeovers, giving themselves perpetual youth, and they will have assorted injections and brain prosthetics to bestow unflagging confidence and intelligence and bliss. They will be beings apart, experiencing mental states unknown to all previous merely human beings. It will make them, in effect, a new species, Homo deus—just as the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago gave rise to our own human species, Homo sapiens, with unheard-of powers of abstraction and imagination, “thereby turning an insignificant African ape into the ruler of the world.”
On the other hand, this god-incubating project might just be a mad-scientist experiment that blows up in our genetically enhanced faces. Harari concedes that “revamping the human mind is an extremely complex and dangerous undertaking” since “we don’t really understand the mind.”•