Yuval Harari: Please Recognize Your Own Unacknowledged Fictions

Lent, Jeremy | January 10, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Harari is fêted at the World Economic Forum and many other watering holes of the global elite

This blog was originally published on December 13, 2018 in Patterns of Meaning 


Yuval Harari’s writings explode many fictions on which modern civilization is based. However, his own unacknowledged fictions perpetuate dangerous myths. In this article, I urge Harari to recognize his own implicit stories, and by doing so, step up to his full potential role in helping shape humanity’s future. 


When Yuval Noah Harari speaks, the world listens. Or at least, the world’s reading public. His first two blockbusters, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have sold 12 million copies globally, and his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury, is on bestseller lists everywhere. His fans include Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, he’s admired by opinion shapers as diverse as Sam Harris and Russell Brand, and he’s fêted at the IMF and World Economic Forum.

A galvanizing theme of Harari’s writing is that humans are driven by shared, frequently unacknowledged fictions. Many of these fictions, he rightly points out, underlie the concepts that organize society, such as the value of the US dollar or the authority of nation states. In critiquing the current vogue topic of “fake news,” Harari piercingly observes that this is nothing new, but has been around for millennia in the form of organized religion.

However, apparently unwittingly, Harari himself perpetuates unacknowledged fictions that he relies on as foundations for his own version of reality. Given his enormous sway as a public intellectual, Harari risks causing considerable harm by perpetuating these fictions. Like the traditional religious dogmas that he mocks, his own implicit stories wield great influence over the global power elite as long as they remain unacknowledged. I invite Harari to examine them here. By recognizing them as the myths they actually are, he could potentially transform his own ability to help shape humanity’s future.

Fiction #1: Nature Is a Machine

One of Harari’s most striking prophecies is that artificial intelligence will come to replace even the most creative human endeavors, and ultimately be capable of controlling every aspect of human cognition. The underlying rationale for his prediction is that human consciousness—including emotions, intuitions, and feelings—is nothing more than a series of algorithms, which could all theoretically be deciphered and predicted by a computer program. Our feelings, he tells us, are merely “biochemical mechanisms” resulting from “billions of neurons calculating” based on algorithms honed by evolution.

The idea that humans—and indeed all of nature—can be understood as very complicated machines is in fact a uniquely European cultural myth that arose in the 17th century and has since taken hold of the popular imagination. In the heady days of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes declared he saw no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The preferred machine metaphor is now the computer, with Richard Dawkins (apparently influencing Harari) writing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” but the idea remains the same—everything in nature can ultimately be reduced to its component parts and understood accordingly.

Descartes’ view of nature as a machine justified the brutal practice of vivisection.
Descartes’ view of nature as a machine justified the brutal practice of vivisection.

 

This myth, however attractive it might be to our technology-driven age, is as fictional as the theory that God created the universe in six days. Biologists point out principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its behavior: the information it transmits doesn’t exist separately from its material construction. As prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio states in The Strange Order of Things, Harari’s assumptions are “not scientifically sound” and his conclusions are “certainly wrong.”

The dangers of this fiction arise when others, along with Harari, base their ideas and plans on this flawed foundation. Believing nature is a machine inspires a hubristic arrogance that technology can solve all humanity’s problems. Molecular biologists promote genetic engineering to enhance food production, while others advocate geo-engineering as a solution to climate breakdown—strategies fraught with the risk of massive unintended consequences. Recognizing that natural processes, from the human mind to the entire global ecosystem, are complex, nonlinear, and inherently unpredictable, is a necessary first step in crafting truly systemic solutions to the existential crises facing our civilization.

Fiction #2: “There Is No Alternative”

When Margaret Thatcher teamed up with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to impose the free-market, corporate-driven doctrine of neoliberalism on the world, she famously used the slogan “There Is No Alternative” to argue that the other two great ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism and communism—had failed, leaving her brand of unrestrained market capitalism as the only meaningful choice.

Astonishingly, three decades later, Harari echoes her caricatured version of history, declaring how, after the collapse of communism, only “the liberal story remained.” The current crisis, as Harari sees it, is that “liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face.” We now need to “craft a completely new story,” he avers, to respond to the turmoil of modern times.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during Ronald Reagan Visits The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during Ronald Reagan Visits The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage) Harari echoes Margaret Thatcher’s myth that “There Is No Alternative” which helped launch the neoliberal era of global politics.

 

Sadly, Harari seems to have missed the abundant, effervescent broth of inspiring visions for a flourishing future developed over decades by progressive thinkers across the globe. He appears to be entirely ignorant of the new foundations for economics proffered by pioneering thinkers such as Kate Raworth; the exciting new principles for a life-affirming future within the framework of an Ecological Civilization; the stirring moral foundation established by the Earth Charter and endorsed by over 6,000 organizations worldwide; in addition to countless other variations of the “new story” that Harari laments is missing. It’s a story of hope that celebrates our shared humanity and emphasizes our deep connection with a living earth.

The problem is not, as Harari argues, that we are “left without any story.” It is, rather, that the world’s mass media is dominated by the same overpowering transnational corporations that maintain a stranglehold over virtually all other aspects of global activity, and choose not to give a platform to the stories that undermine the Thatcherian myth that neoliberalism is still the only game in town.

Harari, with his twelve million readers and reverential following among the global elite, is well positioned to apprise mainstream thinkers of the hopeful possibilities on offer. In doing so, he would have the opportunity to constructively influence the future that—as he rightly points out—holds terrifying prospects without a change in direction. Is he ready for this challenge? First, perhaps, he would need to investigate the assumptions underlying Fiction #3.

Fiction #3: Life Is Meaningless—It’s Best to Do Nothing

Yuval Harari is a dedicated meditator, sitting for two hours a day to practice vipassana(insight) meditation, which he learned from the celebrated teacher Goenka. Based on Goenka’s tutelage, Harari offers his own version of the Buddha’s original teaching: “Life,” he writes, “has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning.” In answer to the question as to what people should do, Harari summarizes his view of the Buddha’s answer: “Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

As a fellow meditator (though not as steadfast as Harari) and great admirer of Buddhist principles, I share Harari’s conviction that Buddhist insight can help reduce suffering on many levels. However, I am concerned that, in distilling the Buddha’s teaching to these sound bites, Harari gives a philosophical justification to those who choose to do nothing to avert the imminent humanitarian and ecological catastrophes threatening our future.

The statement that “life has no meaning” seems to arise more from the modern reductionist ontology of physicist Steven Weinberg than the mouth of the Buddha. To suggest that “people don’t need to create any meaning” contradicts an evolved instinct of the human species. As I describe in in my own book The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, human cognition drives us to impose meaning into the universe, a process that’s substantially shaped by the culture a person is born into. However, by recognizing the underlying structures of meaning instilled in us by our own culture, we can become mindful of our own patterns of thought, thus enabling us to reshape them for more beneficial outcomes—a process I call “cultural mindfulness.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh: a leading proponent of the principle of engaged Buddhism.
Thích Nhất Hạnh: a leading proponent of the principle of engaged Buddhism.

 

There are, in fact, other interpretations of the Buddha’s core teachings that lead to very different distillations—ones that cry out “Do Something!”, inspiring meaningful engagement in worldly activities. The principle of dependent origination, for example, emphasizes the intrinsic interdependence of all aspects of existence, and forms the basis for the politically engaged Buddhism of prominent monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Another essential Buddhist practice is metta, or compassion meditation, which focuses on identifying with the suffering of others, and resolving to devote one’s own life energies to reducing that suffering. These are sources of meaning in life that are fundamentally consistent with Buddhist principles.

Fiction #4: Humanity’s Future Is a Spectator Sport

A distinguishing characteristic of Harari’s writing, and one that may account for much of his prodigious success, is his ability to transcend the preconceptions of everyday life and offer a panoramic view of human history—as though he’s orbiting the earth from ten thousand miles and transmitting what he sees.  Through his meditation practice, Harari confides, he has been able to “actually observe reality as it is,” which gave him the focus and clear-sightedness to write Sapiens and Homo Deus. He differentiates his recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century from his first two books by declaring that, in contrast to their ten thousand-mile Earth orbit, he will now “zoom in on the here and now.”

While the content of his new book is definitely the messy present, Harari continues to view the world as if through a scientist’s objective lens. However, Harari’s understanding of science appears to be limited to the confines of Fiction #1—“Nature Is a Machine”—which requires complete detachment from whatever is being studied. Acknowledging that his forecast for humanity “seems patently unjust,” he justifies his own moral detachment, retorting that “this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto.”

In recent decades, however, systems thinkers in multiple scientific disciplines have transformed this notion of pristine scientific objectivity. Recognizing nature as a dynamic, self-organized fractal complex of nonlinear systems, which can only be truly understood in terms of how each part relates to each other and the whole, they have shown how these principles apply, not just to the natural world, but also our own human social systems. A crucial implication is that the observer is part of what is being observed, with the result that the observer’s conclusions and ensuing actions feed back into the very system being investigated.

This insight holds important ethical implications for approaching the great problems facing humanity. Once you recognize that you are part of the system you’re analyzing, this raises a moral imperative to act on your findings, and to raise awareness of others regarding their own intrinsic responsibilities. The future is not a spectator sport—in fact, every one of us is on the team and can make a difference in the outcome.

Yuval Harari: please step up

Yuval Harari—I urge you to recognize your own fictions. It’s clear to me that you are a caring, compassionate person of high integrity. You’ve shown your willingness to advocate on behalf of those who suffer, as in Sapiens where you brought attention to the atrocity of factory farming. You must be aware that sixty percent of all wild animals on Earth have been annihilated since the decade when you were born; that UN scientists give us just twelve yearsto avoid a point of no return in our climate emergency.

The Earth itself now needs your advocacy. Please recognize that nature is alive; that there are alternative stories on offer; that there is a moral imperative at this moment to engage in helping turn around our civilization’s path to destruction. If you’re interested to consider these questions, I offer you scholarly sources here for further inquiry. There are twelve million people, including influential power brokers, who would respond to your intellectual leadership. I implore you to step up and play your full potential role in helping shape humanity’s future. 


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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  • Arnold Byron

    I read the article and the comments to date. I am not familiar with Mr. Harari, Mr. Lent or any of the commentators. I too could spend my comment writing about how religion ought to be different than it is and about how science ought to be different than it is. Artificial intelligence is neat to daydream about. Geo engineering schemes may be more pertinent to solving the global warming crisis than AI, but the reality is that we are where we are and we have what we have. To solve the problems we can only use the tools and supplies that are available. What tools do we have?

    As interesting and as pertinent to the topics of global warming and overpopulation, that the article and the comments are, there is no comment about the actual physical work that millions of people will have to do to build the infrastructure that will end the use of fossil fuel and transition humanity to green energy; there is no comment on how humanity will reach negative population growth to take the stress off f the available resources. The IPCC has given us twelve years to show that we can begin building infrastructure and begin reducing the population in a nonviolent, non-eugenic, fair, safe and humane manner. Yet we have not even put anyone in charge to tell us our work assignments.

    To resolve the planetary problems that humanity is facing the first step is to put some authority in charge. The second step is to free up the money needed to pay the workers and the suppliers. The third step is to be compliant with all the new rules and new laws that will have to be written to establish a new way of living. If humanity is going to save itself it must be willing to usher in a new paradigm. This can all be done with the tools and engineering that we have available. Nothing new will have to be invented. We just have to roll up our sleeves, follow instructions and get to work.

    The nations will have to create a global office that will be put in charge. I want the colleges and universities to form an association that will do the work to make it possible for the nations to agree to create a global office. The writers and commenters of blog sites such as this need to put all esoteric arguing aside and begin contemplating on how to do actual solutions. The time is short. Some of my ideas are at https://mahb.stanford.edu/?s=A+Plan+for+the+Nations

  • Max Kummerow

    And we might mention limits to growth. Population and use of resources declining (reversing growth) will be the feasible path to future well-being for humans and ecosystems. Herman Daly is another major steady state thinker. And John Stuart Mills’ 1848 essay “On the stationary state” remains a convincing statement advocating a world of quality rather than quantity. And see Daly’s review of Kerryn Higgs’ book Collision Course on the steadystate.org website.

  • Earon Davis

    Excellent analysis! When experts go transdisciplinary, it is exhilarating, but I think that it is especially important to understand the implicit assumptions in their worldview. Often, large theories are going to encompass large blind spots, and neo-liberalism seems implicit in the works of brilliant minds like Yuval Harari, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.

    While it is entirely honorable and necessary to explore human nature, and our capacity for self-delusion, our explorations are bound to illuminate some delusions while obscuring others. We are not going to evolve out of our humanity, nor to create artificial intelligence to perfect humanity. Much is demanded of genius, to be sure, and if we believe we have arrived, we most certainly have not.

  • David Johns

    David Ehrenfeld’s critique of Cartesian dualism, nature as machine, and human reason’s limits remains one of the best. In The Arrogance of Humanism (1979) he challenges all of the assumptions that have rationalized human efforts at control over the last few centuries:
    .All problems are solvable.
    All problems are solvable by humans.
    Most problems are solvable by technology.
    If a problem cannot be solved by technology it can be solved
    through changes in social organization.
    When times get tough humans hunker down and solve problems.
    Some resources are infinite; finite resources have substitutes.
    Civilization will survive.
    If we don’t get it right we just didn’t know enough at first & we will
    get it right eventually.
    The evidence, Ehrenfeld argues, suggests the contrary of these humanist assumptions:
    The world is too complex for us to understand, let along to effectively manage.
    Techno-social solutions are never complete.
    Our solutions invariably create new problems (like the green revolution, like improved fishing technology, like new weapons).
    New problems come at a faster rate than they can be solved.
    New problems are more complex than old ones; more costly to solve; we have fewer resources available to solve them; and there is greater systemic inertia that must be overcome. Even temporary quick fixes are increasingly unavailable.
    Things do break down; civilizations do fail. We are no different.

    • johnmerryman

      Punctuated equilibrium is a cycle. The equilibrium selects for specialization and complexity, while the punctuation selects for adaptability.
      People are not going away, but they are facing a large reset.
      Without the ups and downs, it would be a flatline anyway.

  • Richard Blaber

    Jeremy Lent is rather more charitable towards Yuval Harari than I would care to be, in many ways. The man strikes me as a typically, and insufferably, arrogant pseudo-prophet of the modern age, and it isn’t really at all surprising so many, including, of course, members of the “global elite”, are (all-too) willing to listen to his nonsense. They – and he – are fools, and will pay a very high price for their folly.

    • Kamiel Choi

      could you elaborate? I think his writing is rather tame and trivial, but not really foolish.
      I agree that Mr. Harari could benefit from a bit more modesty.

  • trilemmaman

    Nature and humans are relatively predictable. Nature will create sustainable systems and structures based on fundamental principles. Humans will create increasing chaos based on ‘alternative’ principles our creative mind dreams up. Like “Peace through Strength”.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    Confusing, rambling, solipsistic philosophical dribble; all of which is obviously driven by Lent’s jealousy over Harari’s book sales. Last time I checked, this website was focused on ecology and the work some of us are engaged in to save “humanity and the biosphere”. What the heck does this piece have to do with that mission? I’m baffled, but that’s nothing new. Stress R Us

    • Kamiel Choi

      it is hardly philosophical neither is it confusing. These are valid points to be raised and Harari will respond to them with enthusiasm.

      Harari has the power to influence world leaders. So yes it has something to do with that mission, I think.

      • Greeley Miklashek

        Any futurist who does not consider human overpopulation and our resultant environmental destruction the single most important problem facing humanity and the biosphere is not facing reality, has no real understanding of our current situation, or just doesn’t give a damn about what’s happening. These comments and the authors of the works noted are scratching the barnacles off of the Titanic as it steams on at full speed in the North Atlantic. For the “resilient” among us, just remember that there are only a limited number of seats in the lifeboats and swimming for it at the last minute won’t be an option.
        Only a worldwide voluntary movement by liberated women with ready access to contraception, education, and meaningful work can lead to the one-child families necessary to keep this ship afloat. Stress R Us

        • Kamiel Choi

          I do agree Harari thinks too lightly about ecological overshoot, partly a result of overpopulation and the rising (Chinese) middle class.

          I really like the solution you suggest: women’s education is as close to a panacea as we can get.

          The population models are of course trying to take everything into account and change is rather slow (although the example of Iran shows birthrates can go down rapidly). Have you read Countdown by Alan Weisman (2013)? He discussies the population bomb

          • Greeley Miklashek

            Thanks for the intelligent and civil reply. What other possible explanation for the unsustainable ecological overshoot could there be except human overpopulation: 220,000 new mouths to feed net DAILY, 83,000,000/yr. What you may not be aware of, unless you are a medical professional (as am I), is that population density stress is killing us now, not in some prophesied distant future, through all of our modern “diseases of civilization”, none of which are found in contemporary traditional living hunter-gatherer bands/clans. Due to our unsuccessful attempts to accommodate our exploding numbers in increasingly unhealthy urban centers, we are growing fatter, sicker, more sedentary, and more stressed by the day. I have read “Countdown” by Alan Weisman, but thank you for the reference. Thanks for mentioning Iran’s demographic shift. Japan and most of Europe are doing quite nicely with their falling fertility rates. We need jobs for our non-reproductive women and AI is doing more and more. Only greedy Capitalists are unhappy with depopulation. One-child families can bring our worldwide population back down to barely sustainable 1950 levels of 2.5B by 2,100. Thanks, again, for your interest! Stress R Us

          • Kamiel Choi

            Likewise. The topic is too important to eschew and sadly one that provokes many into uncivilized aggression. Do you focus mainly on human numbers or on (partly implied) consumption and acreage per person (there are nice stats about this too, I don’t know if mr Hans Roslings book contains them?) Anyway, less meat (as in 10% of what we eat now, use it as a condiment) is what I, following Michael Pollan, like to shout. And of course less of consumerism, and fertility rates around 1 would be nice.
            But I recall Mrs. Merkel saying Germans have to breed more, or an infamous Japanese minister that women are reproductive machines, not to mention Arafat’s womb as weapon.
            I have one child but 2 or 3 is still the norm in northern Europe.

            What is your definition of sustainability? Lest the word is hijacked (like everything else from ecology to philosophy) by the corporate a-holes. Earth overshoot day on December 31th? Reversal of species extinction to background levels? These would be measurable. I heard 1B as sustainable number, don’t remember the source though.

            The opportunists are often banking on future tech (GMO, geoengineering).. I used to follow Earth Institute of the wonderful Gordon Brown (plan B 2.0)

          • Greeley Miklashek

            I like Paul Ehrlich’s “I=PAT”, but add “H” to the “I”, so H&I=PAT. A life in medicine has brought me to the undeniable conclusion that we humans are our own worst enemy and that the best biomarker of future calamity (“overshoot day” last year was 8-8-18) is our total population number, now 7.6B and rising 220,000/d. Hans Rosling is naive and does not address the true consequences of human overpopulation in his overly optimistic presentations, although he has passed away now, so…. Most governments in the world today are “fascist” by definition, so politico serve the corporate interests and vice versa. A “degrowth” movement is starting but in its infancy and lacks the appropriate urgency. So, you are correct about the misguided policies of Merkel, Arafat, and some Japanese, but not many others. I like E. O. Wilson’s definition of sustainability: at current population growth, we ALL will need to be vegans to survive by 2050. No-one in the population sciences believes we can sustain a population with Western lifestyles beyond 2.5B by 2,100, which demands one-child families NOW. However, and Ken Smail at Kenyon College in Ohio and I go round and round on this, the last time humans lived in a long established ecologically balanced and sustainable relationship with the earth was 12,000 years ago when our ancestors were thriving after the last iceage and numbered 2.6M (!) worldwide. So, at present, we’re nearly 3,000 times more than that “sustainable” number! Ken’s number is similar to Paul Ehrlich’s 2-2.5B, which is ONLY 1,000 times greater than the prehistorical number of H-G’s. Any other progrowth propaganda is just BS. You might want to take a look at my free PDF, “Stress R Us”, in the MAHB e-library. It has over 100 ref’s. on this topic. Good Luck!

  • johnmerryman

    It seems to be a habit to turn our tools into gods. From the story telling, analogy and allegory as the basis of the original religions, to money, math and technology today.
    Culture is ideals based, as our minds are reductionist and the most repeated stories are those with the most cohesive plot line and moral lesson, yet this reality is more a tension and balance of opposites. So we live by the assumption that if a little is good, more is better, but nature responds infinitely.
    The most essential binary is between energy and form. Consider galaxies are radiation expanding out, while mass gravitates in. Meanwhile we are composed of the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems processing the energy driving us on, along with a central nervous system distilling useful signal from the noise of our context. Motor and steering. Consciousness propels and manifests our thoughts, not the other way around.
    Yet science, if not academia in general, is just focused on the information we distill down to ever more incremental bits and bytes, ignoring the dynamics driving it all forward. No wonder the banks and oil companies rule our society.
    Is there an alternative? Only when we better understand the processes at work.
    Money, for instance, is the social contract, aka voucher system, enabling mass societies to function, yet we treat it as a commodity to mine from society. It is a medium, not a store of value, but our desire to save this abstraction is destroying society and the environment. We have an atomized culture, mediated and taxed by the banks, with our bank accounts as our social umbilical cord.
    Medium and store should not be confused. For instance, blood is a medium and fat is a store, or for cars, roads are the medium and parking lots are the store.
    One way the system “stores” money is for the government to borrow and spend it in ways that don’t compete with private sector investment.
    Much as government, as the executive and regulatory function, is analogous to the central nervous system, finance and money are analogous to the circulation system and blood. We found private government to have its limits and now finance is going through its; “Let them eat cake,” moment.
    Yet the money supply cannot be controlled by political forces, any more that the mind has direct control over the heart. Politicians live and die on how much hope they provide, while we experience money as quantified hope, so the impulse to print it can be overwhelming.
    Which is basically what we have been doing since the country had a choice between Jimmy Carter saying to put on a sweater and Ronald Reagan saying to put it on the credit card.
    Twenty trillion in debt and people wonder why we have bankruptcy skating con artist in control? Time to really look in the mirror. The national home loan is about to come due and Warren Buffet will be buying Yellowstone, with his Treasury bills. Then the oligarchy will really come home to roost.

  • A very good article! While I’ve never read Harari’s books, I did read his Atlantic article on why technology favors tyranny: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/yuval-noah-harari-technology-tyranny/568330/ I thought some of his observations were spot on. Then again, I haven’t read all of his works.

    Adding to the discussion, re: “Nature is a machine.” This one has a very long history in the modern human psyche. It is similar to its cousin “brain is a machine” metaphor. I realized the unintended consequences of this metaphor earnestly for our beliefs, institutions, and values when I was studying Terry Deacon’s scientific work on human brain evolution. He is among many forward-thinking biologists that recognize the need for more complexity science and less Cartesian-Euclidian science in our psyche and value systems.

    The logical dilemma lies in the longstanding habit of explaining biological phenomenon in engineering terms (aka reductionism). During my schooling years, I was never taught about the logic of biology (even when I was learning biology), because it seemed easier for my teachers to teach me about the world by explaining it in engineering terms. Now I realize that the machine metaphor is deeply ingrained in our contemporary value systems.

    I believe AI and deep learning can be used to aid sustainability goals and I wrote about this a while ago (specifically, Internet of Things): https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/can-digital-technologies-build-viable-future-enacting-sustainable-development-goals/

    But without the appropriate legal-regulatory mechanisms, education to enhance the intellect, and research to temper engineering logic impulses, we might be looking at a Skynet future as opposed to a Star Trek future. Oppressive machines rather than liberating machines. This century will be the battleground for these two directions — coming back to #4, I agree, what we do today, however small, has significance.

  • I agree with Jeremy Lent, that Harari’s embrace of AI is not as rational as some of his other insights. We are seeing computer algorithms amplify our irrational impulses collectively via the internet, without our conscious awareness. Extremist memes and conspiracy theories are repeated and spread at the speed of light, while reasoned discussion is left far behind. At present we have the numbers, the know-how, and the abilities to turn things around, but fear and panic are threatening to overwhelm us. The human race has a major existential crisis to deal with, in the dual problems of bio-diversity collapse and global warming. We have the intellectual and the physical resources to deal with these problems but we are undermining ourselves by over-relying on AI technologies. It is not a coincidence that the spread of the internet and social networking coincides with the worldwide resurgence of Fascism. Some national governments are actually turning back the clock, weakening and destroying higher educational systems, suppressing scientific evidence and shutting down intellectual debate. Global warming and bio diversity collapse are very complex problems, but the political trend, largely fueled by the internet and talk radio, is to evade this complexity, to oversimplify, to abandon truth in favor of “truthiness” or what feels true. Thankyou MAHB for creating this portal where we can discuss these matters in a rational manner.

    • trilemmaman

      It’s AI’s contribution to the evolution of weaponry that has me freaking out. I’m just hoping it will get past the enlightened idea that humanity has to be eradicated to protect itself and the environment…to the spiritual wisdom level where AI just decides to hold people (especially world leaders, congress, and CEO’s) accountable for any injustices.

  • Sailesh Rao

    Thank you for this cogent analysis and thank you for “The Patterning Instinct.” I use your framing in my talks and webinars:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR2Q7elpG8g

    Who says life has no meaning? We are the Thermostat Species!…