Book Reviews

Yuval Noah Harari

HarperCollins

Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realise that they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible, built the Great Wall of China and laughed at Charlie Chaplin’s antics…In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they are no longer human.

                               from Homo Deus

 

  

January is a fitting time to be looking ahead. So, let’s look far ahead. Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus is on a number of “best nonfiction books of 2017” lists. His previous work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was a world-wide bestseller and one of the outstanding books of 2016.

His new book is a continuation of Sapiens, looking at what’s possibly in store for us. He provides a framework to understand the monumental—indeed, seismic—changes propelling us at light speed into the future. A lecturer in world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harari argues that in the face of this coming technological tsunami, we should at least understand what is happening.

He examines old ideas and new technologies, drawing them out to their logical and existential conclusions, much farther than most of us have gone, or perhaps feel comfortable going. He challenges many of our most cherished beliefs. For example, the popular idea of the soul—that we humans have one and the rest of the animal kingdom, and maybe Vladimir Putin, don’t. He asks, “Is Homo sapiens a superior life form, or just the local bully?” (“With regard to other animals, humans have long since become gods. We don’t like to reflect on this too deeply, because we have not been just or merciful gods.”)

In the same brisk, entertaining prose, laced with wit and humor, that he used in Sapiens, Harari raises such questions, often with disturbing answers. Warning: this book is not for the intellectually squeamish or spiritually faint-hearted.

The next step for humanity is “upgrading themselves into gods” through biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of non-organic beings. (Time to go in for a tune-up: You have a leaky heart valve? No problem. We recommend replacing your heart. We can also install new eyes while you’re here—In the long run it saves on glasses. And you should probably think about replacing your left lung in another year or two.) Through bio-engineering, average life expectancy can extend to 150 years (Will 60 become the new 30?)

Even immortality will be technically within reach, for we have come to a point in human history where “every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it.”

Still, there are the messy and uncomfortable implications of such technological marvels. Just at a time when human life spans are being extended, we will be facing “a new class of economically useless people,” made redundant by machines that can do their work better and far more cheaply. “The most important question in twenty-first-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people. What will conscious humans do, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?” (On the bright side, no need to worry any longer about jobs going overseas.)

The view Harari offers is both thrilling and threatening, exciting and daunting, presenting images of a new heaven and a new earth, but also of a new hell. Within every utopian vision lie the seeds for a potential dystopia. Before, gods ruled the universe; now we do…or soon will. Stay tuned. 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 14, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.