I haven’t read any of Yuval Noah Harari‘s books yet, but History of Humankind has been on my reading list for a while now, and I’ve just added his new book A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Obviously, all predictions about the future are bound to fail, but we do know where we are headed: If no catastrophic event will prevent technological progress in the next 50 years, machines will become the prime decision makers on the planet.

Some (Neil deGrass Tyson) believe this won’t be a problem, as even the smartest machines will still only serve us according to our intentions, while others (Sam Harris or James Lovelock) are convinced that machines will increasingly find it hard to connect to their creators (humans), just like we don’t connect to the minds of flies. And obviously most of us don’t mind killing a fly that’s annoyingly swirling around our head.

In other words, evolution may take a huge step and transition to silicon-based life.

The FT reviews Harari’s latest book, which is an investigation into this prediction.

For 70,000 years Homo sapiens has been the smartest algorithm on the planet, as Harari puts it. But within centuries, if not decades, that will cease to be true as more efficient electronic algorithms outstrip our increasingly obsolete biochemical models. When that happens, we will discover that we are no longer at the apex of civilisation. Computers will know us better than we know ourselves and our continued usefulness will be jeopardised. “The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and the Chinese river dolphins in oblivion. Looking back, humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow.”

Despite of humanity’s river-dolphin fate, Harari’s an optimist …

Peace is also a modern invention. Although we understandably obsess about the horrors of the Syrian civil war and the dangers posed by terrorism, we have never lived in calmer times. In ancient agricultural societies, human violence accounted for about 15 per cent of all deaths. That had fallen to 5 per cent in the murderous 20th century and is currently running at about 1 per cent in this century. Of the 56m people who died in 2012, about 620,000 people were the victims of violence … Our increasing mastery of machinery will also give us the opportunity to merge with robots and computers, giving us the power of gods and the ability to create new forms of life. “After 4 billion years of wandering inside the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, and will take shapes that we cannot envision even in our wildest dreams,” writes Harari. (…)

… – to a certain point. He also shares Harris’, Lovelock’s and others’ concerns about the rise of AI. Humans could become irrelevant.

But what happens when computers become even more efficient than humans at processing all relevant data? Will they treat us tomorrow as we treat chickens today? Harari suggests that humans are in danger of becoming economically and militarily useless.

John Tornhill, the FT reviewers, concludes:

For the moment, the rise of populism, the rickety architecture of the European Union, the turmoil in the Middle East and the competing claims on the South China Sea will consume most politicians’ attention. But at some time soon, our societies will collectively need to learn far more about these fast-developing technologies and think far more deeply about their potential use. Playing God is a dangerous game.

This suggests, that one day we’ll all unite to stand together and face global threats as one humankind. But our dangerously feeble response to global warming, which at this point in time is a more pressing issue than AI, proves that we are pretty far from a one-planet, one-species, one-nation utopia . The world has only been on a path of unification for a brief time (roughly 1948 to 2008), but is now drifting apart again.

Ironically, the rise of machines could be solution to both, the fall back into nationalism, and global warming. Silicon-based life would be able to thrive on a warmer planet, and I doubt that tribalism would be a major issues among digital beings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.