‘Sapiens’ author calls for world leaders and citizens to join hands in facing the future

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/9 17:23:39

The Chinese version of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow Photo: Courtesy of China CITIC Press

When it comes to humanity, there is one thing that Israeli Historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks will never change - our desire to pursue more. 

"No matter what we achieve, it will only increase our craving, not our satisfaction. This is why Humankind has been so successful in conquering the world and acquiring immense power, but has not been successful in translating all that power into happiness," Harari wrote in an e-mail interview with the Global Times on Friday. 

Author of the best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari is now looking to the future with his new book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Published in English in 2016, the book was published in Chinese this January.

According to a report from yicai.com, the Chinese version of Homo Deus sold more than 1 million copies in its first month, similar to sales of the Chinese version of Sapiens.   

Dissatisfied human gods

That humans will one day become gods is one of the key concepts in Harari's Homo Deus.

The historian pointed out that for thousands of years, human beings have been shaping the outside world to meets our own desires, but now we have entered an era during which people are wracking their brains to control the "inside" world by coming up with ways to conquer aging or otherwise upgrade the human body and mind.   

While these ambitions seem dedicated to creating a better existence, Harari pointed out that "the basic human reaction to pleasure is not satisfaction; rather, it is craving for more."

"If we don't change our basic mental patterns, than the power we will gain in the twenty-first century may well upgrade us into gods, but we will be very dissatisfied gods," he wrote. 

Improvements in technology, especially in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), will also pose problems for humanity's future as technology develops to keep up with human desire.

Harari worries that over the next three decades, millions of jobs in primary industries such as textile production may be replaced by automation.

This is why he expressed disappointment about the 2016 US election, since the Trump administration has paid little attention to the fields of technology and science. 

"New wealth will be created in hi-tech hubs such as Silicon Valley and Bangalore, while the worst effects will be felt in developing countries such as Honduras and Bangladesh," he wrote. "There will be more jobs to American and Indian software engineers, but fewer jobs to Honduran and Bangladeshi textile workers and truck drivers."

"Will American governments raise taxes on the hi-tech giants in Silicon Valley in order to support or retrain unemployed Bangladeshis? This is very improbable. We now have a global economy, but politics is still very national. "

Harari's stance is that these issues should be dealt with by looking at things within a global context. Aside from future issues caused by the development of AI, climate change, the most urgent issue, also requires global cooperation in Harari's opinion. 

"It won't be enough if only China reduces greenhouse gas emissions while the USA continues with business as usual, and it is very unlikely that any one country will agree to hamper itself with strict environmental regulations while its economic competitors refuse to do the same," Harari noted. "Because of the immense potential of such disruptive technologies, if even one country takes a high-risk high-gain path, other countries will follow its dangerous lead for fear of being left behind."

Yuval Noah Harari Photo: CFP

Sparking discussion

While Sapiens received wide praise from figures such as Mark Zuckerberg and former US president Barack Obama, some critics and readers have criticized the new book for not bringing anything new to the table.

For example, Jennifer Senior from the New York Times pointed out that "almost every blithe pronouncement Harari makes… has been the exclusive subject of far more nuanced books."

In its review of the book, Chinese newspaper Xiandai Kuaibao stated that it would be better to watch a mediocre sci-fi film than read the book. 

"The viewpoints are nothing new, almost every Hollywood sci-fi film has had similar ideas as the book." 

Speaking about these criticisms, Harari said that instead of offering answers, the intention behind his new book was to raise questions and encourage debate.

"In the end, the questions are far more important than the particular answers I give. If people discuss these questions, then the book has achieved its aim," he said.

Some readers have compared Homo Deus to works of science fiction. A fan of science fiction, Harari admitted that the genre has inspired his writings, but that he strove "to remain a scientist" for his books.

"I am particularly wary of Hollywoodian science fiction, which is often completely divorced from scientific realities. I am probably far more influenced by Karl Marx than by Steven Spielberg," he noted.

"In Hollywood science fiction movies, the AI usually develops consciousness and tries to manipulate or even exterminate humankind. In fact, intelligence and consciousness are very different things, and there is no evidence that we are anywhere close to developing artificial consciousness. I am far more worried about non-conscious AI driving billions of humans out of the job market and creating a massive new class of 'useless people.'"

From a historical scholar to best-selling author and now a worldwide renowned celebrity, Harari said that while he has enjoyed his success, it was "particularly gratifying to see that the books help people understand the world better and think about the important problems of humankind."

Of course, success has not come without sacrifices. Traveling all over the world for talks and interviews has left him with far less time for research and family.

"In addition, so many people now have all kinds of expectations from me, and I have to disappoint them again and again," Harari added, explaining that he refuses 95 percent of all the requests he gets now. "I try to find the right balance between all my obligations, but it is difficult."

As a result, he is not rushing to write a new book.

"I am thinking of perhaps writing a children's book about the history of humankind, but I am not sure I have the necessary skills to do that."
Newspaper headline: From Man to God


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