In human evolution, science fiction is well on its way to becoming fact, argues Oxford alumnus Yuval Noah Harari.

Never mind the next Windows – soon you’ll be able to upgrade yourself

By Helen Massy-Beresford

‘Upgrading’ humans may sound like science fiction, but it is a real possibility — even a probability. That’s the forecast from historian and Oxford alumnus Yuval Noah Harari. His latest book argues that evolution through intelligent design is already beginning to make inroads against evolution through natural selection, and will ultimately take its place.

Professor Harari (Jesus, 1998), who completed his PhD at Oxford’s Department of Modern History, explores the future of humanity in his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harvill Secker, September 2016).

Now a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harari is also the author of worldwide bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In both books, Harari sets out to decipher the deeper mechanisms of history and understand how our reality — gods, individualism, capitalism, patriarchal society and human rights — came about. He explores the fundamental role of imagination and fiction in allowing humans to cooperate in large numbers — the key ability that Harari believes sets us apart from other animals, allowing us to tell the ‘stories’ of gods, nations, money or human rights that lead to efficient mass cooperation.

Never mind the next Windows – soon you’ll be able to upgrade yourselfSince life appeared on earth, four billion years ago, it has been governed by natural selection, Harari (right) explains. ‘Now science might replace natural selection with intelligent design, and might even start creating non-organic life forms. People are already merging with their smartphones and their Facebook accounts. These are no longer dumb tools like a hammer or a knife — they are intelligent machines that constantly study us, adapt to our unique personality, and shape our worldview and our innermost desires. In the coming decades, we are likely to proceed much faster along this path, by developing machine learning, biometric sensors and direct brain-computer interfaces.’

In 2050, Harari says, it is likely that our smartphones will be embedded in our bodies via biometric sensors, monitoring our heart rates, blood pressure and brain activity 24 hours a day and analysing this biometric data to get to know our desires, likes and dislikes better than we know them ourselves.

By 2100, Harari believes ‘humans and machines might merge so completely, that humans will not be able to survive at all if they are disconnected from the network.’

This revolution will lead to important philosophical questions. ‘We are now learning how to create artificial intelligence and how to use biotechnology in order to design animals and to upgrade humans into superhumans. The engineers working on such projects need to address age-old philosophical questions such as “What is consciousness?”, “What is free will?”, and “What is humanity?”’

In writing Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari has been fulfilling a promise he made to his teenage self not to get bogged down in everyday life.

His chief challenge in his latest book has been to avoid wandering into the realm of science fiction, while simultaneously setting his imagination free. ‘I had to beware of being infatuated with technology, and focus on the social and political implications of technology. For example, what will happen to the welfare state when computers push humans out of the job market and create a massive new “useless class”? How might Islam handle genetic engineering? Will Silicon Valley end up producing new religions, rather than just novel gadgets?’

Never mind the next Windows – soon you’ll be able to upgrade yourselfHarari specialises in ‘macro-history’ and has been passionate about looking at the bigger picture since he realised as a teenager that the adults around him didn’t really understand life and moreover, didn’t seem to mind. ‘They were very worried about money, about careers, about the mortgage, about the political situation — but were completely nonchalant about the fact that they didn’t understand what life is all about.’

Harari’s university students also convinced him that academics had a responsibility to communicate broadly. ‘Even after 12 years of school, people are often woefully ignorant of the most fundamental concepts and processes of history. That’s why I wrote Sapiens and Homo Deus in a simple and engaging style, which should be accessible even to teenagers.’

Amid today’s scaremongering headlines and a wave of nationalism, Harari’s biggest fear is distraction. ‘All our major problems are global in nature: global warming, global inequality, and the rise of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and bio-engineering. In order to face these challenges successfully, we need global cooperation. I think the current wave of nationalism is a kind of escapism: people refusing to confront the unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century by closing their eyes and minds and by seeking a refuge in the fold of traditional local identities. I hope that people will wake up in time. But as a historian, I know we should never underestimate human stupidity.’

  • Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is published by Harvill Secker.

Graphic by vitstudio via Shutterstock. Portrait of Professor Yuval Noah Harari by Guo Xiaochuan.

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