Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically acclaimed New York Times best seller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity's future and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.
Over the past century, humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but as Harari explains in his trademark style - thorough yet riveting - famine, plague, and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals put together. The average American is 1,000 times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.
What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet Earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams, and nightmares that will shape the 21st century - from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.
With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times best seller, Harari maps out our future.
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|Listening Length||14 hours and 54 minutes|
|Author||Yuval Noah Harari|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||February 21, 2017|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #907 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#3 in Future Studies
#3 in History of Civilization
#5 in Evolution (Audible Books & Originals)
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On the positive side, Mr. Harari brings the same colorful and thought-provoking writing and broad grasp of humanity, both ancient and contemporary, to the table. He starts with exploring the three main causes of human misery through the ages - disease, starvation and war - and talks extensively about how improved technological development, liberal political and cultural institutions and economic freedom have led to very significant declines in each of these maladies. Continuing his theme from "Sapiens", a major part of the discussion is devoted to shared zeitgeists like religion and other forms of belief that, notwithstanding some of their pernicious effects, can unify a remarkably large number of people across the world in striving together for humanity's betterment. As in "Sapiens", Mr. Harari enlivens his discussion with popular analogies from current culture ranging from McDonald's and modern marriage to American politics and pop music. Mr. Harari's basic take is that science and technology combined with a shared sense of morality have created a solid liberal framework around the world that puts individual rights front and center. There are undoubtedly communities that don't respect individual rights as much as others, but these are usually seen as challenging the centuries-long march toward liberal individualism rather than upholding the global trend.
The discussion above covers about two thirds of the book. About half of this material is recycled from "Sapiens" with a few fresh perspectives and analogies. The most important general message that Mr. Harari delivers, especially in the last one third of the book, is that this long and inevitable-sounding imperative of liberal freedom is now ironically threatened by the very forces that enabled it, most notably the forces of technology and globalization. Foremost among these are artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These significant new developments are gradually making human beings cede their authority to machines, in ways small and big, explicitly and quietly. Ranging from dating to medical diagnosis, from the care of the elderly to household work, entire industries now stand to both benefit and be complemented or even superseded by the march of the machines. Mr. Harari speculates about a bold vision in which most manual labor has been taken over by machines and true human input is limited only to a very limited number of people, many of whom because of their creativity and demand will likely be in the top financial echelons of society. How will the rich and the poor live in these societies? We have already seen how the technological decimation of parts of the working class was a major theme in the 2016 election in the United States and the vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom. It was also a factor that was woefully ignored in the public discussion leading up to these events, probably because it is much easier to provoke human beings against other human beings rather than against cold, impersonal machines. And yet it is the cold, impersonal machines which will increasingly interfere with human lives. How will social harmony be preserved in the face of such interference? If people whose jobs are now being done by machines get bored, what new forms of entertainment and work will we have to invent to keep them occupied? Man after all is a thinking creature, and extended boredom can cause all sorts of psychological and social problems. If the division of labor between machines and men becomes extreme, will society fragment into H. G. Wells's vision of two species, one of which literally feeds on the other even as it sustains it?
These are all tantalizing as well as concerning questions, but while Mr. Harari does hold forth on them with some intensity and imagination, this part of the book is where his limitations become clear. Since the argument about ceding human authority to machines is also a central one, the omission also unfortunately appears to me to be a serious one. The problem is that Mr. Harari is an anthropologist and social scientist, not an engineer, computer scientist or biologist, and many of the questions of AI are firmly grounded in engineering and software algorithms. There are mountains of literature written about machine learning and AI and especially their technical strengths and limitations, but Mr. Harari makes few efforts to follow them or to explicate their central arguments. Unfortunately there is a lot of hype these days about AI, and Mr. Harari dwells on some of the fanciful hype without grounding us in reality. In short, his take on AI is slim on details, and he makes sweeping and often one-sided arguments while largely skirting clear of the raw facts. The same goes for his treatment for biology. He mentions gene editing several times, and there is no doubt that this technology is going to make some significant inroads into our lives, but what is missing is a realistic discussion of what biotechnology can or cannot do. It is one thing to mention brain-machine interfaces that would allow our brains to access supercomputer-like speeds in an offhand manner; it's another to actually discuss to what extent this would be feasible and what the best science of our day has to say about it.
In the field of AI, particularly missing is a discussion of neural networks and deep learning which are two of the main tools used in AI research. Also missing is a view of a plurality of AI scenarios in which machines either complement, subjugate or are largely tamed by humans. When it comes to AI and the future, while general trends are going to be important, much of the devil will be in the details - details which decide how the actual applications of AI will be sliced and diced. This is an arena in which even Mr. Harari's capacious intellect falls short. The ensuing discussion thus seems tantalizing but does not give us a clear idea of the actual potential of machine technology to impact human culture and civilization. For reading more about these aspects, I would recommend books like Nick Bostrom's "Superintelligence", Pedro Domingos's "The Master Algorithm" and John Markoff's "Machines of Loving Grace". All these books delve into the actual details that sum up the promise and fear of artificial intelligence.
Notwithstanding these limitations, the book is certainly readable, especially if you haven't read "Sapiens" before. Mr. Harari's writing is often crisp, the play of his words is deftly clever and the reach of his mind and imagination immerses us in a grand landscape of ideas and history. At the very least he gives us a very good idea of how far we as human beings have come and how far we still have to go. As a proficient prognosticator Mr. Harari's crystal ball remains murky, but as a surveyor of past human accomplishments his robust and unique abilities are still impressive and worth admiring.
To demonstrate how off-base Home Deus is likely to be, allow me to dwell on the penultimate chapter of Sapiens, as it deals with modern biology and neuroscience, my areas of expertise, to illustrate the superficiality of Harari's arguments. His examples of this brave new world in which we now live are curated from the most sensationalist science reporting. He talks of the art-project rabbit, Alba, designed to express a green fluorescent protein. He also mentions the famous "Vacanti mouse" with what looks like a human ear growing on its back (in fact, this is cartilage that has been grown inside an ear-shaped mold and implanted into a mouse's back--sort of neat, but only slightly more impressive than stapling something shaped like an ear to the back of a mouse). These are two odd examples, as they aren't really reflective of current cutting edge science but are perfect examples of what might morally outrage someone who does not clearly understand what they really are. What?! An artist can just make a designer rabbit? No, an artist didn't make the rabbit. What?! Is that a human ear growing on a mouse's back? No. It isn't, it's a thing shaped like an ear that someone implanted in a mouse.
Harari’s view of contemporary biology and neuroscience are more shaped by The Matrix and Jurassic Park than real academic research. Here is an example, "A team of Russian, Japanese, and Korean scientists has recently mapped the genome of ancient mammoths, found frozen in the Siberian ice. They now plan to take a fertilized egg-cell of a present-day elephant, replace the elephantine DNA with a reconstructed mammoth DNA, and implant the egg in the womb of an elephant." He lazily, and incorrectly, cites an article from Time magazine as his source. This, in fact, is not what the article is about, and almost everything in that quote is untrue. This team did not sequence the mammoth genome, they would not use fertilized eggs of recipients, and they would not use reconstructed mammoth DNA (as the technology does not exist to synthesize a mammoth genome from scratch). Instead, they hoped to find living mammoth cells containing an entire intact genome, then inject the nucleus of such a cell into an unfertilized elephant egg, hope it starts dividing, and implant that into an elephant womb. Here are the unknowns with respect to this task—the probability of finding mammoth cells that are thousands of years old but still have fully intact nuclei (impossible to estimate, but improbably small), the success rate of any elephant egg dividing after being injected with mammoth DNA (the rate for division after living mouse-to-mouse egg nuclear transfer is only a few percent), the probability that this nuclear-transfer derived egg would continue to divide after being implanted in an elephant womb (improbably small). In short, the captive population of elephants is too small to provide enough donor eggs and potential surrogate mothers to even consider performing this foolhardy project, yet, Harari, with his head full of ideas that he misunderstood from Time, seems to think that it’s just a matter of months before the mammoth will be resurrected. (I should note that, since the publication of Sapiens, several labs have found ways to investigate the function of individual mammoth genes inside modern elephant cells—but to say that this is recreating a mammoth is more extreme than saying that Alba, the fluorescent rabbit, is a perfect reconstruction of a jellyfish).
Similiarly, Harari cites George Church's claim that he could make a Neanderthal child for $30 million. For the same reasons, the technology does not exist to synthesize a 3+ billion base genome de novo. At current DNA synthesis costs, it would require $100 million to carry out this synthesis as thousands or millions of fragments, which then couldn't be coherently assembled into something like a genome. No multicellular organism has ever been created with a synthetic genome, and human embryos would be the last place to start testing the possibility. Whether this is something that may eventually be technically possible is not important, as there are so many ethical hurdles to even begin the proof-of-principle research that it’s safe to say this isn’t going to happen unless someone first clones Josef Mengele and installs him as the head of the National Institutes of Health. I assume that Harari believes that since humans are so cruel as to practice industrial farming, it is inevitable that they will permit hundreds or thousands of failed pregnancies to relish in the glory of a Neanderthal. Again, Harari ignorantly suggests that the question is not whether this is possible but how many days until there is a new underclass of Neanderthals.
Harari’s inability to discern science fiction from science fact extends into the world of neuroscience. He writes, "Yet of all the projects currently under development, the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn." He then supposes that in the very near future, people will be able to store their minds on external hard drives, and all human minds can be linked to form a super brain. While the quoted sentence is superficially true, it is not revolutionary. It should come as a surprise to no one that there are techniques like EEG and MRI that can crudely measure brain activity. It is also true that localized magnetic stimulation can affect one’s brain and even make someone perceive flashes of light. If you hook an MRI up to a computer which is, in turn, hooked up to a magnet on someone's head, you have made the technology that can make one person’s brain activity make another person see a flash of light. That is a stupid parlor trick and not something to fear.
Now let’s consider Harari’s extension of this gimmick--- the notion that we could record someone’s mind. Current brain recording technologies amount to something like a Fitbit for your brain--an EEG or MRI can crudely determine when and how much your brain is active. Harari seems to believe that technology soon will exist permitting complete brain-state knowledge. Imagine if a device could record the state of every cell of your brain. First, you would never want such a device implanted into your own head, because it would consist of 100 billion pins stabbing into your brain and would kill you. Second, the output of this machine would be completely useless. A recording of all of the activity of every brain cell for the entirety of someone’s life would be a bunch of numbers, would represent a minuscule portion of the information processing that the brain actually does, and is impossible, anyways. To speculate about what this means about humanity is to waste one’s time.
I have not yet completed Homo Deus, but I find it to be more well cited and more cautious than Sapiens. Nonetheless, I continue to find that his standard argument structure is: "X is not technically impossible; therefore, X is inevitable." When he rightfully notes that experts argue that genetically engineered babies or human-level AI are distant possibilities, he dismisses this as short-sightedness and argues that what scientists really mean by "distant" is "a few years." After all, he argues, when he first encountered the Internet in 1993, he didn't appreciate how great it would be in 2017. Is it just me, or is this comparison a bit arrogant? A modern-day neuroscientist's understanding of what is realistically possible in the field of artificial intelligence is the same as high-school-aged Harari's understanding of what the internet would be like in 25 years? This implies that high-school-aged Harari was a scholar of computer science and its history.
He speculates that a la carte selection of the traits of your offspring is the near-certain next step from any DNA-editing-based correction of illness or disease. This seems to assume that the risk-to-reward ratio of correcting Hungtington's disease via gene editing is similar to that of eliminating freckles via gene editing. While Harari argues that it is a slippery slope leading from the former to the latter, one could argue that the latter is one-million times less practical or morally acceptable. The slope is both long and shallow to the extent that Harari's belief in the inevitability of commonplace cosmetic human genetic engineering arising from efforts to correct disease is like saying that birth control is dangerous because it will inevitably lead to widespread incest.
Harari is somewhat engaging, but I can't help but find his overgeneralizations irksome. When Harari talks about cutting-edge neuroscience, more often than not, he cites a newspaper or a website rather than a peer-reviewed publication. Then, he often paraphrases the part of the article in which a researcher wildly speculates about the future implications of her research as if it is a subject of active investigation. He glides along from topic to topic so that it becomes difficult to discern fact from wild prediction. This is a troubling trend as it makes the pursuit of knowledge about the function of genes or the organization of the brain seem like part of a nefarious, soon-to-be-realized plot to design an immortal class of cyborg elites.
Top reviews from other countries
The best thing about it is the way Harari effortlessly threads different fields of anthropology, biology, neuroscience, behavioural economics, economics, psychology, history and philosophy.
I would say that some of the terminology could be easier to grasp; his breakdown of the liberalism world view and dataism could go over the heads of the layman.
Harai is a visionary; and this book sets out a well-backed up case for a warning for humanity as we approach an age dominated by genetic modification, AI and super-humans.
Discussion of where we might go tomorrow is too short and badly thought through; very badly thought through in fact.
Almost like it was constructed from existing material with a new ending added on. I haven't read Sapiens yet, but I'm suspicious that might the existing material bit...
It certainly helps me come to terms with my thoughts and beliefs about religion and humanity. It turns out I am a liberal humanist, now who would have thought!
It answers questions for me, such as “why are we here” (Why does there have to be a “why”?) and “where are we going?”
If I had stopped and put my thoughts down on paper, used common sense and considered the technical and medical world as it is, I would probably have come to the same conclusion contained in the book. It’s all a bit obvious, but we don’t think of it, and so we don’t know how to answer those questions. Do we really believe medical advances are going to slow down or stop? Do we really believe that technology advances are going to slow down or stop? The answer to both is “no”.
So, if that’s the case, it’s obvious that we will inevitably achieve immortality once aging and disease have been removed.
So then what? Imagine increasing our lives by just a quarter. When do we stop work? How do we support ourselves? What meaning will we have in our long long lives? Where’s the food coming from?
I love this book and I’m going to have to read it again, because it’s difficult to take it all in the first time through.