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Homo Deus vs. Homo Technologicus

Updated: Jan 2




A 2017 book titled “Homo Deus” by philosopher Yuval Noah Harari predicted the future of mankind based upon the presumption that unnatural death was a thing of the past. As recently as the middle of the 20th century, Harari told us, the median age of death among the global population was skewed because of famine, war, and plague. Absent deaths from those causes, humans have always lived to their seventies and eighties. Now, the promise of new technologies has the potential to overcome that limitation and extend life expectancies beyond those natural limits.

 

The book was a bestseller and was critically acclaimed by one and all.

 

Since its publication, we have endured a pandemic and seen the eruption of wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. While we haven’t yet seen widespread famine, our inability to address the threat of climate change promises to deliver one.

 

The future is always determined by technology. And societies that master it are best positioned to offer their citizens safety, security, and happiness. This has been true throughout history. Weapons have evolved through human ingenuity, from lances to arrows to guns to bombs and missiles. The capitalist reforms of the 17th and 18th centuries have yielded more comfortable lifestyles because of the broad-based application of innovations like steam engines, steel plows, airplanes, medical advances, and computers. All promise more power to societies that master it.

 

So, one must wonder how those who achieve mastery in twenty-first century technologies will create benefits for their citizenry. It’s difficult to figure out because there are no experts. To be clear, there are experts in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and medical devices. But no one is an expert in all those disciplines. Predictions of the future from any scientific discipline are (and should be) automatically suspect. As science advanced in the 20th Century, we became accustomed to wonderous developments. Smallpox was eliminated. Polio is rare. Cancer treatments have saved lives. The recent pandemic was tamed by vaccines that couldn’t have been deployed even a decade ago.

 

Harari summarizes the impact of these developments on society nicely. The formula for knowledge, he tells us, is:

 

Knowledge = Empirical Data x Mathematics.

 

In a world where science can answer all questions, it’s no wonder that church attendance is in decline and atheism is on the rise.

 

Enter AI.

 

Artificial intelligence promises to become the expert that humans cannot be. Massive computer capacity coupled with software that can aggregate knowledge, analyze it, and develop solutions is just over the horizon. Essays and books describing its potential are abundant. Futurist and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis has announced a $100 million XPRIZE competition for technologies that extend lifespan and improve the quality of life.

 

Most of us are familiar with Moore’s law. Developed at the beginning of the information technology revolution, it suggests that the speed and capacity of computers will double every two years. Now, the Carlson Curve threatens to render Moore’s law too pessimistic. There has been an amazing collapse in the cost of sequencing the human genome in the last twenty years. What cost $1 billion in 2003 can be achieved for under $1000 today. The resulting data becomes input for “rejuvenation programming.” Altos Labs, a startup in this field, has raised $3 billion in venture capital to explore its potential to double our lifespans.

 

This comes with a warning. Even at this early stage, the potential for undesirable side effects has become apparent. Groundbreaking AI tools like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard are already turning up disinformation and offer the potential to exacerbate racial discrimination and political dysfunction.

 

All significant trends acquire a backlash. Harari points to humanism—a code defined by the United Nations in the 1940s—as the counter to the scientific revolution of the 20th Century. In this context, the formula for knowledge acquires a different solution:

 

Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivities

 

I would suggest that he substitute the word “wisdom” for “knowledge” in this equation.

 

Many leaders—business and political—are calling for someone to put the brakes on the development of AI and its applications. But if history has taught us anything, we know that’s impossible.

 

So, what happens now? How will the world look different if average lifespans are doubled to 150 years? If the world’s population is 15 billion people, will massive numbers of people again die from war, plague, and famine? Will the winner in the battle for resources be determined by who has the best AI or who possesses the greatest nuclear weapons capability? Or, to put it differently, what technologies will drive great power conflict in the 21st century?

 

Wrapping all those questions into one: Will the development of new technologies result in greater wisdom or catastrophe?

 

There is a potential side effect that few, if any, are considering—that great power will be decentralized. AI has the potential to grant individuals more control over their own destinies. Some governments might be more permissive about self-modification than others. Biohacking and cyberwarfare could become the new arms race. The great nation-states of the 20th Century could dissolve. New social contracts could be determined by “post-humans” who reach an untouchable intellectual level.

 

Such societies could be dominated by dictators who control every aspect of life. Or they could become the ultimate libertarian fantasy—individual freedom enabled by the capabilities of technologies we cannot foresee from here.

 

Despite the reversal of Harari’s presumptions—that people will no longer die from famine, war, and plague—his predictions about the impact of technology seem to be on track. The remaining question might be whether these developments bring us closer to utopia or Hades.

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Interesting things to think about. I'm not sure I'd like to live to 150 if new technologies bring Hades rather than utopia.

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