Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Yuval Noah Harari: AI Will Create a “Useless Class” of Human.

“Most of what people learn in school ... will be irrelevant by the time they are 40 or 50,” says Yuval Noah Harari. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

AI will create “useless class” of human, predicts bestselling historian. By Ian Sample. The Guardian, May 20, 2016.

Yuval Noah Harari: The age of the cyborg has begun – and the consequences cannot be known. By Carole Cadwalladr. The Guardian, July 5, 2015.

The theatre of terror. By Yuval Noah Harari. The Guardian, January 31, 2015.


Smarter artificial intelligence is one of 21st century’s most dire threats, writes Yuval Noah Harari in follow-up to Sapiens.

It is hard to miss the warnings. In the race to make computers more intelligent than us, humanity will summon a demon, bring forth the end of days, and code itself into oblivion. Instead of silicon assistants we’ll build silicon assassins.

The doomsday story of an evil AI has been told a thousand times. But our fate at the hand of clever cloggs robots may in fact be worse - to summon a class of eternally useless human beings.

At least that is the future predicted by Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose new book says more of us will be pushed out of employment by intelligent robots and on to the economic scrap heap.

Harari rose to prominence when his 2014 book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, became an international bestseller. Two years on, the book is still being talked about. Bill Gates asked Melinda to read it on holiday. It would spark great conversations around the dinner table, he told her. We know because he said so on his blog this week.

When a book is a hit, the publisher wants more. And so Harari has been busy. His next title, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is not out until September but early copies have begun to circulate. Its cover states simply: “What made us sapiens will make us gods”. It follows on from where Sapiens ends, in a provocative, and certainly speculative, gallop through the hopes and dreams that will shape the future of the species.

And the nightmares. Because even as the book has humans gaining godlike powers, that is only one eventuality Harari explores. It might all go pear-shaped, of course: we sapiens have a knack for hashing things up. Instead of morphing into omnipotent, all-knowing masters of the universe, the human mob might end up jobless and aimless, whiling away our days off our nuts on drugs, with VR headsets strapped to our faces. Welcome to the next revolution.

Harari calls it “the rise of the useless class” and ranks it as one of the most dire threats of the 21st century. In a nutshell, as artificial intelligence gets smarter, more humans are pushed out of the job market. No one knows what to study at college, because no one knows what skills learned at 20 will be relevant at 40. Before you know it, billions of people are useless, not through chance but by definition.

“I’m aware that these kinds of forecasts have been around for at least 200 years, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they never came true so far. It’s basically the boy who cried wolf,” says Harari. “But in the original story of the boy who cried wolf, in the end, the wolf actually comes, and I think that is true this time.”

The way Harari sees it, humans have two kinds of ability that make us useful: physical ones and cognitive ones. The Industrial Revolution may have led to machines that did away with humans in jobs needing strength and repetitive actions. But the takeover was not overwhelming. With cognitive powers that machines could not touch, humans were largely safe in their work. For how much longer, though? AIs are now beginning to outperform humans in the cognitive field. And while new types of jobs will certainly emerge, we cannot be sure, says Harari, that humans will do them better than AIs, computers and robots.

AIs do not need more intelligence than humans to transform the job market. They need only enough to do the task well. And that is not far off, Harari says. “Children alive today will face the consequences. Most of what people learn in school or in college will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40 or 50. If they want to continue to have a job, and to understand the world, and be relevant to what is happening, people will have to reinvent themselves again and again, and faster and faster.”

Even so, jobless humans are not useless humans. In the US alone, 93 million people do not have jobs, but they are still valued. Harari, it turns out, has a specific definition of useless. “I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

None of this puts us in the realm of the gods. In fact, it leads Harari to even more bleak predictions. Though the people may no longer provide for the state, the state may still provide for them. “What might be far more difficult is to provide people with meaning, a reason to get up in the morning,” Harari says. For those who don’t cheer at the prospect of a post-work world, satisfaction will be a commodity to pay for: our moods and happiness controlled by drugs; our excitement and emotional attachments found not in the world outside, but in immersive VR.

All of which leads to the question: what should we do? “First of all, take it very seriously,” Harari says. “And make it a part of the political agenda, not only the scientific agenda. This is something that shouldn’t be left to scientists and private corporations. They know a lot about the technical stuff, the engineering, but they don’t necessarily have the vision and the legitimacy to decide the future course of humankind.”


The author of the bestselling Sapiens says that the future of life on Earth is now, worryingly, in the hands of a very small group of entrepreneurs.

By rights, Yuval Noah Harari should be an anonymous academic buried in an obscure university department somewhere toiling away on his somewhat dusty discipline – medieval military history. He’s a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and there is almost nothing in his background to suggest that he would write a book that has become one of the most talked about non-fiction bestsellers of the year – Sapiens. Or that he’d join the globetrotting TED-ocracy: the academic superstars who travel the world delivering keynotes on zeitgeisty topics, in Harari’s case, the not inconsiderable subject of the history of the whole of mankind.

When I meet him, he’s just been the star turn at Penguin Random House’s global sales conference. In May, he packed out Hay. Earlier this month, he delivered a TED talk. And last month, he received the ultimate imprimatur when Sapiens was selected by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, for his online book club. He’s invited his 38 million followers to read what he describes as “a big history narrative of human civilisation– from how we developed from hunter-gatherers to how we organise our society and economy today”.

That’s a workable description of what Sapiens is, though it’s a history book only in the sense that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a physics book (Sapiens’ subtitle – A Brief History of Humankind – suggests that this is not entirely coincidental). Its scope is so hugely ambitious that I had expected Harari to be one of those overconfident telly historian types, all male ego and a crushing sense of certainty, whereas, in the flesh, he’s a slightly nerdy, more thoughtful figure. Academic superstardom seems to have caught him by surprise as much as anyone.

The book was based on an introductory course on world history he taught when none of his more senior colleagues wanted to take it on, and it was turned down by almost every major publishing outfit in Israel before finding a receptive editor. Since then, however, its success has been swift and resounding: it became a bestseller in Israel and has gone on to be published in 20 countries around the world. But then, the book’s success, and the way that Harari has been taken up by the global tastemakers, makes sense in that he considers himself a historian of globalisation. “In a way, it’s like in the 19th century with the rise of nationalism. You establish an independent national state and the first thing you do is to write a history of that state. Now we have a more global world, you need the history of the whole of the global world, not of a particular country, or religion, but the history of humankind as a whole.”

This is entirely characteristic of the way that Harari speaks. In full sentences, paragraphs, even. My transcript, which is usually a mess of elipses, reads like it’s been lifted off the page. And his book is a brilliant read. He zips from subject to subject, through thousands of years of human history, alighting on whatever seems to take his fancy but gradually builds up a picture of us as… well, as what exactly? As more successful monkeys, basically, so successful that we’ve enslaved all the other animals and bent the planet to our will. But whereas sharks and lions evolved over millennia to take their place at the top of the food chain, Harari compares us to “banana republic dictators” who just got here. “They came to power very violently and lately so they feel extremely insecure about their position. So all the time they just take more and more power to beef up their position.”

A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band.

Because, in Harari’s view, we have no real idea what we want even at the most basic, personal level, let alone as a species. “Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order.” There’s nothing “natural or obvious” about taking a holiday abroad, he says by way of example. “A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their futures building pyramids and having their corpses mummified but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon.” We’re all victims of the “myths of romantic consumerism”, he says.

But everything is a myth, a story, according to Harari. Justice is a story. Human rights are a story. Money, he told the moneyed elite at TED, is “the greatest story ever told”. So what’s your story?

“About the history of the world?”

No, about you. Your story, about yourself.

“Oh, myself? For me, I suppose the most important thing is the search for the truth. I really want to understand reality, what’s really happening here. As far back as I remember, this was something that I was extremely preoccupied by. I remember in high school asking my parents and my teachers to explain what’s happening here, what is life, what’s it all about, and so forth.

“What struck me most was not that they didn’t tell me an answer but that they weren’t really concerned about it. Many people in their teens wonder about these big questions, what’s the meaning of life, what are we doing here, then somewhere in their 20s they seem to say, ‘I’ll just get married. I’ll just have kids. I’ll get back to that later.’ But they never do. For me, it kept boiling. And it still is boiling.”

He grew up in a secular Jewish family of eastern European origin in the Haifa area and there are a few things he recognises about himself that have informed his world view, or at least his desire to question other people’s view of the world. The first is being gay.

“You don’t take the accepted view for granted just because everybody believes it. It really affects the way that I view everything. Nothing should be taken for granted even if everybody believes it. It forces you to look at society a bit from the side.”

Another influence was the collapse of the Berlin Wall when he was a teenager in 1989.

“It means I don’t take capitalism and neo-liberalism for granted. I teach all these 20-year-old students and they were born into a capitalist world. It’s the only system. There’s no alternative and nobody can even imagine that there could be. But I remember the time when these things were really hotly contested. And also the way that you can live in a certain type of world and be sure that this will go on for ages and ages and suddenly everything collapses.”

In some ways, I say, it struck me that Sapiens isn’t actually a history book – it’s a philosophy book that asks the big, philosophical questions and attempts to answer them through history.

“Yes, that’s a very accurate description. I think that I see history as a philosophy laboratory. Philosophers come up with all these very interesting questions about the human condition, but the way that most of them – though not all – go about answering them is through thought experiments. But if you’re interested in, say, justice, history is full of empirical evidence about justice in human society.”

It’s no surprise, either, that he’s come to the attention of Mark Zuckerberg. Harari is one of the very few thinkers around who’s really looking at what’s happening now. Sapiens is his attempt to tell the story of the past to understand the present: the great technological advances that we are all living through now.

The way you tell it is that we’re at a point of inflection: that we’re on the cusp of perhaps the greatest change for the human race ever?

“Probably, yes. I mean the one thing that has remained constant in history was humans themselves. Homo sapiens, you and me, we are basically the same as people 10,000 years ago. The next revolution will change that.”

The “next revolution”, as Harari sees it, the latest in a line that began with the cognitive revolution and takes in the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution, is what is happening in the biotech field, in artificial intelligence.

“When people talk about merging with computers to create cyborgs, it’s not some prophecy about the year 2200. It’s happening right now. More and more of our reality exists within computers or through them.”

But this is only the start of it. For the first time in history, “we will see real changes in humans themselves – in their biology, in their physical and cognitive abilities”. And while we have enough imagination to invent new technologies, we are unable to foresee their consequences.

“It was the same with the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. Nobody sat down and had a vision: ‘This is what agriculture is going to be for humankind and for the rest of the planet.’ It was an incremental process, step by step, taking centuries, even thousands of years, which nobody really understood and nobody could foresee the consequences.”

Only now, the decisions are being taken by “a small international caste of business people, entrepreneurs and engineers”. Governments have become “managers”, he says. They have no vision, “whereas meet the people in Google, in Facebook, they have tremendous visions about the future, about overcoming death, living for ever, merging humans with computers. I do find it worrying that the basis of the future, not only of humankind, the future of life, is now in the hands of a very small group of entrepreneurs.”

But then, even those of us who are aware of the arguments aren’t necessarily losing sleep over it, a fact that Harari puts down to one of our unique attributes as humans: our cognitive dissonance, our ability to hold two utterly conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time. That we can say, what a cute dog and yum, yum, what a delicious steak and not see a problem with that somehow.

Harari is a vegan and the dire plight of animals, particularly domesticated animals, since the agricultural revolution is something he riffs on in the book, but there are countless other examples. “In modern secular societies, people believe in equality and people believe in freedom and they don’t realise that usually freedom and equality are contradictory. The more freedom you give people, the more inequality you have.”

His views on inequality – that the 20th century was a blip basically; we’ve always been unequal and we’re heading back that way – link him to that other great intellectual du jour, Thomas Piketty, but much of Sapiens feels inventively original, a fact that he puts down to his longstanding interest in meditation. Harari, it seems, doesn’t succumb to the myth of romantic consumerism when it comes to deciding what to do on his holidays. Last summer, he went on a 60-day silent vipassana retreat. He discovered it at Oxford when researching his PhD.

“I suddenly had a tool to scientifically observe directly my mind… and I realised I had no idea who I really was. I had this fictional story in my head but the connection between that and my reality was rather tenuous.” It changed him, personally, he says, but also professionally. “It gave me the ability to focus on what is really important. When you look inside, you find that there are so many different voices inside you. Most of life, we just allow all these voices just to pull us any which way.”

It’s an interest that he shares with the Silicon Valley types he critiques (Steve Jobs was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism) and, in a distracted age, focus – and its handmaiden, mindfulness – is more fashionable in west-coast America than curly kale. But without meditation, he says, “I would probably be far less satisfied and happy. And I would probably be a far worse historian. I suppose I would still be researching medieval military history, but not the neanderthals or cyborgs.”

It’s bracing, Harari’s focus on the big things. His next book is “about the human agenda for the 21st century in terms of dangers, opportunities, questions”. Mark Zuckerberg will no doubt read it. Probably the rest of us should too.