Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Yuval Noah Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens proves to be the work of a brilliant and imaginative mind, full of ideas that will challenge and unsettle.

Homo Deus is the follow-up to Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari’s hugely successful Sapiens, an iconoclastic history of our species. In his new book, Harari attempts to show what directions humanity will take in the future. In short, he says that as we master technology we will try to attain a state of permanent bliss and strive to become immortal. Harari’s tone as he contemplates our obsession with achieving perfection is one of cynical bemusement.

Unlike its predecessor, Homo Deus is not a straight chronological history. It’s rather a book of philosophical musings and speculation, especially on matters scientific and technological. Harari’s main point is that we are moving from a humanist culture, where humans were at the centre of everything, to a culture where technology will take our place. One day all powerful algorithms, or artificially intelligent beings, will see little use for us. Our role will be downgraded. This is happening already, as automation is predicted to take at least half of jobs now performed by humans. Harari says in the future we will have a ‘useless’ class, not able to perform any type of work.

Harari’s interest in animal welfare plays out strongly in Homo Deus. A whole section is devoted to the history of our relationship with animals and their poor treatment. Once the agricultural revolution got under way, animals were exploited on a larger and more organised scale, until our own time where they suffer immeasurably under an economically rationalised system of  factory farming. The author then muses that algorithms are perhaps going to do to us what we have done to animals, treat us as nothing more than economic units, or organisms to be farmed for their data.

This is a book full of fascinating ideas and conceits. While its ruminations on the future are, rather perversely, gleefully pessimistic, there can be no doubt that Yuval Noah Harari has a fine and original mind. He has a way of looking at the world in an entirely new way, holding a mirror up to humanity’s follies, delusions and cruelties, daring us to say we are still so great.

One of the more intelligent books you’ll read this year.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari. Published by Harvill/Secker. ISBN: 9781910701881  RRP: $35

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