Revisiting Yuval Harari
This week we go back to the first ever interview we recorded for Talking Politics, when David talked to Yuval Noah Harari in 2016 about his book Homo Deus. That conversation touched on many of the themes that we've kept coming back to in the four years since: the power of the big technology companies; the vulnerability of democracy; the deep uncertainty we all feel about the future. David reflects on what difference those four years have made to how we think about these questions now.
In Homo Deus, Harari distinguishes between intelligence and consciousness.
- Intelligence is the ability to solve problems; consciousness is the ability to feel things.
- Humans use their feelings to solve problems; our intelligence is to a large extent emotional intelligence. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
- Computers have advanced in terms of intelligence but not consciousness.
- What is more important: consciousness or intelligence? This is becoming a practical, not theoretical question.
Artificial intelligence could create a new class—the useless class.
- Institutions or mechanisms might become obsolete.
- In humanist politics, the feelings of individuals are the highest authority; could algorithms know your feelings better than you do?
The idea of the individual is that you have an indivisible inner core and your task as an individual is to get away from outside forces and get in touch with your true, authentic self.
- According to Harari, this is 18th century mythology.
- Humans are dividuals: a collection of biochemical mechanisms. There is nothing beyond these mechanisms.
- In the 20th century, no one could understand these mechanisms.
- We haven’t abandoned humanism—the rhetoric is still there—but it is under pressure.
In a long-tail world, everyone has a little bit—there’s lots of tailored, personal politics—but there’s also a huge concentration of power and wealth.
- Think of Google or Facebook: they are basically monopolies.
- Technology is not deterministic: it could still go in different ways.
- There is human pushback.
- Voters may be right in sensing that power is shifting, but are they right about where it is going?
In the four years since this interview, machine intelligence hasn’t hugely advanced.
- Machines are more a part of our lives, but they aren’t necessarily smarter.
- Are we becoming less intelligent as we adapt to a world increasingly dominated by machines?
- Human agency is not just under threat from machines. It’s also under threat from corporate power. Amazon is much more powerful than it was four years ago.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- Homo Deus
- ‘Inside Out’
- David’s review of Homo Deus
- Our episode with Brett Frischmann
- Dominic Cummings’s blog