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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow Hardcover – Illustrated, February 21, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: Those who read and loved Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens have been eagerly anticipating his new book Homo Deus. While Sapiens looked back at our evolutionary development, this new book examines where we might be headed (Homo Deus is subtitled “A Brief History of Tomorrow”). Predicting the future isn’t as easy as deconstructing the past, and Harari openly admits the challenge—but even if he’s completely wrong in his predictions, and most of us doubt he is, Homo Deus is the kind of provocative, food-for-thought read that drew so many of us to his work in the first place. According to Harari, our future could be very different from our present—dark, technocratic, and automated—but reading about our possible fates, presented in Harari’s clear-eyed and illuminating style, sure is fascinating. --Chris Schluep, The Amazon Book Review
“Thrilling to watch such a talented author trample so freely across so many disciplines... Harari’s skill lies in the way he tilts the prism in all these fields and looks at the world in different ways, providing fresh angles on what we thought we knew... scintillating.” (Financial Times)
“Spellbinding… This is a very intelligent book, full of sharp insights and mordant wit... It is a quirky and cool book, with a sliver of ice at its heart... It is hard to imagine anyone could read this book without getting an occasional, vertiginous thrill.” (Guardian)
“Harari is an intellectual magpie who has plucked theories and data from many disciplines - including philosophy, theology, computer science and biology - to produce a brilliantly original, thought-provoking and important study of where mankind is heading.” (Evening Standard (London))
“I enjoyed reading about these topics not from another futurist but from a historian, contextualizing our current ways of thinking amid humanity’s long march–especially…with Harari’s ability to capsulize big ideas memorably and mingle them with a light, dry humor…Harari offers not just history lessons but a meta-history lesson.” (Washington Post)
“What elevates Harari above many chroniclers of our age is his exceptional clarity and focus.” (London Sunday Times)
“A remarkable book, full of insights and thoughtful reinterpretations of what we thought we knew about ourselves and our history.” (The Guardian)
“Provocative...the handiwork of a gifted thinker.” (Jennifer Senior, New York Times)
“[A] great book…not only alters the way you see the world after you’ve read it, it also casts the past in a different light. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari shows us where mankind is headed in an absolutely clear-sighted & accessible manner.” (Mail on Sunday)
“Like all great epics, Sapiens demanded a sequel. Homo Deus, in which that likely apocalyptic future is imagined in spooling detail, is that book. It is a highly seductive scenario planner for the numerous ways in which we might overreach ourselves.” (The Observer (London))
- Item Weight : 2.56 pounds
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1910701882
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062464316
- Dimensions : 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.6 inches
- Publisher : Harper; Illustrated edition (February 21, 2017)
- ASIN : 0062464310
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #19,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Part 2 is a critique of what Harari calls "humanism". He really dislikes humanism: he inaccurately states its tenets, and then repeatedly mocks it (for example, as promoting indulgent consumerism and sex). He claims that humanism is what is giving rise to an emerging cybernetic dystopia, described in Part 3.
Harari is abusing the word "humanism," as a canvas on which to paint his caricature of modern liberal culture ("liberal" in the classical sense, not in the sense of left-wing politics). He is not really interested in what humanist writers and philosophers have actually said, and does not reference their works. He claims that humanism promotes the belief in a supernatural free will (when in fact, humanists value agency and freedom, but have differing opinions on free will). He claims that humanism believes in an indivisible self/soul (when in fact, psychologists since Freud have a different understanding). And he claims that humanism believes that individuals always know best about their own needs (when in fact, many have emphasized the importance of education in our development--he does not even reference John Dewey). Harari also co-opts related terms that already have other established meanings, such as "evolutionary humanism" and "liberal humanism".
If you want to understand humanism or other social-political movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, Harari will lead you astray. Part 2 deserves only 2/5 stars.
Part 3 is a dire prediction for humanity's future, as genetic engineering, AI, and human-machine interface technologies advance. Harari gives several scenarios, each of which are described very plausibly as future extrapolations of current trends. These scenarios are thought provoking and disturbing--we as a society should be taking them more seriously. There is an interesting discussion of an emerging religion/ideology of "dataism", wherein moral worth depends on the ability to enhance data flow, rather than on consciousness. Part 3 deserves 4/5 stars.
For most of the book, Harari appears to be adopting a materialistic perspective, and one which is also extremely unsentimental and discounts the significance of human morale and character. He pretends to assume that human beings are nothing more than algorithms.
However, some of his arguments (against the existence of an indivisible self, against free-will) are similar to those in Buddhism. He also discusses how animals and people have consciousness and subjective experiences, and presumes that artificial intelligence will remain unconscious (the "weak AI" hypothesis of John Searle).
And on the very last page, he makes us wonder if his hardcore materialistic perspective has just been a long, extended ruse: he asks us to question a worldview that would deny the significance of consciousness. So it seems likely that in a future book he will focus on the nature of consciousness, and argue for non-theistic Buddhism (an understated agenda in Harari's writing--perhaps he thinks that this is the way for humanity to avoid the grim fate predicted here?).
The reader concerned about techno-dystopia may also be interested in "Weapons of Math Destruction," by Cathy O'Neil.
[Update 6/13/2017: see the comment below, by kaiser100, for further insight into Harari's perspective on consciousness and meditation. The comment begins with "Harari indeed believes that developing an understanding of consciousness, a science of mind, or however else one wishes to phrase it is the best and perhaps the only way to avert the grim fate that threatens humanity in this century."]
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...
I know some readers have criticised Hariri's sometimes sweeping statements, or questioned the depth of his technical knowledge but, for me, this misses the point. Harari is not writing an academic treatise; he has produced a unique blend of history, science, philosophy and psychology designed to make us think about the future, based on what we know about human nature from our past.
I have learned a lot that is new from the book and every page gives me a new way of thinking about things I already knew, insights which I can already relate to things that are happening around me. For example, a recent BBC2 series, 'Secrets of Silicon Valley' where extremely clever and even more extremely rich men explain to us how their technology will 'disrupt' the world we know in ways which will empower the little guy. In actual fact little guys in Barcelona can no longer buy a house thanks to Airbnb, little guys in India are taking their own lives because they cannot repay the debts that Uber 'misled' them into taking on and 'little' truck drivers are assisting in their own demise by helping to test a new fleet of driverless trucks.
Occasionally, questioning one or two of the book's more dramatic claims, I have found myself checking and researching areas of knowledge which I would never have ventured into otherwise, and learning a lot more as a result.
We all need to sharpen up our critical thinking skills as the rich and powerful pull further away from the rest of us, leaving us poorer and much more powerless.. This book helps us to do that, and does it in a intelligent, humane, witty and very, very readable way.