Homo Deus summary
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.
In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.4 In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
The Black Death was not a singular event, nor even the worst plague in history. More disastrous epidemics struck America, Australia and the Pacific Islands following the arrival of the first Europeans. Unbeknown to the explorers and settlers, they brought with them new infectious diseases against which the natives had no immunity. Up to 90 per cent of the local populations died as a result.
Biotechnology enables us to defeat bacteria and viruses, but it simultaneously turns humans themselves into an unprecedented threat. The same tools that enable doctors to quickly identify and cure new illnesses may also enable armies and terrorists to engineer even more terrible diseases and doomsday pathogens. It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology. The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over. But we may come to miss it.
In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes.23 Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries.25 For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.
Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9/11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them. Now they flourish in the wreckage.
Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.
Throughout history, religions and ideologies did not sanctify life itself. They always sanctified something above or beyond earthly existence, and were consequently quite tolerant of death.
Modern science and modern culture have an entirely different take on life and death. They don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery, and they certainly don’t view death as the source of life’s meaning. Rather, for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.
We mortals daily take chances with our lives, because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea, and do many other dangerous things like crossing the street or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.
Scepticism about the afterlife drives humankind to seek not only immortality, but also earthly happiness. For who would like to live for ever in eternal misery?
...we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon.
A couple of centuries earlier Buddha had made an even more radical claim, teaching that the pursuit of pleasant sensations is in fact the very root of suffering. Such sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. Even when we experience them, we don’t react to them with contentment; rather, we just crave for more.
To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.
Since Homo sapiens was not adapted by evolution to experience constant pleasure, if that is what humankind nevertheless wants, ice cream and smart-phone games will not do. It will be necessary to change our biochemistry and re-engineer our bodies and minds.
The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.
In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus.
In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.
This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.
Though historians occasionally try their hand at prophecy (without notable success), the study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider. Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.
Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard. You are of course still free to do it. But you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons – and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation. This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.
...present it might seem that immortality, bliss and divinity occupy the top slots on our agenda. But once we come nearer to achieving these goals the resulting upheavals are likely to deflect us towards entirely different destinations. The future described in this chapter is merely the future of the past – i.e. a future based on the ideas and hopes that dominated the world for the last 300 years. The real future – i.e. a future born of the new ideas and hopes of the twenty-first century – might be completely different.
No investigation of our divine future can ignore our own animal past, or our relations with other animals – because the relationship between humans and animals is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans.
Looking back, many think that the downfall of the pharaohs and the death of God were both positive developments. Maybe the collapse of humanism will also be beneficial. People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes.
Altogether about 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but there are more than 400 million domesticated dogs. The world contains 40,000 lions compared to 600 million house cats; 900,000 African buffalo versus 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens.
...present, more than 90 per cent of the large animals of the world (i.e. those weighing more than a few kilograms) are either humans or domesticated animals.
The advent of farming produced new waves of mass extinctions, but more importantly, it created a completely new life form on earth: domesticated animals.Today more than 90 per cent of all large animals are domesticated.
This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present. Tragically, the Agricultural Revolution gave humans the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their subjective needs.
The algorithms controlling vending machines work through mechanical gears and electric circuits. The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts. What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms.
...one core emotion is apparently shared by all mammals: the mother–infant bond. Indeed, it gives mammals their name. The word ‘mammal’ comes from the Latin mamma, meaning breast.
Hunter-gatherers had not seen themselves as superior beings because they were seldom aware of their impact on the ecosystem.
Farmers, in contrast, lived in a world controlled and shaped by human dreams and thoughts. Humans were still subject to formidable natural forces such as storms and earthquakes, but they were far less dependent on the wishes of other animals.
The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild beasts ripe for extermination, and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement.
Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans.
In ancient Egypt, in the Roman Empire or in medieval China, humans had only a rudimental understanding of biochemistry, genetics, zoology and epidemiology. Consequently, their powers of manipulation were limited.
...and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?
Darwin has deprived us of our souls. If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul. This is a terrifying thought not only to devout Christians and Muslims, but also to many secular people who don’t hold any clear religious dogma, but nevertheless want to believe that each human possesses an eternal individual essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and can survive even death intact.
What exactly are the conscious experiences that constitute the flow of the mind? Every subjective experience has two fundamental characteristics: sensation and desire.
If a chain of electrochemical reactions leads all the way from the nerve cells in the eye to the movements of leg muscles, why add subjective experiences to this chain?
Indeed, 99 per cent of bodily activities, including muscle movement and hormonal secretions, take place without any need of conscious feelings. So why do the neurons, muscles and glands need such feelings in the remaining 1 per cent of cases?
Finally, some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfils no biological function whatsoever. Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes.
If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution.
According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possibly distinguish from the ‘real’ world.
Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers. Intelligence and toolmaking were obviously very important as well.
That’s how history unfolds. People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot
Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. This web allows humans alone to organise crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.
It all began about 70,000 years ago, when the Cognitive Revolution enabled Sapiens to start talking about things that existed only in their own imagination.
The Agricultural Revolution, which began about 12,000 years ago, provided the necessary material base for enlarging and strengthening the intersubjective networks. Farming made it possible to feed thousands of people in crowded cities and thousands of soldiers in disciplined armies.
Prior to the invention of writing, stories were confined by the limited capacity of human brains. You couldn’t invent overly complex stories which people couldn’t remember. Writing has thus enabled humans to organise entire societies in an algorithmic fashion.
Written language may have been conceived as a modest way of describing reality, but it gradually became a powerful way to reshape reality.
Many of the difficulties faced by present-day African countries stem from the fact that their borders make little sense. (Note: it was their Western colonisers who decided this.)
Of course suffering might well be caused by our belief in fictions. For example, belief in national and religious myths might cause the outbreak of war, in which millions lose their homes, their limbs and even their lives. The cause of war is fictional, but the suffering is 100 per cent real. This is exactly why we should strive to distinguish fiction from reality.
Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.
Why label such a voyage ‘spiritual’? This is a legacy from ancient dualist religions that believed in the existence of two gods, one good and one evil. According to dualism, the good god created pure and everlasting souls that lived in a blissful world of spirit. However, the evil god – sometimes named Satan – created another world, made of matter. Satan didn’t know how to make his creation endure, hence in the world of matter everything rots and disintegrates. In order to breathe life into his defective creation, Satan tempted souls from the pure world of spirit, and confined them inside material bodies. That’s what a human is – a good spiritual soul trapped inside an evil material body. Since the soul’s prison – the body – decays and eventually dies, Satan ceaselessly tempts the soul with bodily delights, and above all with food, sex and power. When the body disintegrates and the soul has the opportunity to escape back to the spiritual world, its craving for bodily pleasures lures it back inside some new material body. The soul thus transmigrates from body to body, wasting its days in pursuit of food, sex and power. Dualism instructs people to break these material shackles and undertake a journey back to the spiritual world, which is totally unfamiliar to us, but is our true home.
Such journeys are fundamentally different from religions, because religions seek to cement the worldly order whereas spirituality seeks to escape it.
Science has no ability to refute or corroborate the ethical judgements religions make. But scientists do have a lot to say about religious factual statements.
Consequently, although science has much more to contribute to ethical debates than we commonly think, there is a line it cannot cross, at least not yet. Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders. Even universities and laboratories need religious backing. Religion provides the ethical justification for scientific research, and in exchange gets to influence the scientific agenda and the uses of scientific discoveries.
Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows.
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Credit is the economic manifestation of trust.
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
When disaster strikes, the poor almost always suffer far more than the rich, even if the rich caused the tragedy in the first place. Global warming is already affecting the lives of poor people in arid African countries more than the lives of affluent Westerners. Paradoxically, the very power of science may increase the danger, because it makes the rich complacent.
Too many politicians and voters believe that as long as the economy grows, scientists and engineers could always save us from doomsday. When it comes to climate change, many growth true-believers don’t just hope for miracles – they take it for granted that the miracles will happen.
The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without predicating it upon some great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract. This escape clause has been the salvation of modern society, for it is impossible to sustain order without meaning.
Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world. Accordingly, the central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God; rather, it was gaining faith in humanity.
For centuries humanism has been convincing us that we are the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will is therefore the highest authority of all. Instead of waiting for some external entity to tell us what’s what, we can rely on our own feelings and desires. From infancy we are bombarded with a barrage of humanist slogans counselling us: ‘Listen to yourself, be true to yourself, trust yourself, follow your heart, do what feels good.’
Rather, in most countries, we hold democratic elections and ask people what they think about the matter at hand. We believe that the voter knows best, and that the free choices of individual humans are the ultimate political authority. Yet how does the voter know what to choose? Theoretically at least, the voter is supposed to consult his or her innermost feelings and follow their lead. It’s not always easy.
As humans gained confidence in themselves a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity. If we wish to know the answer to any ethical question, we need to connect to our inner experiences and observe them with the utmost sensitivity. In practice, this means that we seek knowledge by spending years collecting experiences, and sharpening our sensitivity so we can understand these experiences correctly.
However, both socialists and evolutionary humanists pointed out that the liberal understanding of the human experience is flawed. Liberals think the human experience is an individual phenomenon. But there are many individuals in the world, and they often feel different things and have contradictory desires. If all authority and meaning flows from individual experiences, how do you settle contradictions between different such experiences?
Whereas in liberal politics the voter knows best, and in liberal economics the customer is always right, in socialist politics the party knows best, and in socialist economics the trade union is always right.
The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history, and changing the foundations of ideological discourse. Before Marx, people defined and divided themselves according to their views about God, not about production methods. Since Marx, questions of technology and economic structure became far more important and divisive than debates about the soul and the afterlife.
Since humanism has long sanctified the life, the emotions and the desires of human beings, it’s hardly surprising that a humanist civilisation will want to maximise human lifespans, human happiness and human power. Yet the third and final part of the book will argue that attempting to realise this humanist dream will undermine its very foundations by unleashing new post-humanist technologies.
What, then, will happen once we realise that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?
Liberals value individual liberty so much because they believe that humans have free will. Attributing free will to humans is not an ethical judgement – it purports to be a factual description of the world. Although this so-called factual description might have made sense back in the days of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson, it does not sit well with the latest findings of the life sciences.
Humans act according to their desires. If by ‘free will’ we mean the ability to act according to our desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act upon their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.
Doubting free will is not just a philosophical exercise. It has practical implications. If organisms indeed lack free will, it implies that we can manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.
Truth be told, the experiencing self and the narrating self are not completely separate entities but are closely intertwined. The narrating self uses our experiences as important (but not exclusive) raw materials for its stories. These stories, in turn, shape what the experiencing self actually feels.
Priests discovered this principle thousands of years ago. It underlies numerous religious ceremonies and commandments. If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient.
The life sciences, however, undermine liberalism, arguing that the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms.
...liberalism did not become the dominant ideology simply because its philosophical arguments were the most valid. Rather, liberalism succeeded because there was abundant political, economic and military sense in ascribing value to every human being.
In the twenty-first century liberalism will have a much harder time selling itself. As the masses lose their economic importance, will the moral argument alone be enough to protect human rights and liberties? Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends?
Until today high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or identifying terrorists. However, we are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that can perform such tasks far better than humans. For all these tasks are based on pattern recognition, and non-conscious algorithms may soon excel human consciousness in recognising patterns.
Indeed, it might prove easier to replace doctors specialising in relatively narrow fields such as cancer diagnosis. In a recent experiment a computer algorithm correctly diagnosed 90 per cent of lung cancer cases presented to it, while human doctors had a success rate of only 50 per cent.
What will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better? Throughout history the job market has been divided into three main sectors: agriculture, industry and services.
Humans have two basic types of abilities: physical and cognitive. As long as machines competed with us humans merely in physical abilities, there were countless cognitive tasks that humans performed better. So as machines took over purely manual jobs, humans focused on jobs requiring at least some cognitive skills. Yet what will happen once algorithms outperform us in remembering, analysing and recognising patterns?
As I have repeatedly stressed, AI is nowhere near human-like existence. But 99 per cent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it needs only to outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.
Liberalism eventually defeated socialism only by adopting the best parts of the socialist programme. In the twenty-first century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This ‘useless class’ will not be merely unemployed – it will be unemployable.
People must do something, or they go crazy. What will they do all day? One answer might be drugs and computer games. Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds, that would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside.
Humans will no longer be autonomous entities directed by the stories their narrating self invents. Instead, they will be integral parts of a huge global network.
In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.
The liberal solution for social inequality is to give equal value to different human experiences, instead of trying to create the same experiences for everyone. However, will this solution still work once rich and poor are separated not merely by wealth, but also by real biological gaps?
...medicine is undergoing a tremendous conceptual revolution. Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy.
If scientific discoveries and technological developments split humankind into a mass of useless humans and a small elite of upgraded superhumans, or if authority shifts altogether away from human beings into the hands of highly intelligent algorithms, then liberalism will collapse.
Technohumanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms.
...most relevant researches have been conducted on people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies, who do not constitute a representative sample of humanity. The study of the human mind has so far assumed that Homo sapiens is Homer Simpson.
As any farmer knows, it’s usually the brightest goat in the flock that stirs up the most trouble, which is why the Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animals’ mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution, dreamed up by techno-humanists, might do the same to us, producing human cogs who communicate and process data far more effectively than ever before, but who can hardly pay attention, dream or doubt. For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants.
Hence a bolder techno-religion seeks to sever the humanist umbilical cord altogether. It foresees a world that does not revolve around the desires and experiences of any humanlike beings. What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority?
Rather, capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological change.
Precisely because technology is now moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. Consequently, in the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.
Well then, if we could create a data-processing system that can assimilate even more data than a human being, and process it even more efficiently, wouldn’t that system be superior to a human in exactly the same way that a human is superior to a chicken?
Humanism holds that experiences occur inside us, and that we ought to find within ourselves the meaning of all that happens, thereby infusing the universe with meaning. Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot – find meaning within ourselves. We need only record and connect our experiences to the great dataflow, and the algorithms will discover their meaning and tell us what to do.
In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.
__Yet if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:
- Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
- Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
- Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.__
- __These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
- What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
- What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?__