Hackable humans and digital dictators: Q&A with Yuval Noah Harari
New technologies are the biggest challenges facing humanity says the best-selling Sapiens and Homo Deus author.
Yuval Noah Harari was catapulted into the international literary spotlight in 2014 following the English translation of his book Sapiens.
The book, which covers the history of humanity from the discovery of fire to modern robotics, became a non-fiction publishing phenomenon, feted by then-US President Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and went on to sell more than eight million copies worldwide.
In his next book, Homo Deus, the Israeli historian and author explored how the growth of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and biotechnology could radically alter and divide human society, perhaps ending the species altogether.
The same themes crop up again in his latest work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which collects essays, talks and responses to his readers in a series of observations on everything from meditation to climate change.
In an interview with the Talk to Al Jazeera programme, Harari discussed technology, immigration and politics with Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett in Tel Aviv.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Al Jazeera: In your view, what are the key challenges and threats we face right now and going forward?
Yuval Noah Harari: There are three big challenges facing humankind in the 21st century: nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption, especially the rise of AI and bio-engineering. This will change the world more than anything else.
Hopefully, we can prevent a nuclear war and climate change from happening. But technological disruption is bound to happen. We still have some choice about what kind of impact AI and bio-engineering will have on the world, but they will change the world, maybe more than anything that happened previously.
These are the main challenges. Anything else is a distraction.
Al Jazeera: What do you think is going to happen with big data, bio-engineering and AI? What is going to be the impact on all of us?
Harari: Some things are definitely going to happen. For example, computers and robots replacing more and more humans. But what will the consequence of that be? Will this create an extremely unequal society in which an elite control all of the economy and make all the profits, whereas most humans become part of some kind of useless class? This is not inevitable, this is up to us.
Similarly, the combination of AI and biotechnology means that we are very close to the point when you can hack human beings.
There’s a lot of talk about hacking computers, emails and bank accounts. But we are entering an era of hacking humans. And I’d say the most important fact anybody who is alive today needs to know about the 21 century is that we are becoming hackable animals.
Al Jazeera: Hackable how?
Harari: It starts by having corporations and governments amass enormous amounts of data about where we go, what we search online and what we buy. But this is all surface information about our behaviour in the world. The big watershed will come once you can start monitoring and surveying what is happening inside your body and inside your brain. Then you can really hack human beings and we’re very close to this.
Already, a lot of people go about with Fitbit fitness trackers that constantly measure their heart rate and blood pressure. You cross that with what you buy and what you search online, or what you read or what you watch on television. You watch a movie and at the same time, Netflix knows what is happening with your heart rate or your brain.
We still have some choice about what kind of impact AI and bio-engineering will have on the world, but they will change the world, maybe more than anything that happened previously.
When you combine our increasing understanding of biology, especially brain science, with the enormous computing power that machine learning and AI is giving us, what you get from that combination is the ability to hack humans, which means to predict their choices, to understand their feelings, to manipulate them and also to replace them. If you can hack something you can also replace it.
Al Jazeera: There are a lot of concerns around AI taking a bigger role in the future. You don’t seem as worried about that. Why?
Harari: The big danger is the job market and that AI will serve to empower a small number of people and create a digital dictatorship.
I think it’s highly unlikely that in the near, or even medium, future AI will gain consciousness and start having feelings and desires of its own and start killing people. That is science fiction. I really like science fiction but I think the worst service that it has done over the last few years is to distract people from the real dangers of AI, and focus them on unrealistic scenarios.
There is absolutely no indication that AI and computers are anywhere on the road to becoming conscious.
I’m not against giving more authority to AI, but the question is, who is the master of AI? Does it serve a small elite or big corporations? Does it serve dictatorial governments? Or does it serve me? You can use AI to create a total surveillance regime of the government, controlling the population. And you can use AI for the citizens to survey the government and make sure there’s no corruption. The same technology can go both ways.
Al Jazeera: You said that your latest book is one for “right now”. Politics right now are more roiled than they’ve been for a while and you’ve suggested that Brexit may unravel both the United Kingdom and the European Union. How do they unravel from this point?
Harari: As people lose faith in the ability to cooperate with others and with other countries, they become much more self-centred. Then, everybody puts their interests first and it becomes harder and harder to cooperate.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with Brexit. We saw the UK wanting to be independent from the EU, the problem is really one of timing. All of the global problems – AI, climate change, nuclear war – have no national solutions.
You cannot prevent climate change on a national basis. You can reduce your own greenhouse gas emissions to zero, but if the other countries are not doing the same, it won’t help. Similarly, you cannot regulate AI on a national basis.
The most important fact anybody who is alive today needs to know about the 21 century is that we are becoming hackable animals ... If you can hack something, you can replace it
Al Jazeera: Brexit was inspired, to a large extent, by fears of greater immigration. Do ideas you’ve talked about like culturism not give license to people who are racist and who fear people unlike them coming into their zone as we see happening in the EU at the moment?
Harari: There’s a danger there, of course. The differences between racism and culturism is that racism is an argument about biology. You say ‘these people, there is something in their blood, there is something in their genes, there is something in their biology which inevitably makes them a certain way, and this cannot be changed, it’s in their biology.’
Culturism is not about biology. It’s saying ‘there’s something in the culture. Their culture is less respectful of women, their culture is more authoritarian, their culture is … whatever.’
The thing about arguments regarding culture is that sometimes, not always, they are correct. Whereas, there is no scientific basis for thinking that there are significant biological differences between people. What we need to remember is that cultures change and people change. Even if you are born into a particular culture, it doesn’t mean that for the rest of your life you can’t change your worldview, your morality, or your behaviour.
Within the lifetime of a person, an entire culture can change in a tremendous way. If you think about Germany over the last 100 years, it has undergone so many cultural changes. Germany’s culture in Hitler’s time and in Merkel’s time is completely different and at least some of the people are the same.
Al Jazeera: Some of your harsher reviewers have said you are good at diagnosing the trends and problems but you’re less forthcoming when it comes to proposing solutions and answers.
Harari: It’s true, it’s much harder to find solutions but it is also very hard to pinpoint the problems and the questions. I see my main job at present in just bringing clarity by making people focus on the most important problems. Then comes the issue. So what are the solutions? In many cases, we do know what the solutions are. It’s just difficult to implement them, especially without global cooperation.
With climate change, we know what the solutions are. It’s no longer a big mystery. We know what kind of technologies we need to develop and we can do it. We know what kind of environmental regulations we need to enforce and we can do it. But the problem is there is no political will.
With AI and bio-engineering, it’s far more complicated because nobody knows where it’s going and nobody knows what kind of possibilities are opening before us. Even here, there are many things we can do. The problem is the lack of political will and, even more, the lack of attention. If people focus on these issues, I don’t think the solutions are so difficult.