Do Androids Dream of World Domination?

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Review by Robert Glancy


Do Androids Dream of World Domination?

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Review by Robert Glancy


Sapiens is a big book. Big in every way. Physically imposing, intellectually challenging, admirable in its ambition. It’s a book that should come with a warning: This book will blow your mind! It blew my mind; I’m still picking up the pieces.

Sapiens is powered by a singular theory. Everything we hold true is false. Religion, companies, judicial systems and countries – all of them are, in fact, fictions. Yet it is this very fiction, the power of our collective imagination, that makes us Sapiens such phenomenal creatures. ‘None of these things exist outside the stories people invent and tell one another. There are no gods… no nations, no human rights, no laws, no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.’

A theory Harari then holds up as a mirror to explain and examine human life: from art, economics, farming, to the future of the human race as we seem determined – having abandoned our gods – to become gods ourselves, creating Artificial Intelligence that will ultimately replace us.

So, yes, it’s rather an ambitious book. But it’s also exceedingly entertaining. So far I’ve bought three copies, all of which I’ve enthusiastically lent to friends, who have, in turn, enthusiastically lent my copies to other friends. That’s not fiction. That’s cold hard fact. And I want my books back.

In many ways Harari’s thesis is so simple it’s invisible, so versatile it fits all aspects of human life. Which means it’s one of those books that may test your friendships, as you find yourself raving until your mate’s eyes glaze over and he says, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s fascinating, whatever. Can we talk about something interesting like house prices? My house is worth a fortune.’

But just before you let the subject be so bluntly changed, you grin and say, ‘Actually, funny fact: mortgages are just myths we all invest in.’

Thankfully we are living through a golden age of creative nonfiction. Decades ago this book would have been dense, impenetrable and published by a tiny university press, where a few arch academics would mutter about it over cups of weak cafeteria tea. Harari is too talented for that. As readable as Bryson, as intellectually gratifying as Chomsky, Sapiens makes you feel far smarter than you actually are. Harari is a master of compression, reducing the history of man into a few chapters. On occasion, this compression can lead to over-simplification, but it also gives the book pace, which in turn offers moments of genuine revelation. ‘More than 90% of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers. Money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct.’ Which ends in this witty gem: ‘Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money.’

Naturally, this Theory of Everything leads to many great Matrix Moments: ‘Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; on the other, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became even more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.’

Sapiens is a quote-monkey’s wet dream. Each page glitters with nuggets with which to bore friends and family. I am that quote-monkey; my wife hates this book.

It’s also sprinkled with great tales. Such as when a Native American asked Neil Armstrong to give a message to the man on the moon. Neil memorised the message and, later, asked a different Native American what it meant. The man replied: ‘Don’t believe a word these people say. They have come to steal your land.’

Sapiens concludes on a prophetic note: ‘Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?’

It’s a foreboding cliffhanger that left me wanting more … 

And yesterday I received it.

Harari’s follow up, Homo Deux, arrived in the mail and I swallowed it whole. Unfazed by the epic title of his first book – Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind – Harari has gone one further with an oxymoronic title that smacks of a wicked riddle – Homo Deux: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Having dispatched the past 100,000 years, Harari now squints into the future, prophesizing the next 100,000 years. Again a single idea forms the spine of this book: man is playing Prometheus, programming AI that will ultimately alter, maybe even replace, humans.

Homo Deux does wade into the slightly murkier waters of the future and, again, there are times when forcing so many incongruent elements into one skinny idea results in a few tight and ungainly fits. However, Harari understands – in the same way that many great science fiction writers understand – that his future gazing is merely a lens to study the present: ‘All the predictions that pepper this book are no more than an attempt to discuss present-day dilemmas, and an invitation to change the future.’

That lens throws into focus riveting observations, as Harari turns great phrases – ‘What makes us Sapiens makes us gods’ – opines sobering revelations – ‘The rise of the useless class’ – and frames staggering statistics: ‘Obesity killed 3 million people in 2010; terrorists killed 7,697. Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.’

Or this one: ‘1 billion people earn less than $1 a day. Sixty-two billionaires together hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of humanity.’

Beyond statistical shock, some topics will haunt you long after finishing this book, such as the disquieting fact that, ‘in addition to smelling and paying attention, we have also been losing our ability to dream.’

Just like Sapiens, Harari’s follow up is full of so many deft flourishes of logic that find your eyeballs flitting back to reread sentences: ‘Incidentally cancer and heart disease are of course not new illnesses... In previous eras, however, relatively few people lived long enough to die from them.’

Cool academic detachment is also brought to bear on many of the more incendiary issues of modern life, such as the disproportionate influence of terrorists: ‘In essence, terrorism is a show… a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination. Consequently states often feel obliged to react… with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat than… the terrorist themselves. Terrorists are a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly incites a bull that in turn destroys the shop.’

The scale of the book’s ambition rarely overpowers it for the simple reason that Harari rarely forgets that – for all postulations on data, AI and God – he is essentially exploring what makes us human, and in the process uncovers – often from the corridors of corporations – so much delicious human nonsense and mortal foible. My absolute favourite being Google’s Department of Anti-death, Calico, which aims to achieve the simple mission of Solving Death.

You can imagine the meetings – struggling not to fall into Monty Python farce – as the Managing Director checks the agenda: ‘Right, team, item one. Have we solved the pesky death issue yet? Anyone? Anyone? No. Right then, back to work.’ The plans of mice and men.

Like the master of creative nonfiction, Michael Lewis, Harari blends fictional tropes into his nonfiction. Not only nailing ideas down with academic study and deep thought but also citing some bloody funny jokes. Such as the time Woody Allen was asked if he’d like to live for ever through his movies and he replied: ‘I’d rather live on in my apartment. I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.’

Harari himself is no slouch when it comes to spinning amusing metaphors: ‘Science and religion are like husband and wife who after 500 years of marriage counseling still don’t know each other. He still dreams about Cinderella and she keeps pining for Prince Charming, while they argue about whose turn it is to take out the rubbish.’

Only to – a few pages later – counterpoint such levity with the unsettling observation of just how much damage man has wreaked on earth: ‘Our impact may surpass that of the asteroid that killed off dinosaurs 65 million years ago.’

So, yes, this is not a book for the faint hearted. Rather like an all-you-can-eat buffet there is so much rich food for thought it leaves you nauseous and mildly guilty. And there’s no Pepto-Bismol to sooth your indigestion, concluding that our work with AI may lead to that very AI deciding, ultimately, to destroy its own creator – us. ‘Once AI surpasses human intelligence, it might simply exterminate humankind.’

The final chapters on Data are not just the most bleak but the most prescient. As any burnt out modern citizen knows we’re drowning in data: ‘The world is overwhelmed by data. The NSA may be spying on your every word, but… never in history did a government know so much about what’s going on in the world – yet few empires have botched things up as clumsily as contemporary America. It’s like a poker player who knows what cards his opponents hold, yet somehow still manages to lose round after round.’

Information is now so prolific that it has actually altered systems that have remained the same for centuries, such as censorship. ‘In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.’ Illustrated so clearly, and so terrifyingly, in Trump’s post-truth election victory with all its false news and misinformation.

And the real concern is not simply government censorship but how easily mass information can be manipulated into by what the Guardian’s George Monbiot calls the corporate misinformation machine.

This glut of mass information leads to Dataism a movement that contends – in an idea oddly reminiscent of Douglas Adams’s theory that the universe is just a supercomputer designed to answer the meaning of life (which, by the way, is: 42) – that the entire human species is merely a single data-processing system.

Harari has reduced you to a bit, a chip, a tiny fragment in a supercomputer. Even those of you who once raged against the idea of being a cog in the machine, must – now you find yourself reduced to a bit on a microchip – pine for the days when you were something as substantial as a cog.

Bringing us tidily, if disturbingly, to the inconvenient fact that we’re nothing more than a very early version of what we will ultimately become. And that the greatest fiction of all – the story we’ve all been telling ourselves for thousands of years: That we’re the precious centre of the universe, that we epitomise the peak of evolution – is nothing more than a fairytale told to hold back the nightmare of reality.

Because far from being the apex of evolution we may soon be forced to accept – as millions more lose jobs to algorithms far smarter than us – that in fact, we’re all merely clucky, redundant BETAMAX tapes in evolution’s journey towards perfection.

If Harari’s prophesy about AI wiping out jobs doesn’t have you sweating, then either you’re so rich you don’t need to work or you’re already retired. Because this is a part that no one – bar the 1% frolicking in champagne baths atop ivory towers – walks away from unscathed. Try this for size: ‘47% of US jobs are at high risk,’ of being replaced by AI. Most read that and think: Damn robots could never do my job! Leading neatly to the next sentence: ‘By 2033 human telemarketers… will lose their jobs to algorithms.’ Well, you say, Who cares, no one likes telemarketers, and it’ll be a damn sight easier slamming the phone down on an algorithm than a human!

Unease grows, however, as Harari then illustrates the sheer reach of AI: ‘There is a 98% probability the same will happen to sports referees.’ We generally hate referees, they make up a small portion of jobs, so again we say, So what? Then, even before you have time to comfortably settle into your false sense of security, Harari wipes out waiters, paralegals, insurance experts, tour guides, bakers, construction labourers, veterinarian assistants, security guards, sailors, bartenders, carpenters and lifeguards. By now either those are jobs held by your friends or family or – one of them is your job. And there in lies the rub. This affects us all.

This bleak reality is not news but it is now becoming one of the central questions of society. As Stephen Hawkin’s recently warned: ‘The rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.’

That last part is also the most intriguing: Only the most caring, creative roles. It is surely an odd twist that only the most creative jobs remain out of reach of AI. To think that one day when your child declares, I want to be an actor when I grow up, you may no longer react with the sensible knee jerk advice, Well, now, son, it would be best to became a doctor, you can act in your spare time. No. Instead you’ll say, Well, those may be the only jobs left in the future. So go ahead son, go get that Oscar!

So, in summary, Harari offers his reader: data-overload, censorship, A.I., terrorism, obesity, unemployment, all finished off with the total annihilation of the human race. However, fear not, Harari’s book is not all doom and gloom; there is also a lot of hope as well as a lot of humour in his book. And – based on absolutely no scientific evidence – I still have a sense that jokes will remain one of the things our Future Creepy AI Robot Overlords will never entirely grasp. Although possibly, if algorithms ever master irony, they’ll have the last digital giggle when they remember that we humans worked so damn hard to create our own replacements.

Sapiens sets out to sea only to bash into the false Truman Show horizon. Homo Deux imagines what happens next. It’s a fascinating ride. Homo Deux is a grand sequel to Sapiens, every bit as clever, disturbing and rye. I’ve already ordered back up copies.