A Brief History of Tomorrow (review)

In 2019, some of my students read Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”. Not only was I impressed by their ability (and initiative) to read this book, especially considering they were secondary school students, but I also thought I needed to read it myself. It was quite an eye opener, and no mistake. So when a colleague of mine who habitually makes his reading material available for others to peruse shared the ‘sequel’ to the former book I jumped on it.

This time it’s called “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow”, published as a paperback in 2017. Boy, did this book fill me with regret that I hadn’t discovered it earlier. Because if there is one thing I could glean from this volume it’s that human development is happening ever faster…and also that this development is not going to be a lot of fun for mankind. Maybe that’s why it has “brief” in the title, whereas I originally reckoned it applied to the size of the book.

If you want to be shocked and surprised by reading the book yourself, do not read any further. Here be spoilers.

So the book quickly dispenses with the thought of the existence of God, although it does mention that some overarching belief system appears to have been (and most likely will continue to be) necessary to allow huge numbers of people to work together. It is this ability to work together that really sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Not a soul, not free will, not conscience. Harari even continues to deconstruct the principle of there being individuals. Each of us consists of a narrating and experiecing self, neither of which are perfect (in fact they have different agendas that are often at loggerheads). Our memories are highly imperfect without us knowing. Even our feelings can fool us. Feelings are nothing but algorithms, anyway. And literally everything involving algorithms can be done better by computers – if not now, then somewhere in the nearer-than-you-think future. A core thought here was, “Computers don’t need to be perfect, they only need to be better than humans.” And they are. And if they’re not yet, they will be, probably sooner than you think. Some algorithms are more difficult, so it may take more time. But computers can already pretty much do anything, including activities that were hitherto considered uniquely part of the human domain such as painting and composing music. Humans will, by and large, become economically superfluous once computers can take over their tasks (thankfully, I looked up that teacher have a less than 2% chance to be taken over by computers). And once humans are superfluous…well…why care for them? And what are they going to do with their lives all day? Rich people will some day make the cross-over to immortality, perpetual happiness, perhaps awareness within a computer.

The book left me with the the ambivalent feeling of having had my intelligence tickled and made irrelevant at the same time. Not a nice feeling, but it was quite a roller coaster ride with a truly mind-melting or eye-opening concept on just about any page. The truth may be unpleasant (and I harbour a deep hope that these developments will take place quite a bit slower than Harari predicts), but I do feel that I am now perhaps a little better equipped to sense (and perhaps cope with) whatever is coming. The next war efforts will not be like what Putin’s attempting, but entirely cyber-based.