Harari accuses the British public, those who voted for Brexit, of endangering a valuable European political construction that helped end centuries of bloody conflict. Brexit has only thrown a “spanner into the miracle machine”. Michael Gove, the supposed intellectual of the Brexit campaign, appears to have trod on some especially sensitive Harari corns and is ridiculed for prioritising his own “feelings” over rational thought.
Perhaps the most powerful parts of the book, though, concern Harari’s discussion of the data economy and the increasing automation of our lives. In a striking metaphor, he suggests that we digital consumers are as naive as native Americans trading our valuable land for trinkets with the invading conquistadores. The ownership and regulation of data, he writes, “may well be the most important political question of our era.”
The vast amounts of data the tech companies are currently ingesting give them ever-increasing insights into our habits, thoughts and lives. Americans check their smartphones 8bn times a day giving up data with every interaction.
The ability of smart algorithms to feast on all this data means they will become increasingly good at predicting our lives and making better decisions for us. It will not be so much Human vs Machine as slow-moving individual vs superfast network. We humans may comfort ourselves that we will forever reign supreme in the realms of ethics and feelings. But Harari doubts that too. Our self-driving cars can be fitted with adjustable ethical settings, drawn from the works of all our great philosophers, while biometric sensors will interpret our own feelings more accurately than we can.
Once computers understand us better than we understand ourselves, what does that mean for our choice of careers, lovers or voting decisions? Harari envisages a world in which Anna Karenina would have consulted the Facebook algorithm before deciding whether to hitch up with Count Vronsky and where AI systems define the parameters of our political decision-making. Our democracies would then become little more than “an emotional puppet show” (some may think we have reached that point already).
Naturally, Harari explores the outer edges of such debates and arrives at some wildly speculative conclusions about the future of AI. “After four billion years of organic life evolving by natural selection, science is ushering in the era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design,” he says. “In the process, Homo sapiens itself will likely disappear.”
Having ticked off the past and future in his two previous books, Harari tells us that his ambition with 21 Lessons is to zoom in on the “here and now”. But his horizons appear strangely limited, touching only briefly on Asia and Africa, where most of humanity lives.
WATCH | Yuval Noah Harari on 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: