Hacking Humans

Will technology disrupt our society and life as we know it? Historian and bestseller author Yuval Noah Harari pictures a challenging and alarming future at the World Economic Forum 2020 in Davos and calls for swift global solutions.

 

As part of the session “How to survive the 21st century” Yuval Noah Harari gave his outlook on the existential challenges of the century ahead at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) end of January. After a one year break the professor at the Department of History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, historian, philosopher and author of the bestsellers “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, was back in Davos to speak to business, government and organisational leaders.

As Co-Founder of Sapienship, a multidisciplinary organisation advocating for global responsibility and the mission to clarify the public conversation, Yuval Noah Harari supports the quest for solutions and focus attention on the most important challenges of today’s world. In his speech at the WEF 2020 the international lecturer and adviser identifies three existential threats that humanity faces this century: nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption.

 

"There is a lot of talk about hacking computers [or] bank accounts, but the really big thing is hacking human beings."

Yuval Noah Harari, Historian and Author of the bestseller "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind"

While Yuval Noah Harari sees the first two as already familiar threats, he attributes a highly disruptive potential to technology. He exemplifies this on the social and economic level, namely due to automation and its effect on human employees who will need to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their lifetime as well as the further development of artificial intelligence (AI) which today, according to Harari, is nowhere near its full potential.

The disappearing of jobs and rapid change of emerging ones will cause humans to struggle against irrelevance rather than exploitation as previous centuries and Harari argues, “it is much worse to be irrelevant than exploited.” This struggle against irrelevance constitutes a new “useless class” in the view of the economic and political system, which would then lead to an increasing gap from the more powerful elite.

Harari continues with the inequality that AI might create between countries and its arms-race, currently lead by China and the USA, as well as the power of collecting data, since “when you have enough data you don’t need to send soldiers, in order to control a country”.

Yuval Noah Harari, Professor, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, speaking in the How to Survive the 21st Century session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 23 January. Congress Centre - Congress Hall. Copyright by World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard

With AI we have created a system that understands us better than we understand ourselves, which can predict and certainly manipulate feelings and decisions, and can ultimately make decisions for us. Harari points out that this power to “hack” humans can not only be used for good purposes, e.g. providing better healthcare but also by totalitarian systems to monitor citizens. However, the prevention of these digital dictatorships will not stop the ability to hack humans from undermining the very meaning of human freedom – namely, that we will rely more and more on AI to make decisions for us. Already today algorithms effect our lives – on Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon, Alibaba and in lots of other daily interactions.

In the not-so-distant future, similar algorithms may tell us where to work and who to marry, Harari predicts, and also decide whether to hire us for a job or give us a loan, and whether the central bank should raise its interest rate. As a result, humans are likely to lose control over their own lives, will struggle to understand the computer’s decisions and following public policy – even in supposedly free countries.

Yuhal Noah Harari goes one step further and questions whether philosophy can catch up with this new reality or not and discusses the impact of intelligent design. He concludes that all three existential challenges we face in this century are global problems and therefore demand global solutions. The historian urges all policymakers in the audience to overcome the arms race regarding technology and intelligent design and start forming global cooperations. “In the 21stcentury, good nationalist must also be globalists”, says Harari, because “globalism means a commitment to some global rules”. And these will be vital to be established in the near future, since the loser of the mentioned technological disruption will not be one single nation, but humanity.

Watch the full session “How to survive the 21st century” with Yuhal Noah Harari here:

 

Cornelia Kopf As editor of Perspectives, Cornelia Kopf is always looking out for unique insights into the challenging aspects of life and wealth. Unearthing and telling inspirational stories is her declared passion.

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