Dataism (and a new podcast, first episode w/ Marc Andreessen)
Yuval Harari predicted AI transformations years ago
Note: I released my main interview show! First episode is with Marc Andreessen. Upcoming episodes will be with Balaji Srinivasan, David Sacks, Ezra Klein, Katherine Boyle, Joe Lonsdale, and many more. Please subscribe/download and review the podcast here and below. I'm biased, but I think this interview with Marc gives the best insight into his intellectual journey over the past decade. Let me know what you think.
This week’s Moment of Zen episode is with the inimitable Nic Carter.
Yuval Harari is more widely known for his first book, Sapiens, which has become such a tech staple it’s become a cliche, but his other book, Homo Deus, may be more impactful. Sapiens explained the past, Homo Deus predicted the future. With the rise of GPT-4 turning his book from the future to the present, I wanted to revisit and unpack his thesis. Here are the main points:
The main threats to human life have historically been famine, plague, and war.
Solving these has been the big human project for the last few hundred years — and we’ve made great strides in doing so. There is sufficient food for most people, epidemic diseases have mostly been tamed by medicine, and there has not been a major global powers conflict since World War II.
On the contrary: for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than too little, and from old age than infectious disease, more people commit suicide than killed by soldiers and more people are likely to die from McDonalds than a drought, Ebola or Al Qaeda.
Freed from famine, plague, and war, you’d think we’d enjoy our newfound wealth— you’d think we’d work less, relax more, and focus on more fulfilling things like writing poetry, making art, and meditating for hours a day.
Unlikely, asserts Yuval Harari.
We’ll likely set even more daring goals: According to Homo Deus, the next human project will be about achieving immortality, happiness, and divinity.
“Having reduced mortality from starvation , disease and violence , we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself.
Having saved people from abject misery , we will now aim to make them positively happy.
And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles , we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods , and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus..”
Let’s focus on Happiness first. It’s odd. Despite unprecedented achievements in the last few decades, it’s unclear that we’re any happier than we were prior. More ominously, despite the fact that we’re providing food for more people, curing diseases and ensuring world peace — the rate of suicide in developed world is much higher than in traditional society.
Harari asserts we’ve reached some sort of happiness glass ceiling.
He refers to the buddhism construct that pleasant sensations disappear as fast as they arise, and that as long as people crave pleasant sensations without actually experiencing them, they remain dissatisfied, because no matter how good they are, they are short-lived, and we will always crave more.
There are two solutions to this idea.
One is the buddhism solution: Reducing our craving for pleasant sensations by mindfulness and meditation.
To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it. Meditate, focus on your breath, and observe the sensations as they pass by.
The other is the biochemical solution: The biochemical solution simply says — let’s rewire our brains so we feel pleasant sensations at all times.
Which solution do you think better resonates with capitalism, science, and western culture?
Yep. The biochemical solution. That’s how we’ll (try to) solve for happiness.
Now let’s discuss the next great human project: Divinity.
Let me back up and simplify Yuval’s already extremely simplified history of what he calls religions — fictions that allowed us to coordinate across a mass population.
Religious Knowledge = Scripture x Logic. Read the Bible, and connect the text’s dots to answer your questions.
Humanist Knowledge = Experiences x Self awareness. Search your feelings, and choose what you know to be true.
Scientific Knowledge = Empirical data x Math. Run experiments, and calculate conclusions.
We used to ascribe everything to God. God caused this. God caused that. Everything has been created by God.
After the scientific revolution, we moved more towards humanism. Instead of God being the source of all meaning, the human experience now was.
Different forms of humanism emerged:
Capitalist humanism: The Customer is always right.
I as a customer should have the freedom to choose however I like.
Socialist humanism: The Party is always right.
There are billions of people in the world and all of them are just as valuable as I am. Socialism demands that I stop obsessing about me and my feelings and instead focus on what others are feeling and how my actions influence their experiences
Evolutionary humanism: Natural selection is always right.
Conflict is something to applaud rather than lament. Some humans are simply superior to others, and when human experiences collide, the fittest humans should steamroll everyone else. Conflict is the raw material of natural selection, which pushes evolution forward .
In other words, Capitalism is whatever the most people buy. Socialism is whatever the party cultural commissioner thinks. And evolutionary humanism is whatever and whoever wins.
The humanisms had their differences, but they shared the same root belief: a fundamental belief in the inherent good of human beings.
This fundamental belief — that humans are inherently good — is founded on three assumptions:
1 . I am an in - dividual – that is, I have a single essence that cannot be divided into parts or subsystems. True, this inner core is wrapped in many outer layers. But if I make the effort to peel away these external crusts, I will find deep within myself a clear and single inner voice, which is my authentic self.
2 . My authentic self is completely free.
3 . It follows from the first two assumptions that I can know things about myself nobody else can discover. For only I have access to my inner space of freedom , and only I can hear the whispers of my authentic self. This is why liberalism grants the individual so much authority. I cannot trust anyone else to make choices for me , because no one else can know who I really am , how I feel and what I want. This is why the voter knows best, why the customer is always right and why beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Since the Enlightenment, science has found a strong ally in the secular humanistic religion. The two ideologies have combined to achieve economic growth and to explore the meaning of the expanding possibilities and wealth of humankind.
And yet. While science and humanism have been linked in the past, the life sciences have continued to develop independently of the humanities, and their findings have undermined the concept that humans have authentic inner selves.
Here are three findings that counter the three beliefs above:
“1 . Organisms are algorithms, and humans are not individuals – they are ‘dividuals ’ . That is , humans are an assemblage of many different algorithms lacking a single inner voice or a single self .
2 . The algorithms constituting a human are not free. They are shaped by genes and environmental pressures , and take decisions either deterministically or randomly – but not freely .
3 . It follows that an external algorithm could theoretically know me much better than I can ever know myself.”
Yuval uses the example of Google (present and future) and says that Google, monitoring your every move, will know you better than you know yourself. Google will have your every communication, your DNA, and the entire biometrics isotropy of your heart.
“Here are some practical Dataist guidelines for you: ‘You want to know who you really are ? ’ asks Dataism. ‘ Then forget about mountains and museums. Have you had your DNA sequenced ? No?! What are you waiting for ? Go and do it - and tell your siblings to have their DNA sequenced too – their data is very valuable for you . And have you heard about these wearable biometric devices that measure your blood pressure and heart rate twenty - four hours a day ? Good – so buy one of those , put it on and connect it to your smartphone . And while you are shopping, buy a mobile camera and microphone, record everything you do, and put in online. And allow Google and Facebook to read all your emails, monitor all your chats and messages, and keep a record of all your Likes and clicks. If you do all that, then the great algorithms of the Internet - of - All - Things will tell you whom to marry, which career to pursue and whether to start a war.”
Here is Yuval’s conclusions:
“Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other animals . Over the course of history humans created a global network and evaluated everything according to its function within that network . For thousands of years this inflated human pride and prejudices. Since humans fulfilled the most important functions in the network, it was easy for us to take credit for the network’s achievements, and to see ourselves as the apex of creation . The lives and experiences of all other animals were undervalued because they fulfilled far less important functions, and whenever an animal ceased to fulfill any function at all, it went extinct. However, once we humans lose our functional importance to the network, we will discover that we are not the apex of creation after all. The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and Chinese river dolphins in oblivion. Looking back , humanity will turn out to have been really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes :
1 . Science is converging on an all - encompassing dogma , which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing .
2 . Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness .
3 . Non - conscious but highly intelligent algorithms
These three processes raise three key questions , which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book :
1 . Are organisms really just algorithms , and is life really just data processing ?
2 . What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness ?
3 . What will happen to society , politics and daily life when non - conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves ?
A few years later, dataism seems much more prescient than it did in 2016, and these follow up questions have a bit more urgency to them.