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[Book Review] of God, Man and Machines

June 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Title: Homo Deus A Brief History of Tomorrow. 

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)

This has to be one of the more thought provoking books I have read in a while, and it boldly tackles a complex and far reaching subject at a most opportune time. Human evolution is something that has fascinated people since Darwin’s seminal work on the origin of then species, perhaps even moreso now with the advent of true A.I. The thought of self learning systems powering an autonomous independent entity can send shivers down the backs of even the most unflappable of people when it becomes real.

Homo Deus is Yuval Noah Harari’s second work on the topic of man’s evolution and he does not disappoint. His previous work, Sapiens, paints a compelling picture of the journey humanity has undertaken to get to this point. This work takes us on the next step of that journey by looking ahead into the future of humanity, assuming the current trajectory remains unchanged, in a way that is equally compelling and enlightening.

According to a central argument in the book, the emergence of Homo deus or ‘divine man’ is the logical next step in human evolution. Homo sapiens (aka thinking man) has progressed far enough on this journey that he is virtually at the cusp of achieving that goal along with mastery of 3 key defining pursuits, i.e: immortality, happiness and divinity. Such a breed of superhuman beings will be sufficiently different from Homo sapiens that the author has chosen to classify them as Homo deus. 

The book traces human belief systems from: belief in divine objects and beings, to belief in society states, and latterly a belief in the individual aka humanism. This is observed to be in step with expanding human communities: from individual family groups and clans to villages, towns and cities; each tier is enabled or limited by man’s ability to source food, security and the prevailing communication technology. There is a certain symmetry in the observed progression from God to man and to machines, as it’s the latter which is fueling the accelerated evolutionary leap to this new species of human being known as Homo deus.

In addition to excellent coverage of realistic humanism and post humanist scenarios, Harari provokes some insightful questions about the next phase of technology enhanced super-humanity and the emerging belief system of Dataism. Dataism describes the current scientific dogma that unites all branches of learning, and which effectively places man in his place as just another data processing system, amongst all other data processing systems, in a world where everything is all about data. He also touches on the inequity that is bound to become even more pronounced when the elites and their robot assistants / overlords decide to do away with the rest of humanity.

Although this is one heck of an interesting book, it doesn’t escape comparison with Harari’s initial masterpiece, which somehow manages to make this work appear less fully-formed and lightweight in relation to Sapiens. It asks more questions, albeit really good ones, than it answers, and somehow contrives to ignore the forest for the trees. By this I mean the relative pace of evolution among different species within an ecosystem. Homo Deus if they ever emerge will have to co-exist with and perhaps dominate other species on the planet, but will themselves be dependent on sustainable wellbeing and balance of the ecosystem in which they find themselves.

In spite of the above, and in conclusion, Homo Deus is a delightful, thought provoking peek at a posssible next phase of human cultural evolution and data driven existence. It is no surprise that it made the list of books reviewed and recommended by none other than Bill Gates in his 5 Good Summer Reads blog post. For this and other reasons stated above, I give it a resounding 9 marks out of 10.

Fidget spinning and the ‘big brain’ syndrome.

May 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Looking ahead into the future, some forward thinking people might ask what key skills the younger generation should develop in order to survive, thrive and succeed in tomorrow’s world. There is no doubt in their minds that the skills, qualifications and advantages of the present day will no longer suffice in the technology infused world of tomorrow.

 

image4-edit-smFor obvious reasons, any answers to this question should be taken with a pinch of salt, therefore I shan’t even venture into that minefield, but suffice to say that judging from current trends in tech (e.g. biotech, AI, IoT, data analytics, and even Blockchain), the future will be something far more dynamic and fluid than we currently imagine and it’ll challenge even the best of us to compete. However, the ability to adapt to change is probably humanity’s greatest asset, and in this case, that ability resides in mankind’s evolutionary weapon of choice – the brain. It’ll require a big enough brain to recognise, comprehend and grasp the opportunities that present themselves in a post human transition.

I say post human transition because we’ll likely need superhuman abilities to engage effectively with even a mere subset of the predicted changes to come. The enabling technologies in place today only hint at possibilities beyond which we cannot easily envisage. A few weeks ago I came across someone with the big brain outlook, and based on our conversation, I came away with a few key characteristics that can help define the big brain advantage, as follows:

  1. It’s a lonely existence – having a big brain means stepping out on a limb. Even when others are busy fretting about current and future ghosts or bogeymen, they’ll often go out alone into the dark to explore the extent of an unfolding phenomenon.
  2. It takes guts – in order to be able to step out into the unknown, you’ll need a pair of big brass balls to scare any real or perceived demons in the dark. Innovators and pioneers meet this challenge head-on and forge ahead where others fear to tread.
  3. An eclectic worldview is essential – the ability to appreciate the big picture in all its variety, diversity and pervasive interconnectedness is crucial to this mindset. Look for it in those with atypical backgrounds and experiences, e.g. that well-travelled outlier in a homogenous group.

So what has this go to do with the humble, if irritating fidget spinner? Well a fidget spinner requires some manual dexterity as well as sensory input and feedback, and it apparently helps those with certain forms of attention deficit disorders, but it has gone viral and become a fad with school age kids (& some adults) everywhere.

Bipedal locomotion, opposing thumb digits and accompanying manual dexterity are adaptions that contributed to the evolution of ‘big brained’ Homo sapiens, aka thinking man. This evolutionary advantage led to the dominance of human beings on earth. In much the same light, it could be argued that those heads-down, hunch-shouldered, smartphone-wielding people you find everywhere these days are merely taking human cultural evolution to the next level by mastering necessary digital dexterity and information processing skills required to gain that digital advantage. So next time you see a fidget-spinning, smartphone-messaging kid, be rest assured this is a fine specimen of the next phase in human evolution – Lord help us all!