Interview | Yuval Harari

A medieval historian leaps from the past into the future of mankind—and cyborgs.
June, 06 2017

Until 2011, Yuval Noah Harari was an obscure professor of medieval military history at Hebrew University. Then he took up the challenge of teaching an introductory course in world history when no other faculty member wanted to teach it. The result was a book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, published first in Hebrew in 2011 and then in English in 2014, which became a best-seller—with effusive recommendations by Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—and made him an academic rock star.

In Sapiens, Harari describes the evolution of an ape-like creature 100,000 years ago into the species we are today. It began with small changes in DNA that led to a capacity for humankind to create, recall and share complex stories and master the world. “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths,” he writes. “Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” Along the way, he argues, our species has been unwilling to recognize the many unintended consequences of its obsessive search for happiness and immortality. The discovery of agriculture 10,000 years ago led to population growth, divisions within society and infectious diseases. Domestication of animals brought intolerable suffering to millions of cows, pigs and chickens. Industrialization pollutes and heats up the world, and human expansion crowds out flora and fauna. Harari warns that “humankind is poised to replace natural selection with intelligent design, and to extend life from the organic realm to the inorganic.”

In his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari speculates that humans are on track to become godlike in their power—with both positive and negative consequences. In medicine, artificial intelligence will replace real doctors. This will be a boon to poor countries, where diagnoses will be made online. On the other hand, technology will increasingly be in the hands of the rich, meaning that economic inequality will be translated into biological inequity. Data and newly invented algorithms will rule our lives and choices. In a more distant future, we will create cyborgs and robots—mechanical beings connected through huge databases that share human characteristics—which may eventually make human beings irrelevant.

Born in Haifa to Eastern European immigrants, Harari now lives with his husband in a moshav outside Jerusalem. A vegan deeply distressed by the suffering of domesticated animals, Harari meditates daily (plus a 60-day silent retreat each year). He does this, he says, to understand more fully the nature of human consciousness and “human dissatisfaction.” Moment talks with Harari about the role of technology in politics and the rise of big data, as well as topics Harari does not usually discuss, such as Judaism and Israel.

Harari during his 2015 TED talk “What Explains the Rise of Humans?”

You argue that so many problems must be solved on a global scale, but countries are increasingly turning inward. What can we do?

We can realize the magnitude of the problems we face, and the fact that no nation can solve them by itself. All our major problems are global in nature: global warming, global inequality and the rise of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering. In order to face these challenges successfully, we need global cooperation. For example, no nation can regulate bioengineering singlehandedly. It won’t help much if the U.S. forbids genetically engineering human babies but China allows it. Similarly, no nation can stop global warming by itself. Can the U.S. build a wall against rising oceans? Because nationalism has no answer to global warming, it tends to simply deny the problem. But the problem is real. Hence, I think the current wave of nationalism is a kind of escapism: people refusing to confront the unprecedented problems of the 21st century by closing their eyes and minds and by seeking refuge in the fold of traditional local identities. I hope that people will wake up in time.

How do you explain the current cycle of nationalism, protectionism, authoritarianism, fake news and xenophobia? 

As the pace of technological development increases, the political systems we have inherited from the 20th century may become irrelevant. Technological revolutions now move faster than political processes, causing politicians and voters to lose control of events. The rise of the internet gives us a taste of things to come. Cyberspace is now crucial to our daily lives, our economy and our security, yet the critical choices about the basic shape and features of the internet weren’t made through any political process, even though they involve traditional political issues such as sovereignty, jobs, privacy and security. Did you ever vote about the shape of cyberspace? Decisions far from the public limelight have made the internet a free and lawless zone that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, revolutionizes the job market, abolishes privacy and poses perhaps the most formidable global security risk. In the coming decades, it is likely that we will see more internet-like revolutions, in which technology will continue to run ahead of politics. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology might soon overhaul not just our societies and economies, but our very bodies and minds. Many present-day jobs will be automated, and millions of people may be pushed out of the job market and become part of a new “useless class.”

Present-day democratic structures cannot collect and process the relevant data fast enough, and most voters don’t understand biology and cybernetics well enough to form any pertinent opinions. In short, traditional democratic politics is losing control of events and is failing to present us with meaningful visions of the future. Ordinary voters sense that the democratic mechanism no longer empowers them. The world is changing, and they don’t understand how or why. In Britain, voters imagine that power might have shifted to the European Union, so they vote for Brexit. In the U.S., voters imagine that “the establishment” monopolizes all the power, so they support Donald Trump. The sad truth is that nobody knows where all the power has gone. Power will definitely not shift back to ordinary voters just because Britain is leaving the EU or Trump has taken over the White House.

How should the education system be reformed to prepare youth for an unknown future?

You need to teach flexibility. Many jobs existing today will disappear by 2040, and we don’t know what new jobs—if any—might replace them. Consequently, it is likely that most of what kids currently learn at school will be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. In the first part of life you built a stable identity and acquired personal and professional skills; in the second part of life you relied on your identity and skills to navigate the world, earn a living and contribute to society. By 2040, this traditional model will become obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves again and again. The world of 2040 will be a very different world from today, and an extremely hectic world. The pace of change is likely to accelerate even further. So people will need the ability to learn all the time and to reinvent themselves repeatedly—even at age 60.

If studying data can give us all the answers, why does religion continue to have a hold on so many people?

People are afraid of change and of the unknown, and they want to hold on to something stable and eternal. So they turn to religion. Yet traditional religions are losing their relevance, because they have been transformed from a creative force into a reactive force. Whereas in the past they pioneered changes in economics, politics and technology, now they mostly agonize over the ideas and technologies propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the internet and rabbis argue whether Orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call upon women to take possession of their bodies, and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas. That does not mean, of course, that traditional religions cannot play a positive role in the future. It all depends on what we do with them. Since religions are made by humans rather than by gods, no religion has a fixed eternal essence.

“Artificial intelligence and biotechnology might soon overhaul not just our societies and economies, but our very bodies and minds. many present-day jobs will be automated, and millions of people may be pushed out of the job market and become part of a new ‘useless class.'”

How do you define Zionism?

We should stop talking about Zionism as a vision. It is a reality. If you define Zionism as the idea of establishing a country for the Jewish people, then instead of believing in Zionism I actually live in it. You could of course define Zionism more abstractly as a set of values, and indeed some of the founders of Zionism saw it in such a way. But I am afraid that, in building and defending the State of Israel, the lofty values of the visionaries were left somewhere by the wayside. I see no evidence that Israel embodies loftier values than Uruguay, Canada, India or any number of other countries. It’s certainly a better country than Syria, North Korea or the Democratic Republic of Congo, but that’s hardly something to be proud of. I wouldn’t like other countries to follow the Israeli example when it comes to treatment of minorities, refugees or the ecosystem. I would be curious to hear about one ethical field in which Israel excels above all other countries.

What will Israel look like 20 years from now?

Nobody knows. I hope it will be a vibrant part of the global human community. I fear that it might become a self-absorbed fortress that has little to offer the world except perhaps sophisticated weapons. In particular, I fear that it will become the first total surveillance state. That is what you might get when you marry the start-up nation with the villa in the jungle. Israel is the one country in the world that is likely to have both the motivation and the technology to establish a total surveillance regime, beginning in the occupied territories, and spreading from there to the entire country.

You have pointed out that Judaism, as well as the other monotheistic religions, is built on myths and on the “chosenness” of believers. Can Jewish practice and belief be modernized?

Judaism is whatever Jews make of it. It has no fixed eternal essence. The Judaism of today is already a completely different religion from the Judaism of biblical times. Biblical Judaism was a typical Iron Age cult, similar to many of its Middle Eastern neighbors. It had no synagogues, yeshivas, rabbis—or even a Bible. Instead, it had elaborate temple rituals, most of which involved sacrificing animals to a jealous sky god so that he would bless his people with seasonal rains and military victories. Its religious elite consisted of priestly families, who owed everything to birth and nothing to intellectual prowess. During the Second Temple period a rival religious elite gradually formed who wrote and interpreted Jewish texts. The clash between the old priestly families and what we now call rabbinical Judaism was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D. while suppressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the Temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very raison d’être. Traditional Judaism—a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors—disappeared. In its place emerged a new Judaism of texts, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars. Judaism has since undergone many other revolutions. There is no reason why it cannot undergo another revolution in the 21st century.

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One thought on “Interview | Yuval Harari

  1. I am utterly contrite. I slagged off Yuval Harari a few months ago for saying on the first page of Sapiens that there was a Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years ago. I still think this is nonsense, but apart from that he sounds a wonderful man and I agree with everything he says. I will have another go at Sapiens, starting on the second page

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