Stack Overflow: 3 Books on Humanity’s Future

Reading Time: 7 minutes

All three are part of my 2017 reading resolutions, and there was one I did not like at all.

These books explore our future from three different viewpoints: Nick Bostrom wants us to really think about what AI has in store for us; García wants us to concentrate in the last years of our lives and how we can live them to the fullest; and I honestly don’t know what Harari wants, (scroll down for my full rant on the matter).

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

Written by Nick Bostrom, this book proved to be an interesting reading experience. He starts by comparing us to a bird who wants to harness a predator into submission, full of hope for the future. He is obviously comparing AI to a sort of un-hatched dragon, you might say, and humanity to a very hopeful but clumsy Hagrid. I am going to quote him now, because I like how he writes:

“Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization – a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it […]. The human brain has some capabilities that the brains of other animals lack. It is to these distinctive capabilities that our species owes its dominant position. Other animals have stronger muscles or sharper claws, but we have cleverer brains. If machine brains one day come to surpass human brains in general intelligence, then this new superintelligence could become very powerful. As the fate of the gorillas now depends more on us humans than on the gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species then would come to depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence” (Bostrom).

His aim, with this book, is to answer questions about existential risks, and of course, how to face real risks, such as all the algorithms that are already out there, commanding our lives:

“Another lesson is that smart professionals might give an instruction to a program based on a sensible-seeming and normally sound assumption (e.g. that trading volume is a good measure of market liquidity), and that this can produce catastrophic results when the program continues to act on the instruction with iron-clad logical consistency even in the unanticipated situation where the assumption turns out to be invalid. The algorithm just does what it does; and unless it is a very special kind of algorithm, it does not care that we clasp our heads and gasp in dumbstruck horror at the absurd inappropriateness of its actions. This is a theme that we will encounter again” (Bostrom).

One question he asks himself is if we are perhaps in the brink of making a discovery that might actually destroy the civilization that discovers it. How near are we from that possibility? What can we think and do about or technological future?

“The image of evolution as a process that reliably produces benign effects is difficult to reconcile with the enormous suffering that we see in both the human and the natural world. Those who cherish evolution’s achievements may do so more from an aesthetic than an ethical perspective. Yet the pertinent question is not what kind of future it would be fascinating to read about in a science fiction novel or to see depicted in a nature documentary, but what kind of future it would be good to live in: two very different matters” (Bostrom).

His range of topics is very wide, from purely theoretical assumptions to the analysis of already existing phenomena. Here’s the video of conference he made about his book. It is an hour-long but he makes it really worth it.

The second book on my lists talks about longevity.

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Written by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, it will be released this week on the 29th, and addresses a concern that is very immediate: how to deal with a new lifespan that has surpassed anything we had experienced before.

The authors traveled to Okinawa, known as one of the Blue Zones, and interviewed the residents: this Japanese village has the highest percentage of 100-year-olds in the country and, of course, the world, and its inhabitants have very busy lives. There is even a short introduction about their interviews available.

From the very obvious reasons that allow them to stay healthy and active (food, movement, work, and relationships), the book focuses on something else, what the Japanese call an ikigai: a reason for living.

This is a fairly easy book, there are no complex assumptions; it is well researched and has many interesting facts. The way they explain each person’s ikigai is the best part. A strong sense of ikigai means a lot, it allows you to focus, and implies that what you live for accomplishes everything. It is a place where passion, mission, vocation, and profession intersect; giving meaning to each of your days; giving you the best reason to get up in the morning; and lies behind why many Japanese never really retire. Fun fact: there is no word in Japanese that means retire in the sense it does in English.

So, the books talk about Humanity’s future longevity on a positive light; encouraging us to stay active, to enjoy our work and enjoy our life because it fulfills us: a purpose in life that drives us and keeps us inspired, that is the Japanese secret to a long and happy life, miles away from the ideals we supposedly have to meet, such as a nice house and a new car every year.

I loved the example they made of Hayao Miyazaki: the first thing he did after retiring from his company was to show up and continue drawing; the very next day. His ikigai is to draw: without a salary, without responsibility, all he needed was to continue doing what he loved the most.

Now for a book that did not give me the satisfaction the others did:

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Written by Yuval Noah Harari, this one took me by surprise on a bad way: the author did not, in fact, write two books but he did wrote the same book twice. In my earlier review I said that I loved his persuasive writing style, but as I bore into his new book I found it increasingly more annoying, (the man is no Carl Sagan, after all). Harari seems to have a very clear agenda, although I wonder what it is besides being disturbing and downright manipulative.

This book supposedly tries to understand what lies in store for us after having become a digital capitalist global world: now that we have vanquished war and famine, what lies ahead? Can we strive to conquer human immortality and become gods in the process? What can we do with our immense ability to collaborate, if we tell each other the right lies? Harari wants us to know that this lies include human rights and our importance as specimens in the world, and that they are no different from our confidence on the British right to conquer the world and use slavery as a trading technique in the 18th Century. What we did to slaves then is being routinely done now to other mammals and animal species: our livestock suffers subjectively to provide us with meat, eggs and poultry, for instance.

Here is a bit he wrote about Darwin:

“Why does the theory of evolution provoke such objections, whereas nobody seems to care about the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics? How come politicians don’t ask that kids be exposed to alternative theories about matter, energy, space and time? After all, Darwin’s ideas seem at first sight far less threatening than the monstrosities of Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. The theory of evolution rests on the principle of the survival of the fittest, which is a clear and simple – not to say humdrum – idea. In contrast, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics argue that you can twist time and space, that something can appear out of nothing, and that a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. This makes a mockery of our common sense, yet nobody seeks to protect innocent schoolchildren from these scandalous ideas. Why? The theory of relativity makes nobody angry, because it doesn’t contradict any of our cherished beliefs. Most people don’t care an iota whether space and time are absolute or relative. If you think it is possible to bend space and time, well, be my guest. Go ahead and bend them. What do I care? In contrast, Darwin has deprived us of our souls. If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul. This is a terrifying thought not only to devout Christians and Muslims, but also to many secular people who don’t hold any clear religious dogma, but nevertheless want to believe that each human possesses an eternal individual essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and can survive even death intact […] Hence the existence of souls cannot be squared with the theory of evolution. Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities. From an evolutionary perspective, the closest thing we have to a human essence is our DNA, and the DNA molecule is the vehicle of mutation rather than the seat of eternity. This terrifies large numbers of people, who prefer to reject the theory of evolution rather than give up their souls” (Harari).

The summarizing of Darwin as “humdrum” and the comparison he does of the eye’s evolution and our conception of the human soul is misguided at best. What he wants is not to present you with an argument; he wants to shock you into thinking. I now despise his writing style: he is not persuasive, he is manipulative; and he is not affirming: he merely shapes the available data for his own purposes, always looking to challenge everybody’s views.

Besides, I do not exaggerate about him writing the same book twice: many chapters merely repeat themselves. He doesn’t even quote himself; he just puts a brief abstract of each of his Sapiens main points into this one, and he digresses a lot to present each argument. Furthermore, when he wants to summarize a moment in history, he does so in a reductionist way expressly, so the historical actors seem like fools overridden by their own ambivalence, every single time.

His questions are valid: we have the responsibility to think about humanity’s future, now more than ever, but I do not want him as my guiding guru.

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