I’ve been calling 2018 “The Year of Kahneman.” I didn’t even know who Daniel Kahneman was at the beginning of this year and it seems like 50% of the books on this year’s reading list have referenced him. Homo Deus was no exception. In fact, the top review on the back cover of the book was written by Kahneman and he says this about Homo Deus:
“Homo Deus will shock you. It will entertain you. Above all, it will make you think in ways you had not thought before.”
That’s a perfect summation of this book. I was shocked by some of the terrifying prospects of author Yuval Harari’s predictions of the future. I was shocked by the somewhat off-handed way that he dismissed key teachings and concepts that much of humankind has believed for thousands of years. I was entertained by the breadth of material and topics I’d never read about. And I definitely have thought in ways that I had not thought before.
This book was truly a tour de force. A game-changer. One that leaves you thinking about things from a different level than when you started. One of those books that I say helps you make sense of the daily news in a way that no amount of reading the actual daily news would ever provide. It helps you understand where we’ve been and where we’re going. I’ve also heard the ideas presented in the book in numerous places and I know the people discussing the ideas got them from this book. It’s a hugely impactful book.
Homo Deus means Man God and it is about the process of humans (Homo Sapiens) becoming Homo Deus, or god-like. Harari says this is taking place through the use of algorithms to enhance (or replace) decision-making, through longevity projects, and through data. Yet, there is a tension. As humankind gains these powers, it may have the unintended consequence of making humankind unnecessary. Intelligence and consciousness (the combination of which is in the domain of humans) are being decoupled. If intelligence can be contained in algorithms, what is the point of consciousness and humankind?
That’s just one sample of the type of question posed in the book. It tied in history with behavioral economics with technology with current trends. It first looked back in history in order to look forward and predict what comes next. As the author stated, it doesn’t mean that this is where things are definitely headed, but he makes a great case that it easily could end up where humans either become more god-like or get replaced.
Despite being utterly fascinating, I was critical of the way Harari haphazardly dismissed things like the soul. He would do this within 2 pages and then proceed as if the soul was irrelevant because science could not prove its existence. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Taking more than two pages to explain the loss of the soul would have derailed the book, but it just seemed to unconcerned. Can science prove the spark between two people who meet for the first time? Should we dismiss that too?
Harari made one point that really made me think. He said that in the age of artificial intelligence (AI), focusing on one particular niche could detrimentally backfire. Many of the Books of Titans books we’ve read have encouraged digging deep into a niche for a person’s life work. There are “riches in the niches” and the more expert you become in one small field, the more valuable you will be. That is of course AI comes in and does the job better and you have no recourse. It is a really important thing to think about in the near future. It is better to dive deep into a niche or take more of a multidisciplinary approach as we saw in Poor Charlie’s Almanack?
This is one of the more important books from the Books of Titans reading list. I put it up there with Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. The subtitle for this book is “A Brief History of Tomorrow.” It could end up vastly different than what Harari presents, but it’s at least important to consider the possibilities.