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When Yuval Harari warned Daniel Kahneman of the Future

When Yuval Harari warned Daniel Kahneman of the Future 1
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

On September 14, 2019, a drone hit two oil facilities in Aramco. The Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility, proclaiming that the strike was revenge for the hostilities they are facing on their own soil, in a civil war against a Saudi backed government. The strikes cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production by half.

I was reminded of this event, as I re-watched a clip of Yuval Harari. sitting down to discuss his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century with Daniel Kahneman, father of behavioral economics and Nobel prize winner. The year was 2015.

In early 2020, the topics have not aged badly, but are even more relevant. What are the social and political implications of artificial intelligence? Will there be human gods, who defy the limits of biology. and attain immortality? What about the masses? With the newest technologies available, do we need vast armies, or do we simply need a few highly trained soldiers operating sophisticated technology? Will there be a useless class, and what will they do?

Advances in genetic engineering, made possible by companies like Crispr, gives more credence to the idea that human beings will be able to achieve longer lifespans, and perhaps, one day immortality. As Harari describes in his book, death was once considered an ethical problem, but increasingly, it is being considered a technical problem. And perhaps for the billionaires of the world, death – long known as the great equalizer – will only be an option.

That is, when people die, it isn’t because the grim reaper decided that it was your turn, but because your biological machinery malfunctioned. And anything that works like a machine, can be fixed like a machine.

Away from genetic engineering, artificial intelligence has already impacted our social world. In Japan, a country that Harari argues is a couple of decades ahead of the world technologically, we are witnessing significant changes in what kinds of relationships people are pursuing.

It has become common for older people to seek companionship with companion robots bought to temper feelings of loneliness in their ageing society. These robots are sometimes substituted for biological family members such as a granddaughter or grandson.

If this seems absurd, consider that more serious romantic relationships taking place online.

And when it comes to military technology, we need only be reminded of the fact that a simple drone strike was enough to cause so much damage to the oil economy, not to mention the numerous hacks that have occurred over the years.

It is important to recall that Harari makes the point that a few hundred years ago, a mass protest was viewed as a dangerous threat to those in power, that it would keep government officials in check. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why so many Americans refuse to give up their rights to possess weapons today.

But as technology and surveillance become more advanced, and in the hands of governments and perhaps tech companies, ordinary people are becoming less powerful and capable of resistance.

The U.S and Iran have been manufacturing propaganda campaigns against each other for decades, but both have decided not to go to an all-out war, presumably because that would be too costly for both nations. When the U.S wanted to deter what it classified as potential terrorist attacks on its embassies in the Middle East from Iran, it did not have to wage war. In fact, it was a surgical strike that took out Soleimani, leader of the Quds force (a military wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard).

Over time, we can imagine that military technology will become more sophisticated, and more precise. We can imagine how drones could take over armies and police forces, and how wars, if they are going to be fought, will be fought through cyber-attacks and precision strikes against key targets.

On the positive side, we may be moving towards a world with less mistakes, where innocent people aren’t the unfortunate causalities of necessary collateral damage, and surely, that is a better world. But is there an insidious reality lurking in the background of precision strikes, drones, advanced surveillance, and artificial intelligence?

Now, you can argue that ordinary people never really had much resistance against the government anyway, and more precise technology can help decrease violence, rather than increase it. But what about the soldiers themselves? Do we still need vast armies, and what happens when we don’t?

It may be that many soldiers become useless, and more than that, many people become useless. This brings us to the final question, will there be a useless class, a group of people (most of humankind) who simply have nothing of economic value to contribute to society?

What will they do? When you consider that work has given people’s lives meaning for so long, it is hard to imagine a world without work. Harari thinks that the most obvious answer, and what is already taking place on a mass scale, is videogames and safe drugs.

Both are ways for people to be engaged, and to stave off feelings of anxiety, pain, and meaninglessness. And perhaps that is the last incarnation of the phenomena that people, who in classical times, were considered idle and unproductive were confined in small rooms, away from society, as described by Foucault in Madness and Civilization. Whereas isolation in the case of the lepers and the mad was involuntary, the modern form of social isolation, as is the case in Japan, may be voluntary.

It is impossible to think of the ills of technology without considering the benefits. Social media, in addition, to creating chaos in the world through the spread of fake news, has also connected people to the world.

This has brought the end of the television era where news was centralized and controlled by a only a few media outlets, where the collective consciousness was easily programmable. Today, it is more difficult to exert this level of mass control, since so many niche communities exist online, some encrypted and private, away from paid ads and a centralized media apparatus.

The democratization of information has made it possible for anyone to become more away, paradoxically, of the technological system that is trying to control them. If free will is the highest value, then it is not clear that a better-connected world, where knowledge is more available, instantaneous, and clear, does not promote free will.

But even if that were true, that does not negate the myriad ways in which technology will continue to impact our freedom. The freedom to think and to know is not the only form of freedom. A world of self-driving cars and bicycles, a world where one has no effective physical resistance against transgression, may be a more placated world, a safer world, but perhaps not a world that is freer.

What civilization inevitably does; is it produces a kind of constrained freedom. “You are allowed to do this, as long as you don’t…” This is a natural part of the civilizing process, and one would need only to spend a few hours in a developing country to understand the implications of total freedom.

Where corruption is rampant, where human rights are constantly violated, and government assistance is non-existent – you get a perpetually free society, where man can do whatever he wants. But this is a constrained freedom in a different sense. It is a more pure form of freedom, but it is less civilized. If you are so free to do anything, so is your neighbor, and so is the sociopath down the street. The cost of living in a place where rules are lax, is that they are lax on everyone – with freedom comes uncertainty and danger.

In the new world, the one Harari talks about, where the developed nations accelerate so quickly above the rest of the world that it will be impossible to catch up, there will exist a different kind of freedom – where your safety is guaranteed, “as long as you don’ And this is perhaps a terrifying thought for some people, and a soothing idea for others. Ultimately, like most things concerning the arbitrariness of human preference, it’s relative.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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