Yuval Noah Harari’s last book, Sapiens, was a global bestseller. In his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, one of the world’s most exciting young thinkers turns from the past to the present—and the future. What will life be like in 50 or 100 years? Will the liberal democratic order that has underpinned western societies survive? Will artificial intelligence (AI) and biotech render us economically redundant? Will digital dictatorships control our lives and thoughts?
When National Geographic caught up with Harari by phone in Tel Aviv, he explained why nationalism cannot solve the global issues facing us, why AI could put millions out of work, and how meditation gave him insights into his own mind that science could not.
The big idea you explore at the beginning of your book is that “the merger of InfoTech and biotech might soon push billions of humans out of their jobs and undermine both liberty and equality.” Can you tease out the details for us?
First, I try to emphasize that what we are facing is not just a revolution in information technology, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, which get most of the attention these days. We are also deciphering the secrets of the human body and brain, how we think and how we behave and why we do it. And we’re getting more and more computing power and better and better artificial intelligence. The combination of the two changes everything because if humans are, in principle, hackable and decipherable animals, and we have a better and better understanding of how this animal functions, and we have the necessary computing power to make sense of all the data we are gathering about ourselves, then what you get is algorithms that can potentially understand you better than you understand yourself. When you take all this mixture together, you get cooperation that can understand our desires better, governmental politicians that can manipulate our choices better, and more and more jobs that computers can perform better than human beings.
Another scary prediction is that “Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.” Again, can you break that idea down for us?
When you look at the 20th century and the struggle between democracies and dictatorships, we tend to think about the struggle in terms of different ethical ideas. But it was also a struggle between different systems for processing information and making decisions. Democracy is a system that distributes information and power between many individuals and institutions. Dictatorship works by concentrating all the information, decisions, and power in one place. Given the technological realities of the 20th century, dictatorships were simply less efficient. One of the main reasons why, for example, the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War is that the distributed system of the U.S. just took better economic and political decisions than the concentrated system of the Soviet Union.
But some people have this overly optimistic view that there is some law of nature that says that under all conditions and circumstances distributed systems work better than centralized systems; therefore democracy will always be more efficient than dictatorship and will always defeat it. But this is unwarranted. When you look at history, the development of technology and economics and politics, what you see is a pendulum that swings back and forth. Sometimes distributed systems have an advantage and sometimes centralized systems have an advantage.
In the 21st century we may be entering an era in which centralized systems, again, work better than distributed systems because of the power of machine learning, big data algorithms, and artificial intelligence. What the Soviets couldn’t do in 1960 will become a possibility in 2030, when you have good enough algorithms and enough data. It’s not a certainty. But we should beware of the rise of digital dictatorships.
Among the most provocative statements you make is, “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for a month—that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years—that’s a religion.” A lot of people will be offended by that statement. Is there no place for religion in today’s world?
[Laughs] No, there is certainly a place! It’s very difficult to get large numbers of people to cooperate effectively without mythology. Whether this mythology is about some God, a nation, or some ideological system, without fictional stories it’s almost impossible to arrange large-scale cooperation. So, I’m not denying the effectiveness or even benevolence of religion, I am just denying the veracity. It’s a very different issue.