Weekend Roundup: The End Of (Human) History

Homo Deus author Yuval Noah Harari talks about what it means to be human in an age when the algorithm is merging big data and biology.

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We're on the verge of becoming godlike, Yuval Noah Harari told The WorldPost.

Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets after the Cold War heralded “the end of history.” Yuval Noah Harari now predicts the end of human history as post-Promethean science grants us godlike powers to redesign our own species and create a new one in the form of artificial intelligence. Only time will tell if his vision of the future is closer to the mark than Fukuyama’s, and if humans as we know ourselves today will even be around to witness it. As the Israeli historian says in a WorldPost interview, “Human history began when men created gods. It will end when men become gods.”

Harari contends that a new mythic authority ― “dataism” ― is being born and that the algorithm is its patron saint. “Authority came down from the clouds, moved to the human heart and now authority is shifting back to the Google cloud and the Microsoft cloud,” he provocatively quips. “Data and the ability to analyze data is the new source of authority. If you have a problem in life, whether it is what to study, whom to marry or whom to vote for, you don’t ask God above or your feelings inside, you ask Google or Facebook. If they have enough data on you, and enough computing power, they know what you feel already, and why you feel that way.” 

The Homo Deus author has little doubt that dataism’s brave new dominance over our lives will be established willingly. “What will ram such a future through the wall is health,” he says. “People will voluntarily give up their privacy.” And while Harari acknowledges the dangers these developments could bring, he also sees the potential for a future that goes beyond the humanist literature that has historically warned us that transgressing natural limits invites catastrophe.

“These are myths that try to assure humans that there is never going to be anything better than you. If you try to create something better than you, it will backfire and not succeed,” Harari says. But science is changing all that, he concludes. “Humans are now about to do something that natural selection never managed to do, which is to create inorganic life – AI. If you look at this in the cosmic terms of 4 billion years of life on Earth, not even in the short term of 50,000 years or so of human history, we are on the verge of breaking out of the organic realm.”

For Fukuyama, the prime locus of history’s end was a Europe whole and free after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as leaders mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Union through the signing of the Treaty of Rome, things don’t look so rosy.

Writing from Brussels, Florian Lang worries that the Eastern European nations ― Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia ― that were some of the latest to join the EU in the wake of the Cold War “have not only throttled the speed of the European car but, also changed it into reverse gear” by promoting anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment and eroding civil liberties. 

Writing from Paris, Natalie Nougayrède warns that it is no exaggeration to say that the French republic is in danger in the upcoming elections as Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front sees recent advances in the polls. “France is today a deeply fragmented country,” the former editor of Le Monde says, “with no common national narrative driving it forward, no sense of direction, and a loss of trust in the political class. Wide gaps separate those who believe in openness and those who would prefer to erect walls on national borders. France’s upcoming presidential election is not just a battle for the Élysée Palace ― it amounts to a redefinition of a collective identity and a nation’s role in the world in the 21st century.”

Even if Le Pen falls short at the polls as Geert Wilders did in last week’s Dutch elections, Cas Mudde writes that the swell of authoritarianism and nativism exemplified by leaders like Le Pen and Wilders isn’t confined to anti-establishment parties. “Under the cover of fighting off the ‘populists,’” he says, “the political establishment is slowly but steadily hollowing out the liberal democratic system.”

Writing from Rome, populist Five Star Movement partisan Davide Casaleggio wants to dismantle the distant EU edifice and reboot democracy at the opposite end, from the bottom up at the grassroots. “People shouldn’t settle for delegation; they should be able to choose participation,” he argues. That can be done, says Casaleggio, through interactive technologies that enable citizens themselves to propose and deliberate legislation. At around 30 percent in recent national polls in Italy, the Five Star Movement may well have a chance to demonstrate if governance through social networks can supplant representative democracy and the Brussels bureaucracy.

Back in the United States where Twitter dictates much of the new administration’s actions lately, Jennifer Mercieca notes the paradox of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “conspiracy rhetoric.” What he “uses to legitimize himself as president threatens the fragile trust that legitimizes his government,” she says. Looking at one issue continually threatening Trump’s trust in the public eye ― his connection to Russia ― Matthew Rojansky writes that as America focuses on the Kremlin threat at home, Moscow is filling the power vacuum in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Our Singularity series this week reports on a short film that depicts moral philosophers debating the ethics of superintelligent AI in front of superintelligent AI. The Future of Life Institute’s Ariel Conn also focuses on superintelligent AI by examining its risk with leading researchers. One of the discussants, Roman Yampolskiy, calls on the principle of “non-zero probability” when answering how we should prepare for AI threats: “Even a small probability of existential risk becomes very impactful once multiplied by all the people it will affect,” he warns. “Nothing could be more important than avoiding the extermination of humanity.”

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