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Yuval Noah Harari: '21 Lessons' from data, meditation to AI and 'Black Mirror'

Devina Heriyanto
Devina Heriyanto

The Jakarta Post

Singapore | Fri, July 20, 2018 | 05:33 pm
Yuval Noah Harari: '21 Lessons' from data, meditation to AI and 'Black Mirror'

Yuval Noah Harari, author of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" and "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow", will release his third book "21 Lessons for the 21st Century" in September. (Yuval Noah Harari/File)

Four years after the now modern cult Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was first published in English, Yuval Noah Harari has become the go-to person to talk about, well, humans.

A historian by training, Harari talks about the history of the species in Sapiens. Soon, people began asking about the future, and hence came his second book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow in 2016. 

Now, in his upcoming third book, Harari is talking about the here and now. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is out this September, with its Indonesian translation published by Gramedia Pustaka Utama. 

Unlike Sapiens and Homo Deus, which have a single narrative, 21 Lessons touches a lot of bases, from the news industry, whose model he called "catastrophic", to the unwelcome rise of nationalism and isolationism. 

Harari believed that these concerns required global cooperation, which made nationalism and a refusal to know global news unacceptable. "You can't understand what's happening in your life if you know just about what's happening in your country," he said.

But he is not offering an answer to the concerns in 21 Lessons. "We are just at the beginning of having these discussions, and one of the problems is that people are not even aware of these questions," he said. Take artificial intelligence (AI) for instance. Harari argued that most political parties so far had no views on the issue. 

"What is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican in their policies on AI? There is no difference. Nobody has a difference on AI. So if we don't start a discussion, we can't expect to get any answer."

The Jakarta Post sat down with Harari to ask a few questions. 

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What is the main idea behind 21 Lessons for the 21st Century?

Whereas the first two books have a continuous narrative, this book, 21 Lessons, is about the present and jumps into different areas and different questions, ranging from new technologies to political crises to personal issues. But you can say perhaps that the overarching message is that we now face global problems which have only global answers. 

The three main problems we face are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption, and these global problems have only global solutions. They cannot be solved by any single nation, by any single government, and therefore the current rise of more nationalist and isolationist politics is very troubling because it might prevent humankind from finding any solution to the major problems that we are facing.

In a recent interview, you said the crisis the liberal democracy is facing right now is nothing compared to those of the 20th century. Is it really? Because right now the situation seems pretty scary to me.

It is scary especially because time is running out to confront these issues, like climate change. In this sense, it is scarier than in the past. But when you actually look at the facts on the ground, even though, yes, people are losing faith in liberal democracy and it is in crisis, it is far less severe so far. I don't know in five years, maybe it will continue to become worse and worse and become far worse. 

But as of 2018, it's much better than a century ago, when liberal democracy was actually just a very small number of countries around the world. Most of the world was empires. Indonesia was a Dutch empire, nobody thought of having a liberal democracy in Indonesia it was a Dutch colony. So I think Indonesia is one of the examples of the erratic success of the recent wave of democratization and liberalization around the world. Even though it has its shares of problems and difficulties, so far it manages to maintain at least some of its democratic institutions, which are very new. Whereas in Europe, people are losing faith in liberal democracy, in many other parts of the world, where democracies are quite new, people actually still have high hopes for it. 

Certainly, if you compare the present crisis to that of the 1930s, with the rise of Nazi Germany and communism in the Soviet Union and militaristic Japan, and you have all these European empires controlling most of the planet, so the situation of liberal democracy is far, far worse.

In the past, we had world leaders who were fighting for liberal democracies against others. But now, even the US, which dubbed itself the champion of liberal democracy, is stepping back from its global role. What do you think about that?

This is the main cause of worry, that you see now these nationalist and isolationist trends, even in the heart of the global system. Actually, it's very strange that now it's the democratic United States which is leading the attack on the global system, whereas you have undemocratic China emerging as the champion of global trade and global cooperation and so forth. It's too early to say. 

Certainly, the development in the US and the rise of Donald Trump is very worrying, but we need to remember that Trump was elected by a very small margin, and actually two million more people elected for Hillary Clinton. If a few thousand in Pennsylvania had voted differently, everybody would say that Trump never had a chance. The real test will come in 2020. If Trump is reelected for a second term, this means that this is not some accident, but that the US has undergone a deep revolution. If Trump loses the next election, then it could be just a small blip in the long-term history. Nobody knows for sure. 

People tend to forget it because they don't have long-term perspective, but the Republican right today in the US is far more liberal today than the left was 50 years ago. If the average Republican today would go back in time, 50 or 100 years, he or she would be considered part of the radical fringes of the left. The average Republican today believes that interracial marriage is okay, that black people should have voting rights and the same rights as white people, that women are equal to men. Maybe they object to gay marriage, but they certainly don't think that you should criminalize homosexuality. In many ways, we just forgot how liberal the world has become. Yes, now there is a backlash, but even the right-wing Republican today in the US are far more liberal than the extreme left was a century ago.

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For me the greatest concern is not so much about these issues. I don't think that Trump can push the women back to the kitchen and push gay people back to the closet. My big fear is the rise of nationalism and isolationism would prevent us from confronting the global challenges that we face.

The liberal world is certainly in crisis, but it's far from collapsing completely, and the big question is whether we can have enough cooperation globally in order to do something in time about climate change, artificial intelligence [AI], and so forth.

In Sapiens, you call the agricultural revolution "history's biggest fraud". Will the next industrial revolution Industry 4.0 with the biotechnological revolution and the Internet of Things become another trap for humanity?

It could be, depends on what we do with it. There are many good things about all the new technologies. You can have better health care, you can have many jobs to be replaced by robots. Many jobs people do today are not very interesting, very difficult, not very meaningful if you work 12 hours a day just producing a shirt or driving a truck or being a cashier in a supermarket. This is not a very good life, so there is no good reason to try and protect textile work at all cost. 

What we need to protect is the humans, not the jobs. The big danger of robots taking over the jobs is the humans becoming poor and without any economic or political power. But if you find a way to equalize the benefits so that everybody would benefit from the work of the robots and not just a small elite, then it could be a very good thing for humanity. 

The agricultural revolution gives us a lesson and a warning sign that a revolution in technology can produce an enormous amount of resources and wealth, but if they are not distributed equally between all people, the result is that more people have a worse life, not a better life. You can think that the agricultural revolution gives humanity enormous new power, much more food, much more resources, but for most people, it actually makes life much harder. This is a kind of warning that it can be the same with AI and biotechnology and all that. Yes, it will give humanity enormous new powers, but if we are not careful, the result can be a very small elite that monopolizes these powers and becomes almost like gods in their ability to do things and most of the population being left behind and actually having a worse life, not a better life.

You practice Vipassana meditation and choose not to own a cellphone. This is a sort of an antidote to our modern way of living, where we are so wired to the internet and have access to so much content and we even become bored. Do you think it has helped you in any way? Does this make you a separate being from the rest of the species?

First, I have to say that it is a privilege today not having a mobile phone, this is a status symbol. The most powerful people don't have mobile phones. If you have a mobile phone, it means that you work for somebody, and you have to answer to your boss and your boss wants you to have a mobile phone so you have to have one. The people that work for me have a mobile phone and this gives me the kind of quiet to do my work, but somebody still keeps the mobile phone, it's not that there is no smartphone at all. 

Personally, I think that in meditation, you try to focus and focus on the really important things, focus on the reality. One of the downsides of smartphones and the internet is that they are a constant source of distractions. You try to focus, but there is a message, somebody is calling, something is popping up. The other part of the problem is that much of what distracts you is of no importance at all, that you are distracted by completely irrelevant and insignificant things. 

Today, in addition to data, an even more scarce resource than data is attention. Attention is maybe the most scarce resource in the world, and all these devices and many of the internet sites, they are built to steal your attention. It's not an accident that people who design the applications and websites are specialists in psychology, in brain science, and their specialty is to grab a hold on to people's attention. And then they take this attention and they sell it to advertisements and politicians. 

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Just look at the news industry. Unfortunately, the main model today is exciting news that costs you nothing in exchange for your attention. So you have these crazy titles that grab your attention and sell it to everybody else. I think we need to work very hard to switch to a different model of the news industry. Because attention is what's the most important resource now, it would make much more sense to pay money for high-quality information which protects your attention. I think it's crazy that people would pay a lot of money for good food or a good car but they won't spend any for high-quality information.

To some extent, as evident in Homo Deus, you have big confidence in AI and biotechnology. Seeing that the popular TV shows today, like Westworld and Black Mirror, often touch the dark side of AI and technology, the question is: Should we go that way?

I have great confidence that we are going in that direction, that AI and biotechnology will continue to develop and become more sophisticated and more influential. I don't have great confidence that this is a good idea and that this will necessarily improve the world, because there are very great dangers.

I don't think that Westworld is a very realistic scenario. I don't worry about that. Westworld and many other science-fiction movies are obsessed with this confusing idea that robots and computers will get consciousness. They confuse artificial intelligence with artificial consciousness, and they don't realize that the two are completely different things. Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem, consciousness is the ability to feel things like love and hate and pain and pleasure. In humans, they go together. We solve problems by having feelings. But computers work in a completely different way and there is absolutely no indication that computers are on the way to becoming conscious. They are on the way to becoming more intelligent than us, but not conscious. The same things are with airplanes and birds. Airplanes are now flying faster than birds, but airplanes never develop feathers -- they just fly in a different way.

What really frightens me about AI is not robots gaining consciousness, it's robots taking over jobs and governments are being unable to provide social solutions and retrain the people to protect them against the economic crisis. I'm worried about AI being used to create a dictatorial regime that constantly follows people. In Black Mirror, I think the most realistic frightening episode [Nosedive] in the series is about the social points, which is now being done in China. What you saw in this episode, it was about simple technologies, it was not about robots gaining consciousness. This is actually being done and this is very frightening. The greatest fear is not about apocalyptic scenarios of Westworld, it's more the social and economic crisis that AI is likely to cause. (kes)

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