Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, is an accessible and wide ranging exploration of the changing lives of homosapiens through the ages. It looks at history, science and the views of social philosophers. Its arguments provide sufficient background to enable the reader to consider what has been, what is now, and what may happen next.
The book opens by postulating that war, famine and plague – humanity’s central preoccupations for millennia – have been transformed from uncontrollable forces into manageable challenges. Individuals now expect to survive into old age, and many wish to postpone death indefinitely.
Advances in science and technology are offering the possibility that humans may be upgraded. This is already happening with the use of pacemakers, prosthetic limbs and trials of brain implants to cure depression. When a new development offers a cure to a medical problem it generally follows that healthy, wealthy individuals will wish to buy this product to increase their personal attributes. Think of those who demand plastic surgery or viagra. There are parents who drug their children to improve cognitive ability. The military are trialling the use of brain altering helmets as a means of providing more focussed soldiers in the field.
Complex ethical issues are raised, for example the impact when doctors have the ability to create so called designer babies. The issue of how ethics derive from beliefs is discussed at length.
Ancient tribes of hunter gatherers had different rules to monotheistic societies. The former offered sacrifices in exchange for earthly rewards. The latter used the concept of a human soul to persuade followers that rewards would follow when they died. Believers were convinced that the existence of this soul made them superior to all other mammals, indeed to all other things. This enabled ethics to apply only to people.
In the modern age corporations, money and nations have, for many, taken the place of gods. Ethical issues have become factual arguments concerning the most efficient way to maximise happiness.
Having taken the reader through history, highlighting how man has behaved and why, the author then turns his attention to what may happen next. He asks, if the whole universe is pegged to the human experience then what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?
Modern developments rely on data and the willingness of many to share details of their lives. Proposed improvements in how we live could require a relinquishment of personal control. There is also the issue of who will benefit, and what happens to those who are left behind. If governments, armies and corporations hold the purse strings, their narrow interests may lead to decisions that medically downgrade certain types of people to meet a requirement, with unknown repercussions for the future.
In its 400 pages this book argues cogently if not always convincingly. What it offers is the opportunity to consider the world picture over the long term. Day to day concerns and preoccupations lose much of their significance. Even bigger issues such as climate change are only touched upon.
Any Cop?: This is a study of the challenges mankind will face when confronted with the results of its own destructive power. If the danger to humankind comes from humankind itself, hell-bent on gaining the upperhand in the service of an ideology, could there be an argument for handing control over to highly intelligent machines?