The end of liberal democracy and humanism? (Part 2)

Continued. from yesterday: Writer Huval Noah Harari sees three broad directions for humankind:

1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, and the economic system will stop attaching much value to them.
2. The system will still find value in humans collectively but not in unique individuals.
3. The system will, however, find value in some unique individuals, “but these will be a new race of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population”.

By “system”, he means the new kind of society that will evolve as bioscience and information technology progress at their current breakneck pace. As before, this society will be based on a deal between religion and science, but this time humanism will be displaced by what Harari calls “dataism” – a belief that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any entity or phenomenon is determined by its contribution to data processing.

It is quite possible that massive and indigestible “Big Data” will eventually collapse under its own weight. But in two other areas, Harari is perceptive. The first is that our confident belief that we cannot be superseded by machines – because we have consciousness and they cannot have it – may be naive, because machine consciousness will be possible but because for Harari’s dystopia to arrive, we will need super-intelligent machines. and consciousness will not be necessary or required.

The second is the potential of bioscience. Even the Economist recently ran a cover story entitled: “Cheating death: the science that can extend your lifespan.” But the exciting new possibilities offered by genetic technology will be expensive and available only to elites. So the long century in which medicine had a “levelling up” effect on human populations, bringing good healthcare within the reach of most people, has come to an end. Even today, rich people live longer and healthier lives. In a couple of decades, that gap will widen into a chasm. (Part of an article by John Naughton, The Guardian, 28 August 2016, commenting on Yuval Noah Harari’s book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”.

My comment: Not a lot of this is new. Some years ago my wife and I were talking to someone from the OECD. He let slip that planning was afoot to create a giant “living bubble“ a massive dome under which elite, chosen human beings could live while climate change laid waste to the outside world, a world consumed with famine, mass migration and warfare. (Ihave to point out that, meeting him some years later he denied ever having said anything of the sort!) But maybe it is not so far-fetched. It can only happen when the mass of humanity have “lost their economic and military usefulness” and where a tech-savvy crowd of super- humans have arranged to live in safety, each for 150 years.

  • This is from The Times in London:

    Max Tegmark is a Swedish scientist doing his best to save the human race. The Swedish scientist has set up the Future of Life Institute, funded in part by tech billionaire Elon Musk, which aims to prevent artificial intelligence (AI) destroying civilisation. Companies including Google, Facebook and IBM are already developing a form of silicon mind that is as creative as the human brain, but faster, less easily distracted and entirely alien in its thought processes. This AI revolution could end poverty and cure cancer – or it could cause mass unemployment, destroy democracy and enslave the human race.

    “Most people are in denial that anything will change,” he says. “[But] you can’t have this kind of technology without changing what it means to be human.” For example, “we’re already in sight of computers being able to make a video of Theresa May speaking which would be indistinguishable from a real video of her,” says Tegmark. Destroying a person’s character in public – by releasing, say, a fake sex tape or false confession – will soon be the easiest trick in the book. “We talk a lot about how easy it is to hack computers, but it’s also easy to hack humans with cheap psychological manipulation, as any magician or salesperson knows. You should never underestimate how easy it will be for intelligent machines to trick us.” (Oliver Moody, The Times)

  • Owen Bell

    I’m afraid I’m very sceptical of all of this. For years, humans have feared our creations will overwhelm us. Ever since the Luddites, there have always been those who opposed progress and technological advancement. For the most part, they have been proven wrong.
    Whether or not computers gain ‘consciousness’ is irrelevant. The fact is, technology is a tool, and we can decide what to do with it. Sometimes we use it for good, sometimes for ill. If technology ever leads to our demise, it will be our own fault, no because we were overcome.

  • I’m delighted you are relaxed about it, Owen. Good for you. Unfortunately, I will not be around when you are getting on in years to find out how it all panned out and what you think about your life at that stage. May you have a calm, pleasant and rewarding life!