Book Summary: Homo Deus.
I’ve generally shied away from creating book summaries, preferring purely to list them in my reading list. However, the book Homo Deus is one that I keep picking up to read and reread, and it has changed my outlook on the world quite significantly.
So, I felt it would be worth creating a condensed version of the main points, purely for my own sake, so I can keep the ideas fresh and free up reading time to tackle other books that I find worth reading.
This book summary is freely mixed in with my commentary, but I hope that you will feel that I have stayed on the right path with the high-level points.
Enjoy this for what it’s worth, but I highly recommend reading the original text.
The New Human Agenda.
Humans have essentially overcome the three major problems that they have had for thousands of years:
While there are still isolated pockets, they are not widespread phenomenons any longer. Even the 20th Century was the least violent Century on record, with only around 1 in 100 people dying due to war or criminal violence, despite two major world wars.
More importantly, we now believe that these are manageable challenges, not intractable problems to which there are no solutions.
So, what is going to replace the time and effort we spent solving these problems? Something else needs to fill up the void, and it’s time for a new human agenda.
The new human agenda will likely be:
- Overcoming Death
- Achieving Lasting Happiness
- Becoming Gods
To overcome death, many companies are working on a solution to reverse the aging process or work on extending life. We can step into a clinic every ten years and get a complete makeover that will keep us alive for another ten or twenty years.
Some people believe that immortals, or at least the first people to reach five hundred years of age, are already alive and walking amongst us, as this technology will mature within our lifetimes. After all, death happens purely because of technical problems, a clogged artery, a malfunctioning liver, and all these technical problems can, and eventually will be solved.
Others are more skeptical and believe that while the average life expectancy has shot up considerably in the last few hundred years, it has not extended the maximum human life. There are many examples of people living in old age a long time ago. Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Issac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to eight-eight without the help of modern medicine. So modern medicine has saved us from premature death, but it has not extended our natural life span yet.
However, a world where we all live to 150 or beyond may not be so pleasant after all. Political and social change may well slow down, as top leaders hold on to their power for over a hundred years. If we manage to create ever-lasting life, this would not be immortality, but an a-mortality, because the person could still die if they were hit by a train and incinerated by an explosion.
Today, we have the consolation of death. We know we will die, which places relative importance on everything else. If you know that you will not die unless you do something stupid or an involved in an accident, and you are risking the rest of eternity each time you cross the street, how would you live?
Probably not so well.
Achieving Lasting Happiness.
The second item on the human agenda will be finding the key to happiness. It can be argued that perhaps the ancient Greeks or the Buddhists have already discovered this and that modern society has ignored it as a whole and been focused on running the hedonic treadmill.
Interestingly, countries measure success by economic measures such as GDP instead of The Happiness Index. This type of success measurement has been tried before. There is no correlation between the ranks in the GDP index and the Happiness index, which is strange because part of the story that we tell ourselves is that we produce to make ourselves happy is a means to an end.
Would you prefer to be a dissatisfied Singaporean or a less productive but satisfied Costa Rican?
With famine, war, and plague have been eradicated, it would appear that finding happiness should be a relatively easy task, and yet being happy does not come easy. Suicide rates in the developed world are much higher than in traditional societies.
There are two barriers to the invisible glass ceiling of happiness, which we hit regardless of how much we accomplish. One is psychological, and the other biological. Our expectations determine how happy we are with our lives, but as conditions improve, our expectations balloon.
On a biological level, our happiness is determined by our biochemistry, and rather like solving the problem of death, this may also be a solvable problem with modern medicine.
The problem here is that without discomfort, without seeking happiness that we don’t yet have, would we be able to accomplish anything?
The first two points mask the more significant task that humans are trying to achieve, which is a transformation into gods, fully controlling both our bodies and the world around us.
Perhaps you can buy whatever attributes you want, strength, intelligence, good looks, and more in the future.
Right now, increasing human power has relied mainly on upgrading our external tools. In the future, it may depend more on upgrading the human body and mind or on merging directly with our tools.
The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three potential paths:
- Biological Engineering
- Cyborg Engineering
- Engineering of non-organic beings
Biological engineering starts with the insight that we are far from realizing the full potential of our organic bodies. Evolution has created us from trial and error over 4 billion years, and we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens, and there is no reason to think that this is the last stop.
Small changes in our genes, hormones, and neurons were enough to transform Homo Erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – into Homo Sapiens, which makes spaceships and computers.
Who knows what we could do if we intentionally rewrote our genetic code, rewired our brain circuits, and altered our biochemical balance?
Cyborg Engineering goes one step further and would have us merge our organic bodies with artificial enhancements, a favorite topic of dystopian movies.
The third path is perhaps the most radical and assumes that we may be able to altogether remove the organic element, and upload our consciousness into a machine or neural network, and then reach immortality, happiness, and a godlike status in our virtual world.
While it is complicated to know what will happen in the future, there has been one constant throughout history, and that has been humanity itself.
This may be about to change.
Homo Sapiens Conquers The World.
Humans have long become Gods in comparison to animals, but perhaps we’ve not been particularly merciful gods. While movies and advertising showcase the wilderness as a land full of animals, this is no longer the case.
Domesticated animals severely outnumber wild animals; 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but more than 400 million domestic dogs, there are 900,000 African buffalo, but more than 1.5 billion domesticated cows, and so on. Wildlife populations have halved since 1970.
Officially, we live in the Holocene epoch, but perhaps it would be best to call it the Anthropocene epoch: the epoch of humanity.
Wherever humans have gone, mass extinctions have occurred. We have turned what used to be many distinct ecosystems into one extensive ecosystem, connected by a stream of planes, cargo ships, and oil tankers.
Before agricultural societies, there was deep respect shown to both animals and plants. This was showcased in their religious belief: animists believe that there was no essential gap separating humans from other animals.
Nowadays, this type of attitude appears to be downright strange. It seems to us evident that animals are essentially different and inferior.
Some, now domesticated, animals have done exceptionally well on a species level but have paid with it with unprecedented individual suffering. While the animal kingdom is a tough place to live, where violence and death are abundant, the type of large-scale mass suffering that has been inflicted on animals since the Agricultural Revolution has generated entirely new kinds of suffering that only became worse over time.
What makes the fate of the domesticated animals particularly harsh is not just the way they die but the way they live.
Many domesticated animals have similar basic natural instincts to humans, such as the need for a mother to protect their offspring, and this is because it was an evolutionary advantage to have this feeling because more offspring would be protected. Separating mothers and infants is just one of many things that humans force onto animals and force them to live in cages their entire lives.
Of course, humans give animals precisely what they need to survive and reproduce, so perhaps these other needs are not too critical, but the fact that they have been essential for hundreds of thousands of years means that they cannot be turned off like a switch, and it means that we cause immense suffering to these animals.
Tragically, the Agricultural Revolution gave humans the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their emotional needs.
What is concerning about the way we treat perceived lower life forms is how we ourselves may be treated soon with the emergence of a higher level of life form.
The Human Spark.
Are human lives more valuable than animals’ lives? Generally speaking, we tend to accept this.
Is an American life more valuable than a life in Afghanistan? This, most people would tend to argue, is not the case. Yet, in practice, American lives are treated as more valuable, as far more money and resources are invested in the education, safety, and health of a single citizen.
However, we are comfortable accepting that human life is more valuable than the life of a pig because we believe that there is a deeper than ecological balance of power. We want to think that human lives are superior in some fundamental way. Many religions will attribute human lives with soul, and atheists will use human consciousness as their defense.
However, what exactly is this human spark that differentiates us so much from animals?
Evolution as a scientific theory is so hated. At the same time, nobody in the general public tends to fight against quantum mechanics because it attacks some of our cherished beliefs, namely that humans have a soul.
The problem of whether humans are the only conscious species has been hotly debated, and there have no set conclusions on this point.
In fact, the critical factor that has allowed humankind in the last 20,000 years to go from hunting mammoths with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships is that we can connect a large number of humans each other.
We completely dominate the planet because individual humans are far more intelligent or more nimble-fingered than the particular chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of collaborating flexibly in large numbers.
The critical method that humans can do this is by creating a web of meaning that blends the real world into the subjective world, creating an inter-subjective reality.
Think about it; Google only exists because we believe it does. It is just that somewhere, there is a record written down that indicates that such a company exists and that tens of thousands of people work for them. You could replace every single employee, and Google would still exist in our imagination, but a government could shut it down with a pen (via legislation), and the entire thing would cease to exist.
Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning To The World.
Animals live in a world that contains two realities:
- The Objective Reality
- The Subjective Reality
Their objective reality is the same as ours. They perceive and are familiar with trees, rocks, rivers, and clouds. They are also aware of subjective experiences within themselves, such as fear, joy, desire, and perhaps some type of specific emotions that humans do not have.
Homo sapiens, in contrast, live in a world that contains the same two realities as animals but also contains a third reality. This reality is told through stories about money, gods, nations, and corporations.
Over time, these stories have grown more and more powerful at the expense of things like rivers, fears, and desires.
This all started around 70,000 years ago during the Cognitive Revolution when Sapiens began talking about things that existed only in their imagination. However, these stories didn’t become compelling because they were constrained to be local in nature. So not enough people believed in them for these subjective realities to have an enormous impact on reality.
Only 12,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution, which provided the necessary material base for creating bigger and bigger population centers, the stories became more powerful, and powerful Gods emerged that were worshiped by many people.
But still, there weren’t any vast kingdoms, no extensive trade networks, and no universal religions.
This obstacle was finally removed about 5,000 years ago with the invention of both writing and money, which allowed Sapiens to go beyond the data-processing power of the human brain and create long, complex stories that made powerful intersubjective realities in the shape of Gods. These Gods acted very much like modern corporations and governments work now, by employing thousands of people, and extracting taxes to do specific projects deemed necessary.
Of course, the Gods didn’t run anything, mainly because they didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop their intersubjective reality from hiring flesh and blood humans in the forms of priests and soldiers to do their collective bidding. Because these Gods never died, they become more and more potent over time.
What has then started happening is that objective reality began to be of secondary importance regarding intersubjective reality. The writing on the paper that said what is true or what happened was more important than what actually happened or what is true.
The Odd Couple.
Stories became so powerful that they entirely dominated objective reality.
Is this still true today, in a world that has, as a whole, embraced science? Yes, in fact, instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science has made it more robust.
While many people would claim that religion means that you have to believe in a God, another way to define religion is any mindset that asserts that we humans are subject to moral laws that already exist and cannot be changed. Under this definition, many political and ethical systems can be labeled as a religion.
Religion and science then need to co-exist. While scientists can tell us the best way to divert or dam a river, they cannot tell us if that is what we should, in fact, actually do. Ethical discussions do not fit inside the laboratory. Facts do.
On the other hand, religion thrives on the mixing of ethical statements and factual statements to create pseudo-factual statements.
- Ethical judgment: “human life is sacred”.
- Factual statement: “human life begins at the moment of conception”.
- Pseudo-factual statement: “you should never allow abortion, even a single day after conception”.
A scientist is more qualified than a priest to answer factual questions such as “Do human fetuses have a nervous system one week after conception? Do they feel pain?” but they have no authority or ability to refute (or corroborate) the ethical judgments that religions make.
The Modern Covenant.
In modern times, humans have given up meaning in return for power. No longer do we believe that there is a greater cosmic power at play, but we think that we can take our fate into our hands and decide how things will be.
Just like an actor that cannot deviate from a script, humans could not escape all diseases, they cannot live forever, and they cannot defy the laws of nature.
However, in exchange for this, humans gained meaning in their lives and insured themselves against the possibility of something terrible happening because it must be all part of a greater plan.
Now, we have the chance to never get sick again, potentially live forever, and completely re-engineer nature itself. However, there is no meaning to all of this, and if something terrible happens, it’s either your fault or cruel chance.
The Humanist Revolution.
So the modern deal is that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life, but we get colossal power instead. Yet, if we can somehow manage to find meaning without deriving it from a great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.
This has made it possible to sustain order without meaning.
There is no social collapse even though there is no great cosmic plan that people believe is because of humanism, a set of ideas that replaces God with humans and hold humanity itself as the source of meaning by drawing from within their inner experiences.
Before God decided what was good or bad, now we do. We look inside ourselves when we want to make a decision Democracy is also part of this foundation. We trust the ordinary person to decide based on their feeling of who should be in power. In the Middle Ages, this would have been considered the height of foolishness. The fleeting feelings of ignorant commoners were hardly a sound basis for important political decisions.
If a large corporation wants to know whether it lives up to its “Don’t be evil” motto, it need only take a look at its bottom line. If it makes loads of money, millions of people like its products, which implies that it is a force for good.
Thus, humanism sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment through experiences. The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through various intellectual, emotional, and physical experiences.
Homo Sapiens Loses Control.
The Time Bomb In The Laboratory.
In the early twenty-first century, the world is dominated by the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy, and the free market.
Suppose we build a robot whose central processing unit is linked to a radioactive lump of uranium. When choosing between two options – say, press the right button or the left button – the robot counts the number of uranium atoms decayed during the previous minute. If the number is even – it presses the right button. If the number is odd – the left button. We can never be sure about the actions of such a robot. But nobody would call this contraption “Free”, and we wouldn’t dream of allowing it to vote in democratic elections or holding it legally responsible for its actions.
The theory of evolution provides the last nail in freedom’s coffin. For if humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them? According to the theory of evolution, all the choices animals make – whether of residence, food or mates – reflect their genetic code. If thanks to its fit genes, an animal chooses to eat a nutritious mushroom and copulate with healthy and fertile mates, these genes pass on to the next generation. If, because of unfit genes, an animal chooses poisonous mushrooms and anemic mates, these genes become extinct. However, if an animal “freely” chooses what to eat and with whom to mate, then natural selection is left with nothing to work on.
Humans act according to their desires, and if by free will. You mean the ability to act according to your desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs, and parrots. When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the big question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.
The Great Decoupling.
Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first Century, three practical developments might make this belief obsolete:
Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness; hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value.The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhuman rather than the everyday person.
Many types of jobs will be obsolete by automation and algorithms in the next one hundred years. It is wishful thinking that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms. Think about this:
Organisms are algorithms. Every animal – including Homo sapiens – is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which you build the calculator. Whether you create an abacus from wood, iron, or plastic, two beads plus two beads equals four beads. “Hence there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. As long as the calculations remain valid, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon or silicon?” True, at present, there are numerous things that organic algorithms do better than non-organic ones, and experts have repeatedly declared that something will ‘forever’ remain beyond the reach of non-organic algorithms. But it turns out that ‘forever’ often means no more than a decade or two.
So what will people do? Art is often said to provide us with our ultimate (and uniquely human) sanctuary. In a world where computers replace doctors, drivers, teachers, and even landlords, everyone would become an artist. Yet, it is hard to see why artistic creation will be safe from the algorithms. Why are we so sure computers will be unable to better us in the composition of music? According to the life sciences, art is not the product of some enchanted spirit or metaphysical soul but rather of organic algorithms recognizing mathematical patterns. If so, there is no reason why non-organic algorithms couldn’t master it.
The technological bonanza will probably make it feasible to feed and support the useless masses even without any effort on their side. But what will keep them occupied and content? People must do something, or they will go crazy. What will they do all day? One solution might be offered by drugs and computer games. Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside. Yet such a development would deal a mortal blow to the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life and of human experiences. What’s so sacred in useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences in La La Land?
If scientific discoveries and technological developments split humankind into a mass of useless humans and a small elite of upgraded superhumans, or if authority shifts altogether away from human beings into the hands of knowledgeable algorithms, then liberalism will collapse. What new religions or ideologies might fill the resulting vacuum and guide the subsequent evolution of our godlike descendants?
The Ocean of Consciousness.
The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Instead, they will emerge from research laboratories. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam and electricity, so in the coming decades, new techno-religions may conquer the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes.
Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most exciting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That’s where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God and everything to do with technology.
These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task, and they should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo Deus – a much superior human model. Homo Deus will retain some essential human features but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.
Techno-humanism faces another dire threat. Like all humanist sects, techno-humanism too sanctifies the human will, seeing it as the nail on which the entire universe hangs. Techno-humanism expects our desires to choose which mental abilities to develop and to thereby determine the shape of future minds. Yet what would happen once technological progress makes it possible to reshape and engineer our desires themselves?
Personally, you may have many different views about these issues. Yet from a historical perspective, it is clear that something momentous is happening.
The Data Religion.
Data says that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.1 This may strike you as some strange fringe notion, but in fact, it has already conquered most of the scientific establishment. Dataism was born from the explosive confluence of two scientific tidal waves.
In the 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the life sciences have come to see organisms as biochemical algorithms. Simultaneously, in the eight decades since Alan Turing formulated the idea of a Turing Machine, computer scientists have learned to engineer increasingly sophisticated electronic algorithms.
Data puts the two together, pointing out that precisely the same mathematical laws apply to both biochemical and electronic algorithms. Dataism thereby collapses the barrier between animals and machines and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.
If we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:
Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms, and life is data processing. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. Non-conscious but knowledgeable algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing? What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness? What will happen to society, politics, and daily life when non-conscious but knowledgeable algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?