In this Talks at Google, historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses some of the big themes from his books Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He talks about the role of fictional stories and shared beliefs in organizing human cooperation, the potential impacts of AI and biotechnology, threats like climate change and nuclear war that require global cooperation to solve, the difference between religion and spirituality, and more.
- Harari believes the most important skills to teach children today are emotional intelligence and mental flexibility, as the world is changing rapidly and they will need to constantly reinvent themselves.
- Technology like AI and biotech can be used for good or evil; it is not inherently good or bad. We must pay attention to dangerous scenarios to prepare for the worst outcomes.
- "Religions" provide rigid answers, while "spirituality" involves open-ended questioning. Spirituality is becoming more relevant as we grapple with technological changes.
- "Fictions" like money and nations, though invented by humans, bind society together. But we must not forget they were created to serve human needs.
- To avoid technology that hacks humanity, we need self-knowledge and compassion. Meditation helps provide focus and clarity to distinguish stories from reality.
Questions and Answers:
Q: You argue that free will has always been an illusion. How does modern technology make this more concerning today?
A: Even though free will has always been a myth from a scientific perspective, humans were previously so complex that it still made practical sense to believe in free will. No one could understand you better than yourself. But with modern technology like biometric sensors and AI, corporations and governments are gaining the ability to hack humans - to understand what's happening inside people's bodies and brains even better than they understand themselves. This could allow external entities to manipulate people in alarming ways, since the assumption of free will that underlies ideas like "the customer is always right" may no longer apply.
Q: What are the main global threats you think humanity needs to address cooperatively?
A: The three biggest problems facing humanity that require global cooperation to solve are the threat of nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption from AI and biotechnology. Even if we manage to prevent nuclear war and climate change, AI and biotech could still disrupt jobs and even the human body in drastic ways. We need regulations and systems in place to steer these technologies towards positive ends and prevent potential dystopian outcomes. This can’t be solved within any one country.
Q: You distinguish between religion and spirituality. Can you explain the difference and why spirituality may be important today?
A: Religion refers to organized belief systems that provide people with concrete answers about things like God, morality, the afterlife. Spirituality is more about questioning - going on an open-ended quest to explore life's big mysteries. Historically religion has been more common, but today spirituality is crucial because advancing technology is forcing us to confront profound questions about things like the nature of consciousness and free will. Engineers building AI systems need to wrestle with spiritual questions that philosophers have debated for ages. We all need to re-examine these issues as technology reshapes what it means to be human.
Q: What do you see as some of the benefits as well as risks of emerging technologies like AI and biotechnology?
A: There are enormous potential benefits, like using biometric sensors to detect disease early and save lives, or self-driving cars to prevent accidents. But there are also huge risks, especially if we don't steer these technologies carefully. Corporations or governments could use them to manipulate people in frightening ways. And automation could displace many jobs and exacerbate inequality between nations. We need to remain aware of the risks while still exploring beneficial applications. Technology itself is never deterministic - it always depends on how we choose to use it.
Q: You talk about the concept of "shared fictions" that allow humans to cooperate, like religion, nations, money, and corporations. Do you see these as purely fictional beliefs? What is their value?
A: I don't mean to imply shared fictions are bad or unimportant. In fact, they are some of the most powerful forces shaping society. Things like corporations, nations, and money only exist because large numbers of people believe in and abide by shared stories about their meaning and value. These fictions allow millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. Of course there is an underlying reality, but the stories are created by humans. Their value lies in how they benefit society. When people lose sight of the fact that these institutions exist to serve human interests, and not the other way around, that's when trouble starts.
Q: With the rise of misinformation today, how can we reestablish a shared understanding of truth and reality?
A: While fake news is an old phenomenon, the current business model that provides exciting misinformation for free in exchange for attention has made truth a low priority. We may need to change the economics of the news industry so that high-quality, factual information has value again. Tech companies could help facilitate this transition. But there is an underlying reality we can anchor to - we just need ways to sift signal from noise. As individuals we also need to curb our appetite for excitement and sensationalism online.
Q: You suggest that the most important thing to teach kids today is emotional intelligence and mental flexibility. Can you expand on why these traits are so vital?
A: With the pace of technological and economic change, we simply don't know what particular skills any given child will need as an adult. But one thing is certain - they will need to continually reinvent themselves and adapt to new situations. Emotional intelligence helps facilitate this resilience and flexibility. Being able to understand and regulate one's own emotions is crucial for managing change. Mental agility to learn new things will also be essential. We need to cultivate wisdom and well-being alongside academic or technical skills.
Q: You say the greatest inequality we may face is between countries rather than within countries. Can you elaborate on this idea and why you think it's important?
A: Emerging technologies like automation are likely to make certain regions and countries far wealthier, while disadvantaging others severely. For example, a place like California that invests heavily in high-tech industries could thrive, while countries that currently rely on manufacturing and labor may suffer economically. So inequality between average incomes in different countries could become staggering. That's why concepts like universal basic income need to be truly universal - providing adequate living standards for humans globally, not just nationally. We need more focus on reducing inequality between nations.
Q: How might compassion be cultivated in society, especially as technology advances?
A: I don't think technology inherently destroys compassion - it can be designed thoughtfully. But we do need to actively foster compassion as an ethical counterweight. Getting to know yourself better through practices like meditation can reveal how harming others also harms you. Understanding your own suffering helps you empathize with the suffering of others. We should also beware of how technologies like genetic engineering or brain-computer interfaces could make people "better" workers and soldiers by boosting certain traits, while minimizing empathy and conscience. We must remember to nurture our compassion.
Q: You suggest economic and political systems have traditionally shaped human behavior through culture. How might biotechnology and AI amplify this ability to manipulate?
A: Biometric sensors and AI algorithms are giving institutions unprecedented insight into human psychology and biology. Unlike external cultural influences, technologies like genetic engineering and brain-computer interfaces could directly manipulate human emotions and cognition. This raises profound ethical risks if used carelessly by powers seeking more docile citizens or more ruthless soldiers. We must have proper oversight and constraints to ensure human dignity and well-being remain priorities as we enhance ourselves technologically.
Q: You talk about the importance of maintaining awareness of the risks of new technologies. What are some ways society can proactively monitor and assess emerging innovations?
A: We need processes to thoroughly evaluate both the potential benefits and harms of powerful new technologies before they become widespread. This could involve setting up oversight boards with diverse expertise, running pilot programs, encouraging whistleblowing, requiring impact assessments, and having robust public debates on social media platforms and in legislative bodies. We should also foster values in the tech sector that prioritize social good over financial gain or technological momentum. Awareness starts by establishing shared forums to have these difficult but necessary discussions.
Q: What role do you think the technology industry could play in building a more equitable and compassionate society moving forward?
A: Technology firms have tremendous resources and influence over how these technologies evolve. They could steer development in ways that reduce suffering and inequality, rather than exacerbating them. For example, tech companies could invest in making education and the potential of AI more accessible globally, rather than concentrating gains locally. Firms could also commit to ethical design standards that value all human lives, not just the most profitable markets. Leadership from the tech sector in addressing these issues compassionately would set an important precedent.
Q: You emphasize the importance of maintaining a broader perspective when it comes to imagining the future impacts of technology. What are some ways both individuals and institutions can expand their thinking?
A: We need to actively consider diverse scenarios and possibilities when conceptualizing the future, rather than just extrapolating from what we know today. Seeking out interdisciplinary viewpoints from fields like philosophy, sociology, and public policy can help us look beyond technical aspects alone. Regularly revisiting predictions and assumptions to check their validity keeps us flexible. And maintaining an imaginative capacity to conceive of completely novel outcomes will allow us to steer emerging technologies in creative and humanistic ways. A multiplicity of perspectives is key.
Some key ideas to explore further: the ethics of emerging technologies, fostering self-knowledge and wisdom in the digital age, strengthening global cooperation to address technological risks.
Harari covered thought-provoking concepts about humanity's past, present and future. He emphasized the need for spirituality, compassion and global cooperation to navigate the challenges of emerging technologies. By maintaining awareness and asking the right questions, we can hopefully create a more positive future.
- Harari's trilogy - Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
- The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (on technology's effects on humanity)
- Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (on technology and human relationships)
- "Yuval Noah Harari on Why Technology Favors Tyranny" - The Atlantic
- "Re-Engineering Humanity" - The Economist
- "Can We Avoid the Digital Panopticon?" - The New York Times
- Yuval Noah Harari TED talks
- Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari discussion on AI and humanity
- Daniel Kahneman on emotional intelligence
- Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard - explores tech's impact on society
- Center for Humane Technology - promotes ethical technology design
- Mind & Life Institute - studies contemplative science and mindfulness