Sunday, March 08, 2015

Kahnemann and Harari on the Future

Prediction is difficult, especially of the future, as Neils Bohr or Yogi Berra may have said. Via Lee, who pointed me to a blog post by Arun, which mentioned but didn't link to his source, apparently this column by Ross Douthat, which links to this Edge conversation between Nobelist Daniel Kahnemann and Historian Yuval Noah Harari.

I recommend that you skip the commentary (including this one) and go right to the original. Arun attempts to debunk Harari, or at least some excerpts he found in Douthat, but I wasn't persuaded. Douthat was more impressed but mainly seemed afraid of the threat to his religion.

Despite having already told you to read the original, and not rely on summaries by people (like myself) less bright than Harari and Kahnemann, I will now summarize what I think are Harari's main points:

(1)The changes we will see in the next 50-100 years are much more revolutionary than those of the last 100 years, mainly due to intelligent but not necessarily conscious machines and our rapidly increasing ability to manipulate the biological world, especially our own organs, genomes, etc.

(2)These changes will make most people economically useless. Compared to machines, they won't be capable of economic competition.

(3)The prospect for personal immortality is already catching the imagination of the wealthy and super-wealthy, and dramatic progress on that front may be here in fifty years.

There is much else. Kahnemann is one of our deepest thinkers, I believe, and the fact that he is very impressed with Harari should say something even to those who won't bother to study his thought.

One Harari via Douthat point that Arun took exception to is the following:

But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it's done, it's over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

A modern military can inflict tens of thousands of casualties while taking minimal casualties itself, thanks to the multiplicative factor of ever more capable machines. Robotic systems are quickly taking over warfare. We have seen a real revolution in the last ten years.