Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reviewing Homo Deus

I've been thinking about writing a review of Yuval Noah Harari's new book, Homo Deus, but maybe I will just link to some by the professionals:

Jennifer Senior, in the NYT:

I do not mean to knock the handiwork of a gifted thinker and a precocious mind. But I do mean to caution against the easy charms of potted history. Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has a gift for synthesizing material from a wide range of disciplines in inspired, exhilarating ways. But an argument can look seamless and still contain lots of dropped stitches.

In a nub: “Homo Deus” makes the case that we are now at a unique juncture in the story of our species. “For the first time in history,” Harari writes, “more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.”

Having subdued (though by no means vanquished) famine, pestilence and war, Harari argues, we can now train our sights on higher objectives. Eternal happiness. Everlasting life. “In seeking bliss and immortality,” he writes, “humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.”

Another NYT review, this time by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Emperor of all maladies:

“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, “Homo Deus.” “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.


Such concerns aside, Harari’s book still remains essential reading for those who think about the future. The algorithms that Harari describes are not trying to imitate humans; they are trying to become human, and possibly exceed our abilities. One story in his book that captivated me was that of the musician and programmer David Cope, who wrote a program to imitate Bach’s compositions. Listeners described the compositions as having touched their “innermost being” — and were furious when told the music had, in fact, been created by a device whose “innermost being” happened to be a mesh of silicon and copper. Cope later wrote another program — this time to generate haikus. He then published a book in which some poems were written by the computer while others were written by “organic poets,” as Harari describes them, leaving the readers to agonize over which poem was generated by which being. This organic writer, for one, could hardly tell one from the other.

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Yuval Noah Harari began his academic career as a researcher of medieval warfare. His early publications had titles like “Inter-frontal Cooperation in the Fourteenth Century and Edward III’s 1346 Campaign” or “The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles”. Then, the story goes, having won tenure at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he embarked on a crusade of his own. He was invited to teach a course that no one else in the faculty fancied – a broad-brush introduction to the whole of human activity on the planet. That course became a widely celebrated book, Sapiens, championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and translated into 40 languages. It satisfied perfectly an urgent desire for grand narrative in our fragmenting Buzz-fed world. The rest is macro-history. Yuval Noah Harari: The age of the cyborg has begun – and the consequences cannot be known Read more

On almost every page of Sapiens, a bible of mankind’s cultural and economic and philosophical evolution, our millennial battles with plague and war and famine, Harari announced himself a Zen-like student of historical paradox: “We did not domesticate wheat,” he wrote, “wheat domesticated us”; or “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” The most intriguing section of a wildly intriguing book was the last. Harari’s history of our 75,000 years wound up, as all bibles are apt to do, with apocalyptic prophesy, a sense of an ending.

Of course these are brief excerpts - to get the reviews, follow the links.

So what did I think?

It had plenty of fascinating bits, as well as even more where I wanted to stop the author and say "Yes, but." Overall, I don't think that it's at the level of Sapiens, a truly excellent grand synthesis, but still plenty interesting.