artifical intelligence · Culture · decision making · Learning · Philosophy · politics · Psychology

21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari

  • The book picks up on several themes that I think are very important for understanding where the world is trending over the coming years.

    Politics

    • Disillusionment picks up on the rise of anti ellitest autocratic and populist rulers (connections to The Demise of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce).
    • Issues of identity, nationalism clash with global problems. Identity and the definition of your tribe are themselves changing rapidly in today’s world.
    • Immigration also poses growing challenges in many parts of the world, both to the countries from which people are departing and those to which they are aiming to immigrate to.
    • Traditional democracy offers no solutions to the global technological disruption and ecological challenges we are facing.
    • All the existing human tribes are absorbed in advancing their particular interests rather than understanding the global truth.
  • Many are writing about the potential impact of AI on jobs in future (connections to Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov). Yuval draws out some interesting insights:
    • In the past machines competed with humans in raw physical abilities, while humans retained an immense edge over machines in cognition. AI has the potential to change that.
    • In the future machines will become better at analysing human behaviour and predicting human decisions. (Already happening with social media’s ability to draw and captivate us). AI May out compete us in jobs that require intuition about other people, it may be able to more accurately assess people’s emotional states.
    • AI gets its power and ability to outcompete us not from replacing a single human but through integrating the experience of millions in a single network. AI cars will have far more driving experience than any human. AI doctors similarly. Healthcare could become far better and far cheaper.
    • What jobs will be more immune from relegation? Jobs that require a wide range of skills and an ability to deal with unforeseen scenarios. Human care for young, sick and elderly will probably remain a human activity. Human creativity is often lauded as the area AI will least impact but there he argues as AIs get to understand what touches human emotion they will start to impact this.
    • The idea of human being augmented by machines in all of these areas will inevitably be correct, hopefully greatly improving productivity but continuing the acceleration of change.
    • What do we do to try to create enough new jobs? Will governments create effective retraining programs? How will we cope with the psychological challenges of having to retrain multiple times in our careers?
    • And what happens if job losses far outstrip job creation? What if we get to the point where a large portion of society just don’t have much of a relevant role to play in the work that is economically valued and paid for?
    • What sort of changing social policies will we need eg. Universal Basic Income and what sort of tax policies if the value creation is owned by a few large data owning corporations?
    • Will we start recognising the enormous value of jobs that are not currently paid for such as careers and parenting?
    • Can we envisage a society where work is not where most people find their meaning and purpose? How will we pay for that?
    • Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations, and how we compare our condition to those of other people. How will we adjust our expectations in this new world.

    The other big questions he raises

    • How do we regulate the rise of big data and protect freedoms, who owns the data (see Kasparov’s comments about us sacrificing our privacy for service willingly, and the need for transparency from the big data owners)
    • What does terrorism look like in future?
  • On spirituality, ethics, secularism and religion
    • The future of spirituality, our concept of God, the contradictions between religions preaching individual humility but exercising collective arrogance in its exclusive demands. Marrying this with secularism and science, a seeking of objective truth, the development of secular ethics around concepts such as compassion, equality, freedom, courage.
    • “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better than answers you cannot question.”
    • But even secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds, especially in times of war or economic crisis where societies must act promptly and forcefully. Eg. communism’s of capitalism both become dogmas. Even the right to freedom can become a dogma against all censorship. At some point in time a search for objective truth is circumvented by the desire for expediency and simplicity.
    • “Every religion, ideology and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naïve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us’.”
  • On truth and power
    • Ignorance: you know less than you think. “People rearely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like minded friends and self confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.
    • Providing people with more and better information is unlikely to improve matters. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we hold these views out of group loyalty. Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire.
    • “If you want to go deeply into any subject you need a lot of time, and in particular the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time you will never find the truth.”
    • Power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is.
    • Power depends on creating and believing fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
    • For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit. By bringing people together religious and cultural creeds make large scale human cooperation possible. The power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
    • As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.
    • How to avoid fake news? If you want reliable information, pay for it. If some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the scientific literature on it.
  • On education
    • You will need to reinvent yourself again and again in order to keep up with the world.
      To survive and flourish in such a world you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. Unfortunately teaching kids to embrace the unknown and keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them a physics equation.
      People don’t need more information, they need the ability to make sense of the information, to tell the difference between the important and the unimportant and to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
      What should we teach: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity
      To do this you need to work hard on knowing who you are, and what you want from life, know thy self.
  • How do we usually get to know ourselves? The power of stories
    • We usually do this by telling ourselves stories to give meaning to our lives. My story must give me a role to play, and it must extend beyond my horizon, giving me an identity and a meaning to my life by embedding me in something bigger than myself.
      However when you believe a particular story, it makes you extremely interested in its minutest details, while keeping you blind to anything that falls outside its scope.
      Often we want our personal story to carry on beyond death, either through religious reassurance or through something tangible in either cultural or biological form.
      Why do people believe in these fictions? One reason is that their personal identity is built on the story. By the time their intellect matures they are so heavily invested in the story, that they are far more likely to use their intellect to rationalise the story than to doubt it. Most people who go on identity quests are like children going treasure hunting. They find only what their parents have hidden for them in advance. Second, not only our personal identities but also our collective institutions are built on the story. Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of the story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. Once you suffer for a story it’s usually enough to convince you that the story is real. And in following our own story we may even inflict suffering on others. We do not want to admit either that we are fools or villains and so we prefer to believe that the story is true.
      Throughout history almost all humans believed in several stories at the same time, and whenever absolutely convinced of the truth of any one of them. This uncertainty rattled most religions, which therefore considered faith to be a cardinal virtue and doubt to be amongst the worst possible sins. With the rise of modern culture the tables were turned. Faith looked increasingly like mental slavery, while doubt came to be seen as a precondition for freedom.
      Modernity didn’t reject the plethora of stories it inherited from the past. Instead, it opened a supermarket for them. The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining what ever fits his or her taste.
      One common modern story is the Liberal story. Like all of the cosmic stories, the liberal story to start with a creation narrative. It says that the creation occurs every moment, and I am the creator. What then is the aim of my life? To create meaning by feeling, by thinking, by desiring, and by inventing. Anything that limits the human liberty to feel, to think, to desire and to invent, limits the meaning of the universe. Hence liberty from such limitations is the supreme ideal.
      In order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and re-write. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now. And like government Spin Doctors, the inner narrator repeatedly gets things wrong but rarely, if ever, admits it. My inner propaganda machine builds up a personal myth, with prized memories and cherished traumas that often bear little resemblance to the truth.
      We humans have conquered the world thanks to ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us.
  • Philosophy and the final frontier: our minds
    • In Yuval’s view the big question facing humans is not “what is the meaning of life?” But “how do we get out of suffering?” (Vs Victor Frankl who looks to find meaning even in suffering). He believes “suffering is the most real thing in the world”.
      He goes on to discuss how he can, as a sceptic still wake up cheerful in the morning.
      He turns inward on himself in mindfulness meditation.
      How does one study the mind? The only mind I can directly observe is my own. If I cannot observe some external thing without bias, how can I objectively observe my own mind? But the only tool available is meditation: the direct observation of one’s own mind.
      “The most important thing I realised was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind. Learning this is the first step towards ceasing to generate more suffering.”
      Serious meditation demanded minutes amount of discipline. If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you notice is how wild and impatient reminders.
      We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.