The future: godlike elites and useless masses

The divide: Harari says the age of homo sapiens could be a very brief one in human history.

Step one: Uber launches a driverless car fleet in Pittsburgh. Step two: machines take over and millions become useless. Almost precisely as one brilliant academic has just predicted.

Pittsburgh’s famous steel works largely disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s. In surrounding towns many manual labourers were left out of work.

Now many fear another wave of unemployment. In the coming days, Uber will launch its first ever fleet of driverless cars in the city. Other companies such as Google and Ford are also investing in the technology. No wonder taxi drivers are alarmed.

With perfect timing, one of the world’s most brilliant and exciting young history professors, Yuval Noah Harari, has just launched a lecture tour predicting a world in which the machines take over.

While humans have long predicted that machines will take over much of our society, many such forecasts have not yet come true. But in the end, Harari says artificial intelligence (AI) will finally come to achieve what many have feared.

The resulting shift could leave a class of billions of humans both jobless and aimless. The ‘useless class’, he calls them.

Harari, author of Homo Deus, anticipates an even more dramatic industrial revolution this century than that of the 1800s.

He foresees ‘the greatest evolution in biology since the appearance of life’. Computer algorithms and biotechnology will allow a small wealthy elite to upgrade their bodies, brains and minds and eventually turn themselves into god-like cyborgs.

This will create, for the first time, biological differences between social classes.

As most of the population will be useless to those in power, their needs will be ignored. The purpose of medicine will change from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy.

As a natural result, democracy will probably become less relevant. And unlike the last industrial revolution, where countries such as China eventually caught up, those left behind may not get a second chance.

‘Humankind might create the most unequal societies ever,’ says Harari.

Driven forward?

His theory suggests humans are exploitative and ‘programmed to be dissatisfied’. The powerful have always used their advantages to seek more for themselves. When they have no use for other humans — and unprecedented advantages over them — they will selfishly reconstruct society to suit their own ends, particularly when the rewards are so enticing.

Foolish pessimism, critics respond. Humans are a civilised species, made more so by the spread of opportunities and ideas. Apocalyptic visions have been fashionable throughout history, but repeatedly proved wrong. We have always used new technology for the benefit of our species — which is why we now enjoy an era of unparalleled peace, wealth and longevity.

You Decide

  1. Would you use a driverless car, even if its invention made people unemployed?
  2. Is Yuval Noah Harari’s thesis convincing?

Activities

  1. Create two posters: one showing Yuval Noah Harari’s vision of the future, and one showing your own.
  2. Think of a novel, film or non-fiction book from the past which predicted what the future would look like. Prepare a short talk to your class explaining its predictions, and how accurately they turned out in reality.

Some People Say...

“Human nature is selfish.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This all seems a bit futuristic. Will this happen in my lifetime?
Some of the more extraordinary predictions are unlikely to happen imminently: Harari says the upgrade into cyborgs, for example, could happen within 200 years. But many of the trends behind them are already happening. Robotic technology, in particular, is making some humans redundant or forcing them to retrain and reinvent themselves when they get older.
What does this author think I will need to do to cope?
He says ‘emotional resilience’ will be particularly important. Jobs are likely to be more unstable than they are now, and things could change rapidly. So when you are middle aged you may find that what you have done for years is no longer useful. This means you will need to be able and willing to gain new skills.

Word Watch

Ford
Ford Smart Mobility, a subsidiary company investigating autonomous car technology, was launched in March.
Anticipates
Harari emphasised this is ‘not a prophecy’ but a warning on which humans should act.
Homo sapiens
The biological name for the only surviving human species. Harari is unsure whether its history on the plains of Africa will prepare us for the unprecedented challenge of learning new skills later in life.
Democracy
Harari said democracy was ‘adapted to the unique conditions of 20th century industrial societies’. He predicted that we will see ‘completely new political models’ in the 21st century.
China
China had a very agrarian economy and did not industrialise on a large scale in the 19th century. Instead it rapidly did so in the late 20th century.
Era
Johan Norberg, author of Progress, says poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than ever, and people are less likely to be involved in war, subjected to a dictatorship or killed in a natural disaster.
Longevity
In the 1830s, life expectancy in western Europe was just 33.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.