1 December 2018

21 lessons for the 21st century – Yuval Noah Harari

Note: these are not quotes but my own notes on each chapter of the book.

Chapter 2. Work.

Twin revolution of biotech and infotech.

(Network) Connectivity and updatability: abilities AI possesses over humans.

Alternatives exist between AI algorithms to choose the better one.

Everyone will have better healthcare than the richest man today going to the best hospital.

Doctors will be replaced before nurses because the latter have motor and emotional skills.

Always possible to inject some randomness in the algorithm and test human reactions to it. Algorithm could rewrite sections of songs one doesn't like.

Human-AI cooperation rather than competition.

Creation of new jobs, but will demand high levels of expertise.

Google's AlphaZero trained in 4 hours from scratch and without any human guide.

Chapter 3. Liberty.

Elections and referendums are not about what we think, but about what we feel. If it were about thinking, algorithms would do a better job... or it wouldn't make sense to give everyone an equal right to vote.

Until today, no better system than oneself to understand one's feelings, even if free will was an illusion. Now, biochemical knowledge and computing power provide more accurate counselling. Already the case with medicine. With sensors everywhere, inside and outside ourselves, no need for biased self-reporting.

Algorithms don't need to be perfect, they just need to be better than humans.

Already today we are becoming tiny chips inside a giant data-processing system that nobody really understands. Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, tweets, and articles, process the data, and transmit back new bits through more emails, tweets, and articles. I don't really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, or how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers. I don't have time to find out, because I am too busy answering all these emails.

Ethical dilemmas will remain but algorithms won't be affected by emotions. Possible that self-driving car users may have to choose between a car that would protect its owner versus others. Or the state should regulate?

Real problem with robots isn't that they would rebel but that they will always obey their (possibly stupid and cruel) masters and never rebel.

Information decentralisation made liberalism successful. Machine learning however benefits from massive centralised data sets: this could provide authoritarian governments with absolute control over citizens.

Science-fiction confuses intelligence with consciousness (feeling joy and pain), when the latter is not needed for the former. We don't know much about consciousness, perhaps not researching enough into it as much as researching into AI. Resulting risk is to only empower the natural stupidity of humans.

Chapter 4. Equality.

Up to now, superrich couldn't buy much more than status symbols. Soon they might be able to buy life itself (extending life, upgrading cognitive and physical abilities). Humankind might split into biological castes: small class of superhumans, massive class of useless humans.

In countries such as France and New Zealand, with a long tradition of liberal beliefs and welfare-state practices, perhaps the elite will go on taking care of the masses even when it doesn't need them. In the more capitalist United States, however, the elite might use the first opportunity to dismantle what's left of the American welfare state.

Fortifications guarded by clones and robots might separate the self-proclaimed civilized zone where cyborgs fight one another with logic bombs, from the barbarian lands where feral humans fight one another with machetes and Kalashnikovs.

Globalisation erases national borders: unites world horizontally. But also divides humanity vertically, possibly explaining current populist resentment against the "elites".

Concentration of power used to depend on control of land, then machinery, now data. Insurance companies may not want to insure us depending on data or if we refuse to comply with what algorithms recommend.

Governments aren't necessarily better than corporations in handling data. How to regulate the ownership of data?

Chapter 5. Community.

Humans have bodies: people increasingly estranged from their bodies, senses and physical/offline environments, because they spend more time online, in virtual worlds.

Zero-sum game of humans being able to know at most 150 individuals intimately. Building communities shouldn't be a zero-sum game, as humans can feel loyal to different groups at the same time.

Chapter 6. Civilisation.

General trend is unification of civilisation by forming larger and larger groups. Any other thesis like the clash between the West and others is the result of a partial view, a story people tell themselves about their origins, forgetting the wider picture and that traditions have changed over time.

War accelerates unification, makes people more interested in one another e.g. US with Russia during the Cold War.

Chapter 7. Nationalism.

Nationalism not necessarily wrong: in fact surprising to see how it creates bonds between millions of people; inspires people to care about others and make sacrifices on their behalf. Problem begins when benign patriotism morphs into chauvinistic ultranationalism: instead of belief that one's nation is unique, feeling that one's nation is supreme with no obligations to anyone else. Nationalism fuelled wars but was curbed with threat of total, nuclear annihilation... before resurging today again with fears of alienation from global capitalism. But big challenges (nuclear war, climate change, tech disruption) cannot be addressed by any single nation.

Meat grown from cells soon cheaper than slaughtered meat, which requires about 20K liters of water for 1kg.

Nationalist isolationism more dangerous in context of climate change than nuclear war because not all nations have an equal stake e.g. Saudi Arabia, Russia vs. Japan, Kiribati.

Chapter 8. Religion.

Numerous governments adopt universal tools and structures of modernity while relying on (adapted) traditional religions to preserve a unique national identity.

Chapter 9. Immigration.

First define terms: is absorption a duty or a favour, what level of assimilation is required from immigrants, how quickly host countries should treat them as equal citizens... then see which side is living up to their commitments, although people tend to give more weight to violations than to compliance.

Traditional racism is waning. Culturism takes its place (assumption that one culture is superior to another). Confusion between local and objective superiority; also confusion about defining yardsticks, time and place for culturist claims; and despite their statistical nature, claims too often used to prejudge individuals.

Chapter 10. Terrorism.

Successful counterterrorism: governments to focus on clandestine actions against terrorist networks and not overreact with a similar spectacle; media to stop overinflating danger and put things in perspective; free our imagination from terrorists.

The preceding analysis holds true unless terrorists get access to nuclear or biological weapons.

Chapter 11. War.

No really successful war since 1945. Also because war profits not as much about natural resources anymore. Human stupidity often neglected as an important force in history.

Chapter 12. Humility.

It could be argued that monotheism is more intolerant than polytheism which accepted that people can worship many gods.

Chapter 13. God.

Definition of God varies depends if talking about cosmic mystery or wordly lawgiver, with people often confusing the two even though a God of cosmic mystery probably doesn't care about dress codes and sexual habits.

Humans are social animals: cannot be happy without naturally caring about others, be they family, friends, community members.

Chapter 14. Secularism.

Secularism is a commitment to truth, compassion (deep appreciation of suffering and minimising it, including in cases of ethical dilemmas, with the guidance of scientific studies), equality, responsibility.

Dogmatic belief in "human rights" will make it difficult to answer questions about the rights of superhumans, about the purpose of biotechnology in defeating death, etc.

If an ideology or worldview has difficulties admitting ignorance and, more importantly, the biggest mistake it committed, then don't trust it.

Chapter 15. Ignorance.

Knowledge illusion: as individuals, we know less than before; but our ability to think together in large groups has made us masters of the world. The world is becoming more complex; we fail to recognise how ignorant we are of what's going on. Education won't solve the problem because our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality.

Going deeply into any subject needs a lot of time, including wasting time to experiment with unproductive paths and make space for doubt. If you can't afford to waste time, you'll never find the truth.

Great power inevitably distorts the truth as power is about changing reality, not seeing it for what it is, and people around those in power want to please or have an agenda.

Chapter 16. Justice.

Global causal connections are so tangled: makes it difficult to answer even the simplest moral questions.

One can try to evade the problem by adopting a "morality of intentions". But the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know, a "sincere" effort to know... even if not easy.

People often resort to 4 methods to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas: replace complexity by simplicity; focus on one human story (people give more money to one sick child than to a group of eight); weave conspiracy theories; create and put trust in a dogma.

Chapter 17. Post-truth.

Fake news are nothing new e.g. religions and national mythologies, even if stories and fictions allowed to unite people, enabling large-scale human cooperation.

Fake news and fiction make people more loyal and united, rather than truth or only accredited facts.

Chapter 18. Science fiction.

Authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don't realise they are already trapped inside a box, their brain, which is locked within the bigger box of human society with its myriad fictions.

Breaking out of the matrix or traveling somewhere won't make any difference. Whatever you can feel somewhere, you can feel anywhere in the world, even inside the matrix. Pain, fear, love are still felt in the matrix.

The mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.

Chapter 19. Education.

Enormous amounts of information available, education should no longer be about giving more of it but the ability to make sense of it and to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

Even teaching programming or another language may not make sense if an AI can do it better.

Experts argue that we should teach the 4 Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity. In short, downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Ability to deal with change, learn new things, preserve mental balance in unfamiliar situations. You will need to invent new ideas but above all to reinvent yourself again and again.

We can't be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty. But change is stressful, most people don't like change as they age and give up on conquering the world as they grow up. Neurological reasons: adult brain less malleable than the teenage brain. To avoid becoming irrelevant, necessary to have mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance.

Advice to children: don't rely on adults too much. Careful not to rely on technology to the point it controls you. Know yourself then? But easier and easier to be manipulated. Know what you are and what you want from life.

Chapter 20. Meaning.

Stories used to construct identities and give meaning to life. Stories don't need to be complete as long as it gives me some role to play and remain open-ended, never needing to explain where meaning ultimately comes from e.g. nationalism moves people to tears by recounting past disasters, but they hardly think what makes the nation so important in the first place. It takes surprisingly little to exhaust our imagination.

Meaning: leaving something behind? Cultural or biological (genes). This modest hope is rarely fulfilled: most organisms extinct without leaving any genetic inheritance.

Meaning: making the world a little better? Helping someone who will help someone else, and so on? Mentor someone who goes on to have impact? Help an old lady cross the street? Merits for a chain of kindness but not clear where the meaning is coming from.

Old man asked what he learned about the meaning of life: "well, I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven't figured out is why the other people are here."

Meaning: perhaps romance? It doesn't seek to go beyond the here and now. If not in love, aim of life could be to find true love.

Why do people believe in fictions? Taught to believe in them from early childhood, thus personal identity built on stories, likewise for collective institutions. Difficult to question the fabric of society, even if it’s built on fictions, without looking like a pariah.

How do people believe? Rituals, making the fictional real. Sacrifices make things more real, but logical fallacy to think that makes them true e.g. woman asking for a diamond ring, the financial sacrifice to convince himself that it was for a worthy cause. Difficult to question the nationalist myth, immediately chastised: "do you dare say they died for nothing?".

People keep a portfolio of several stories and identities, switching from one to the other as the need arises – even if contradictory. Fanatics force people to adopt one story only e.g. fascism with nationalism, placing the nation above all other interests. Fascism doesn't necessarily look ugly on the surface, hence why it's so attractive.

Contradiction of seeking revenge for dropping bombs on Muslims... who then get to be martyrs and go straight to heaven.

Liberal story has two commandments: create (art, exploration of sexuality, scientific discovery) and fight for liberty (from social, biological, physical constraints). Unfortunately everything is dictated by biochemical algorithms. Freedom to do what you desire, but no freedom/free will to choose what to desire.

Who am I? People expect to be told a story. But the first thing to know about yourself is that you are not a story.

Buddha: everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, nothing is completely satisfying. Suffering emerges because people fail to appreciate this. Suffering caused by our attachments and our identification with empty phenomena.

Reality still exists. Question isn't "what is the meaning of life?" but rather "how do we stop suffering?".

Once fictional stories given up, reality can be observed with greater clarity. If you know the truth about yourself and the world, nothing can make you miserable.

Difference between fiction and reality can be spotted by whether the central hero of the story can suffer.

Chapter 21. Meditation.

Be aware of breath coming in and out. Don't try to control breath or to breathe in any particular way. When losing focus, just remain aware: now my mind has wandered away from the breath.

Then observe the most mundane sensations throughout the body (heat, pressure, pain). Understand the sensory reality of feelings (anger, etc.).

Confusion of mind with brain. Brain: material network of neurons, synapses, biochemicals. Mind: flow of subjective experiences such as pain and pleasure. No explanation for how the mind emerges from the brain.

In the near future, algorithms will decide for us who we are and what we should know about ourselves. For now, we still have a choice, if we make the effort, to investigate who we really are.