How do we make sense of today’s political divisions? Historian Yuval Harari places our current turmoil in a broader context.
Chris Anderson: Hello. Welcome to this TED Dialogues. It’s the first of a series that’s going to be done in response to the current political upheaval. I don’t know about you; I’ve become quite concerned about the growing divisiveness in this country and in the world. No one’s listening to each other. Right? They aren’t. I mean, it feels like we need a different kind of conversation, one that’s based on — I don’t know, on reason, listening, on understanding, on a broader context.
That’s at least what we’re going to try in these TED Dialogues, starting today. And we couldn’t have anyone with us who I’d be more excited to kick this off. This is a mind right here that thinks pretty much like no one else on the planet, I would hasten to say. I’m serious.
(Yuval Noah Harari laughs) I’m serious. He synthesizes history with underlying ideas in a way that kind of takes your breath away.
So, some of you will know this book, “Sapiens.” Has anyone here read “Sapiens”?
(Applause) I mean, I could not put it down. The way that he tells the story of mankind through big ideas that really make you think differently — it’s kind of amazing. And here’s the follow-up, which I think is being published in the US next week.
YNH: Yeah, next week.
CA: “Homo Deus.” Now, this is the history of the next hundred years. I’ve had a chance to read it. It’s extremely dramatic, and I daresay, for some people, quite alarming. It’s a must-read. And honestly, we couldn’t have someone better to help make sense of what on Earth is happening in the world right now. So a warm welcome, please, to Yuval Noah Harari.
It’s great to be joined by our friends on Facebook and around the Web. Hello, Facebook. And all of you, as I start asking questions of Yuval, come up with your own questions, and not necessarily about the political scandal du jour, but about the broader understanding of: Where are we heading? You ready? OK, we’re going to go.
So here we are, Yuval: New York City, 2017, there’s a new president in power, and shock waves rippling around the world. What on Earth is happening?
YNH: I think the basic thing that happened is that we have lost our story. Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories. And for the last few decades, we had a very simple and very attractive story about what’s happening in the world. And the story said that, oh, what’s happening is that the economy is being globalized, politics is being liberalized, and the combination of the two will create paradise on Earth, and we just need to keep on globalizing the economy and liberalizing the political system, and everything will be wonderful. And 2016 is the moment when a very large segment, even of the Western world, stopped believing in this story. For good or bad reasons — it doesn’t matter. People stopped believing in the story, and when you don’t have a story, you don’t understand what’s happening.
CA: Part of you believes that that story was actually a very effective story. It worked.
YNH: To some extent, yes. According to some measurements, we are now in the best time ever for humankind. Today, for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little, which is an amazing achievement.
Also for the first time in history, more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and violence is also down. For the first time in history, more people commit suicide than are killed by crime and terrorism and war put together. Statistically, you are your own worst enemy. At least, of all the people in the world, you are most likely to be killed by yourself —
which is, again, very good news, compared —
compared to the level of violence that we saw in previous eras.
CA: But this process of connecting the world ended up with a large group of people kind of feeling left out, and they’ve reacted. And so we have this bombshell that’s sort of ripping through the whole system. I mean, what do you make of what’s happened? It feels like the old way that people thought of politics, the left-right divide, has been blown up and replaced. How should we think of this?
YNH: Yeah, the old 20th-century political model of left versus right is now largely irrelevant, and the real divide today is between global and national, global or local. And you see it again all over the world that this is now the main struggle. We probably need completely new political models and completely new ways of thinking about politics. In essence, what you can say is that we now have global ecology, we have a global economy but we have national politics, and this doesn’t work together. This makes the political system ineffective, because it has no control over the forces that shape our life. And you have basically two solutions to this imbalance: either de-globalize the economy and turn it back into a national economy, or globalize the political system.
CA: So some, I guess many liberals out there view Trump and his government as kind of irredeemably bad, just awful in every way. Do you see any underlying narrative or political philosophy in there that is at least worth understanding? How would you articulate that philosophy? Is it just the philosophy of nationalism?
YNH: I think the underlying feeling or idea is that the political system — something is broken there. It doesn’t empower the ordinary person anymore. It doesn’t care so much about the ordinary person anymore, and I think this diagnosis of the political disease is correct. With regard to the answers, I am far less certain.
I think what we are seeing is the immediate human reaction: if something doesn’t work, let’s go back. And you see it all over the world, that people, almost nobody in the political system today, has any future-oriented vision of where humankind is going. Almost everywhere, you see retrograde vision: “Let’s make America great again,” like it was great — I don’t know — in the ’50s, in the ’80s, sometime, let’s go back there. And you go to Russia a hundred years after Lenin, Putin’s vision for the future is basically, ah, let’s go back to the Tsarist empire. And in Israel, where I come from, the hottest political vision of the present is: “Let’s build the temple again.” So let’s go back 2,000 years backwards. So people are thinking sometime in the past we’ve lost it, and sometimes in the past, it’s like you’ve lost your way in the city, and you say OK, let’s go back to the point where I felt secure and start again. I don’t think this can work, but a lot of people, this is their gut instinct.
CA: But why couldn’t it work? “America First” is a very appealing slogan in many ways. Patriotism is, in many ways, a very noble thing. It’s played a role in promoting cooperation among large numbers of people. Why couldn’t you have a world organized in countries, all of which put themselves first?
YNH: For many centuries, even thousands of years, patriotism worked quite well. Of course, it led to wars an so forth, but we shouldn’t focus too much on the bad. There are also many, many positive things about patriotism, and the ability to have a large number of people care about each other, sympathize with one another, and come together for collective action. If you go back to the first nations, so, thousands of years ago, the people who lived along the Yellow River in China — it was many, many different tribes and they all depended on the river for survival and for prosperity, but all of them also suffered from periodical floods and periodical droughts. And no tribe could really do anything about it, because each of them controlled just a tiny section of the river.
And then in a long and complicated process, the tribes coalesced together to form the Chinese nation, which controlled the entire Yellow River and had the ability to bring hundreds of thousands of people together to build dams and canals and regulate the river and prevent the worst floods and droughts and raise the level of prosperity for everybody. And this worked in many places around the world.
But in the 21st century, technology is changing all that in a fundamental way. We are now living — all people in the world — are living alongside the same cyber river, and no single nation can regulate this river by itself. We are all living together on a single planet, which is threatened by our own actions. And if you don’t have some kind of global cooperation, nationalism is just not on the right level to tackle the problems, whether it’s climate change or whether it’s technological disruption.
CA: So it was a beautiful idea in a world where most of the action, most of the issues, took place on national scale, but your argument is that the issues that matter most today no longer take place on a national scale but on a global scale.
YNH: Exactly. All the major problems of the world today are global in essence, and they cannot be solved unless through some kind of global cooperation. It’s not just climate change, which is, like, the most obvious example people give. I think more in terms of technological disruption. If you think about, for example, artificial intelligence, over the next 20, 30 years pushing hundreds of millions of people out of the job market — this is a problem on a global level. It will disrupt the economy of all the countries.
And similarly, if you think about, say, bioengineering and people being afraid of conducting, I don’t know, genetic engineering research in humans, it won’t help if just a single country, let’s say the US, outlaws all genetic experiments in humans, but China or North Korea continues to do it. So the US cannot solve it by itself, and very quickly, the pressure on the US to do the same will be immense because we are talking about high-risk, high-gain technologies. If somebody else is doing it, I can’t allow myself to remain behind. The only way to have regulations, effective regulations, on things like genetic engineering, is to have global regulations. If you just have national regulations, nobody would like to stay behind.
CA: So this is really interesting. It seems to me that this may be one key to provoking at least a constructive conversation between the different sides here, because I think everyone can agree that the start point of a lot of the anger that’s propelled us to where we are is because of the legitimate concerns about job loss. Work is gone, a traditional way of life has gone, and it’s no wonder that people are furious about that. And in general, they have blamed globalism, global elites, for doing this to them without asking their permission, and that seems like a legitimate complaint.
But what I hear you saying is that — so a key question is: What is the real cause of job loss, both now and going forward? To the extent that it’s about globalism, then the right response, yes, is to shut down borders and keep people out and change trade agreements and so forth. But you’re saying, I think, that actually the bigger cause of job loss is not going to be that at all. It’s going to originate in technological questions, and we have no chance of solving that unless we operate as a connected world.
YNH: Yeah, I think that, I don’t know about the present, but looking to the future, it’s not the Mexicans or Chinese who will take the jobs from the people in Pennsylvania, it’s the robots and algorithms. So unless you plan to build a big wall on the border of California —
the wall on the border with Mexico is going to be very ineffective. And I was struck when I watched the debates before the election, I was struck that certainly Trump did not even attempt to frighten people by saying the robots will take your jobs. Now even if it’s not true, it doesn’t matter. It could have been an extremely effective way of frightening people —
and galvanizing people: “The robots will take your jobs!” And nobody used that line. And it made me afraid, because it meant that no matter what happens in universities and laboratories, and there, there is already an intense debate about it, but in the mainstream political system and among the general public, people are just unaware that there could be an immense technological disruption — not in 200 years, but in 10, 20, 30 years — and we have to do something about it now, partly because most of what we teach children today in school or in college is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market of 2040, 2050. So it’s not something we’ll need to think about in 2040. We need to think today what to teach the young people.
CA: Yeah, no, absolutely. You’ve often written about moments in history where humankind has … entered a new era, unintentionally. Decisions have been made, technologies have been developed, and suddenly the world has changed, possibly in a way that’s worse for everyone. So one of the examples you give in “Sapiens” is just the whole agricultural revolution, which, for an actual person tilling the fields, they just picked up a 12-hour backbreaking workday instead of six hours in the jungle and a much more interesting lifestyle.
So are we at another possible phase change here, where we kind of sleepwalk into a future that none of us actually wants?
YNH: Yes, very much so. During the agricultural revolution, what happened is that immense technological and economic revolution empowered the human collective, but when you look at actual individual lives, the life of a tiny elite became much better, and the lives of the majority of people became considerably worse. And this can happen again in the 21st century. No doubt the new technologies will empower the human collective. But we may end up again with a tiny elite reaping all the benefits, taking all the fruits, and the masses of the population finding themselves worse than they were before, certainly much worse than this tiny elite.
CA: And those elites might not even be human elites. They might be cyborgs or —
YNH: Yeah, they could be enhanced super humans. They could be cyborgs. They could be completely nonorganic elites. They could even be non-conscious algorithms. What we see now in the world is authority shifting away from humans to algorithms. More and more decisions — about personal lives, about economic matters, about political matters — are actually being taken by algorithms. If you ask the bank for a loan, chances are your fate is decided by an algorithm, not by a human being. And the general impression is that maybe Homo sapiens just lost it.
The world is so complicated, there is so much data, things are changing so fast, that this thing that evolved on the African savanna tens of thousands of years ago — to cope with a particular environment, a particular volume of information and data — it just can’t handle the realities of the 21st century, and the only thing that may be able to handle it is big-data algorithms. So no wonder more and more authority is shifting from us to the algorithms.
CA: So we’re in New York City for the first of a series of TED Dialogues with Yuval Harari, and there’s a Facebook Live audience out there. We’re excited to have you with us. We’ll start coming to some of your questions and questions of people in the room in just a few minutes, so have those coming.
Yuval, if you’re going to make the argument that we need to get past nationalism because of the coming technological … danger, in a way, presented by so much of what’s happening we’ve got to have a global conversation about this. Trouble is, it’s hard to get people really believing that, I don’t know, AI really is an imminent threat, and so forth. The things that people, some people at least, care about much more immediately, perhaps, is climate change, perhaps other issues like refugees, nuclear weapons, and so forth. Would you argue that where we are right now that somehow those issues need to be dialed up? You’ve talked about climate change, but Trump has said he doesn’t believe in that. So in a way, your most powerful argument, you can’t actually use to make this case.
YNH: Yeah, I think with climate change, at first sight, it’s quite surprising that there is a very close correlation between nationalism and climate change. I mean, almost always, the people who deny climate change are nationalists. And at first sight, you think: Why? What’s the connection? Why don’t you have socialists denying climate change? But then, when you think about it, it’s obvious — because nationalism has no solution to climate change. If you want to be a nationalist in the 21st century, you have to deny the problem. If you accept the reality of the problem, then you must accept that, yes, there is still room in the world for patriotism, there is still room in the world for having special loyalties and obligations towards your own people, towards your own country. I don’t think anybody is really thinking of abolishing that.
But in order to confront climate change, we need additional loyalties and commitments to a level beyond the nation. And that should not be impossible, because people can have several layers of loyalty. You can be loyal to your family and to your community and to your nation, so why can’t you also be loyal to humankind as a whole? Of course, there are occasions when it becomes difficult, what to put first, but, you know, life is difficult. Handle it.
CA: OK, so I would love to get some questions from the audience here. We’ve got a microphone here. Speak into it, and Facebook, get them coming, too.
Howard Morgan: One of the things that has clearly made a huge difference in this country and other countries is the income distribution inequality, the dramatic change in income distribution in the US from what it was 50 years ago, and around the world. Is there anything we can do to affect that? Because that gets at a lot of the underlying causes.
YNH: So far I haven’t heard a very good idea about what to do about it, again, partly because most ideas remain on the national level, and the problem is global. I mean, one idea that we hear quite a lot about now is universal basic income. But this is a problem. I mean, I think it’s a good start, but it’s a problematic idea because it’s not clear what “universal” is and it’s not clear what “basic” is. Most people when they speak about universal basic income, they actually mean national basic income. But the problem is global.
Let’s say that you have AI and 3D printers taking away millions of jobs in Bangladesh, from all the people who make my shirts and my shoes. So what’s going to happen? The US government will levy taxes on Google and Apple in California, and use that to pay basic income to unemployed Bangladeshis? If you believe that, you can just as well believe that Santa Claus will come and solve the problem. So unless we have really universal and not national basic income, the deep problems are not going to go away.
And also it’s not clear what basic is, because what are basic human needs? A thousand years ago, just food and shelter was enough. But today, people will say education is a basic human need, it should be part of the package. But how much? Six years? Twelve years? PhD? Similarly, with health care, let’s say that in 20, 30, 40 years, you’ll have expensive treatments that can extend human life to 120, I don’t know. Will this be part of the basket of basic income or not? It’s a very difficult problem, because in a world where people lose their ability to be employed, the only thing they are going to get is this basic income. So what’s part of it is a very, very difficult ethical question.
CA: There’s a bunch of questions on how the world affords it as well, who pays. There’s a question here from Facebook from Lisa Larson: “How does nationalism in the US now compare to that between World War I and World War II in the last century?”
YNH: Well the good news, with regard to the dangers of nationalism, we are in a much better position than a century ago. A century ago, 1917, Europeans were killing each other by the millions. In 2016, with Brexit, as far as I remember, a single person lost their life, an MP who was murdered by some extremist. Just a single person. I mean, if Brexit was about British independence, this is the most peaceful war of independence in human history. And let’s say that Scotland will now choose to leave the UK after Brexit.
So in the 18th century, if Scotland wanted — and the Scots wanted several times — to break out of the control of London, the reaction of the government in London was to send an army up north to burn down Edinburgh and massacre the highland tribes. My guess is that if, in 2018, the Scots vote for independence, the London government will not send an army up north to burn down Edinburgh. Very few people are now willing to kill or be killed for Scottish or for British independence. So for all the talk of the rise of nationalism and going back to the 1930s, to the 19th century, in the West at least, the power of national sentiments today is far, far smaller than it was a century ago.
CA: Although some people now, you hear publicly worrying about whether that might be shifting, that there could actually be outbreaks of violence in the US depending on how things turn out. Should we be worried about that, or do you really think things have shifted?
YNH: No, we should be worried. We should be aware of two things. First of all, don’t be hysterical. We are not back in the First World War yet. But on the other hand, don’t be complacent. We reached from 1917 to 2017, not by some divine miracle, but simply by human decisions, and if we now start making the wrong decisions, we could be back in an analogous situation to 1917 in a few years. One of the things I know as a historian is that you should never underestimate human stupidity.
It’s one of the most powerful forces in history, human stupidity and human violence. Humans do such crazy things for no obvious reason, but again, at the same time, another very powerful force in human history is human wisdom. We have both.
CA: We have with us here moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who I think has a question.
Jonathan Haidt: Thanks, Yuval. So you seem to be a fan of global governance, but when you look at the map of the world from Transparency International, which rates the level of corruption of political institutions, it’s a vast sea of red with little bits of yellow here and there for those with good institutions. So if we were to have some kind of global governance, what makes you think it would end up being more like Denmark rather than more like Russia or Honduras, and aren’t there alternatives, such as we did with CFCs? There are ways to solve global problems with national governments. What would world government actually look like, and why do you think it would work?
YNH: Well, I don’t know what it would look like. Nobody still has a model for that. The main reason we need it is because many of these issues are lose-lose situations. When you have a win-win situation like trade, both sides can benefit from a trade agreement, then this is something you can work out. Without some kind of global government, national governments each have an interest in doing it. But when you have a lose-lose situation like with climate change, it’s much more difficult without some overarching authority, real authority.
Now, how to get there and what would it look like, I don’t know. And certainly there is no obvious reason to think that it would look like Denmark, or that it would be a democracy. Most likely it wouldn’t. We don’t have workable democratic models for a global government. So maybe it would look more like ancient China than like modern Denmark. But still, given the dangers that we are facing, I think the imperative of having some kind of real ability to force through difficult decisions on the global level is more important than almost anything else.
CA: There’s a question from Facebook here, and then we’ll get the mic to Andrew. So, Kat Hebron on Facebook, calling in from Vail: “How would developed nations manage the millions of climate migrants?”
YNH: I don’t know.
CA: That’s your answer, Kat. (Laughter)
YNH: And I don’t think that they know either. They’ll just deny the problem, maybe.
CA: But immigration, generally, is another example of a problem that’s very hard to solve on a nation-by-nation basis. One nation can shut its doors, but maybe that stores up problems for the future.
YNH: Yes, I mean — it’s another very good case, especially because it’s so much easier to migrate today than it was in the Middle Ages or in ancient times.
CA: Yuval, there’s a belief among many technologists, certainly, that political concerns are kind of overblown, that actually, political leaders don’t have that much influence in the world, that the real determination of humanity at this point is by science, by invention, by companies, by many things other than political leaders, and it’s actually very hard for leaders to do much, so we’re actually worrying about nothing here.
YNH: Well, first, it should be emphasized that it’s true that political leaders’ ability to do good is very limited, but their ability to do harm is unlimited. There is a basic imbalance here. You can still press the button and blow everybody up. You have that kind of ability. But if you want, for example, to reduce inequality, that’s very, very difficult. But to start a war, you can still do so very easily. So there is a built-in imbalance in the political system today which is very frustrating, where you cannot do a lot of good but you can still do a lot of harm. And this makes the political system still a very big concern.
CA: So as you look at what’s happening today, and putting your historian’s hat on, do you look back in history at moments when things were going just fine and an individual leader really took the world or their country backwards?
YNH: There are quite a few examples, but I should emphasize, it’s never an individual leader. I mean, somebody put him there, and somebody allowed him to continue to be there. So it’s never really just the fault of a single individual. There are a lot of people behind every such individual.
CA: Can we have the microphone here, please, to Andrew?
Andrew Solomon: You’ve talked a lot about the global versus the national, but increasingly, it seems to me, the world situation is in the hands of identity groups. We look at people within the United States who have been recruited by ISIS. We look at these other groups which have formed which go outside of national bounds but still represent significant authorities. How are they to be integrated into the system, and how is a diverse set of identities to be made coherent under either national or global leadership?
YNH: Well, the problem of such diverse identities is a problem from nationalism as well. Nationalism believes in a single, monolithic identity, and exclusive or at least more extreme versions of nationalism believe in an exclusive loyalty to a single identity. And therefore, nationalism has had a lot of problems with people wanting to divide their identities between various groups. So it’s not just a problem, say, for a global vision.
And I think, again, history shows that you shouldn’t necessarily think in such exclusive terms. If you think that there is just a single identity for a person, “I am just X, that’s it, I can’t be several things, I can be just that,” that’s the start of the problem. You have religions, you have nations that sometimes demand exclusive loyalty, but it’s not the only option. There are many religions and many nations that enable you to have diverse identities at the same time.
CA: But is one explanation of what’s happened in the last year that a group of people have got fed up with, if you like, the liberal elites, for want of a better term, obsessing over many, many different identities and them feeling, “But what about my identity? I am being completely ignored here. And by the way, I thought I was the majority”? And that that’s actually sparked a lot of the anger.
YNH: Yeah. Identity is always problematic, because identity is always based on fictional stories that sooner or later collide with reality. Almost all identities, I mean, beyond the level of the basic community of a few dozen people, are based on a fictional story. They are not the truth. They are not the reality. It’s just a story that people invent and tell one another and start believing. And therefore all identities are extremely unstable. They are not a biological reality. Sometimes nationalists, for example, think that the nation is a biological entity. It’s made of the combination of soil and blood, creates the nation. But this is just a fictional story.
CA: Soil and blood kind of makes a gooey mess.
YNH: It does, and also it messes with your mind when you think too much that I am a combination of soil and blood. If you look from a biological perspective, obviously none of the nations that exist today existed 5,000 years ago. Homo sapiens is a social animal, that’s for sure. But for millions of years, Homo sapiens and our hominid ancestors lived in small communities of a few dozen individuals. Everybody knew everybody else. Whereas modern nations are imagined communities, in the sense that I don’t even know all these people. I come from a relatively small nation, Israel, and of eight million Israelis, I never met most of them. I will never meet most of them. They basically exist here.
CA: But in terms of this identity, this group who feel left out and perhaps have work taken away, I mean, in “Homo Deus,” you actually speak of this group in one sense expanding, that so many people may have their jobs taken away by technology in some way that we could end up with a really large — I think you call it a “useless class” — a class where traditionally, as viewed by the economy, these people have no use.
CA: How likely a possibility is that? Is that something we should be terrified about? And can we address it in any way?
YNH: We should think about it very carefully. I mean, nobody really knows what the job market will look like in 2040, 2050. There is a chance many new jobs will appear, but it’s not certain. And even if new jobs do appear, it won’t necessarily be easy for a 50-year old unemployed truck driver made unemployed by self-driving vehicles, it won’t be easy for an unemployed truck driver to reinvent himself or herself as a designer of virtual worlds.
Previously, if you look at the trajectory of the industrial revolution, when machines replaced humans in one type of work, the solution usually came from low-skill work in new lines of business. So you didn’t need any more agricultural workers, so people moved to working in low-skill industrial jobs, and when this was taken away by more and more machines, people moved to low-skill service jobs. Now, when people say there will be new jobs in the future, that humans can do better than AI, that humans can do better than robots, they usually think about high-skill jobs, like software engineers designing virtual worlds. Now, I don’t see how an unemployed cashier from Wal-Mart reinvents herself or himself at 50 as a designer of virtual worlds, and certainly I don’t see how the millions of unemployed Bangladeshi textile workers will be able to do that. I mean, if they are going to do it, we need to start teaching the Bangladeshis today how to be software designers, and we are not doing it. So what will they do in 20 years?
CA: So it feels like you’re really highlighting a question that’s really been bugging me the last few months more and more. It’s almost a hard question to ask in public, but if any mind has some wisdom to offer in it, maybe it’s yours, so I’m going to ask you: What are humans for?
YNH: As far as we know, for nothing.
I mean, there is no great cosmic drama, some great cosmic plan, that we have a role to play in. And we just need to discover what our role is and then play it to the best of our ability. This has been the story of all religions and ideologies and so forth, but as a scientist, the best I can say is this is not true. There is no universal drama with a role in it for Homo sapiens. So —
CA: I’m going to push back on you just for a minute, just from your own book, because in “Homo Deus,” you give really one of the most coherent and understandable accounts about sentience, about consciousness, and that unique sort of human skill. You point out that it’s different from intelligence, the intelligence that we’re building in machines, and that there’s actually a lot of mystery around it. How can you be sure there’s no purpose when we don’t even understand what this sentience thing is? I mean, in your own thinking, isn’t there a chance that what humans are for is to be the universe’s sentient things, to be the centers of joy and love and happiness and hope? And maybe we can build machines that actually help amplify that, even if they’re not going to become sentient themselves? Is that crazy? I kind of found myself hoping that, reading your book.
YNH: Well, I certainly think that the most interesting question today in science is the question of consciousness and the mind. We are getting better and better in understanding the brain and intelligence, but we are not getting much better in understanding the mind and consciousness. People often confuse intelligence and consciousness, especially in places like Silicon Valley, which is understandable, because in humans, they go together. I mean, intelligence basically is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things, to feel joy and sadness and boredom and pain and so forth. In Homo sapiens and all other mammals as well — it’s not unique to humans — in all mammals and birds and some other animals, intelligence and consciousness go together. We often solve problems by feeling things. So we tend to confuse them. But they are different things.
What’s happening today in places like Silicon Valley is that we are creating artificial intelligence but not artificial consciousness. There has been an amazing development in computer intelligence over the last 50 years, and exactly zero development in computer consciousness, and there is no indication that computers are going to become conscious anytime soon.
So first of all, if there is some cosmic role for consciousness, it’s not unique to Homo sapiens. Cows are conscious, pigs are conscious, chimpanzees are conscious, chickens are conscious, so if we go that way, first of all, we need to broaden our horizons and remember very clearly we are not the only sentient beings on Earth, and when it comes to sentience — when it comes to intelligence, there is good reason to think we are the most intelligent of the whole bunch.
But when it comes to sentience, to say that humans are more sentient than whales, or more sentient than baboons or more sentient than cats, I see no evidence for that. So first step is, you go in that direction, expand. And then the second question of what is it for, I would reverse it and I would say that I don’t think sentience is for anything. I think we don’t need to find our role in the universe. The really important thing is to liberate ourselves from suffering. What characterizes sentient beings in contrast to robots, to stones, to whatever, is that sentient beings suffer, can suffer, and what they should focus on is not finding their place in some mysterious cosmic drama. They should focus on understanding what suffering is, what causes it and how to be liberated from it.
CA: I know this is a big issue for you, and that was very eloquent. We’re going to have a blizzard of questions from the audience here, and maybe from Facebook as well, and maybe some comments as well. So let’s go quick. There’s one right here. Keep your hands held up at the back if you want the mic, and we’ll get it back to you.
Question: In your work, you talk a lot about the fictional stories that we accept as truth, and we live our lives by it. As an individual, knowing that, how does it impact the stories that you choose to live your life, and do you confuse them with the truth, like all of us?
YNH: I try not to. I mean, for me, maybe the most important question, both as a scientist and as a person, is how to tell the difference between fiction and reality, because reality is there. I’m not saying that everything is fiction. It’s just very difficult for human beings to tell the difference between fiction and reality, and it has become more and more difficult as history progressed, because the fictions that we have created — nations and gods and money and corporations — they now control the world. So just to even think, “Oh, this is just all fictional entities that we’ve created,” is very difficult. But reality is there.
For me the best … There are several tests to tell the difference between fiction and reality. The simplest one, the best one that I can say in short, is the test of suffering. If it can suffer, it’s real. If it can’t suffer, it’s not real. A nation cannot suffer. That’s very, very clear. Even if a nation loses a war, we say, “Germany suffered a defeat in the First World War,” it’s a metaphor. Germany cannot suffer. Germany has no mind. Germany has no consciousness. Germans can suffer, yes, but Germany cannot. Similarly, when a bank goes bust, the bank cannot suffer. When the dollar loses its value, the dollar doesn’t suffer. People can suffer. Animals can suffer. This is real. So I would start, if you really want to see reality, I would go through the door of suffering. If you can really understand what suffering is, this will give you also the key to understand what reality is.
CA: There’s a Facebook question here that connects to this, from someone around the world in a language that I cannot read.
YNH: Oh, it’s Hebrew. CA: Hebrew. There you go.
Can you read the name?
YNH: [??] 43:39
CA: Well, thank you for writing in. The question is: “Is the post-truth era really a brand-new era, or just another climax or moment in a never-ending trend?
YNH: Personally, I don’t connect with this idea of post-truth. My basic reaction as a historian is: If this is the era of post-truth, when the hell was the era of truth?
YNH: Was it the 1980s, the 1950s, the Middle Ages? I mean, we have always lived in an era, in a way, of post-truth.
CA: But I’d push back on that, because I think what people are talking about is that there was a world where you had fewer journalistic outlets, where there were traditions, that things were fact-checked. It was incorporated into the charter of those organizations that the truth mattered. So if you believe in a reality, then what you write is information. There was a belief that that information should connect to reality in a real way, and if you wrote a headline, it was a serious, earnest attempt to reflect something that had actually happened. And people didn’t always get it right.
But I think the concern now is you’ve got a technological system that’s incredibly powerful that, for a while at least, massively amplified anything with no attention paid to whether it connected to reality, only to whether it connected to clicks and attention, and that that was arguably toxic. That’s a reasonable concern, isn’t it?
YNH: Yeah, it is. I mean, the technology changes, and it’s now easier to disseminate both truth and fiction and falsehood. It goes both ways. It’s also much easier, though, to spread the truth than it was ever before. But I don’t think there is anything essentially new about this disseminating fictions and errors. There is nothing that — I don’t know — Joseph Goebbels, didn’t know about all this idea of fake news and post-truth. He famously said that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will think it’s the truth, and the bigger the lie, the better, because people won’t even think that something so big can be a lie. I think that fake news has been with us for thousands of years. Just think of the Bible.
CA: But there is a concern that the fake news is associated with tyrannical regimes, and when you see an uprise in fake news that is a canary in the coal mine that there may be dark times coming.
YNH: Yeah. I mean, the intentional use of fake news is a disturbing sign. But I’m not saying that it’s not bad, I’m just saying that it’s not new.
CA: There’s a lot of interest on Facebook on this question about global governance versus nationalism. Question here from Phil Dennis: “How do we get people, governments, to relinquish power? Is that — is that — actually, the text is so big I can’t read the full question. But is that a necessity? Is it going to take war to get there? Sorry Phil — I mangled your question, but I blame the text right here.
YNH: One option that some people talk about is that only a catastrophe can shake humankind and open the path to a real system of global governance, and they say that we can’t do it before the catastrophe, but we need to start laying the foundations so that when the disaster strikes, we can react quickly. But people will just not have the motivation to do such a thing before the disaster strikes. Another thing that I would emphasize is that anybody who is really interested in global governance should always make it very, very clear that it doesn’t replace or abolish local identities and communities, that it should come both as — It should be part of a single package.
CA: I want to hear more on this, because the very words “global governance” are almost the epitome of evil in the mindset of a lot of people on the alt-right right now. It just seems scary, remote, distant, and it has let them down, and so globalists, global governance — no, go away! And many view the election as the ultimate poke in the eye to anyone who believes in that. So how do we change the narrative so that it doesn’t seem so scary and remote? Build more on this idea of it being compatible with local identity, local communities.
YNH: Well, I think again we should start really with the biological realities of Homo sapiens. And biology tells us two things about Homo sapiens which are very relevant to this issue: first of all, that we are completely dependent on the ecological system around us, and that today we are talking about a global system. You cannot escape that.
And at the same time, biology tells us about Homo sapiens that we are social animals, but that we are social on a very, very local level. It’s just a simple fact of humanity that we cannot have intimate familiarity with more than about 150 individuals. The size of the natural group, the natural community of Homo sapiens, is not more than 150 individuals, and everything beyond that is really based on all kinds of imaginary stories and large-scale institutions, and I think that we can find a way, again, based on a biological understanding of our species, to weave the two together and to understand that today in the 21st century, we need both the global level and the local community.
And I would go even further than that and say that it starts with the body itself. The feelings that people today have of alienation and loneliness and not finding their place in the world, I would think that the chief problem is not global capitalism. The chief problem is that over the last hundred years, people have been becoming disembodied, have been distancing themselves from their body. As a hunter-gatherer or even as a peasant, to survive, you need to be constantly in touch with your body and with your senses, every moment. If you go to the forest to look for mushrooms and you don’t pay attention to what you hear, to what you smell, to what you taste, you’re dead. So you must be very connected.
In the last hundred years, people are losing their ability to be in touch with their body and their senses, to hear, to smell, to feel. More and more attention goes to screens, to what is happening elsewhere, some other time. This, I think, is the deep reason for the feelings of alienation and loneliness and so forth, and therefore part of the solution is not to bring back some mass nationalism, but also reconnect with our own bodies, and if you are back in touch with your body, you will feel much more at home in the world also.
CA: Well, depending on how things go, we may all be back in the forest soon. We’re going to have one more question in the room and one more on Facebook.
Ama Adi-Dako: Hello. I’m from Ghana, West Africa, and my question is: I’m wondering how do you present and justify the idea of global governance to countries that have been historically disenfranchised by the effects of globalization, and also, if we’re talking about global governance, it sounds to me like it will definitely come from a very Westernized idea of what the “global” is supposed to look like. So how do we present and justify that idea of global versus wholly nationalist to people in countries like Ghana and Nigeria and Togo and other countries like that?
YNH: I would start by saying that history is extremely unfair, and that we should realize that. Many of the countries that suffered most from the last 200 years of globalization and imperialism and industrialization are exactly the countries which are also most likely to suffer most from the next wave. And we should be very, very clear about that. If we don’t have a global governance, and if we suffer from climate change, from technological disruptions, the worst suffering will not be in the US. The worst suffering will be in Ghana, will be in Sudan, will be in Syria, will be in Bangladesh, will be in those places.
So I think those countries have an even greater incentive to do something about the next wave of disruption, whether it’s ecological or whether it’s technological. Again, if you think about technological disruption, so if AI and 3D printers and robots will take the jobs from billions of people, I worry far less about the Swedes than about the people in Ghana or in Bangladesh. And therefore, because history is so unfair and the results of a calamity will not be shared equally between everybody, as usual, the rich will be able to get away from the worst consequences of climate change in a way that the poor will not be able to.
CA: And here’s a great question from Cameron Taylor on Facebook: “At the end of ‘Sapiens,'” you said we should be asking the question, ‘What do we want to want?’ Well, what do you think we should want to want?”
YNH: I think we should want to want to know the truth, to understand reality. Mostly what we want is to change reality, to fit it to our own desires, to our own wishes, and I think we should first want to understand it. If you look at the long-term trajectory of history, what you see is that for thousands of years we humans have been gaining control of the world outside us and trying to shape it to fit our own desires. And we’ve gained control of the other animals, of the rivers, of the forests, and reshaped them completely, causing an ecological destruction without making ourselves satisfied.
So the next step is we turn our gaze inwards, and we say OK, getting control of the world outside us did not really make us satisfied. Let’s now try to gain control of the world inside us. This is the really big project of science and technology and industry in the 21st century — to try and gain control of the world inside us, to learn how to engineer and produce bodies and brains and minds. These are likely to be the main products of the 21st century economy. When people think about the future, very often they think in terms, “Oh, I want to gain control of my body and of my brain.” And I think that’s very dangerous.
If we’ve learned anything from our previous history, it’s that yes, we gain the power to manipulate, but because we didn’t really understand the complexity of the ecological system, we are now facing an ecological meltdown. And if we now try to reengineer the world inside us without really understanding it, especially without understanding the complexity of our mental system, we might cause a kind of internal ecological disaster, and we’ll face a kind of mental meltdown inside us.
CA: Putting all the pieces together here — the current politics, the coming technology, concerns like the one you’ve just outlined — I mean, it seems like you yourself are in quite a bleak place when you think about the future. You’re pretty worried about it. Is that right? And if there was one cause for hope, how would you state that?
YNH: I focus on the most dangerous possibilities partly because this is like my job or responsibility as a historian or social critic. I mean, the industry focuses mainly on the positive sides, so it’s the job of historians and philosophers and sociologists to highlight the more dangerous potential of all these new technologies. I don’t think any of that is inevitable. Technology is never deterministic. You can use the same technology to create very different kinds of societies.
If you look at the 20th century, so, the technologies of the Industrial Revolution, the trains and electricity and all that could be used to create a communist dictatorship or a fascist regime or a liberal democracy. The trains did not tell you what to do with them. Similarly, now, artificial intelligence and bioengineering and all of that — they don’t predetermine a single outcome. Humanity can rise up to the challenge, and the best example we have of humanity rising up to the challenge of a new technology is nuclear weapons. In the late 1940s, ’50s, many people were convinced that sooner or later the Cold War will end in a nuclear catastrophe, destroying human civilization. And this did not happen. In fact, nuclear weapons prompted humans all over the world to change the way that they manage international politics to reduce violence.
And many countries basically took out war from their political toolkit. They no longer tried to pursue their interests with warfare. Not all countries have done so, but many countries have. And this is maybe the most important reason why international violence declined dramatically since 1945, and today, as I said, more people commit suicide than are killed in war. So this, I think, gives us a good example that even the most frightening technology, humans can rise up to the challenge and actually some good can come out of it. The problem is, we have very little margin for error. If we don’t get it right, we might not have a second option to try again.
CA: That’s a very powerful note, on which I think we should draw this to a conclusion. Before I wrap up, I just want to say one thing to people here and to the global TED community watching online, anyone watching online: help us with these dialogues. If you believe, like we do, that we need to find a different kind of conversation, now more than ever, help us do it. Reach out to other people, try and have conversations with people you disagree with, understand them, pull the pieces together, and help us figure out how to take these conversations forward so we can make a real contribution to what’s happening in the world right now.
I think everyone feels more alive, more concerned, more engaged with the politics of the moment. The stakes do seem quite high, so help us respond to it in a wise, wise way.
Yuval Harari, thank you.