At the heart of this spellbinding book is a simple but chilling idea: human nature will be transformed in the 21st century because intelligence is uncoupling from consciousness. We are not going to build machines any time soon that have feelings like we have feelings: that’s consciousness. Robots won’t be falling in love with each other (which doesn’t mean we are incapable of falling in love with robots). But we have already built machines – vast data-processing networks – that can know our feelings better than we know them ourselves: that’s intelligence. Google – the search engine, not the company – doesn’t have beliefs and desires of its own. It doesn’t care what we search for and it won’t feel hurt by our behaviour. But it can process our behaviour to know what we want before we know it ourselves. That fact has the potential to change what it means to be human.
Yuval Noah Harari’s previous book, the global bestseller Sapiens, laid out the last 75,000 years of human history to remind us that there is nothing special or essential about who we are. We are an accident. Homo sapiens is just one possible way of being human, an evolutionary contingency like every other creature on the planet. That book ended with the thought that the story of homo sapiens could be coming to an end. We are at the height of our power but we may also have reached its limit. Homo Deus makes good on this thought to explain how our unparalleled ability to control the world around us is turning us into something new.
The evidence of our power is everywhere: we have not simply conquered nature but have also begun to defeat humanity’s own worst enemies. War is increasingly obsolete; famine is rare; disease is on the retreat around the world. We have achieved these triumphs by building ever more complex networks that treat human beings as units of information. Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we are nothing but data-processing machines: we too are algorithms. By manipulating the data we can exercise mastery over our fate. The trouble is that other algorithms – the ones that we have built – can do it far more efficiently than we can. That’s what Harari means by the “uncoupling” of intelligence and consciousness. The project of modernity was built on the idea that individual human beings are the source of meaning as well as power. We are meant to be the ones who decide what happens to us: as voters, as consumers, as lovers. But that’s not true any more. We are what gives networks their power: they use our ideas of meaning to determine what will happen to us.