Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, the sequel to the wildly successful hit Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, aims to chronicle the history of tomorrow and to provide us with a unique and dispassionate view of the future of humanity. In Homo Deus, Harari develops further the strongest idea in Sapiens, the idea that religions (or shared fictions) are the reason why humanity came to dominate the world.

Many things are classified by Harari as religions, from the traditional ones like Christianism, Islamism or Hinduism, to other shared fictions that we tend not to view as religions, such as countries, money, capitalism, or humanism. The ability to share fictions, such as these, created in Homo sapiens the ability to coordinate enormous numbers of individuals in order to create vast common projects: cities, empires and, ultimately, modern technology. This is the idea, proposed in Sapiens, that Harari develops further in this book.

Harari thinks that, with the development of modern technology, humans will doggedly pursue an agenda consisting of three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. Humanity will try to become immortal, to live in constant happiness and to be god-like in its power to control nature.

The most interesting part of the book is in middle, where Harari analyses, in depth, the progressive but effective replacement of ancient religions by the dominant modern religion, humanism. Humanism, the relatively recent idea that there is a unique spark in humans, that makes human life sacred and every individual unique. Humanism therefore believes that meaning should be sought in the individual choices, views, and feelings, of humans, replaced almost completely traditional religions (some of them with millennia), which believed that meaning was to be found in ancient scriptures or “divine” sayings.

True, many people still believe in traditional religions, but with the exception of a few extremist sects and states, these religions plays a relatively minor role in conducting the business of modern societies. Traditional religions have almost nothing to say about the key ideas that are central to modern societies, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the freedom of choice, ideas that led to our current view of democracies and ever-growing market-oriented economies. Being religious, in the traditional sense, is viewed as a personal choice, a choice that must exist because of the essential humanist value of freedom of choice.

Harari’s description of the humanism schism, into the three flavors of liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism (Nazism and other similar systems), is interesting and entertaining. Liberal humanism, based on the ideals of free choice, capitalism, and democracy, has been gaining the upper hand in the twentieth century, with occasional relapses, over socialism or enlightened dictatorships.

The last part of the book, where one expects Harari to give us a hint of what may come after humanism, once technology creates systems and machines that make humanist creeds obsolete, is rather disappointing. Instead of presenting us with the promises and threats of transhumanism, he clings to common clichés and rather mundane worries.

Harari firmly believes that there are two types of intelligent systems: biological ones, which are conscious and have, possibly, some other special properties, and the artificial ones, created by technology, which are not conscious, even though they may come to outperform humans in almost every task. According to him, artificial systems may supersede humans in many jobs and activities, and possibly even replace humans as the intelligent species on Earth, but they will never have that unique spark of consciousness that we, humans, have.

This belief leads to two rather short-sighted final chapters, which are little more than a rant against the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Harari is (and justifiably so) particularly aghast with the new fad, so common these days, of believing that every single human experience should go online, to make shareable and give it meaning. The downsize is that this fad provides data to the all-powerful algorithms that are learning all there is to know about us. I agree with him that this is a worrying trend, but viewing it as the major threat of future technologies is a mistake. There are much much more important issues to deal with.

It is not that these chapters are pessimistic, even though they are. It is that, unlike in the rest of Homo Deus (and in Sapiens), in these last chapters Harari’s views seem to be locked inside a narrow and traditionalist view of intelligence, society, and, ultimately, humanity.

Other books, like SuperintelligenceWhat Technology Wants or The Digital Mind provide, in my opinion, much more interesting views on what a transhumanist society may come to be.

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Taxing robots: a solution for unemployment or a recipe for economic disaster?

In a recent interview with Quartz, Bill Gates, who cannot exactly be called a Luddite, argued that a robot tax should be levied and used to help pay for jobs in healthcare and education, which are hard to automate and can only be done by humans (for now). Gates pointed out that humans are taxed on the salary they make, unlike the robots who could replace them.

Gates argued that governments must take more control of the consequences of increased technological sophistication and not rely on businesses to redistribute the income that is generated by the new generation of robots and artificial intelligence systems.

Although the idea looks appealing, it is in reality equivalent to taxing capital, as this article in The Economist explains. Taxing capital investments will slow down increases in productivity, and may lead, in the end, to poorer societies. Bill Gates’ point seems to be that investing in robots does indeed improve productivity, but also causes significant negative externalities, such as long term unemployment and increased income distribution inequalities. These negative externalities might justify a specific tax on robots, aimed at alleviating these negative externalities. In the end, it comes down to deciding whether economic growth is more important than ensuring everyone has a job.

As The Economist puts it: “Investments in robots can make human workers more productive rather than expendable; taxing them could leave the employees affected worse off. Particular workers may suffer by being displaced by robots, but workers as a whole might be better off because prices fall. Slowing the deployment of robots in health care and herding humans into such jobs might look like a useful way to maintain social stability. But if it means that health-care costs grow rapidly, gobbling up the gains in workers’ incomes, then the victory is Pyrrhic.”

Gates´ comments have been extensively analyzed in a number of articles, including this one by Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, who argues that the robot tax will not solve the problem and is, at any rate, much worse than the existing alternative, a universal basic income.

The question of whether robots should be taxed is not a purely theoretical one. On February 17th, 2017, the European Parliament approved  a resolution with recommendations to the European Commission, which is heavily based on the draft report proposed by the committee on legal affairs, but leaves out the recommendations (included in the draft report) to consider a tax on robots. The decision to reject the robot tax was, unsurprisingly, well received by the robotics industry, as reported  in this article by Reuters.

PHOTO DATE: 12-12-13 LOCATION: Bldg. 32B - Valkyrie Lab SUBJECT: High quality, production photos of Valkyrie Robot for PAO PHOTOGRAPHERS: BILL STAFFORD, JAMES BLAIR, REGAN GEESEMAN

Image courtesy of NASA/Bill Stafford, James Blair and Regan Geeseman, available at Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

European Parliament committee approves proposal to give robots legal status and responsibilities

The committee on legal affairs of the European Parliament has drafted and approved a report that addresses many of the legal, social and financial consequences of the development of robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

The draft report addresses a large number of issues related with the advances of robotics, AI and related technologies, and proposes a number of european regulations to govern the utilization of robots and other advanced AI agents.

The report was approved with a 17-2 vote (and two abstentions) by the parliament’s legal affairs committee.

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Among many other issues addressed, the report considers:

  • The question of legal status: “whereas, ultimately, robots’ autonomy raises the question of their nature in the light of the existing legal categories – of whether they should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons, animals or objects – or whether a new category should be created”, advancing with the proposal of “creating a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations…”
  • The impact of robotics and AI on employment and social security, and concludes that “consideration should be given to the possible need to introduce corporate reporting requirements on the extent and proportion of the contribution of robotics and AI to the economic results of a company for the purpose of taxation and social security contributions; takes the view that in the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so;”
  • The need for a clear and unambiguous registration system for robots, recommending that “a system of registration of advanced robots should be introduced, and calls on the Commission to establish criteria for the classification of robots with a view to identifying the robots that would need to be registered;”

 

Andrew McAfee at the Lisbon Web Summit: what lies beyond the second machine age?

Andrew McAfee, Research Scientist at MIT, and author of a number of works on the future of technology, was live at the 2016 Lisbon Web Summit.

30746916832_11b789be05_oIn this interesting talk he referred to the fact that, despite all advances in science that took place over the last millennia, neither population size nor quality of life did improve significantly until the advent of the industrial revolution. The radical takeoff in quality of life and in population size, which can be seen in one of his slides, below, only took place when man managed to use steam and electrical power to replace human labor.

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The author (together with  Erik Brynjolfsson) of The Second Machine Age pointed out that we are in the brim of a second machine revolution of comparable consequences.

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Artificial intelligence and new information technology applications are already creating a new society, with different values and requirements. New technologies are already decreasing the spending of raw materials in the US, and are contributing to create a more efficient and compassionate society.

However, these changes will not all be easy to integrate in our current model of society. For instance, global warming remains a serious problem for the planet, and new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, will lead to systems that may replace humans in the majority of cognitive tasks. This may lead to a society where full employment will no longer be the rule, or even desirable, creating the need for the adoption of alternative income redistribution strategies, such as the adoption of universal basic income.

Youtube features a longer talk, by Andrew McAfee, which covers many of the same issues he presented at the Web Summit.

 

The first beers designed by a machine learning algorithm

IntelligentX, a London based brewing company, started to design beers using a machine learning algorithm. The algorithm, called Automated Brewing Intelligence (ABI), collects customer feedback data using a Facebook Messenger robot crawler and uses this information to improve the quality of the beer.

The use of machine learning enables the company to adapt the recipe and the brewing method, in order to improve the perceived quality of the beer. As of now, the company offers four basic beers, including a classic British golden ale, a British bitter, a hoppy American pale ale and a smokey Marmite brew.

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As the company explains, in a video available at their webpage, the algorithm used the data gathered from the users to adjust the many parameters involved in creating a beer, including its composition and brewing process.

So, being a master brewer is no longer a job safe from the challenges of AI. Which job will be the next to go? Sommelier? Winemaker? Chef?

Image and video credits: IntelligentX website.

Uber to try self-driving cars, sooner than expected

Later this month, customers in downtown Pittsburgh should be able to call in a driverless Uber car. As reported by many news agencies, including CNN and Bloomberg, Uber will use Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles, equipped with sensors, radars, lasers and GPS receivers.

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Although we have been expecting driverless cars to hit the streets some time soon, few have predicted that general usage autonomous vehicles would be available this year.

The partnership between Uber and Volvo makes the perspective of streets full of driverless cars less distant. Other companies, including Google, Ford and Tesla have their own plans for autonomous vehicles, but none of them has announced concrete steps towards making their cars available to the general public.

Uber cars will include a human supervisor, that will be in the vehicle at all times. Still, this development raises the prospect of job displacement in a massive scale, as CNN reports. Currently, Uber has 600,000 drivers in the US alone, and 1.5 million worldwide. However, as the technology for driverless cars improves, many more jobs than these ones that are at risk, as there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US alone.

Raising the floor: how to stop the machines from making almost everyone poor

Andy Stern is a former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and now teaches at Columbia University. In his new book, “Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream“, Andy Stern makes the case for a universal basic income. He argues that economic growth is becoming more and more decoupled from job creation, as more and more jobs are done by machines.

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Andy Stern believes that a guaranteed universal basic income for all citizens is a key change in social policy that is required to sustain demand in the economy.

In an interesting interview, he points to the fact that advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and human-machine interfaces made possible by Moore’s Law will make more and more jobs amenable to being handled by machines. Furthermore, these advances tend to concentrate wealth in a small number of people and organizations that have the ability to conquer global markets, increasing inequality and reducing the salary for jobs in the lower tiers.

The argument concludes that the only way to stop this increasing inequality, caused mostly by technological changes, would be a radical change in income redistribution mechanisms that is incompatible with existing social security schemes. One such possibility is, certainly, universal basic income.