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When Death is a Technical Problem

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 6, 2015

How will the world change when human brains and computers can interact directly? “That’s the end of history, that’s the end of biology as we know it,” says Yuval Noah Harari, an author and historian. “Nobody has a clue what will happen.” If we break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, he says, we can’t even imagine the consequences because our imaginations are organic.

Harari, a lecturer in history at Hebrew University and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,  doesn’t predict any specific future, but does believe it’s the first time in history that our present knowledge and understanding are insufficient to give us a good idea of what coming decades will be like.  Harari discusses his ideas in an conversation with Daniel Kahneman, recipient of a Nobel Prize in economics and ad the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

While the nineteenth and twentieth centuries featured egalitarian trends, with emerging power for large groups and mass movements, he suggests the possibility that twenty-first century may be more elitist with gaps between rich and poor individuals and countries wider than ever before. As technology replaces the need for large numbers of humans in the economy and the military, he says, the age of the masses is over.  He goes further. Throughout history, he says, intelligence and consciousness were a combined human quality; when computers can drive cars and diagnose diseases better than humans, the two are “decoupled.” Intelligence is what’s needed to run things, consciousness isn’t, and large numbers of people become unnecessary.

He cites medicine as an example of unprecedented change beset with uncertainties. Medicine of the last two centuries has focused on healing the sick, which he calls an egalitarian enterprise, while recent medical trends are to upgrade the healthy, which he says has elitist potential.  Throughout history, he says, death was the great equalizer. In the Middle Ages, people summoned by the Angel of Death had no choice. They died. But he says a revolutionary change in thinking has transformed death and disease from metaphysical problems to technical problems. Technical things can be fixed, and the privileged are likely to get the best fixes.

 Kahneman asked the social implications of a potential for mass unemployment, anger, unrest, and large numbers of people who could become economically and militarily superfluous. .

Harari said the industrial revolution—and all revolutionary change—has brought about the emergence of new classes of people, and with them new political and social issues that take time to settle. In his view, the biggest political and social question of coming decades may be what happens to people who become unnecessary. “I don’t think we have an economic model for that,” Harari says. People don’t like boredom, and they want meaning in their lives; Harari thinks many may try to solve those inner needs with computer games and drugs.  People are focused on ISIS and the Middle East he observes, but the most interesting place in the world today is Silicon Valley, not only for technology, but for the ideas and trends with emerge with it.  Read this provocative conversation here.

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