est. early 20th century

24 Jan 2020

Yuval Harari Professor, Department of History , Hebrew University of Jerusalem

How to survive the 21st century,

As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first Century, humanity faces so many issues and questions, that it is really hard to know what to focus on. So I would like to use the next twenty minutes to help us focus of all the different issues we face. Three problems pose existential challenges to our species.

These three existential challenges are nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption. We should focus on them.

In Davos we hear so much about the enormous promises of technology – and these promises are certainly real. But technology might also disrupt human society and the very meaning of human life in numerous ways, ranging from the creation of a global useless class to the rise of data colonialism and of digital dictatorships.

The AI revolution might create unprecedented inequality not just between classes but also between countries.

In the nineteenth Century, a few countries like Britain and Japan industrialized first, and they went on to conquer and exploit most of the world. If we aren’t careful, the same thing will happen in the twenty-first century with AI.

We are already in the midst of an AI arms-race, with China and the USA leading the race, and most countries being left far far behind. Unless we take action to distribute the benefit and power of AI between all humans, AI will likely create immense wealth in a few high-tech hubs, while other countries will either go bankrupt or become exploited data-colonies.

Now we aren’t talking here about a science fiction scenario of robots rebelling against humans. We are talking about far more primitive AI, which is nevertheless enough to disrupt the global balance.

Just think what will happen to developing economies once it is cheaper to produce textiles or cars in California than in Mexico? And what will happen to politics in your country in twenty years, when somebody in San Francisco or Beijing knows the entire medical and personal history of every politician, every judge and every journalist in your country, including all their sexual escapades, all their mental weaknesses and all their corrupt dealings? Will it still be an independent country or will it become a data-colony?

When you have enough data you don't need to send soldiers, in order to control a country.

Alongside inequality, the other major danger we face is the rise of digital dictatorships, that will monitor everyone all the time.

This danger can be stated in the form of a simple equation, which I think might be the defining equation of life in the twenty-first century:

B x C x D = AHH!

Which means? Biological knowledge multiplied by computing power multiplied by data equals the ability to hack humans, ahh.

If you know enough biology and have enough computing power and data, you can hack my body and my brain and my life, and you can understand me better than I understand myself. You can know my personality type, my political views, my sexual preferences, my mental weaknesses, my deepest fears and hopes. You know more about me than I know about myself. And you can do that not just to me, but to everyone.

A system that understands us better than we understand ourselves can predict our feelings and decisions, can manipulate our feelings and decisions, and can ultimately make decisions for us.

Now in the past, many governments and tyrants wanted to do it, but nobody understood biology well enough and nobody had enough computing power and data to hack millions of people. Neither the Gestapo nor the KGB could do it. But soon at least some corporations and governments will be able to systematically hack all the people. We humans should get used to the idea that we are no longer mysterious souls – we are now hackable animals. That's what we are.

The power to hack humans can be used for good purposes – like providing much better healthcare. But if this power falls into the hands of a twenty-first-century Stalin, the result will be the worst totalitarian regime in human history. And we already have a number of applicants for the job of twenty-first-century century Stalin.

Just imagine North Korea in twenty years, when everybody has to wear a biometric bracelet which constantly monitors your blood pressure, your heart rate, your brain activity twenty-four hours a day. You listen to a speech on the radio by the great leader and they know what you actually feel. You can clap your hands and smile, but if you're angry, they know, you'll be in the gulag tomorrow.

And if we allow the emergence of such total surveillance regimes, don’t think that the rich and powerful in places like Davos will be safe, just ask Jeff Bezos.

In Stalin’s USSR, the state monitored members of the communist elite more than anyone else. The same will be true of future total surveillance regimes.

The higher you are in the hierarchy – the more closely you’ll be watched.

Do you want your CEO or your president to know what you really think about them?

So it is in the interest of all humans, including the elites, to prevent the rise of such digital dictatorships.