A recent article in the New York Times poses the question: Why do the digital elite adore a thinker who argues that Silicon Valley is “an engine of dystopian ruin”? That thinker is Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and self-described philosopher, who is the author of several popular books, including the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The book offers the historian’s prognostication about the near-term future, especially in light of revolutions in information technology and biotechnology.
The Times hopes you will agree that it is paradoxical that tech entrepreneurs would flock to a tech doomsayer, and click to learn more about why. As perplexing as this may be, it is even more puzzling that a prophecy so sweeping should have a basis so shallow and unimaginative as the argument Harari offers — and that today’s tech innovators would fall under its spell. They need something better: they need advice drawing on an appreciation for the scope of their achievement and for its roots.
Harari’s case for technological dystopianism
Although Harari’s book deals with many issues other than technology, the argument it advances in its first few chapters about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) is what has attracted the attention of outlets like the Times. At first Harari’s argument might seem novel, even penetrating. He argues that in the future, advanced AI will replace human jobs and lead to an economic and political crisis because of the grievances of a permanent “useless class.” The more advanced computers become, and the more we discover about the biological basis of human psychology, the better he thinks our computers will become at predicting human decisions and so making them for us. This means that the AI revolution poses a unique threat to the jobs of people like doctors and bankers and lawyers who previously might have thought they had safe jobs even in a high-tech economy. If even their jobs are under threat, surely factory and retail and other service workers will be readily replaced.
Harari offers some consolation for this apocalyptic outlook, but not much. He acknowledges that not every job will be replaced by computers, and that new technology creates new jobs. But he thinks the new jobs created by this technological change will require increasingly advanced training and expertise, making it harder and harder for people to train or retrain to fill these roles. After all, he says, farm workers laid off in the 1920s could still learn the skills required for factory jobs, and unemployed factory workers could still learn the skills needed for retail jobs. But, he says, today’s displaced retail workers won’t be able to retrain themselves as scientific researchers or AI programmers. The result will be the rise of a new “useless class” of those who are too unskilled or too demoralized to retrain. Harari believes that this will lead to social unrest, and that the only alternative that will permit us to avoid this result is a dramatic expansion of government support for the economically disenfranchised.
Underappreciation for ordinary adaptation and innovation
Life means change — this is an unchanging fact. So there is a legitimate question about how to deal with the increasing pace of change in modern life. Even still, Harari’s reasons for thinking people cannot adapt reveal a remarkable lack of imagination.
Surely some people will struggle or fail to keep up, which has always been the case. But if the worry is that advanced cognitive workers like doctors, bankers, and lawyers could be replaced by AI, the relevant question for them is about whether they can retrain to become new kinds of scientific researchers or AI operators, not whether retail workers can. There are also serious questions about what retail workers will do. But before we assume the inevitability of a permanent “useless class,” we should consider what kind of reinvention is possible for less skilled, less intelligent workers.
Consider how the problems of technological change themselves create new opportunities even for those with less specialized skills. Harari makes much of how the need for constant reinvention will become an increasing source of stress. But that problem itself creates opportunities for yoga teachers, tour guides, life coaches, and perhaps the “reinvention coaches” of the future. How many now undreamt-of activities might be created in the future to help people to relax and unplug from technology? And how many new jobs will be created to help us engage in them? There is no way of knowing.
Neglect of the power of education
The chief engine of reinvention is education. How will technological advancement improve education and push the envelope of people’s ability to prepare for the future or reinvent themselves beyond the limits we know today? Harari is happy to speculate (without much evidence) about all of the ways algorithms will replace the jobs of various high-skilled workers. So why not speculate further that the same algorithms will replace or improve upon the jobs of today’s teachers and finally prepare today’s workers for the new economy?
New technology is already connecting more and more minds around the world to new educational opportunities. Steven Pinker provides a compelling picture of the exciting prospects in his latest book Enlightenment Now:
Global education could be transformed. The world’s knowledge has already been made available in encyclopedias, lectures, exercises, and datasets to the billions of people with a smartphone. Individualized instruction can be provided over the Web to children in the developing world by volunteers (the “Granny Cloud”) and to learners anywhere by artificially intelligent tutors. . . .
The promise of the new machine age also comes from innovations in the process of innovation itself. One is . . . the economic empowerment of billions of people through smartphones, online education, and microfinancing. Among the world’s bottom billion are a million people with a genius-level IQ. Just think what the world would look like if their brainpower were put to full use!2 [Emphasis added.]
What happens when the new technology eventually enables a million new people with genius-level IQ to use their brainpower not only to drive further technological change, but also to teach the rest of us how to do the same? If only a handful of those geniuses go into the field of educational technology, they will have the power to lift up all the rest of the non-geniuses by many orders of magnitude.
It is not only tech entrepreneurs who have the power to revolutionize education. There’s a desperate need — and huge opportunities — for educational entrepreneurs. Especially in America, the field of pedagogy is in an arrested state of development. As such it is responsible for turning out more and more students who can’t learn new skills because they never learn how to think for themselves, regardless of their level of intelligence. The world is waiting for educational entrepreneurs to integrate the findings of the best psychology with the best traditions in the humanities to unleash the potential of students who are now floundering in spite of high-tech access to information.
Evasion of the entrepreneur
For a thinker fascinated by the impact of technological innovation on the world, it is shocking that Harari limits his thinking about the economics of the future to the question of whether there will be enough jobs to find. He never considers the question of whether individuals living in an increasingly technological society will find it easier to create new jobs for themselves. It is as if the category of entrepreneur does not exist in his universe. He fails to consider the existence of entrepreneurs even though they constitute much of his fan base. Yet entrepreneurs create new businesses, small and large, every day. What they truly need instead is the vision to see a new value they can trade with others, and the tenacity to bring their vision into reality.
The wellspring of innovation
As shocking as it is that Harari ignores the significance of the very innovators who form his own fan base, seen from a different perspective his blind spot should not come as a major surprise. It is not shocking if we consider that Harari may be serious about his philosophical assumptions. The act of innovation represents the essence of the free will Harari denies.
Free will is the capacity that allows us to look at the world in a different way or not, to engage the effort to change it or not — and to appreciate the significance of that process or not. He thinks our wills are easily replaced by “pattern recognition” algorithms. But they’re not, and he should know this.
Harari’s reduction of human cognition to mere pattern recognition is not only implausible on its face but at odds with his own work as a scholar of human natural history. In his breakout success Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari stresses that our species’ most explosive evolutionary development occurred during the “Cognitive Revolution,” some 70,000 years ago when we developed a language capable of infinite recombination and so capable of representing unrealized states of affairs. It was this capacity that then enabled homo sapiens’ inventiveness and enabled it to outcompete a variety of other hominids and eventually to dominate planetary ecology. So it is disappointing that Harari does not consider the implications of our unique problem-solving abilities in relation to the problems of new technologies, let alone how these new technologies themselves solve countless problems.
An entire industry has grown up around Silicon Valley in just a few decades, creating products even the most savvy of futurists merely fifty years ago could neither conceive of nor desire. If such an industry can even create a market for professors who know little about technology or its preconditions but who know how to dream up doomsday prophecies, the future is even brighter for anyone with the imagination and the will to see a better future.
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- Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2018), 20.
- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018), 332.