This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org. New technology devices and apps pop up as abundantly as summer weeds here in Silicon Valley. Chip-enhanced products offer to satisfy almost every need imaginable. Prompts from your smart refrigerator tell you to buy more milk. With a voice command, music plays to facilitate meditation, thanks to your smart -- always on -- helper who listens for your next query from a canister on your kitchen counter; you know, the one with a woman's voice and name.
"We are probably one of the last generations of homo sapiens." Those were the opening words of acclaimed historian and best-selling author Professor Yuval Harari, who spoke at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where politicians, thought leaders and executives from the world's leading companies congregate to discuss solutions to global challenges. What comes after us, Harari said, are entities that are more different from us than we were from our predecessors, the Neanderthals. However, those species will not be the outcome of the organic evolution of human genes, Harari explained, but the outcome of humans learning to engineer bodies, brains and minds. "This will be the main product of the economy of the 21st century."
The human species is about to change dramatically. That's the argument Yuval Noah Harari makes in his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari is a history professor at Hebrew University in Israel. He tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that he expects we will soon engineer our bodies and minds in the same way we now design products. The three main ways of doing that, first of all, is to take our organic body and start tinkering with it with things like genetic engineering, speeding up natural selection and actually replacing it with intelligent design -- not the intelligent design of some God above the clouds, but our intelligent design.
That's one of the surprising -- and unsettling -- questions Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari asks in his much-quoted new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Whereas 20th-century technology favored democracies as they were able to distribute power to make decisions among many people and institutions, according to Harari, artificial intelligence (AI) might make centralized systems that concentrate all information and power far more efficient as machine learning works better with more information to analyze. "If you disregard all privacy concerns and concentrate all the information relating to a billion people in one database," Harari writes, "you'll wind up with much better algorithms than if you respect individual privacy and have in your database only partial information on a million people." The rise of AI swinging the pendulum from democracies toward authoritarian regimes is just one of the feared adverse impacts of technologies: Others include job displacement, concentration of power, diminishing privacy, rising income inequality and losing our "free will." Yet most people have little or no knowledge about how AI, blockchain, the Internet of Things or genetic engineering could affect their lives.