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Has death been reduced to a mere "technical problem" by Silicon Valley? Can we overcome death? In his new book, "Homo Deus," Professor Yuval Noah Harari says we will achieve immortality in increments.
DW: I'm really taken by the idea of overcoming death in your new book, "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow." I'm not especially keen on it myself. But how do you feel about immortality? Can you see yourself living to an age of 150+ years, or even 500, as you describe may be possible in the near future?
Yuval Noah Harari: Personally - and I guess anybody - if you ask them whether they would like to live to be a million, it's a nonsensical question, because we can't imagine what it means. But almost anybody would say "yes" if you ask them if they want to live another 10 years in good health. And what we're talking about is not a situation where you take a pill and live to be a million, but incremental, gradual advances in medicine, which, hopefully, every 10 years allow you to gain another 10 years of good health. And this is something I guess most people would welcome.
Regarding the feasibility: within a century or two, it's feasible this will be science and not science fiction. But my impression is that for my generation, it won't happen in the next 30, 40, 50 years. But in the long run it is certainly feasible.
As you say, we can't really imagine what the future will be. And if we look at some of the developments you touch on in the book: eugenics, for instance, and you can see how the CRISPR-cas9 technique is making human gene editing seem more socially acceptable, or bioelectronics, and we have our brains stored in databases, immortality may seem feasible. But even as we get more obsessed by the idea, immortality will not mean what it means to us today, so we're going to be disappointed, aren't we? And we'll realize we're not as important as we thought.
Yes, and this is one of the main dangers. The very same technology which will enable us to overcome old age and death will also make most humans irrelevant and redundant. To overcome old age and death you need to decipher the secrets of human biochemistry: how the body functions, how the brain functions, so that you can repair damage and fight deterioration of the system. But once you have the knowledge, you basically hack humanity and understand how the mechanism operates, at that point you also reach a situation in which external systems, external algorithms, artificial intelligence maybe, will understand us better than we understand ourselves, and out-perform us in almost any task and skill. At that point, yes, we could overcome old-age and death, but we'll also become redundant and irrelevant.
The Age of Dataism
You also talk a lot about Dataism in the book, and how Dataism sees humans as "merely tools." And it strikes me that while we seem to want a kind of immortality - virtual or real - because we're scared, we want to control life, or, as you put it, show we're superior to other animals, isn't it all pointless? Wouldn't we live happier lives if we got over ourselves and accepted that we're all going to die?
Well, this was the common wisdom throughout history. And most people accepted it because they had no other choice. But people still had fantasies about immortality - they simply postponed it to the afterlife. Most people throughout history thought they would live forever, but not in this body or on this plane of existence. Rather, after they die, [they believed] they would reincarnate or go to heaven, or some such story which still promised them immortality.
What's happening now is that scientific wisdom tells people all this was pure fantasy, mythology, and that there's no evidence that there is any existence beyond death. But at the same time, suddenly, the idea of extending our lives indefinitely is becoming more achievable, more practical. Not within the next 20, 30, 40 years, but definitely within a century or two.
The infinite market
What about the commercial drivers for our desire for immortality? Because to keep the data economy going we need people constantly feeding data into it.
On the commercial level, health is the ultimate market. Other markets are finite, they are exhaustible. There are just so many cars, shoes or food you can have. But health is an infinite market - you can never have enough of it. When you look at the growth of the human economy, and its expected growth in the twenty-first century, I expect health will be the most important market of all. Especially as we move from a concept of health which focuses on healing the sick to a concept of upgrading the healthy. There is no limit to how much health you can provide people. You don't just try to reach a [universal] standard, you always try to go beyond it. So it's not just the fear of individual people - that they don't want to age, get ill, or die - but there are also very powerful, institutional forces driving the industry and science in the same direction.
This idea of going beyond - is that why you refer to the "Dataist prophets," the evangelizing of people like Ray Kurzweil, and how his "Internet-of-All-Things," as you put it, will see humans merge with the network to the point that we achieve a spiritual level, a deity?
Yes. You take fantasies, which for thousands of years belonged to the religious realm - overcoming death or our merging with the universe - and you suddenly start talking about them in a more technical perspective as something that can be achieved, not after you die with the help of supernatural beings, but in this very life with the help of technology. So all the old promises of traditional religion, whether it's happiness, justice or everlasting life, it's the same promises that are now being made by the new Silicon Valley religion and Silicon Valley gurus. But they promise to make this possible with the help of technology and not with the help of supernatural beings.
Professor Yuval Noah Harari is the author "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow" (published by Harvill Secker, September 2016). He is a lecturer in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His 2014 book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" became an international bestseller and is available in 40 languages.