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Yuval Noah Harari: Humans are on the verge of merging with machines

Yuval Noah Harari: Humans are on the verge of merging with machines
Yuval Noah Harari [Photo: Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Since the industrial revolution, humans have manipulated our environment so irresponsibly that we are on the verge of a major climate-related disaster. It should serve as a warning about what human beings could do to themselves—the human species—if we aren’t careful with the technologies we’re conjuring up, says Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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At his keynote address at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival at the Gucci Hub in Milan, Harari described a vision of the future where humans and machines become one. While that seems like the plot of a sci-fi movie, Harari says it’s a reality that is not so far away. Technology companies—from Apple to Facebook to Google—have created smartphones and an online reality where we already spend most of our time.

Yuval Harari speaks with Fast Company editor in chief Stephanie Mehta at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“It’s increasingly hard to tell where I end and where the computer begins,” Harari says. “In the future, it is likely that the smartphone will not be separated from you at all. It may be embedded in your body or brain, constantly scanning your biometric data and your emotions.”

Welcome to post humanity

If we are able to somehow merge these technologies with the human body—through chips in our brains or bodies—Harari says this would be the biggest revolution in all of human history. Throughout our existence as a species, we have always been able to manipulate our environment and create tools that make our lives better. But until now, we haven’t been able to manipulate ourselves.

“Humanity has always remained constant—with the same bodies, brains, minds—through the Roman Empire, Biblical times, and the Stone Age,” Harari says. “If we told our ancestors in the Stone Age about our lives today, they would think we are already Gods. But the truth is that even though we have developed more sophisticated tools, we are the same animals. We have the same emotions, the same minds. The coming revolution will change that. It will change not just our tools, it will change the human being itself.”

Harari thinks it is inevitable that we will manipulate humans in profound ways in the years to come. We have already genetically manipulated animals, and technologies like IVF have been able to shape the creation of new human life.

And the potential for the human race could be incredible. Right now, natural selection has meant that human beings are perfectly adapted to live on planet Earth alone, not other planets. But Harari says “life will be able to break out of planet Earth and no longer be confined to this flying rock.”

Yuval Harari speaking at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“Not even the toughest bacteria on earth can survive on Mars,” he says. “Homo sapiens cannot colonize other planets or galaxies.” But a redesigned human body could be made to survive anywhere in the universe.

While there are so many potential benefits that could come from merging computers with humans, Harari also worries that we will misuse our power. In fact, humans have shown time and again that we don’t think carefully enough before creating new technologies. Case in point: the climate disaster we find ourselves in. Over the course of the past few hundred years, we’ve put out new industrial machines into the world without thinking through how they could affect the ecosystem. This should serve as a warning as we think about technologies that affect our bodies and minds.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
For instance, governments and companies might be interested in improving a human’s intelligence and discipline, creating technologies that boost these qualities. But they might be less interested in improving our compassion, creativity, and spirituality. We have already done something similar with cows: We have created docile, highly productive cows that have lost many of the valuable qualities of their counterparts in the wild. “Domesticated cows are less agile, less curious than their wild ancestors,” he says.

Harari is in regular talks with technologists. (He recently had a discussion in a public forum with Mark Zuckerberg, for instance.) He is concerned that many technological experts are more familiar with the technology than with the other aspects of the human experience. He urges them to think more holistically about how these technologies may be changing humans themselves. For instance, many platforms today—from Facebook to Google—are designed to “capture and hijack human attention,” Harari says. “This is the basis of their business model. [It is hard for them] to now say this is a bad idea. What will their shareholders think about that? With the best intentions, they are now captivated by the machines they have created. They are trapped.”

Ultimately, we have much to lose if we aren’t more careful about the technologies we are creating right now. Harari’s advice to us is that we shouldn’t just invest in artificial intelligence; we should invest equally in understanding and nurturing human consciousness—that is to say, our unique qualities that make us creative, compassionate, and spiritual.

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