Talks at Google
Published on Oct 11, 2018
Yuval Noah Harari, macro-historian, Professor, best-selling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, and one of the world’s most innovative and exciting thinkers, discusses his newest work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
Described as a “truly mind-expanding” journey through today’s most pressing issues, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century reminds us to maintain our collective focus in the midst of dizzying and disorienting change.
Moderated by Wilson White.
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Wilson White: Good afternoon, everyone, especially for those of you who are here in California. My name is Wilson White, and I’m on the public policy and government relations team here in California. We have an exciting talk for you today as part of our Talks at Google series, as well as a series of conversations we’re having around AI ethics and technology ethics more generally. So today, I’m honored to have Professor Yuval Noah Harari with us. Yuval is an Israeli historian and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a dynamic speaker, thinker, and now an international bestselling author. He’s the author of three books. We’re going to talk about each of those books today. The first book he published in 2014, Sapiens, which explored some of our history as humans. His second book in 2016 had an interesting take on our future as humans. It was Homo Deus. And then recently published a new book, the 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which attempts to grapple with some of the issues, the pressing issues that we are facing today. So we’ll talk about some of the themes in each of those books as we go through our conversation. But collectively, his writings explore very big concepts like free will and consciousness and intelligence. So we’ll have a lot to explore with Yuval today. So with that, please join me in welcoming Professor Yuval to Google.
Yuval Noah Harari: Hello.
White: Thank you, Professor, for joining us. Before getting started, I have to say that when the announcement went out across Google about this talk, I got several emails from many Googlers around the world who told me that they had either read or are currently reading one or multiple of your books. So if you are contemplating a fourth book, maybe on the afterlife, no spoilers during this conversation. I want to start with maybe some of the themes in both your current book, 21 Lessons, as well as Homo Deus, because I’m the father of two young kids. I have two daughters, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. And the future that you paint in Homo Deus is interesting. So I’d like to ask you, what should I be teaching my daughters?
Harari: That nobody knows how the world would look like in 2050, except that it will be very different from today. So the most important things to emphasize in education are things like emotional intelligence and mental stability, because the one thing that they will need for sure is the ability to reinvent themselves repeatedly throughout their lives. It’s really first time in history that we don’t really know what particular skills to teach young people, because we just don’t know in what kind of world they will be living. But we do know they will have to reinvent themselves. And especially if you think about something like the job market, maybe the greatest problem they will face will be psychological. Because at least beyond a certain age, it’s very, very difficult for people to reinvent themselves. So we kind of need to build identities. I mean, if previously, if traditionally people built identities like stone houses with very deep foundations, now it makes more sense to build identities like tents that you can fold and move elsewhere. Because we don’t know where you will have to move, but you will have to move.
White: You will have to move. So I may have to go back to school now to learn these things so that I can teach the next generation of humans here. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, you tackle several themes that even we at Google, as a company who are on the leading edge of technology and how technology is being deployed in society, we wrestle with some of the same issues. Tell me a bit about your thoughts on why democracy is in crisis. That’s a theme in the current book, and I want to explore that a bit. Why you think liberal democracy as we knew it is currently in crisis.
Harari: Well, the entire liberal democratic system is built on philosophical ideas we’ve inherited from the 18th century, especially the idea of free will, which underlies the basic models of the liberal world view like the voter knows best, the customer is always right, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, follow your heart, do what feels good. All these liberal models, which are the foundation of our political and economic system. They assume that the ultimate authority is the free choices of individuals. I mean, there are, of course, all kinds of limitations and boundary cases and so forth, but when push comes to shove, for instance, in the economic field, then corporations will tend to retreat behind this last line of defense that this is what the customers want. The customer is always right. If the customers want it, it can’t be wrong. Who are you to tell the customers that they are wrong? Now of course, there are many exceptions, but this is the basics of the free market. This is the first and last thing you learn. The customer is always right. So the ultimate authority in the economic field is the desires of the customers. And this is really based on a philosophical and metaphysical view about free will, that the desires of the customer, they emanate, they represent the free will of human beings, which is the highest authority in the universe. And therefore, we must abide by them. And it’s the same in the political field with the voter knows best.
And this was OK for the last two or three centuries. Because even though free will was always a myth and not a scientific reality– I mean, science knows of only two kinds of processes in nature. It knows about deterministic processes and it knows about random processes. And their combination results in probabilistic processes. But randomness and probability, they are not freedom. They mean that I can’t predict your actions with 100% accuracy, because there is randomness. But a random robot is not free. If you connect a robot, say, to uranium, a piece of uranium, and the decisions of the robot is determined by random processes of the disintegration of uranium atoms, so you will never be able to predict exactly what this robot will do. But this is not freedom. This is just randomness. Now this was always true from a scientific perspective. Humans, certainly they have a will. They make decisions. They make choices. But they are not free to choose the will. The choices are not independent. They depend on a million factors, genetic and hormonal and social and cultural and so forth, which we don’t choose. Now up till now in history, the humans were so complicated that for a practical perspective, it still made sense to believe in free will, because nobody could understand you better than you understand yourself. You had this inner realm of desires and thoughts and feelings which you had privileged access to this inner realm.
White: Yeah, but that hasn’t changed today, right? Like, that–
Harari: It has changed. There is no longer– the privilege access now belongs to corporations like Google. They can have access to things happening ultimately inside my body and brain, which I don’t know about. There is somebody out there– and not just one. All kinds of corporations and governments that maybe not today, maybe in five years, 10 years, 20 years, they will have privileged access to what’s happening inside me. More privileged than my access. They could understand what is happening in my brain better than I understand it, which means– they will never be perfect.
White: Right. But you will, as a free person, like, you will have delegated that access or that ability to this corporation or this machine or this–
Harari: No, you don’t have to give them permission. I mean, in some countries maybe you have no choice at all. But even in a democracy like the United States, a lot of the information that enables an external entity to hack you, nobody asks you whether you want to give it away or not. Now at present, most of the data that is being collected on humans is still from the skin outwards. We haven’t seen nothing yet. We are still just at the tip of this revolution, because at present, whether it’s Google and Facebook and Amazon or whether it’s the government or whatever, they all are trying to understand people mainly on the basis of what I search, what I buy, where I go, who I meet. It’s all external. The really big revolution, which is coming very quickly, will be when the AI revolution and machine learning and all that, the infotech revolution, meets and merges with the biotech revolution and goes under the skin. Biometric sensors or even external devices. Now we are developing the ability, for example, to know the blood pressure of individuals just by looking at them. You don’t need to put a sensor on a person. Just by looking at the face, you can tell, what is the blood pressure of that individual? And by analyzing tiny movements in the eyes, in the mouth, you can tell all kinds of things from the current mood of the person– are you angry, are you bored– to things like sexual orientation. So we are talking about a world in which humans are no longer a black box. Nobody really understands what happens inside, so we say, OK. Free will. No, the box is open. And it’s open to others, certain others more than it is open to– you don’t understand what’s happening in your brain, but some corporation or government or organization could understand that.
White: And that’s a theme that you explore in Homo Deus pretty–
Harari: They’re both in Homo Deus and in 21 Lessons. This is like, maybe the most important thing to understand is that this is really happening. And at present, almost all the attention goes to the AI. Like, now I’ve been on a two-week tour of the US for the publication of the book. Everybody wants to speak about AI. Like, AI. Previous book, Homo Deus came out, nobody cared about AI. Two years later, it’s everywhere.
White: It’s the new hot thing.
Harari: Yeah. And I try to emphasize, it’s not AI. The really important thing is actually the other side. It’s the biotech. It’s the combination. It’s only the combination– it’s only with the help of biology that AI becomes really revolutionary. Because just do a thought experiment. Let’s say we had the best, the most developed AI in the world. But humans, we’re not animals. We’re not biochemical algorithms. But they were something like transcendent souls that make decisions through free will. In such a world, AI would not have mattered much, because AI in such a world could never have replaced teachers and lawyers and doctors. You could not even build self-driving cars in such a world. Because to put a self driving car on the road, you need biology, not just computers. You need to understand humans. For example, if somebody’s approaching the road, the car needs to tell, is this an eight-year-old, an 18-year-old, or an 80-year-old, and needs to understand the different behaviors of a human child, a human teenager, and a human adult. And this is biology. And similarly, to have really effective self-driving taxis, you need the car to understand a lot of things about human psychology. The psychology of the passengers coming in, what they want, and so forth. So if you take the biotech out of the equation AI by itself won’t really go very far.
White: So I want to push you there, because I think it’s easy to arrive at a dystopian view of what that world would look like with the bio and AI and cognitive abilities of machines when they meet. Like, how that can end up, right? And we see that in Hollywood, and that dystopian view is well documented. But I want to explore with you, like, what are some of the benefits of that combination? And how can that lead to an alternative world view than what’s explored more deeply in “Homo Deus?”
Harari: Well, it should be emphasized that there are enormous benefits. Otherwise, there would be no temptation. If it was only bad, nobody would do it. Google won’t research it. Nobody would invest in it. And it should also be emphasized that technology is never deterministic. You can build either paradise or hell with these technologies. They are not just– they don’t have just one type of usage. And as a historian and as a social critic and maybe philosopher, I tend to focus more on the dangerous scenarios, simply because for obvious reasons, the entrepreneurs and the corporations and the scientists and engineers are developing these technologies. They naturally tend to focus on the positive scenarios, on all the good it can do. But yes, definitely technology, it can do a tremendous amount of good to humanity, to take the example of the self-driving cars. So at present, about 1.25 million people are killed each year in traffic accidents. More than 90% of these accidents are because of human errors. If we can replace humans with self-driving cars, it’s not that we’ll have no car accidents. That’s impossible. But we’ll probably save a million lives every year. So this is a tremendous thing. And similarly, the combination of being able to understand what’s happening inside my body, this also implies that you can provide people with the best health care in history. You can, for example, diagnose diseases long before the person understands that there is something wrong. At present, the human mind or human awareness is still a very critical junction in health care. Like, if something happens inside my body and I don’t know about it, I won’t go to the doctor. So if something like, I don’t know, cancer is now spreading in my liver and I still don’t feel anything, I won’t go to the doctor. I won’t know about it. Only when I start feeling pain and nausea and all kinds of things I can’t explain. So after some time, I go to the doctor. He does all kinds of tests. And finally, they discover, oh, something’s wrong. And very often, by that time, it’s very expensive and painful. Not necessarily too late, but expensive and painful to take care of it. If I could have an AI doctor monitoring my body 24 hours a day with biometric sensors and so forth, it could discover this long before I feel anything at this stage when it’s still very cheap and easy and painless to cure it. So this is wonderful.
White: But in that world, it’s an AI doctor, and not a human doctor. And I think one of the potential outcomes that you warn about is AI or machines or that combination of bio and AI replacing us, replacing us as humans. And I’d like to think that one thing that makes us human is having meaning in life or having a purpose for living. That’s kind of a unique thing that humans have. And I don’t think it’s something that we would readily want to give up, right? So as this technology is evolving and we’re developing it, it’s likely something that we’ll bake in this need to have meaning and purpose in life. You talk about in “21 Lessons” this notion that God is dead, or is God back? And the role that religion may play in how we progress as humans. Is there a place for that notion of God or religion to capture and secure this notion of meaning in life or purpose in life?
Harari: Well, it all depends on the definitions. I mean, there are many kinds of gods, and people understand very different things by the word religion. If you think about God, so usually people have very two extremely different gods in mind when they say the word God. One god is the cosmic mystery. We don’t understand why there is something rather than nothing, why the Big Bang happened. What is human consciousness? There are many things we don’t understand about the world. And some people choose to call these mysteries by the name of God. God is the reason there is something rather than nothing. God is behind human consciousness. But the most characteristic thing of that god is that we know absolutely nothing about him, her, it, they. There is nothing concrete. It’s a mystery. And this is kind of the god we talk about when late at night in the desert we sit around a campfire and we think about the meaning of life. That’s one kind of god. I have no problem at all with this god. I like it very much. [LAUGHTER] Then there is another god which is the petty lawgiver. The chief characteristic of this god, we know a lot of extremely concrete things about that god. We know what he thinks about female dress code, what kind of dresses he likes women to wear. We know what he thinks about sexuality. We know what he thinks about food, about politics, and we know these tiny little things. And this is a god people talk about when they stand around, burning a heretic. We’ll burn you because you did something that this god– we know everything about this god, and he doesn’t like it that you do this, so we burn you. And it’s like a magic trick that when you come and talk about God– so how do you know that God exists, and so forth? People would say, well, the Big Bang and human consciousness, and science can’t explain this, and science can’t explain that. And this is true. And then like a magician swapping one card for another, they will, shh! Take out the mystery god and place the petty lawgiver, and you end up with something strange like, because we don’t understand the Big Bang, women must dress with long sleeves and men shouldn’t have sex together. And what’s the connection? I mean, how did you get from here to there? So I prefer to use different terms here. And it’s the same with religion. People understand very different things with this word. I tend to separate religions from spirituality. Spirituality is about questions. Religion is about answers. Spirituality is when you have some big question about life like, what is humanity? What is the good? Who am I?
White: Our purpose in life. Like, why are we here?
Harari: What should I do in life? And this is kind of– and you go on a quest, looking deeply into these questions. And you’re willing to go after these questions wherever they take you.
White: You could just Google it.
Harari: Yeah. Maybe in the future. But so far, at least some of these questions, I think when you type, like, what is the meaning of life, you get 42. Like, it is the number one result in Google search. So you go on a spiritual quest. And religion is the exact opposite. Religion is somebody comes and tells you, this is the answer. You must believe it. If you don’t believe this answer, then you will burn in hell after you die, or we’ll burn you here even before you die. [LAUGHTER] And it’s really opposite things. Now I think that at the present moment in history, spirituality is probably more important than in any previous time in history, because we are now forced to confront spiritual questions, whether we like it or not.
White: And do you think that confrontation with those questions, that will inform how we allow technology to develop and be deployed?
Harari: Exactly Now throughout history, you always had a small minority of people who was very interested in the big spiritual and philosophical questions of life, and most people just ignored them and went along with their, like, you know, fighting about who owns this land and who this goad herd, to whom it belongs, and so forth. Now we live in a very unique time in history when engineers must tackle spiritual questions. If you are building a self-driving car, by force, you have to deal with questions like free will. By force, you have to deal with the example everybody gives. The self-driving car. Suddenly two kids jump– running after a ball jump in front of the car. The only way to save the two kids is to swerve to the side and fall off a cliff and kill the owner of the car who is asleep in the backseat. What should the car do? Now philosophers have been arguing about these questions for thousands of years with very little impact on human life. But engineers, they are very impatient. If you want to put the self-driving car on the road tomorrow or next year, you need to tell the algorithm what to do. And the amazing thing about this question now is that whatever you decide, this will actually happen. Previously, with philosophical discussions, like you had, I don’t know, Kant and Schopenhauer and Mill discussing this issue, should I kill the two kids or should I sacrifice my life? And even if they reach an agreement– and very little impact on actual behavior. Because even if you agree theoretically, this is the right thing to do, at a time of crisis, philosophy has little power. You react from your gut, not from your philosophical theories. But with a self-driving car, if you program the algorithm to kill the driver– and not the driver, the owner of the car, and not the two kids, you have a guarantee, a mathematical guarantee that this is exactly what the car will do. So you have to think far more carefully than ever before, what is the right answer? So in this sense, very old spiritual and philosophical questions are now practical questions of engineering, which you cannot escape if you want, for example, to put a self-driving car on the road.
White: I want to go back to this concept of religion versus spirituality and the role they play in Sapiens, your first book. You talk about this concept of human fictions or stories that we create as humans, I guess to get us through life and to get us through our interactions with each other. Those fictions, those stories, as you put it, they’ve served us well. They’ve resulted in a lot of good for humankind, but have also been the source of wars and conflict and human suffering. How do you square that with this moment we’re in where spirituality is an integral part in how we think about integrating technology in our lives?
Harari: Phew. That’s a big question. Well, so far in history, in order to organize humans on a large scale, you always had to have some story, some fiction which humans invented, but which enough humans believed in order to agree on how to behave. It’s not just religion. This is the obvious example. And even religious people would agree that all religions except one are fictional stories. [LAUGH] Except for, of course, my religion. If you ask a Jew, then he will tell you, yes. Judaism is the truth. That’s for sure. But all these billions of Christians and Muslims and Hindus, they believe in fictional stories. I mean, all this story about Jesus rising from the dead and being the Son of God, this is fake news.
White: Wait, that’s not true?
Harari: If you ask a Jew, like a rabbi. Even though rabbis tend to be, like– to hedge their bets. [LAUGH] So maybe not. But then you go to the Christians. They will say, no, no, no, no, no no. This is true. But the Muslims, they believe in fake news. All this story about Muhammad meeting the archangel Gabriel and the Quran coming from Heaven, this is all fake news. And then the Muslims, they’ll tell you this about Hinduism. So even in religion, it’s very clear. The more interesting thing is that the same is true in something in the economy. Corporation, you can’t have a modern economy without corporations like Google and without money, like dollars. But corporations and currencies, they are also just stories we invented. Google has no physical or biological reality. It is a story created by the powerful shamans we call lawyers. [LAUGHTER] Even if you ask a lawyer, what is Google, like, you push them to, what is it, they will tell you it’s a legal fiction. It’s not this chair. It belongs to Google, I think. But it’s not it. It’s not the money. It’s the manager. It’s not the workers. It’s a story created by lawyers. And for example, I mean, if somehow with some natural calamity destroys– like, there is an earthquake and the Googleplex collapses, Google still exists. Even if many of the workers and managers are killed, it just hires new ones. [LAUGHTER] And it still has money in the bank. And even if there is no money in the bank, they can get a loan and build new buildings and hire new people, and everything is OK. But then if you have the most powerful shaman like the Supreme Court of the United States comes and says, I don’t like your story. I think you need to be broken into different fictions. Then that’s the end.
White: So– so you– [LAUGHTER] That’s a lot to unpack. [LAUGHTER] So the advent that we’re in now with fake news and really seriously questioning what veracity means and how veracity impacts these kind of foundational things that you laid out earlier in your remarks that have allowed us to work with each other, work across borders, et cetera, with this, where you are on this notion of stories and fictions that we have, is this advent of fake news, is that a reality? Is that where we should be in terms of questioning what’s true and what’s not true?
Harari: On the one hand, fake news is old news. We’ve had them throughout history, and sometimes in much worse form than what we see today.
White: But is there such thing as truth?
Harari: Yes, there is absolutely. I mean, there is reality. I mean, you have all these stories people tell about reality.
White: I see.
Harari: But ultimately, there is reality. The best test of reality that I know is the test of suffering. Suffering is the most real thing in the world. If you want to know whether a story is about a real entity or a fictional entity, you should just ask, can this entity actually suffer? Now Google cannot suffer. Even if the stock goes down, even if a judge comes and says, this is a monopoly, you have to break it up, it doesn’t suffer. Humans can suffer like the managers, the owners of the stocks, the employees, they can suffer.
White: My girls.
Harari: Yeah. They can certainly suffer. But we know, we can very easily that Google is just a story by this simple test that it cannot suffer. And it’s the same of nations. It’s the same of currencies. The dollar is just a fiction we created. The dollar doesn’t suffer if it loses its value.
White: Let me push you on that, right? So oftentimes, like just in the US, they say kind of the system we set up in the US is an experiment. It’s often styled as an experiment democracy with checks and balances, et cetera. Under one view of that, you can say that that’s kind of a story that we’ve created in America, right? We’ve created this kind of really nice story. But if that was broken apart, like, that entity is not suffering. But if that experiment is the thing, the proper functioning of those institutions and the things that support that– so that’s the thing.
Harari: We know that it functions properly because it alleviates suffering. It provides health care, it provides safety. And if it doesn’t, then we would say the experiment doesn’t work. The experiment–
White: So would you say that experiment is a fiction? Or is that experiment reality? Is it a thing?
Harari: The experiment is a story that we share. It’s things that we humans have invented and created in order to serve certain needs and desires that we have. It is a created story, and not an objective reality. But it is nevertheless one of the most powerful forces in the world. When I say that something is a fiction or a story, I don’t mean to imply it’s bad or that it’s not important. No. Some of the best things in the world and the most powerful forces in the world are these shared fictions. Nations and corporations and banks and so forth, they are all stories we created, but they are the most powerful forces today in the world, far more powerful than any human being or any animal. And they can be a tremendous force for good. The key is to remember that we created them to serve us, and not that we are here in order to serve them. The trouble really begins when people lose sight of the simple reality that we are real, they are not. And a lot of people throughout history and also today, they kind of take it upside down. They think the nation is more real than me. I am here to serve it, and not it is here to serve me and my fellow humans.
White: Very interesting. So we’re going to open it up for questions from the audience in a few minutes here, but I want to try to get an easy win. So in 21 Lessons, you tackle really big challenges and questions that we’re wrestling with today. Of those questions, which do you think is the easiest to solve? And what should we be doing to go about solving them?
Harari: Ooh. What is the easiest to solve? [EXHALE] [LAUGH]
White: Trying to get quick wins on the board here.
Harari: Yeah. I’ll address the fake news question, not because it’s the easiest to solve, but also maybe because it’s one of the most relevant to what you’re doing here in Google. And I would say that the current incarnation of the fake news problem has a lot to do with the model of the news and information market, that we have constructed a model which basically says, exciting news for free in exchange for your attention. And this is a very problematic model, because it turns human attention into the most scarce resource, and you get more and more competition for human attention with more and more exciting news that– again, and some of the smartest people in the world have learned how to excite our brain, how to make us click on the next news story. And truth gets completely pushed aside. It’s not part of the equation. The equation is excitement, attention. Excitement, attention. And on the collective level, I think the solution to this problem would be to change the model of the news market to high-quality news that costs you a lot of money, but don’t abuse your attention. It’s very strange that we are in a situation when people are willing to pay a lot of money for high-quality food and high-quality cars, but not for high-quality news. And this has a lot to do with the architecture of the information market. And I think there are many things that you here in Google can do in order to help society change the model of the news market.
White: I’d want to continue to explore that, and whether that would create, like, an economic divide or exacerbate the current divide, but I’m going to open it up now for audience questions. We have a microphone here on the side. Start with you.
Audience: Hi. Thank you so much for writing your books. They are completely wonderful, and I’ve had a joy reading them. So one of the things that you kind of explored here is we are facing a couple of global problems. And historically, we have never created global organizations which are responsible for solving global problems who had any ability to enforce them. And even when we’ve created them, they have come after great tragedies. So how can we sort of make that happen and make somebody responsible, and have the ability to have those organizations enforce those solutions?
Harari: Yeah. I mean, it’s not going to be easy. But I think the most important thing is to change the public conversation and focus it on the global problems. If people focus on local problems, they don’t see the need for effective global cooperation. So the first step is to tell people again and again and again, look. The three biggest problems that everybody on the planet is now facing are nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. And even if we are able to prevent nuclear war and climate change, still AI and biotech are going to completely disrupt the job market and even the human body. And we need to figure out how to regulate this and how to prevent the dystopian consequences, and make sure that the more utopian consequences materialize. And for that, we need global cooperation. So it would be obvious to everybody, you cannot prevent climate change on a national level, and you cannot regulate AI on a national level. Whatever regulation the US adopts, if the Chinese are not adopting it, it won’t do much help. So you need cooperation here. And then it goes into practical political issues. I mean, you have elections coming up, mid-term elections in the US. So if you go to a town meeting with an inspiring congressman or congresswoman, so you just ask them, if I elect you, what will you do about the danger of climate change, about the danger of nuclear war, and about getting global regulations for AI and for biotech? What’s your plan? And if they say, oh, I haven’t thought about it, then maybe don’t vote for that person. [LAUGHTER]
Audience: Hi, Yuval. Thanks for coming here today. So in one of your talks, you suggested that to avoid getting our hearts hacked, we need to stay ahead by knowing ourselves better. And it seems to me that the process of knowing yourself needs a lot of intelligence. And in some ways, it’s a skill that needs to developed. I mean, the intellect that we have as humans seems fairly new when compared to other properties like we got evolutionarily. So how do you suggest that we can learn to think and use our intelligence better, and also do that at a scale? Because if only some people know themselves but millions around you or billions or on the don’t, then you can only go so far.
Harari: No, I don’t think that knowing yourself is necessarily all about intelligence. Certainly not in the narrow sense of intelligence. If you include emotional intelligence and so forth, then yes. But in the more narrow sense of IQ, I think this is not– there are many very intelligent people in the world who don’t know themselves at all, which is an extremely dangerous combination. Now some people explore themselves through therapy. Some use meditation. Some use art. Some use poems. They go on a long hike, go for a month to the Appalachian Trail and get to know themselves on the way. There are many ways to do it, which are not necessarily about intellect. It’s not like reading articles about brain science. That’s going to help in some ways. And in this sense, I think it’s a very kind of democratizing ability or force to get to know yourself. After all, you– you’re always with yourself. It’s not like you need some special observatory and to get some very rare machines from, I don’t know, that cost millions of dollars. You just need yourself.
Audience: Sure. But what about the art of thinking?
Harari: What about?
Audience: The art of thinking.
Harari: The art of thinking.
Audience: I mean, people are very intelligent, but they don’t really use their intelligence to understand themselves [INAUDIBLE]..
Harari: Yeah. Again, there is no easy way to do it. If it was easy to get to know yourself better, everybody would do it long ago, and we would be living in a very, very different world.
White: We have folks joining us from around the world as well, so I have a question from the question bank. Compassion is the critical underpinning of any successful society, yet I believe that technology is reducing our capacity for empathy. It feels that we no longer value compassion, perhaps even seeing compassion as weak. What are, in your view, effective ways to motivate members of society to develop their compassion?
Harari: No, I don’t think that technology is inherently undermining compassion. It can go both ways. Certainly, communication technology can make you aware of the plight of people on the other side of the world. And without that, you may be extremely compassionate about your immediate, like, family members and neighbors, and won’t care at all about people on the other side of the world. So I don’t think there is an inherent contradiction or collision between technology and compassion. But it is true that the way we design technology can make us less compassionate, and even the way that we design ourselves. For most of history, you had economic and political systems trying to shape people. And in the past, they did it with education and with culture. And in the present and future, we are likely to do it more and more with biotech and with brain computer interfaces. So our ability to manipulate ourselves is growing. And therefore, it’s extremely important to remember to take compassion into account. Otherwise, the danger is that armies and corporations and government in many cases, they want something like intelligence. They want more intelligent workers and soldiers. They want more decisive workers. And sort of, don’t take a whole day to decide. I want you to decide this in half an hour. And as our ability to manipulate humans– and I mean manipulate– re-engineer the body and the brain as it grows– we might engineer more decisive and intelligent humans at the price of compassion. Which many corporations and armies and governments find either irrelevant or even problematic, because it causes people to be hesitant and to take more time about the decisions, and so on and so forth. So we need to remember the enormous importance of compassion. And again, it goes back also to the question about getting to know yourself, which I think is the key to developing compassion. Not just because when you understand your own, that this makes me miserable, then you understand, oh. The same thing may make other people also miserable. It’s even much deeper than that. When you really get to know yourself, you realize that when you ignore others and when you mistreat others, very often, it harms you even before it harms them. It’s a very unpleasant experience to be angry. So your anger may harm other people, or maybe not. Maybe you’re boiling with anger about somebody, and you don’t do anything about it because she’s your boss. But you don’t harm her, but your anger harms you. So the more you understand yourself, the greater incentive you have to do something about my anger, about my hatred, about my fear. And most people discover that as they develop more compassion towards others, they also experience far more peace within themselves.
White: Wow. Another live question.
Audience: Thank you. After reading your books, it occurs to me that you’ve most likely educated yourself both broadly and deeply to be the foundation for your ideas. For those of us that are interested in cultivating our mind similarly, wondering if you could share a little bit about your reading habits and how you choose what to consume.
Harari: My reading habits. I read very eclectically. Like, no book is barred from entering the book list. But then I tend to be extremely impatient about the books I actually read. I would begin, like, 10 books and drop nine of them after 10 pages. It’s not always the wisest policy, but it’s my policy that if a book didn’t really teach me something new, had some interesting insight in the first 10 pages, the chances it will– it could be that on page 100 there will be some mind-blowing idea that I’m now missing. But there are so many– I keep thinking, there are so many books, wonderful books out there that I will never read, so why waste time on the less optimal book? So I will try, like, a book on biology and then economics and then psychology and then fiction and whatever, and just go through them quite quickly until I find something that really grabs me.
White: Another live question.
Audience: Hi, Mr. Harari. Thanks for being here. Fascinating talk as always. I do a little bit of meditation myself, and I’ve heard that you do a lot of meditation on the order of hours a day. Is that right?
Harari: I try to do two hours every day, and I try to go every year to a long retreat of 45 or 60 days.
Audience: So I was wondering, how do you feel that has influenced your life and the ideas that you have?
Harari: Oh, it’s had a tremendous influence, I think both on my inner peace of mind, but also on my work as a scientist. And maybe the two most important influences is that first it enabled me to have more clarity and more focus. And certainly when you write about such big subjects like trying to summarize the whole of history in 400 pages. So having a very, very focused mind is very important, because the great difficulty is that everything kind of distracts you. You start writing about the Roman Empire and you say, well, I have to explain this and this and this and this, and you end up with 4,000 pages. So we have to be very– what is really important, and what can be left outside? And the other thing is that at least the meditation that I practice, which is with passive meditation, it’s all about really knowing the difference between the fictions and stories generated by our mind and the reality. What is really happening right now? And when I meditate, the thing that happens is that constantly, the mind is like a factory that constantly generates stories about myself, about other people, about the world. And they are very attractive. Like, I get identified with them. And the meditation is constantly, don’t. It’s just a story. Leave it. Just try to stay with what is really happening right now. And this is the central practice in meditation. It’s also a guiding principle when I study history or when I study what’s happening in the world.
Audience: Great. Thank you.
White: Let’s take another question from the Dory. With inequality rising across most nations in the last few decades, what is your perspective on how we can use technological growth to solve this problem and create a more equitable world? Do we need a different economic paradigm to achieve this?
Harari: Yes, we probably need a different economic paradigm, because we are entering kind of uncharted waters, especially because of the automation revolution and the growing likelihood that more and more people might be completely pushed out of the job market, not just because there won’t be enough jobs, but simply because the pace of change in the job market will accelerate. So even if there are enough jobs, people don’t have the psychological balance and stamina to constantly retrain, reskill, or reinvent themselves. And so I think the biggest problem in the job market is really going to be the psychological problem. And then what do you do when more and more people are left out? And there are explorations of new models like universal basic income and so forth, which are worth exploring. I don’t have the answers. I will just say that anybody who thinks in terms like universal basic income should take the word universal very, very seriously, and not settle for national basic income. Because the greatest inequality we are facing will probably be inequality between countries, and not within countries. Some countries are likely to become extremely wealthy due to the automation revolution, and California is certainly one of these places. Other countries might lose everything, because their entire economy depends on things like money or labor, which will lose its importance, and they just don’t have the resources and the educational system to kind of turn themselves into high-tech hubs. So the really crucial question is not, what do we do about, I don’t know, Americans in Indiana who lose their jobs? The really important question is, what do we do about people in Guatemala or Bangladesh who lose their jobs? This should be, I think, the focus of this question of inequality.
White: OK. We’ll take another live question.
Audience: Hello, Mr. Harari. Thank you for doing this Q&A. So at Google, we have a responsibility to build products and services which not only achieve results for our shareholders, but also that actually benefit our end users. So in order to spend less time hacking humans and spend more time reducing suffering, we need to understand what type of future we want to build. So what I wanted to ask you is, what are your personal methodologies for making predictions about the future? And what suggestions would you give to Googlers who want to have a more versed understanding of the future?
Harari: As I said in the very beginning, I don’t think we can predict the future, but I think we can influence it. What I try to do as a historian– and even when I talk about the future, I define myself as a historian, because I think that history is not the study of the past. History is the study of change, how human societies and political systems and economies change. And what I try to do is to map different possibilities rather than make predictions. This is what will happen in 2050. And we need to keep a very broad perspective. One of the biggest dangers is when we have a very narrow perspective, like we develop a new technology and we think, oh, this technology will have this outcome. And we are convinced of this prediction, and we don’t take into account that the same technology might have very different outcomes. And then we don’t prepare. And again, as I said in the beginning, it’s especially important to take into account the worst possible outcomes in order to be aware of them. So I would say whenever you are thinking about the future, the future impact of a technology and developing, create a map of different possibilities. If you see just one possibility, you’re not looking wide enough. If you see two or three, it’s probably also not wide enough. You need a map of, like, four or five different possibilities, minimum.
White: Let’s take another live question.
Audience: Hey, Mr. Harari. So my question is– I’ll start very broad, and then I’ll narrow it down for the focus. I’m really interested in, what do you think are the components that make these fictional stories so powerful in how they guide human nature? And then if I narrow it down is, I’m specifically interested in the self-destruction behavior of humans. How can these fictional stories led by a few people convince the mass to literally kill or die for that fictional story?
Harari: It again goes back to hacking the brain and hacking the human animal. It’s been done throughout history, previously just by trial and error, without the deep knowledge of brain science and evolution we have today. But to give an example, like if you want to convince people to persecute and exterminate some other group of people, what you need to do is really latch onto the disgust mechanisms in the human brain. Evolution has shaped homo sapiens with very powerful disgust mechanisms in the brain to protect us against diseases, against all kinds of sources of potential disease. And if you look at the history of bias and prejudice and genocide, one recurring theme is that it repeatedly kind of latches onto these disgust mechanisms. And so you would find things like women are impure, or these other people, they smell bad and they bring diseases. And very, very often disgust is at the center. So you’ll often find comparison between certain types of humans and rats or cockroaches, or all kinds of other disgusting things. So if you want to instigate genocide, you start by hacking the disgust mechanisms in the human brain. And this is very, very deep. And if it’s done from an early age, it’s extremely difficult afterwards. People can– they know intellectually that it’s wrong to say that these people are disgusting, that these people, they smell bad. But they know it intellectually. But when you place them, like, in a brain scanner, they can’t help it. If they were raised– I mean, so we can still do something about it. We can still kind of defeat this. But it’s very difficult, because it really goes to the core of the brain.
White: So I’ll end on a final question, because we’re at time. When Larry and Sergey, when they founded Google, they did so with this deep belief in technology’s ability to improve people’s lives everywhere. So if you had a magic wand and you could give Google the next big project for us to work on, in 30 seconds or less, what would you grant us as our assignment?
Harari: An AI system that gets to know me in order to protect me and not in order to sell me products or make me click on advertisements and so forth.
Audience: All right. Mission accepted. [LAUGH] Thank you, guys.