Mark Zuckerberg hosts Yuval Noah Harari for a conversation about some big challenges as part of the Facebook CEO's 2019 series of public discussions about the future of technology in society. The overarching question they debate is: what are we going to do about the systemic problems of the current technological revolution?
Mark Zuckerberg and Yuval Noah Harari

Mark Zuckerberg hosts Yuval Noah Harari for a conversation about some big challenges as part of the Facebook CEO’s 2019 series of public discussions about the future of technology in society. The overarching question they debate is: what are we going to do about the systemic problems of the current technological revolution?

Mark Zuckerberg: Hey, everyone. This year I’m doing a series of public discussions on the future of the Internet and society and some of the big issues around that. And today I’m here with Yuval Noah Harari. A great historian and best-selling author of a number of books. His first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, chronicled and did an analysis, going from the early days of hunter/gatherer society to now how our civilization is organized. And your next two books, the Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, actually tackle important issues of technology and the future. And that’s a lot of what we’ll talk about today. But most historians only tackle and analyze the past. But a lot of the work that you’ve done has had really interesting insights and raised important questions for the future. So I’m really glad to have an opportunity to talk with you today. So, Yuval, thank you for joining for this conversation.

Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah, I’m happy to be here. I think that if historians and philosophers cannot engage with the current questions of technology and the future of humanity, then we aren’t doing our jobs. We are not just supposed to chronicle events centuries ago. All the people that lived in the past are dead. They don’t care. The question is, what happens to us and to the people in the future?

Zuckerberg: Yeah. All right, so all the questions that you’ve outlined, where should we start here? And one of the big topics that we’ve talked about is around this dualism around whether… With all of the technology in progress that has been made, are people coming together and are we becoming more unified? Or is our world becoming more fragmented? And so, I’m curious to start off by how you’re thinking about that, and that’s probably a big area. We could probably spend most of the time on that topic.

Harari: Yeah, if you look at the long span of history, then it’s obvious that humanity’s becoming more and more connected. If, thousands of years ago, planet Earth was actually a galaxy of a lot of isolated worlds with almost no connection between them, so, gradually, people came together and became more and more connected until we reached today when the entire world, for the first time, is a single historical, economic and cultural unit. But connectivity doesn’t necessarily mean harmony. The people we fight most often are our own family members and neighbors and friends. So, it’s really a question of, are we talking about connecting people or are we talking about harmonizing people? Connecting people can lead to a lot of conflicts. And when you look at the world today, you see this duality… For example, in the rise of walls, which we talked about earlier when we met.

Zuckerberg: Yeah.

Harari: Which, for me, is something that I just can’t figure out what is happening because you have all this new connecting technology and the Internet and virtual realities and social networks. And then the most… One of the top political issues becomes building walls. And not just cyber walls or firewalls, building stone walls. Like the most Stone Age technology is suddenly the most advanced technology. So, how to make sense of this world, which is more connected than ever, but at the same time is building more walls than ever before.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, well, I think one of the interesting questions is around whether there’s actually so much of a conflict between these ideas of people becoming more connected and this fragmentation that you talk about. One of the things that it seems to me is that we… In the 21st century, in order to address the biggest opportunities and challenges that humanity has… All right, so, I think it’s both opportunities. Spreading prosperity, spreading peace, scientific progress, as well as some of the big challenges. Right, addressing climate change, making sure that, on the flip side, diseases don’t spread and that there aren’t epidemics and things like that. We really need to be able to come together and have the world be more connected. But at the same time, that only works if we, as individuals, have our economic and social and spiritual needs met. And so, one way to think about this is in terms of fragmentation, but another way to think about it is in terms of personalization, right? And I just think about, when I was growing up, one of the big things that I think the Internet enables is for people to connect with groups of people who share their real values and interests. And it wasn’t always like this, right? Before the Internet you were really tied to your physical location. And I just think about how when I was growing up, I grew up in a town of about 10,000 people and there were only so many different clubs or activities that you could do. So, I grew up, like a lot of the other kids, playing Little League Baseball. And I think about this in retrospect and it’s like I’m not really into baseball, I’m not really an athlete so why did I play Little League when my real passion was programming computers? And the reality was that, growing up, there was no one else, really, in my town who was into programming computers, so I didn’t have a peer group or a club that I could do that. It wasn’t until I went to boarding school and then, later, college, where I actually was able to meet people who were into the same things as I am. And now with the Internet, that’s starting to change, right? And now you have the ability to not just be tethered to your physical location, but to find people who have more niche interests and different kind of subcultures and communities on the Internet, which I think is a really powerful thing. But it also means that me, growing up today, I probably wouldn’t have played Little League. And you can think about me playing Little League as… That could’ve been a unifying thing, where there weren’t that many things in my town, so that was a thing that brought people together. So maybe if I was creating… Or if I was a part of a community online, that might’ve been more meaningful to me, getting to know real people, but around programming, which is my real interest, you would’ve said that our community, growing up, would’ve been more fragmented, right? And people wouldn’t have had the same sense of physical community. So, when I think about these problems, one of the questions that I wonder is fragmentation, personalization or finding what you actually care about are two sides of the same coin. But the bigger challenge that I worry about is whether there are a number of people who are just left behind in the transition, who were people who would’ve played Little League, but haven’t now found their new community and now just feel dislocated. And maybe their primary orientation in the world is still the physical community that they’re in… Or they haven’t really been able to find a community of people who they’re interested in. And as the world has progressed, I think a lot of people feel lost in that way. And that probably contributes to some of the feelings. That would be my hypothesis, at least. That’s the social version of it. There’s also the economic version around globalization, which I think is as important. But I’m curious to what you think about that.

Harari: About the social issue, unlike online communities, can be a wonderful thing, but they are still incapable of replacing physical communities, because there are still so many things…

Zuckerberg: That’s definitely true.

Harari: That you can only do with your body and with your physical friends. And you can travel with your mind throughout the world, but not with your body. And there are huge questions about the cost and benefits there. And also the ability of people to just escape things they don’t like in online communities, but you can’t do it in real offline communities. You can unfriend your Facebook friends, but you can’t un-neighbor your neighbors. They are still there.

Zuckerberg: Yeah.

Harari: You can take yourself and move to another country if you have the means, but most people can’t. So, part of the logic of traditional communities was that you must learn how to get along with people you don’t like, necessarily, maybe. And you must develop social mechanisms how to do that. And with online communities… And they have done some really wonderful things for people, but also they don’t give us the experience of doing these difficult but important things.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, and I definitely don’t mean to state that online communities can replace everything that a physical community did. The most meaningful online communities that we see are ones that span online and offline, that bring people together… Maybe the original organization might be online, but people are coming together physically because that, ultimately, is really important for relationships… ’cause we’re physical beings, right? So, whether it’s… You know, there are lots of examples around whether it’s an interest community where people care about running, but they also care about cleaning up the environment. So, a group of people organize online, and then they… Every week, go for a run along a beach or through a town and clean up garbage. That’s like a physical thing. We hear about communities where, you know, people, if you’re in a profession… Maybe the military or maybe something else where you have to move around a lot, people form these communities of military families or families of, you know, groups that travel around. The first thing that they do when they go to a new city is that they find that community, and then that’s how they get integrated into the local physical community. So, that’s obviously a super-important part of this that I don’t mean to understate.

Harari: Yeah. And then the practical question for a service provider like Facebook is, “What is the goal?” I mean, are we trying to connect people, so ultimately they will leave the screens and go and play football or pick up garbage? Or are we trying to keep them as long as possible on the screens? And there is a conflict of interest there. One model would be “We want people to stay as little as possible.” Online, we just need them to stay there the shortest time necessary to form the connection, which they will then go and do something in the outside world.

Zuckerberg: Yeah.

Harari: That’s one of the key questions I think about what the Internet is doing to people. Whether it’s connecting them or fragmenting society.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, and I think your point is right. I mean, we basically went… We’ve made this big shift in our systems to make sure that they’re optimized for meaningful social interactions. Which, of course, the most meaningful interactions that you can have, are physical, offline interactions. And there’s always this question when you’re building a service of how you measure the different thing that you’re trying to optimize for. So, you know, it’s a lot easier for us to measure if people are interacting or messaging online than if you’re having a meaningful connection physically. But there are ways to get at that. You can ask people questions about what the most meaningful things that they did. You can’t ask all two billion people, but you can have a statistical sub-sample of that, and have people come in and tell you, okay, what are the most meaningful things that I was able to do today, and how many of them were enabled by me connecting with people online, or how much of it was me connecting with someone physically. Maybe around the dinner table with content or something that I learned online or saw. So, that is definitely a really important part of it. But I think one of the important and interesting questions is about the richness of the world that can be built where you have, on one level, unification or this global connection where there’s a common framework where people can connect. Maybe it’s through using common Internet services, or maybe it’s just common social norms as you travel around. One of the things that you’d pointed out to me in a previous conversation is now something that’s different from any other time in history is that you can travel to almost any other country, and look like you… Dress like you’re appropriate and that you fit in there. 200 years ago or 300 years ago, that just wouldn’t have been the case. If you went to a different country, you would have just stood out immediately. There’s this norm… There’s this level of cultural norm that is united, but then the question is, “What do we build on top of that?” And, I think, one of the things that a broader set of cultural norms or shared values and framework enables is a richer set of sub-cultures and sub-communities, and people to actually go find the things that they’re interested in. in lots of different communities, to be creative, that wouldn’t have existed before. Going back to my story before, it wasn’t just my town that had the Little League. You know, I think, when I was growing up, basically every town had very similar things. There’s a Little League in every town. You know, maybe instead of every town having Little League, there should be… Little League should be an option. But if you want to do something that not that many people were interested in, in my case, programming. In other people’s case, maybe, you know, interest in some part of history or some part of art that, there just may not be another person in your 10,000-person town who share that interest. I think it’s good if you can form those kind of communities. And now people have… can find connections and can find a group of people who share their interest. I think there’s a question, though, of you can look at that as fragmentation. Right, because now we’re not all doing the same thing. We’re not all going to church and playing Little League and doing the exact same things. Or you can think about that as richness and depthness in our social lives. I just think that that’s an interesting question, is where you want the commonality across the world, and the connection, and where you actually want that commonality to enable deeper richness, even if that means that people are doing different things. I’m curious if you have a view on that and where that’s positive versus where that creates a lack of social cohesion.

Harari: Yeah. Almost nobody would argue with the benefits of a richer social environment in which people have more options to connect around all kinds of things. The key question is how do you still create enough social cohesion on a level of a country, and increasingly also on the level of the entire globe in order to tackle our main problems. I mean, we need global cooperation like never before because we are facing unprecedented global problems. We just had Earth Day, and should be obvious to everybody, we cannot deal with the problems of the environment, of climate change, except through global cooperation. Similarly, if you think about the potential disruption caused by new technologies like artificial intelligence, we need to find a mechanism for global cooperation around issues like how to prevent an AI arms-race. How to prevent different countries racing to build autonomous weapons systems and killer robots, and weaponizing the Internet and weaponizing social networks. Unless we have global cooperation, we can’t stop that. Because every country will say, “Well, we don’t want to produce killer robots, it’s a bad idea. “But we can’t allow our rivals to do it before us, “so we must do it first.” And then you have a race to the bottom. Similarly, if you think about the potential disruption to the job market and the economy, caused by AI and automation… So, it’s quite obvious that there will be jobs in the future. But will they be evenly distributed between different parts of the world. One of the potential results of the AI revolution could be the concentration of immense wealth in some part of the world, and the complete bankruptcy of other parts. There will be a lot of new jobs for software engineers in California, but there will be maybe no jobs for textile workers and truck drivers in Honduras and Mexico. So what will they do? If we don’t find a solution on the global level, like creating a global safety net to protect humans against the shocks of AI, and enabling them to use the opportunities of AI, then we will create the most unequal economic situation that ever existed. It will be much worse, even than what happened in the industrial revolution when some countries industrialized, most countries didn’t, and a few industrial powers went on to conquer and dominate and exploit all the others. So, how do we create enough global cooperation so that the enormous benefits of AI and automation don’t go only to, say, California and eastern China, while the rest of the world is being left far behind.

Zuckerberg: Yeah. I think that that’s important. I would unpack that into two sets of issues. One, around AI and the future economic and geopolitical issues around that. And let’s put that aside for a second, because I actually think we should spend 15 minutes on that. I mean, that’s a big…

Harari: That’s a big one.

Zuckerberg: That’s a big set of things. But then the other question is around how do you create the global cooperation that’s necessary to take advantage of the big opportunities that are ahead, and to address the big challenges, right? I don’t think it’s just fighting crises like climate change. I think that there are massive opportunities.

Harari: Definitely.

Zuckerberg: Spreading prosperity, spreading more human rights and freedom. Those are things that come with trade and connection as well. So, you want that for the upside. But, I guess, my diagnosis at this point… I’m curious to hear your view on this. …is I actually think we’ve spent a lot of the last 20 years with the Internet, maybe even longer working on global trade, global information flow, making it so that people can connect. I actually think the bigger challenge at this point is making it so that in addition to that global framework that we have, making it so that things work for people locally, right? Because I think there’s this dualism here where you need both, right? If you just resort to just kind of local tribalism, then you miss the opportunity to work on the really important global issues. But if you have a global framework, but people feel like it’s not working for them at home, or some set of people feel like that’s not working, then they’re not politically going to support the global collaboration that needs to happen. I think there’s the social version of this, which we talked about a little bit before where people are now able to find communities that match their interests more, but some people haven’t found those communities yet and are left behind as some of the more physical communities have receded.

Harari: And some of these communities are quite nasty also, so we shouldn’t forget that.

Zuckerberg: Yes. So I think they should be… Yes. Although, I would argue that people joining kind of extreme communities is largely a result of not having healthier communities and not having healthy economic progress for individuals. I think most people, when they feel good about their lives, they don’t seek out extreme communities. So there’s a lot of work that I think we as an Internet platform provider need to do to lock that down even further. But I actually think creating prosperity is probably one of the better ways, at a macro level, to go at that. But I guess…

Harari: But maybe just stop there a little. People that feel good about themselves have done some of the most terrible things in human history. I mean, we shouldn’t confuse people feeling good about themselves and about their lives with people being benevolent and kind and so forth. And also, they wouldn’t say that their ideas are extreme. And we have so many examples throughout human history, from the Roman Empire to slave trade in the modern age and colonialism, that people, that they had a very good life, they had a very good family life and social life, they were nice people, I mean, I guess most Nazi voters were also nice people. If you meet them for a cup of coffee and you talk about your kids, they were nice people, and they think good things about themselves, and some of them can have very happy lives. And even the ideas that we look back, and say, “This was terrible. This was extreme,” they didn’t think so. Again, if you just think about colonialism…

Zuckerberg: Well, but World War II, that came through a period of intense economic and social disruption after the Industrial Revolution…

Harari: Let’s put aside the extreme example. Let’s just think about European colonialism in the 19th century. So people say in Britain, in the late 19th century, they had the best life in the world at the time. And they didn’t suffer from an economic crisis or disintegration of society or anything like that. And they thought that by going all over the world and conquering and changing societies in India, in Africa, in Australia, they were bringing lots of good to the world. And I’m just saying that so that we are more careful about not confusing the good feelings people have about their life… It’s not just miserable people suffering from poverty and economic crisis.

Zuckerberg: Well, I think that there’s a difference between the example that you’re using of a wealthy society going and colonizing or doing different things that had different negative effects. That wasn’t the fringe in that society. I guess, what I was more reacting to before was your point about people becoming extremists. I would argue that, in those societies, that wasn’t those people becoming extremists. You can have a long debate about any part of history and whether the direction that a society chose to take is positive or negative and the ramifications of that. But I think today we have a specific issue, which is that more people are seeking out solutions at the extremes, and I think a lot of that is because of a feeling of dislocation, both economic and social. So that… I think that there’s a lot of ways that you’d go at that. And I think part of it, as someone who is running one of the Internet platforms, I think we have a special responsibility to make sure that our systems aren’t encouraging that. But I think, broadly, the more macro solution for this is to make sure that people feel like they have that grounding and that sense of purpose and community and that their lives are… And that they have opportunity. And I think that, statistically, what we see, and sociologically, is that when people have those opportunities, they don’t, on balance, as much, seek out those kind of groups. And I think that there’s the social version of this, there’s also the economic version. This is the basic story of globalization. On the one hand, it’s been extremely positive for bringing a lot of people into the global economy. Where people in India and Southeast Asia and across Africa who wouldn’t have previously had access to a lot of jobs in the global economy now do. And there’s been probably the greatest… At a global level, inequality is way down. Because hundreds of millions of people have come out of poverty, and that’s been positive. But the big issue has been that in developed countries, there have been a large number of people who are now competing with all these other people who are joining the economy, and jobs are moving to these other places. So a lot of people have lost jobs. For some of the people who haven’t lost jobs, there’s now more competition for those jobs for people internationally, so their wages, that’s one of the factors I would… The analyses have shown that’s preventing more wage growth. And there are five to 10% of people, according to a lot of the analyses that I’ve shown, who are actually, in absolute terms, worse off because of globalization. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that globalization for the whole world is negative. I think, in general, it’s been, on balance, positive. But the story we’ve told about it has probably been too optimistic in that we’ve only talked about the positives and how it’s good as this global movement to bring people out of poverty and create more opportunities. And the reality, I think, has been that it’s been net very positive, but if there are five or 10% of people in the world who are worse off, seven billion people in the world, so that’s many hundreds of millions of people, the majority of whom are likely in the most developed countries, in the US and across Europe, that’s going to create a lot of political pressure in those countries. So in order to have a global system that works, it feels like you need it to work at the global level, but then you also need individuals and each of the member nations in that system to feel like it’s working for them, too, and that recurses all the way down. So in local cities and communities, people need to feel like it’s working for them, both economically and socially. So I guess at this point, the thing that I worry about, and I’ve rotated a lot of Facebook’s energy to try to focus on this, is our mission used to be connecting the world. Now it’s about helping people build communities and bringing people closer together. And a lot of that is because I actually think that the thing that we need to do to support more global connection at this point is making sure that things work for people locally. You know, in a lot of ways, we’ve made it so that the Internet… So that an emerging creator can…

Harari: But how do you balance working it locally for people in the American Midwest and at the same time working it better for people in Mexico, South America, or Africa? Part of the imbalance is that when people in Middle America are angry, everybody pays attention, because they have their finger on the button. But if people in Mexico or people in Zambia feel angry, we care far less, because they have far less power. The pain, and I’m not saying the pain is not real. The pain is definitely real. But the pain of somebody in Indiana reverberates around the world far more than the pain of somebody in Honduras or in the Philippines simply because of the imbalances of the power in the world. Earlier, what we said about fragmentation, I know that Facebook faces a lot of criticism about encouraging people, some people, to move to these extremist groups. That’s a big problem, but I don’t think it’s the main problem. I think, also, it’s something that you can solve if you put enough energy into that. That is something you can solve. But this is the problem that gets most of the attention now. What I worry more, again, not just about Facebook, about the entire direction that the new Internet economy and the new tech economy is going towards, is increasing inequality between different parts of the world, which is not a result of extremist ideology, but the results of a certain economic and political model. And, secondly, undermining human agency, and undermining the basic philosophical ideas of democracy, and the free market, and individualism. These, I would say, are my two greatest concerns about the development of technology like AI and machine learning. And this will continue to be a major problem even if we find solutions to the issue of social extremism in particular groups.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, I certainly agree that extremism isn’t… I would think about it more as a symptom and a big issue that needs to be worked on. But I think the bigger question is making sure that everyone has a sense of purpose, has a role that they feel matters, and social connections. Because, at the end of the day, we’re social animals. And I think it’s easy in our theoretical thinking to abstract that away. But that’s such a fundamental part of who we are. That’s why I focus on that. Do you want to move over to some of the AI issues? Because I think that that’s… Or do you want to stick on this topic for a second?

Harari: No, this topic is closely connected to AI. Again, because I think that one of the disservices that science fiction… I’m a huge fan of science fiction, but I think it has done some pretty bad things, which is to focus attention on the wrong scenarios and the wrong dangers, that people think, “AI is dangerous because the robots are coming to kill us.” And this is extremely unlikely that we’ll face a robot rebellion. I’m much more frightened about robots always obeying orders than about robots rebelling against the humans.
I think the two main problems with AI, and we can explore this in greater depth, is what I mentioned. First, increasing inequality between different parts of the world. Because you’ll have some countries which lead and dominate the new AI economy. And this is such a huge advantage that it kind of trumps everything else. And we will see… If we had the Industrial Revolution creating this huge gap between a few industrial powers and everybody else, and then it took 150 years to close the gap, and over the last few decades, the gap has been closed, or closing, as more and more countries, which were far behind, are catching up. Now the gap may reopen and be much worse than ever before because of the rise of AI and because AI is likely to be dominated by just a small number of countries. So that’s one issue. AI inequality.
And the other issue is AI and human agency. Or even the meaning of human life. What happens when AI is mature enough and you have enough data to basically hack human beings. And you have an AI that knows me better than I know myself, and can make decisions for me, predict my choices, manipulate my choices, and authority increasingly shifts from humans to algorithms. So, not only decisions about which movie to see, but even decisions like which community to join, who to befriend, whom to marry. We increasingly rely on the recommendations of the AI and what does it do to human life and human agency? So, these I would say, are the two most important issues of AI inequality, and AI and human agency.

Zuckerberg: Yeah. And I think both of them get down to a similar question around values. And who is building this and what are the values that are encoded, and how does that end up playing out. Yeah, I tend to think that in a lot of the conversations around AI, we almost personify AI, right? You’re point around killer robots or something like that. But I actually think it’s… AI is very connected to the general tech sector, right? So, almost every technology product, and increasingly a lot of not what you call technology products are made better in some way by AI. So, it’s not like AI is a monolithic thing that you build, it powers a lot of products. It’s a lot of economic progress, and it can get towards some of the distribution of opportunity questions that you’re raising. But it also is fundamentally interconnected with these really socially important questions around data and privacy, and how we want our data to be used, and what are the policies around that, and what are the global frameworks. So, one of the big questions that… So, I tend to agree with a lot of the questions that you’re raising, which is that a lot of the countries that have the ability to invest in future technology of which AI and data and future Internet technologies are certainly an important area, are doing that because it will give their local companies an advantage in the future and to be the ones that are exporting services around the world. I tend to think that, right now, the United States has a major advantage that a lot of the global technology platforms are made here, and, certainly, a lot of the values that are encoded in that are shaped largely by American values. They’re not only… And speaking for Facebook, and we serve people around the world, and we take that very seriously. But, certainly, ideas like giving everyone a voice, that’s something that is probably very shaped by the American ideas around free speech, and strong adherence to that. So, I think, culturally and economically, there is an advantage for countries to develop, to push forward the state of the field, and have the companies that, in the next generation, are the strongest companies in that. So, certainly, you see different countries trying to do that. And this is very tied up in not just economic prosperity and equality, but also…

Harari: Do they have a real chance? Does a country like Honduras, Ukraine, Yemen has any real chance of joining the AI race? Or are they… They’re already out. It’s not going to happen in Yemen, it’s not going to happen in Honduras. And then what happens to them in 20 years or 50 years?

Zuckerberg: I think that some of this gets down to the values around how it’s developed though. Right? I think that there are certain advantages that countries with larger populations have ’cause you get to critical mass in terms of universities, and industry, and investment, and things like that. But one of the values that we here both at Facebook, and generally the academic system of trying to do research, hold, is that you do open research, right? So, a lot of the work that’s getting invested into these advances, in theory, if this works well, should be more open. So, then you can have an entrepreneur in one of these countries that you’re talking about, which maybe isn’t a whole industry-wide thing… Certainly, I think you’d bet against sitting here today that, in the future, all of the AI companies are gonna be in a given small country. But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe that there will be an entrepreneur in some place who can use Amazon Web Services to spin up instances for compute, who can hire people across the world in a globalized economy, and can leverage research that has been done in the US or across Europe or in different open academic institutions or companies that increasingly are publishing their work, that are pushing the state-of-the-art forward on that. So, I think that there’s this big question about what we want the future to look like. And part of the way that I think we want the future to look is we want it to be open, we want the research to be open. I think we want the Internet to be a platform. And this gets back to your unification point versus fragmentation. One of the big risks for the future is that the Internet policy in each country ends up looking different. It ends up being fragmented. And if that’s the case, then the entrepreneur in the countries that you’re talking about, Honduras, probably doesn’t have as big of a chance if they can’t leverage all the advances that are happening everywhere. But if the Internet stays one thing, and the research stays open, then they have a much better shot.
So, when I look towards the future, one of the things that I just get very worried about is the values that I just laid out are not values that all countries share. And when you get into some of the more authoritarian countries and their data policies, they’re very different from the regulatory frameworks that are across Europe and across a lot of other people. People are talking about or have put into place.
Just to put a finer point on that, recently I’ve come out and I’ve been very vocal that I think that more countries should adopt a privacy framework like GDPR in Europe. And a lot of people, I think, have been confused about this. “Why are you arguing for more privacy regulation?” You know, “Why now, given that in the past, “you weren’t as positive on it?” And I think part of the reason why I am so focused on this now is I think, at this point, people around the world recognize that these questions around data, and AI and technology are important. So there’s going to be a framework in every country. I mean, it’s not like there’s not gonna be regulation or policy. So I actually think the bigger question is, “What is it going to be?” And the most likely alternative to each country adopting something that encodes the freedoms and rights of something like GDPR… In my mind, the most likely alternative is the authoritarian model, which is currently being spread, which says, you know, “Every company needs to store everyone’s data locally in data centers.” And if I’m a government, I should be able to, you know, go send my military there and be able to get access to whatever data I want. I’d be able to take that for surveillance or military or helping, you know, local military industrial companies. And I just think that that’s a really bad future. And that’s not the direction that I, as someone who’s building one of these Internet services or just as a citizen of the world, want to see the world going.

Harari: To be the devil’s advocate for a moment, I mean, if I look at it from the viewpoint that of India. So, I listen to the American president saying, “America first. “And I’m a nationalist, I’m not a globalist. “I care about the interests of America.” And I wonder, is it safe to store the data about Indian citizens in the US, and not in India, when they are openly saying they care only about themselves. So, why should it be in America and not in India?

Zuckerberg: Well, I think that the motives matter, and certainly, I don’t think that either of us would consider India to be an authoritarian country that… So I would say that…

Harari: Well, it can still say, “We want data and metadata on Indian users “to be stored on Indian soil. “We don’t want it to be stored on American soil or somewhere else.”

Zuckerberg: Yeah. And I can understand the arguments for that, and I think that the intent matters, right? And I think countries can come at this with open values, and still conclude that something like that could be helpful. But I think one of the things that you need to be very careful about is that if you set that precedent, you’re making it very easy for other countries that don’t have open values, and that are much more authoritarian, and want the data not to protect their citizens, but to be able to surveil them and find dissidents and lock them up. That… So I think, one of…

Harari: I agree. I mean, it really boils down to the question that, “Do we trust America?” And given the past two or three years, people in more and more places around the world… I mean, previously, say, if we were sitting here ten years ago, 20 years ago or 40 years ago, when America declared itself to be the leader of the free world, we can argue a lot whether this was the case or not. Or, at least, on the declaratory level, this was how America presented itself to the world. “We are the leaders of the free world, so trust us. We care about freedom.” But now we see a different America. America which doesn’t want even to be… Again, it’s not a question of even what they do, but how America presents itself no longer as the leader of the free world. But as a country which is interested, above all, in itself and in its own interests. And just this morning, for instance, I read that the US is considering having a veto on the UN resolution against using sexual violence as a weapon of war. And the US is the one that thinks of vetoing this. And as somebody who is not a citizen of the US, I ask myself, “Can I still trust America to be the leader of the free world?” if America itself says, “I don’t want this role anymore?”

Zuckerberg: Well, I think that that’s a somewhat separate question from the direction that the Internet goes in. Because, I mean, GDPR, the framework that I’m advocating, that it would be better if more countries adopted something like this, because I think that that’s just significantly better than the alternatives, a lot of which are these more authoritarian models. I mean, GDPR originated in Europe, right?

Harari: Yeah.

Zuckerberg: So it’s not an American invention. And I think, in general, these values of openness and research, of cross-border flow of ideas and trade, that’s not an American idea, right? I mean, that’s a global philosophy for how the world should work. And I think that the alternatives to that are, at best, fragmentation, which breaks down the global model on this. At worst, a growth in authoritarianism for the models of how this gets adopted. And that’s where I think that the precedents on some of this stuff get really tricky. I mean, I think you’re doing a good job of playing devil’s advocate in the conversation because you’re bringing all of the counterarguments that I think someone with good intent might bring to argue. “Hey. Maybe a different set of data policies “is something that we should consider.” The thing that I just worry about is that, what we’ve seen is that once a country puts that in place, that’s a precedent that, then, a lot of other countries that might be more authoritarian use to basically be a precedent to argue that they should do the same things. And then that spreads. And I think that that’s bad, right? And that’s one of the things that, as the person running this company, I’m quite committed to making sure that we play our part in pushing back on that and keeping the Internet as one platform. So, I mean, one of the most important decisions that I think I get to make, as the person running this company is, “Where are we going to build our data centers and store data?” And we’ve made the decision that we’re not going to put data centers in countries that we think have weak rule of law, where people’s data may be improperly accessed, and that could put people in harm’s way. And, you know, I mean, a lot has been… There have been a lot of questions around the world around questions of censorship. And I think that those are really serious and important. I mean, a lot of the reason why I build what we build is because I care about giving everyone a voice, giving people as much voice as possible. I don’t want people to be censored.
At some level, these questions around data and how it’s used, and whether authoritarian governments get access to it, I think, are even more sensitive because if you can’t say something that you want, that is highly problematic, that violates your human rights. I think, in a lot cases, it stops progress. But if a government can get access to your data, then it can identify who you are and go lock you up, and hurt you and hurt your family, and cause real physical harm in ways that are just really deep. So, I do think that people running these companies have an obligation to try to push back on that, and fight establishing precedents, which will be harmful, even if a lot of the initial countries that are talking about some of this have good intent. I think that this can easily go off the rails. And when you talk about, in the future, AI and data, which are two concepts that are just really tied together, I just think the values that that comes from, whether it’s part of a more global system, a more democratic process and a more open process, that’s one of our best hopes for having this work out well. If it comes from repressive or authoritarian countries, then I just think that it’s gonna be highly problematic in a lot of ways.

Harari: That raises the question of, “How do we build AI in such a way “that it’s not inherently a tool of surveillance, “and manipulation and control?” I mean, this goes back to the idea of creating something that knows you better than you know yourself. Which is kind of the ultimate surveillance and control tool. And we are building it now in different places around the world. It’s being built. And what are your thoughts about how to build an AI, which serves individual people and protects individual people, and not an AI, which can easily, with a flip of a switch, become the ultimate surveillance tool?

Zuckerberg: Well, I think that that is more about the values and the policy framework than the technological development. I mean, a lot of the research that’s happening in AI are just very fundamental, mathematical methods where a researcher will create an advance, and now, all of the neural networks will be 3% more efficient. -I’m just throwing this out. -Yeah. Yeah. And that means that news feed will be a little bit better for people. Our systems for detecting things like hate speech will be better. Our ability to find photos of you that you want to review will be better. All these systems get a little better. Now, I think the bigger question is you have places in the world where governments are choosing to use that technology and those advances for things like widespread face recognition and surveillance. And those countries, I mean China’s doing this, they create a real feedback loop which advances the state of that technology, where they say, “Okay, we wanna do this.” So now there’s a set of companies sanctioned to go do that and they’re getting access to a lot of data to do it because it’s allowed and encouraged, so that is advancing and getting better and better, that’s not a mathematical process, that’s a policy process, that they wanna go in that direction, those are their values, and it’s an economic process of the feedback loop and development of those things, compared to in countries that might say, “Hey, that kind of surveillance isn’t what we want.” Those companies just don’t exist as much or don’t get as much support.

Harari: I don’t know. In my home country of Israel, at least for Jews it’s a democracy and it’s one of the leaders of the world in surveillance technology and we basically have one of the biggest laboratories of surveillance technology in the world, which is de-occupied territories. And exactly these kinds of systems are being developed there and exported all over the world. So, given my personal experience back home, I don’t necessarily trust that just because a society in its own inner workings is say, democratic, that it will not develop and spread these kinds of technologies.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, I agree. It’s not clear that a democratic process alone solves it, but I do think that it is mostly a policy question. A government can quite easily make the decision that they don’t wanna support that kind of surveillance and then the companies they would be working with to support that kind of surveillance would be out of business. Or at the very least, have much less economic incentive to continue that technological progress, so that dimension of the growth of the technology gets stunted compared to others and that’s generally the process that I think you wanna follow broadly. Technological advance isn’t by itself good or bad. I think it’s the job of the people who are shepherding it, building it and making policies around it to have policies and make sure that their effort goes towards amplifying the good and mitigating the negative use cases. And that’s how I think you end up bending these industries and technologies to be things that are positive for humanity overall and I think that’s a normal process that happens with most technologies that get built. But I think what we’re seeing in some of these places is not the natural mitigation of negative uses, in some cases the economic feedback loop is pushing those things forward, but I don’t think it has to be that way, that’s not as much a technological decision as it is a policy decision.

Harari: I fully agree, but every technology can be used in different ways for good or for bad, you can use the radio to broadcast music to people and you can use the radio to broadcast Hitler giving a speech to millions of Germans, the radio doesn’t care, the radio just carries whatever you put in it. So, yeah, it is a policy decision, but then it raises the question, “How do we make sure that the policies are the right policies “in a world where it is becoming more and more easy to manipulate “and control people on a massive scale like never before?” I mean new technology, it’s not just that we invent the technology and then we have good democratic countries and bad authoritarian countries, and the question is, “What would they do with the technology?” The technology itself could change the balance of power between democratic and totalitarian systems and I fear that new technologies are giving an inherent advantage, not necessarily overwhelming, but they do tend to give an inherent advantage to totalitarian regimes because the biggest problem of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, which eventually led to their downfall, is that they couldn’t process information efficiently enough. If you think about the Soviet Union, so you have this information processing model, which basically says, “We take all the information from the entire country, “move it to one place, to Moscow, there it gets processed, “decisions are made in one place and transmit it back as commands.” This was the Soviet model of information processing. Versus the American version, which was, “No, we don’t have a single center. We have a lot of organizations “and a lot of individuals and businesses and they can make their own decisions.” In the Soviet Union there’s somebody in Moscow. If I live in some small farm or kolkhoz in Ukraine, there’s somebody in Moscow who tells me how many radishes to grow this year because they know. And in America I decide for myself, I get signals from the market and I decide. And the Soviet model just didn’t work well because of the difficulty of processing so much information quickly with 1950s technology. And this is one of the main reasons why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War to the United States. But with new technology it suddenly, it might become, it’s not certain, but one of my fears is that new technology suddenly makes central information processing far more efficient than ever before and far more efficient than distributed data processing. Because the more data you have in one place the better your algorithms and so on and so forth. And this kind of tilts the balance between totalitarianism and democracy in favor of totalitarianism. And I wonder what are your thoughts on this issue.

Zuckerberg: Well, I’m more optimistic about…

Harari: I guessed so.

Zuckerberg: About democracy in this. I think the way that the democratic process needs to work is people start talking about these problems and then even if it seems like it starts slowly in terms of people caring about data issues and technology policy, ’cause it’s a lot harder to get everyone to care about it than it is just a small number of decision makers, so I think that the history of democracy versus more totalitarian systems is it always seems like the totalitarian systems are gonna be more efficient and the democracies are just gonna get left behind, but smart people start discussing these issues and caring about them and I do think we see that people do now care much more about their own privacy, about data issues, about the technology industry, people are becoming more sophisticated about this, they realize that having a lot of your data stored can both be an asset because it can help provide a lot of benefits and services to you, but increasingly maybe it’s also a liability because there are hackers and nation states who might be able to break in and use that data against you or exploit it or reveal it. So maybe people don’t want their data to be stored forever, maybe they want it to be reduced in permanence, maybe they want it all to be end-to-end encrypted as much as possible in their private communications, people really care about this stuff in a way that they didn’t before and that’s certainly grown a lot over the last several years. So that conversation is the normal democratic process. And I think what’s gonna end up happening is that by the time you get people broadly aware of the issues and on-board, that is just a much more powerful approach, where then you do have people in a decentralized system who are capable of making decisions, who are smart, who I think will generally always do it better than too centralized of an approach. And here is again a place where I worry that personifying AI and saying AI is a thing that an institution will develop and it’s almost like a sentient being, I think mischaracterizes what it actually is. It’s a set of methods that make everything better. Sorry, let me retract that. That’s way too broad. It’s a lot of technological processes more efficient. And I think that’s…

Harari: But that’s the worry. It also makes…

Zuckerberg: But that’s not just for centralized folks. In our context, so we build, our business has this ad platform. And a lot of the way that that can be used now is we have 90 million small business that use our tools. And now, because of this access to technology they have access to the same tools to do advertising, marketing, reach new customers and grow jobs that previously only the big companies would have had. And that’s a big advance. That’s a massive decentralization. When people talk about our company and the Internet platforms overall, they talk about how there’s a small number of companies that are big, and that’s true, but the flipside of it is that now there are billions of people around the world who have a voice, that they can share information more broadly, and that’s actually a massive decentralization in power, and kind of returning power to people. Similarly, people have access to more information, have access to more commerce. That’s all positive. So, I don’t know. I’m an optimist on this. I think we have real work cut out for us. And I think that the challenges that you raise are the right ones to be thinking about, because if we get it wrong, that’s the way in which it will go wrong. But, I don’t know. I think that the historical precedent would say that it all points… You know, where there was the competition between the US and Japan in the ’80s and the ’70s, or the Cold War before that, or different other times, people always thought that the democratic model, which is slow to mobilize, but very strong once it does. And once people get bought into a direction and understand the issue, I do think that that will continue to be the best way to spread prosperity around the world and make progress in a way that meets people’s needs. And that’s why, when you’re talking about Internet policy, when you’re talking about economic policy, I think spreading regulatory frameworks that encode those values, I think is one of the most important things that we can do. But it starts with raising the issues that you are and having people be aware of the potential problems.

Harari:  I agree that in the last few decades, it was the case. That open democratic systems were better and more efficient. Again, one of my fears is that it might have made us a bit complacent. Because we assume that this is a kind of a law of nature. That distributed systems are always better and more efficient than centralized systems. And we lived, we grew up in a world in which there was kind of this… To do the good thing morally was also to do the efficient thing economically and politically. And a lot of countries liberalized their economy, their society, their politics, over the last 50 years more because they were convinced of the efficiency argument than of the deep moral argument. And what happens if efficiency and morality suddenly split? Which has happened before in history. I mean, the last 50 years are not representative of all of history. We had many cases before, in human history, in which repressive centralized systems were more efficient, and therefore, you got these repressive empires. And there is no law of nature which says that this cannot happen again. Again, my fear is that the new technology might tilt that balance. And just by making central data processing far more efficient, it could give a boost to totalitarian regimes. Also, in the balance of power between the center and the individual, that for most of history, the central authority could not really know you personally. Simply because of the inability to gather and process information. So there were some people who knew you very well, but usually, their interests were aligned with yours. Like, my mother knows me very well, but most of the time I can trust my mother. But now, we are reaching the point when some system far away can know me better than my mother, and the interests are not necessarily aligned. Now, yes, we can use that also for good, but I’m pointing out that this is a kind of power that never existed before. And it could empower totalitarian and authoritarian regimes to do things that were simply technically impossible until today. Yeah. And if you live in an open democracy, okay, you can rely on all kinds of mechanisms to protect yourself. But thinking more globally about this issue, I think a key question is, how do you protect human attention from being hijacked by malevolent players who know you better than you know yourself? Who know you better than your mother knows you? And this is a question that we never had to face before. Because we never had… Usually, the malevolent players just didn’t know me very well.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, okay, so there’s a lot in what you were just talking about. I mean, I think… In general, one of the things that… I do think that there’s a scale effect. Where one of the best things that we could do if we care about these open values and having a globally connected world… I think making sure that the critical mass of the investment in new technologies encodes those values is really important. So that’s one of the reasons why I care a lot about not supporting the spread of authoritarian policies to more countries. Either inadvertently doing that, or setting precedents that enable that to happen Because I think that the more development that happens in the way that is more open, where the research is more open, where people have the… where the policy-making around it is more democratic, I think that that’s gonna be positive. So I think that maintaining that balance ends up being really important. And one of the reasons why I think democratic countries, over time, tend to do better on serving what people want is because there’s no metric to optimize a society. Right, when you talk about efficiency, a lot of what people are talking about is economic efficiency. Yeah. Are we increasing GDP? Are we increasing jobs? Are we decreasing poverty? Those things are all good, But, I think, part of what the democratic process does is people get to decide on their own, which of the dimensions in society matter the most to them in their lives.

Harari: But if you can hijack people’s attention, and manipulate them, then people deciding on their own just doesn’t help. Because I don’t realize that somebody manipulated me to think that this is what I want. And we are reaching the point when for the first time in history, you can do that on a massive scale. Again, I speak a lot about the issue of free will in this regard. And the people that are easiest to manipulate are the people who believe in free will, and will simply identify with whatever thought or desire pops up in their mind because they cannot even imagine that this desire is not a result of my free will, this desire is the result of some external manipulation. Now, it may sound paranoid. And for most of history, it was probably paranoid because nobody had this kind of ability to do it on a massive scale. But here, like, in Silicon Valley, the tools to do that on a massive scale have been developed over the last few decades. And they may have been developed with the best intentions. Some of them may have been developed with the intention of just selling stuff to people, and selling products to people. But now the same tools that can be used to sell me something I don’t really need, can now be used to sell me a politician I really don’t need. Or an ideology that I really don’t need. It’s the same tool. It’s the same hacking the human animal, and manipulating what’s happening inside.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, okay, so there’s a lot going on here. I think that there’s… When designing these systems, I think that there’s the intrinsic design, which you want to make sure you get right, and then there’s preventing abuse. So in that, there’s two kinds of questions that people raise. I mean, one is, we saw what the Russian government tried to do in the 2016 elections. That’s clear abuse. We need to build really advanced systems for detecting that kind of interference in the democratic process and more broadly. Being able to identify that, identify when people are standing up networks of fake accounts that are not behaving in a way that normal people would. To be able to weed those out, and work with Law Enforcement and Election Commissions and folks all around the world in the Intelligence community, to be able to coordinate and be able to deal with that effectively. So, stopping abuse is certainly important, but I would argue that the deeper question is about the intrinsic design of the systems. Right?

Harari: Yeah.

Zuckerberg: So not just fighting the abuse. And there, I think that… I think that the incentives are more aligned towards a good outcome than a lot of critics might say. And here’s why. I think that there’s a difference between what people want first order and what they want second order over time, right? So, right now, you might just consume a video ’cause you think it’s silly or fun. You wake up, and… Or you kind of look up an hour later and you’ve watched a bunch of videos, and you’re like, “What happened to my time?” So maybe in the narrow, short-term period, you consume some more content, and maybe you saw some more ads, so it seems like it’s good for the business. But it actually really isn’t over time. Because people make decisions based on what they find valuable. And what we find, at least in our work, is that what people really want to do is connect with other people. It’s not just passively consume content. So, we’ve had to find and constantly adjust our systems over time to make sure that we’re rebalancing it, so that way you’re interacting with people, so that way we make sure that we don’t just measure signals in the system like what you’re clicking on, because that can get you into a bad local optimum. But instead, we bring in real people to tell us their real experiences. In words, not just filling out scores. But also telling us what the most meaningful experiences they had today, what content was most important, what interaction did you have with a friend that mattered to you the most and was that connected to something that we did? And if not, then we go and try to do the work to figure out how we can facilitate that. And what we find is that… Yeah, in the near term, maybe showing some people some more viral videos might increase time, right? But over the long term, it doesn’t. It’s not actually aligned with our business interest or the long term social interest. So, in strategy terms, that would be a stupid thing to do. And I think a lot of people think that businesses are very short-term oriented, and that businesses only care about the next-quarter profit. But I think that most businesses that get run well, that’s just not the case. And I think, last year, on one of our Earnings calls, I told investors that we’d actually reduce the amount of video-watching that quarter by 50 million hours a day. Because we wanted to take down the amount of viral videos that people were seeing because we thought that that was displacing more meaningful interactions that people were having with other people, which in the near term might have a short term impact on the business for that quarter, but over the long term it would be more positive, both for how people feel abut the products and for the business, and… One of the patterns that I think, has actually been quite inspiring or a cause of optimism in running a business is that often times you make decisions you think are gonna pay off long down the road. You think, “I’m doing the right thing long term, “but it’s gonna hurt for a while.” And I almost always find the long term comes sooner than you think. And that when you make these decisions that they’re maybe taking some pain in the near term in order to get to what will be a better case down the line, that better case, maybe you think it’ll take five years, but actually it ends up coming in a year. Right? And… I think people at some deep level know when something is good. And I guess this gets back to the democratic values because at some level, I trust that people have a sense of what they actually care about. Maybe that if we were showing more viral videos, maybe that would be better than the alternatives they have to do right now. Maybe that’s better than what’s on TV, at least they’re personalized videos. Maybe it’s better than YouTube, we have better content or whatever the reason is. But I think you could still make the service better over time for actually matching what people want. If you do that, that is better for everyone. I think that the intrinsic design of these systems is quite aligned with serving people in a way that is pro-social. That’s certainly what I care about in running this company, is to get there.

Harari: I think this is like the rock bottom. This is the most important issue that, ultimately, what I’m hearing from you and from many other people when I have these discussions, is ultimately, the customer is always right. The voter knows best. People know what is good for them. People make a choice. If they choose to do it, then it’s good. That has been the bedrock of, at least, western democracies for centuries, for generations. And this is now where the big question mark is. Is it still true, in a world where we have the technology to hack human beings and manipulate them like never before that the customer is always right? That the voter knows best? Or have we gone past this point? And the simple ultimate answer that well, “This is what people want and they know what’s good for them,” maybe it’s no longer the case.

Zuckerberg: Well… I think… It’s not clear to me that that has changed, but that’s a very deep question about democracy…

Harari: This is the deepest…

Zuckerberg: I don’t think that’s a new question. People have always…

Harari: The question isn’t new, the technology is new. I mean, if you lived in 19th century America, and you didn’t have these extremely powerful tools to decipher and influence people -then it was a different…

Zuckerberg: Okay. Let me frame this a different way. For all the talk around, is democracy being hurt by the current set of tools, and the media, and all this, I think that there’s an argument the world is more democratic now than it was in the past. The country was set up as… The US was set as a Republic. So, a lot of the foundational rules limited the power of a lot of individuals being able to vote, and have a voice, and checked the popular will in a lot of different stages. Everything from the way that laws get written by Congress and not by people… Everything to the Electoral College, which a lot of people think today is undemocratic, but it was put in place because of a set of values that a Democratic Republic would be better. I actually think what has happened today, is that increasingly more people are enfranchised and more people have a voice, more people are getting to vote. Increasingly people have a voice, more people have access to information. And I think a lot of what people are asking is, “Is that good?” It’s not necessarily the question of, “The democratic process has been the same, “but now the technology is different.” I think the technology’s made it, so individuals are more empowered and part of the question is, “Is that the world that we want?” This is a scenario where… All of these things are with challenges. Right? And often progress causes a lot of issues. And it’s a really hard thing to reason through while we’re trying to make progress, and help all these people join the global economy, or help people join the communities, and have the social lives that they would want, and be accepted in different ways. But it comes with this dislocation in the near term and that’s a massive dislocation so that seems really painful. But I actually think that you can make a case that we are at, and continue to be at, the most democratic time. And I think that overall, in the history of our country, at least, when we’ve gotten more people to have the vote and we’ve gotten more representation, and we’ve made it so people have access to more information, and more people can share their experiences, I do think that that’s made the country stronger, and has… And it’s helped progress. And it’s not that the stuff is without issues. It has massive issues. But that’s the pattern that I see and why I’m optimistic about a lot of the work.

Harari: I agree that more people have more voice than ever before, both in the US and globally. I think you’re absolutely right. My concern is, to what extent we can trust the voice of people… To what extent I can trust my voice? Like, I’m… We have this picture of the world that I have this voice inside me, which tells me what is right and what is wrong. And the more I’m able to express this voice in the outside world and influence what’s happening, the more people can express their voices, it’s better, it’s more democratic. But what happens if at the same time that more people can express their voices, it’s also easier to manipulate your inner voice? To what extent you can really trust that the thought that just popped up in your mind is the result of some free will, and not the result of an extremely powerful algorithm that understands what’s happening inside you and knows how to push the buttons and press the levers, and is serving some external entity and it has planted this thought or this desire that you now express? So, it’s two different issues. Giving people voice and trusting… Again, I’m not saying, “I know everything, “but all these people that now join the conversation, “we cannot trust their voices.” I’m asking this about myself, to what extent I can trust my own inner voice?
And, you know, I spend two hours meditating every day. And I go on these long meditation retreats. And my main takeaway from that is it’s craziness inside there. And it’s so complicated. And the simple, naive belief that the thought that pops up in my mind, this is my free will, this was never the case. But, if say, a thousand years ago, the battles inside were mostly between, you know, neurons and biochemicals and childhood memories and all that, increasingly, you have external actors going under your skin, and into your brain, and into your mind. And how do I trust that my amygdala in not a Russian agent now? How do I know… The more we understand about the extremely complex world inside us, the less easy it is to simply trust what this inner voice is telling, is saying.

Zuckerberg: Yeah, I understand the point that you’re making. As one of the people who’s running a company that develops ranking systems to try to help show people content that’s gonna be interesting to them… There’s a dissonance between the way that you’re explaining what you think is possible and what I see as a practitioner building this, I think. You can build systems that can get good at a very specific thing. Helping to understand which of your friends you care the most about so you can rank their content higher on newsfeed. But the idea that there’s some kind of generalized AI, that’s a monolithic thing that understands all dimensions of who you are in a way that’s deeper than you do, I think doesn’t exist, and is probably quite far off from existing. So, there’s certainly abuse of the systems that I think needs to be… That I think is more of a policy and values question, which is… On Facebook, you’re supposed to be your real identity, so if you have, to use your example, Russian agents or folks from the government, the IRA who are posing as someone else and saying something and you see that content, but you think it’s coming from someone else, then that’s not an algorithm issue. I mean, that’s someone abusing the system, and taking advantage of the fact that you trust that on this platform, someone who’s generally gonna be who they say they are, so you can trust that the information is coming from some place and kinda slipping in the back door that way, and that’s the thing that we certainly need to go fight. But, I don’t know, as a broad matter, I do think there’s this question of, “To what degree are the systems…” This kinda brings it full circle to where we started on, is it fragmentation, or is it personalization? Is the content that you see… if it resonates, is that because it actually just more matches your interests, or is it because you’re being incepted and convinced of something that you don’t actually believe and is dissonant with your interests and your beliefs and certainly, all the psychological research that I’ve seen and the experience that we’ve had, is that when people see things that don’t match what they believe, they just ignore it. Right, so, certainly, there can be an evolution that happens where a system shows information that you’re gonna be interested in and if that’s not managed well, that has the risk of pushing you down a path towards adopting a more extreme position, or evolving the way you think about it over time. But I think most of the content, it resonates with people because it resonates with their lived experience and to the extent that people are abusing that and either trying to represent that they’re someone who they’re not, or trying to take advantage of a bug in human psychology where we might be more prone to an extremist idea, that’s our job in either policing the platform working with governments and different agencies and making sure we design our systems and our recommendations systems to not be promoting things that people might engage with in the near term, but over the long term, will regret and resent us for having done that. And I think it’s in our interest to get that right. And for a while, I think we didn’t understand the depth of some of the problems and challenges that we faced there and there’s certainly a lot more to do, and when you’re up against nation states, they’re very sophisticated. They’re gonna keep evolving their tactics. But the thing that I think is really important is that the fundamental design of a system, I do think, in our incentives, are aligned with helping people connect to the people they want, have meaningful interactions, not just getting people to watch a bunch of content that they’re gonna resent later that they did that and certainly not making people have more extreme or negative viewpoints than what they actually believe, so.

Harari: Maybe I can try and summarize my view in that. We have two distinct dangers coming out of the same technological tools. We have the easier danger to grasp which is of extreme totalitarian regimes of a kind we haven’t seen before and this could happen in different… Maybe not in the US, but in other countries… That these tools… You say that these are abuses, but in some countries, this could become the norm. That you’re living from the moment you’re born in this system that constantly monitors and surveils you and constantly manipulates you from a very early age to adopt particular ideas, views, habits, so forth in a way which was never possible before. And this is like the full fledged totalitarian dystopia, which could be so effective that people would not even resent it because they would be completely aligned with the values or the ideals of the… It’s not 1984 where you need to torture people all the time. No. If you have agents inside their brain, you don’t need the external secret police. So that’s one danger. It’s like the full-fledged totalitarianism.
Then in places like the US, the more immediate danger or problem to think about is what is increasingly people refer to as surveillance capitalism. That you have this system that constantly interact with you and come to know you and it’s all supposedly in your best interests. To give you better recommendations and better advice. So it starts with recommendations for which movie to watch and where to go on vacation, but as the system becomes better, it gives a recommendation on what to study at college, where to work, ultimately, whom to marry, who to vote for, which religion to join, like, join a community. You have all these religious communities, “This is the best religion for you. “For your type of personality, “Judaism, nah, it won’t work for you. “Go with Zen Buddhism. “It’s a much better fit for your personality. “You will thank us. “In five years, you will look back and say, “‘This was an amazing recommendation. Thank you. I so much enjoy Zen Buddhism.'” And again, people will feel that this is aligned with their own best interests and the system improves over time. Yeah, there will be glitches. Not everybody will be happy all the time, but what does it mean that all the most important decisions in my life are being taken by an external algorithm? What does it mean in terms of human agency, in terms of the meaning of life? For thousands of years, humans tended to view life as a drama of decision-making. Life is your… It’s a journey, you reach an intersection after intersection and you need to choose some decisions are small, like what to eat for breakfast and some decisions are really big like whom to marry. And almost all of art and all of religion is all about that. Whether it’s a Shakespeare tragedy, or a Hollywood comedy, it’s about the hero or heroine needing to make a big decision. To be or not to be. To marry “X” or to marry “Y.” And what does it mean to live in a world in which increasingly, we rely on the recommendations of algorithms to make these decisions until we reach a point when we simply follow them all the time or most of the time?
And they make good recommendations. I’m not saying that this is some abused… No, they’re good recommendations. We don’t have a model for understanding what is the meaning of human life in such a situation.

Zuckerberg: Well.. I think the biggest objection that I’d have to both of the ideas that you just raised is that we have access to a lot of different sources of information, a lot of people to talk to about different things. And it’s not just like there’s one set of recommendations, or a single recommendation that gets to dominate what we do and that gets to be overwhelming either in the totalitarian or the capitalist model of what you were saying. To the contrary, I think people really don’t like, and are very distrustful when they feel like they’re being told what to do, or just have a single option. One of the big questions that we’ve studied is, “How do we address when there’s a hoax, or clear misinformation?” And the most obvious thing that would seem like you’d do intuitively, is tell people, “Hey, this seems like it’s wrong. Here is the other point of view “that is right.” Or at least if it’s a polarized thing, even if it’s not clear what’s wrong and what’s right, here’s the other point of view on any given issue. And that really doesn’t work. What ends up happening is if you tell people that something is false, but they believe it, then they just end up not trusting you. So that ends up not working. If you frame two things as opposites… If you say, “Okay, you’re a person who doesn’t believe, and you’re seeing content “about not believing in climate change. “So I’m gonna show you the other perspective. “Here’s something that argues that climate change is a thing.” That actually just entrenches you further because someone’s trying to control and… So what ends up working sociologically and psychologically, the thing that ends up actually being effective is giving people a range of choices. So if you show, not, “Here’s the other opinion” with a judgement on the piece of content that a person is engaged with, but instead you show a series of related articles, related content, then people can work out for themselves, “Hey, here’s the range of different opinions. “Or things that exist on this topic. “Maybe I lean in one direction or the other, “but I’m gonna work out for myself where I wanna be.” Most people don’t choose the most extreme thing. And people end up feeling like they’re informed and can make a good decision. So, at the end of the day, I think that that’s the architecture and the responsibility that we have is to make sure that the work that we’re doing gives people more choices, that it’s not a given single opinion that can dominate anyone’s thinking, but where you can connect to hundreds of different friends and even if most of your friends share your religion or your political ideology, you’re probably gonna have five or 10% of friends who come from a different background who have different ideas and at least that’s getting in is well, so you’re getting a broader range of views.
So I think these are really important questions and it’s not like there’s an answer that’s going to fully solve it one way or another.

Harari: Definitely not it.

Zuckerberg: But these are the right things to talk through. We’ve been going for 90 minutes so we probably should wrap up. But I think we have a lot of material to cover in the next one of these that we’ll hopefully get to do at some point in the future and thank you so much for coming and joining and doing this. This has been a really interesting series of important topics to discuss.

Harari: Thank you for hosting me and being open about these very difficult questions, which I know that you, being the head of a global corporation… I can just sit here and speak about whatever I want, but you have many more responsibilities on your head, so I appreciate that you’re putting yourself on the firing line and dealing with these questions.

Zuckerberg: Thanks. All right.

Harari: Thank you.


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