For the first time, we’ve invented something that takes power away from us, says the Israeli historian and author of Sapiens
ByHarry de Quetteville23 April 2023 • 8:00am
Stories have always been vital to Yuval Harari, the Israeli historian-cum-philosopher. The unique capacity of our species to be bound and united by intangible narratives, even across oceans, was central to Sapiens, his mind-bogglingly popular chronicle of our species’ rise, which catapulted him to seer-like status after its publication in English nearly a decade ago.
Perhaps that is why he is so profoundly concerned today about the rise of a challenger to our tale-telling mastery – artificial intelligence (AI).
“This is the first technology in history to create stories,” says Harari, 47, speaking to me from his house on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. For him, nothing could be a greater demonstration of power. For in his view, our collective belief in “stories” – of faith, finance, and nation among others – has fuelled mankind’s domination of the Earth. Money has allowed us to thrive, for example, but what value the fiver in your pocket if the shopkeeper dismisses it as just a bit of blue paper?
Now AI can weave such spells too, showing that the technology’s potential both for great good and harm, once considered distant and theoretical, is now immediate and real. That is why Harari added his name to a letter last month, signed by thousands of experts including Elon Musk, calling for a moratorium on research into software like Chat GPT, an AI model which can engage with humans in almost disturbingly nuanced, creative text.
Other programs can do the same with pictures and sounds. “The new generation of AI is not just spreading the content that humans produce. It can produce the content by itself,” Harari says. “Try to imagine what it means to live in a world where most texts and melodies and then TV series and images are created by a non-human intelligence. We just don’t understand what it means. What could be the consequences of AI taking over culture?”
Trivial examples already exist. Last week a German magazine was lambasted for publishing what appeared to be an exclusive interview with Michael Schumacher, when it fact the text was generated by AI imitating the paralysed former racing driver. Harari suggests AI will soon go much further, evoking a world in which “you go online and you argue with somebody about some political issue. Maybe they even send you a video of themselves talking. But there is no person behind it. It is all AI.”
Nor, in his dystopia, would the synthetic digital fake be of just any human being. Because we are uniquely influenced by those close to us, it might seem to be a friend or relative, trying to convince you of the merit of a product, or their position on climate change, vaccines, or immigration. It would be, he says, a power to manipulate the public discourse never before seen, and which would make the social media influence scandals of the last 10 years, already thought to have played a role in elections from Brazil to America, seem trivial. Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, has warned the cabinet that AI disinformation poses a significant threat.
“This is especially a threat to democracies more than to authoritarian regimes because democracies rely on public conversation,” says Harari. “Democracy basically is conversation. People talking with one another. If the conversation is taken over by AI, democracy is over.”
But what effect could the technology have if unleashed maliciously on the battlefield, by totalitarian regimes? One Google AI system, for example, taught itself Bengali without being trained to do so.
“The Nazi regime was based on technologies like trains and electricity and radios. They didn’t have tools like artificial intelligence,” says Harari. “A new regime in the 21st century will have much more powerful tools. So the consequences could be far more disastrous. This is something that I don’t know if humanity can survive.”
Even more banal consequences have the potential to be revolutionary, he says. “Another danger is that a lot of people might find themselves completely out of a job, not just temporarily, but lacking the basic skills for the future job market. We might reach a point where the economic system sees millions of people as completely useless. This has terrible psychological and political ramifications.”
It is the autonomy of AI that makes it so different. Yet even Harari, who has made his name boiling down complex topics, seems frustrated by his inability to make the rest of us see this as profoundly as he does.
“We need to understand that AI is the first technology in history that can make decisions by itself. It can make decisions about its own usage. It can also make decisions about you and me. This is not a future prediction. This is already happening.”
He discusses notorious cases in which AI software has been used to vet loan applicants, or decide whether prisoners should receive parole. “So power is shifting away for the first time in history. We invented something that takes power away from us. And it’s happening so fast that most people don’t even understand what is happening. We need to make sure that AI makes good decisions about our lives. This is something that we are very far from solving.”
Like others he now espouses regulation to manage AI’s power – harnessing its promise and preventing catastrophe. In Harari’s mind, such rules would emulate medical safeguards. “A drug company cannot release a new medicine to the market without first going through a lengthy regulatory process. It’s really bizarre and frightening that corporations can just release extremely powerful AI tools into the public sphere without any similar safety measures.”
Such measures would have to be enforced by government, he insists. Expecting the tech industry to regulate itself is for the birds. “With all due respect to Elon Musk and Zuckerberg or the other heads of big tech companies, they are not elected by anybody, don’t represent anybody except for their shareholders and there is no reason to trust them.” As if to prove Harari’s point, Musk announced his own AI chatbot mere days after signing the letter denouncing the research of others.
Maybe it’s no surprise then, that Harari keeps his own phone switched off, “in a drawer”. He calls it “an emergency smartphone” for when he travels abroad, which is considerably more in the last decade, since he became a global intellectual superstar.
“It has become really impossible to do some things without a smartphone.” One thinks of him trying to order a taxi on a foreign trip, and failing. What he doesn’t miss from his pocket screen, however, is the distracting flood of information pouring into his brain. He declares himself on “an information diet”.
“There is too much junk information,” he says. “It’s like food. For most of human history, we were desperately trying to get more food. And now we are in the opposite situation. We need to be very careful about both the quantities but also the quality of the food that we take in.”
He contrasts the focus and active choice involved in “reading” to this passive, goggle-eyed “consumption” of information. It is hard to imagine Harari doing anything in such a thoughtless fashion. He likes time and peace to compose his thoughts, and has long been keen on meditation to ensure he is mentally tuned to keep distractions at bay. “I just returned from a two month meditation retreat,” he says. “You can say it’s part of the information diet…a period to disconnect and allow the mind to detoxify itself from all the garbage that we take in.”
Harari may be able to take so much time out given the financial security that his fame has brought (in one New Yorker profile, it was suggested his fee for a single 24-minute speech amounted to several hundred thousand dollars). But his interest in meditation predates his success, and his instinct to pause, reflect on big themes and make connections between them goes back further still, when he found that growing up gay made him something of an outsider, looking in on the rest of society, trying to explain it. “1980s Israel was so homophobic,” he says.
He grew up near Haifa, in northern Israel, the precociously bright youngest child (he has two older sisters) of Shlomo – a defence contractor – and Pnina Harari. By his late teens he was gravitating towards mediaeval history, which he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem until 1998, when he moved to Jesus College, Oxford to complete his PhD.
Harari returned to Israel in 2003, the year that Hebrew U (as Hebrew University is known), started running a primer for undergraduates called “An Introduction to the History of the World”. As specialists, established academics tended to shy away from such a broad course, so as a new and junior member of faculty Harari found himself teaching it. Nervous, he wrote scripts for his 20 lectures. They were to become the basis of Sapiens.
But that is to make his path to fame and wealth seem simple. In fact the manuscript of Sapiens was repeatedly rejected in Israel, and then, when it did finally find a publisher, languished untranslated for several years. Harari even resorted to translating into English himself and using Amazon’s print-on-demand service.
It was a struggle that he may not have had the determination to pursue without the grit of his husband, Itzik Yahav, whom he met via a dating site in 2002. Yahav not only helped get Harari’s career off the ground, he has been a key factor in ensuring he has subsequently flown so high, to the extent he now has a well-staffed office that is the envy of other public intellectuals. “If it was only me, I would have long ago collapsed or given up,” Harari once said of Yahav.
Harari has since published two other sweeping history books – Homo Deus (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). Last year he released his first children’s book, Unstoppable Us: How Humans Took Over the World, and Sapiens has also been adapted into a graphic novel series. But his most pressing preoccupation today is the state of his own nation, notably the plans of the coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu to prune the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court, which currently acts as the sole brake on legislative power.
“The government is basically trying to establish a dictatorship here,” Harari says, an edge to his usual methodical delivery. “I think that there is a real threat to the survival of Israeli democracy.” He says it is “absolutely true” that Israelis and Israeli companies are leaving because “the government is trying to dismantle the checks and balances of Israeli democracy.”
“If the Israeli parliament passes a law that, for instance, takes away voting rights from Arab citizens – and some politicians have been talking about exactly such a law – the only institution that can intervene, strike down such a law is the Supreme Court.”
He says some members of the coalition want to be able “to rig elections”, “already prepared a long list of laws and regulations that will discriminate against Arab citizens, against women, against LGBT people, against secular people” and “hold messianic views and have a strong belief in Jewish supremacy.”
While the measures have been paused in the wake of huge street protests “the crisis is still ongoing,” he says. “And if the government succeeds then Israel will go the same route as Turkey and Russia – which may still hold periodic elections, but are no longer really democracies.”
Comparisons with Viktor Orban’s rule in Hungary are misplaced, he says, because Israel is “a major military power with nuclear capabilities, and also with cyber capabilities which really have a global reach. People in the UK should care about what’s happening in Israel because it could destabilise the entire Middle East with immediate consequences also for Europe.”
My time with the oracle is flying by. If I was paying I would be past a million bucks by now. We consider the Ukraine war (“the consequences for the whole of humanity could be tragic”); climate change (“I hear people say that climate change is something that democracies are inherently incapable of dealing with because it’s a long term problem. I don’t think that’s true.”); Covid lockdowns (“in the early stages of the pandemic, when we just didn’t know what we were facing, extreme measures were more justified”); transgender rights (“My personal position is traditional. I think that sex is an objective biological phenomenon whereas gender is cultural”); the coronation (“It’s very hard in a single country to get tens of millions of people to live together and agree on anything. In Britain, the Royal family has a very important symbolic role to play”). Eventually, we end by talking about happiness. Harari concludes Sapiens by noting that, despite vast increases in our prosperity, mankind “seems as discontented as ever”. Does the same go for him?
“My life completely changed [with fame],” he says. “Ten years ago nobody wanted to interview me about anything. So I had a lot of time to just read books and then write my stuff. Fame on the personal level, it usually just creates more problems.” On balance though, friends, meditation and therapy, and shedding the anxieties of youth all mean “I’m happier now.”
It is an upbeat way to end a discussion with a man who, like some oracles of old, is occasionally lambasted for serving up gloomy analysis of humanity’s condition but offering no remedy (his most famous tome concludes: “The Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of”).
But by the time we wind up it’s not his ability elegantly to describe so many potential catastrophes that I find deeply unsettling, so much as his inability to say why our species has such a habit of wreaking havoc. His words ring in my ears: “The best I can say is that history is full of mistakes. A lot of major events are not the result of some inevitable forces of history. They are simply the result of humans making terrible mistakes. The basic thing you need to assume is that people are fallible. People are corruptible. A good institution or a good country is one that enjoys strong self-correcting mechanisms.”
Like Israel’s Supreme Court. It is a lesson, he thinks, not just key to the survival of his nation as a democracy, but to the survival of the world full stop.
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