Yuval Harari: “Human beings are all algorithms!”

By August 04, 2016
Yuval Harari

Yuval Harari, a historian who has sold millions of books, predicts a glowing future for artificial intelligence (AI). Homo sapiens could well be overtaken by AI sooner than we had expected.

Published in around thirty languages, with millions of copies sold, ‘Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind’ traces the evolution of Homo sapiens, combining history and science and both delving back into our past and looking into our future. Among the predictions advanced by its author, historian Yuval Harari, is the coming-to-pass of the prophecy of Mary Shelley, of the creature that escapes the control of its creator and master, Dr Frankenstein.  The analogy is a telling one, that of AI overtaking human beings.

We met up with Yuval Harari at the Unexpected Sources of Inspiration (USI) event in Paris in June, and asked him about his ideas and the impact the new technologies might have on humanity.

Interview with Israeli historian Yuval Harari, first broadcast on L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) on the BFM Business channel.

Professor Harari, in a presentation you made at the USI event in Paris, you explained that human beings are very different from animals because of their flexibility and their ability to co-operate with others. So can homo sapiens continue to evolve in the age of digital?

Yes. In fact, we can envisage two alternatives. The first is that we use the technologies to upgrade ourselves, to create super-humans with super-qualities. The second is that we’ll try to create something totally different from ourselves, far more intelligent and powerful. And by that I basically mean an artificial intelligence.

This would be an entity without precedent, something different from anything we’ve seen evolve on Earth since life first appeared. For four billion years living things have come from the realm of the organic. Artificial intelligence could become the first non-organic living entity in the history of the world. And if it became more powerful and more intelligent than humans, then it would replace us as the dominant force.

Human beings, giraffes, viruses are all algorithms. They differ from computers only in the sense that they’re biochemical algorithms, which have evolved at the whim of natural selection over millions of years.

Some scientists and philosophers we invite to our microphone at L’Atelier numérique, (L’Atelier Digital) say that in this confrontation between human beings and robots, we have forgotten two things.  Firstly, we’re creating robots and we will remain masters of their power and limits. Secondly, we might assume that they will always lack creativity, which you see as the human being’s superior ingredient.

Well, we need to distinguish carefully between robots and artificial intelligence.

The key, I believe, is the intelligence that makes them work. The physical manifestation – i.e. computers and robots – is of no real importance. Yes, today humans are superior to artificial intelligence, in lots of ways. Especially when it comes to creativity. But that won’t last for ever. Creativity, according to biologists, is basically nothing more than the result of biochemical processes in our bodies.

Organisms are, in actual fact, algorithms. Human beings, giraffes, viruses are all algorithms. They differ from computers only in the sense that they’re biochemical algorithms, which have evolved at the whim of natural selection over millions of years.

From a biological point of view, these algorithms have no soul, no God-given spiritual essence. And if it’s true that humans have no soul or spiritual essence, and that all human capabilities, including creativity, are the result of chemical processes, I don’t see why electronic algorithms wouldn’t be capable of imitating or surpassing the abilities of human beings in many areas.

You know that there are, for example, artificial intelligences that can compose music. And if you ask people to distinguish between a piece of music composed artificially and a piece composed by humans, they cannot tell which is which.  In the same way, we’re beginning to see the emergence of artificial intelligence which is having a real creative impact.

How so?

Let’s take an example. Today an increasing number of people are reading books on Kindle or other devices. What many people don’t know is that while you’re reading, the book is also reading you! The e-reader is capable of following you as you read. It knows which pages you’ve read quickly, or slowly, where you stopped reading and when you started again.

Given all this data we’ll soon be able to precisely identify any problems and flag them to the author. And this is only the first generation. Tomorrow, if you add a facial or biometric recognition system to your Kindle which can capture your expressions and physical reactions, the device will be able to comprehend the emotional impact the text is having on you, the reader.  All this data could be used to help create highly effective stories. Artificial intelligence, as an author, will know exactly which button to push to make you react.

Of course, it probably won’t be Shakespeare. But then 90% of human beings today aren’t capable of composing prose as compelling as that written by artificial intelligence. Don’t forget that ten years ago people thought that it would be impossible for artificial intelligence to translate texts. Now we have Google Translate, which suffices for simple texts, such as user instructions.

People don’t really need human translators for that kind of thing. Artificial intelligence will do the job. In areas such as writing and translation, artificial intelligence could catch up with homo sapiens more quickly than expected.



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