Chasing the Clarity to Calculate our Future: a Review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Arnaldo, Carlos, MA
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Faculty and Associate Editor at Enderun Colleges

After publishing two historical books, Sapiens: a brief history of
mankind (Harari 2015) and Homo: Deus (2017), Yuval Noah Harari opens his
third (2018, xiii) in this trilogy with an imperative for clarity: ―In a world
deluged with irrelevance, clarity is power.‖ And throughout this volume, the
reader will be struck by the author‘s clarity on today‘s challenging issues. It is
almost as if world events were reacting to Harari‘s description of the near
future, tomorrow's future, and the today future.

For one, Harari, in many of his YouTube talks, insists as a historian,
that ―his-tory is about the future, it‘s about changes.‖ Fernand Braudel (1986), a
very popular and deeply sensitive French historian, further declines this
proposal when he writes, ―History must quit its serene perch of retrospection
for the un-certainties of prospection.‖ When one can appreciate that
perspective, then one is on the way to clarity.

21 Lessons (xiv) thus focuses on ―the immediate future of human
societies . . . . today‘s greatest challenges and most important choices.‖ And
today‘s future world is marked by two pivotal events: the Trump moment and
Brexit, the de-sire of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Harari
considers these as the two major events that symbolize the movement of the
world as a whole towards a more radical, isolationist nationalism that runs
counter to the tenets of liberalism like equality, openness to migration, global
cooperation, and global networking.

US President Trump seeks to destroy the world‘s previously accepted
narrative of liberalism, in order to replace it with the ideology of professedly
white, radical nationalism, as publicly evoked in his tweet of July 15, 2019, to
the four freshmen US Congresswomen of color, that they ―Go back‖ to ―the
totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.‖ Nor has the
US president denied his statement of racism, he has gloried in it during public
rallies. Nor is he alone, as several European leaders also chant the same
mantra.

And on that other side of the Atlantic, where 28 countries are seeking
to strengthen a global network of political agreement, and economic
cooperation, the United Kingdom, having voted in a national referendum to
leave the European Union, has been seeking for three years now to make that
exit. Even if the Union can survive and possibly thrive without the UK, this
first departure places a serious negative mark on the rest of the world‘s efforts
to create a global network and system of economic and political cooperation.
Brexit is more than just one country leaving the European Union, Brexit is a
statement that the UK does not wish to support the idea of global networking
and cooperation. Brexit is saying the UK wants to control its own borders and
select its own economic trading partners outside the European framework.
While Brexit could pave the way for other countries to leave, the three-year
travail the UK has suffered in seeking exit might also work to discourage
future departures! As a matter of fact, it would seem that the UK itself is so
internally polarized that its Parliament cannot arrive at a consensus on the
procedures for leaving the European Union.

The Three World Stories


To fully understand the Trump moment and Brexit, Harari (2018, 3)
reviews the three fundamental world stories. The Fascist Story, belief in the
super race and extinction of all other inferior races, came to an end with World
War 2. The Communist Story, belief in state monopolization and control came
down with the Berlin Wall in 1989, though forms of ‗capitalized‘ communism
still operate in China and Vietnam, while various forms of state-controlled
economies function in Iran, Turkey, and many of the Mideast countries.
Nonetheless, economics under communism as envisaged by Marx and Lenin
has been taken over by new enlightened forms of totalitarianism, making more
liberalized use of capital.

Today, many people of the 21st century are basking in the gleam of the
Liberal Story, that is, the triumph of equality, democracy, and human rights
over despotism and tyrannical governments. But, says Harari (2018, 1),
―Humankind is losing faith in the Liberal Story that dominated global politics
in recent decades, exactly when the merger of biotech and infotech confronts us
with the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered.‖ The liberal
ideology, built on and contributing to global cooperation and networking, is
now being eroded by the forces of radical nationalism and isolationism, based
on xenophobia and movements against immigration, and related threats to
break down global cooperation, such as the UK departure from the European Union

The Three Challenging Issues

Quite appropriately, Harari explicates the three challenging issues in
his section on Political Challenges and in the chapter on Nationalism. For in
this section of the book, his thoughts on global networking and the
impediments to it have evolved considerably, particularly in terms of the
nationalist threats to global cooperation. Hence, he writes (2018, 110), ―The
whole of mankind now constitutes a single civilization, with all people sharing
common challenges and opportunities. Yet Britons, Americans, Russians, and
numerous other groups increasingly support nationalistic isolation.‖
Harari (2018, 115) describes this extreme nationalism as a ―world
without immigration, without universal values, without multiculturalism, and
without a global elite—but with peaceful international relations and some
trade. In a word . . . a network of walled but-friendly fortresses.‖ But he is
quick to add, ―fortresses are seldom friendly.‖

The Nuclear Challenge.

Since 1945, people are no longer afraid of war in the traditional sense.
Hiroshima was the world lesson that taught global fear of a nuclear war.
Only a ―global community . . . could restrain the nuclear demon.‖ (2018, 113)
Today there are already threats of nuclear conflict arising
from North Korea‘s launching of short- to medium-range ballistic missiles in
July and August 2019 ; and Iran‘s continuation of its nuclear program and
increasing its stockpile of uranium, following the withdrawal of the US from the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iran Nuclear Deal. The current
breakdown of relations between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan over
the autonomous Indian state of Kashmir, marks a third global hot point.
The Ecological Challenge. The threats of increased temperatures
worldwide and the rising of sea levels constitute impending world disasters.

These are global calamities beyond the narrow limits of any single state.
Europe and the US recently suffered extensive heat waves way above the
normal averages of the last decades; many states were hit with excesses of 40
degrees Centigrade. Most of the atolls of Kiribati in the Pacific would
disappear, as the landmass consists mainly of atolls, rising only a few meters
above the sea, the tops of undersea volcanoes. The highest point is 265 meters
above sea lev-el. Worse, Harari warns (2018, 119), the world is rapidly
approaching a number of tipping points. For ―as global warming melts the
polar ice sheets, less sunlight is reflected from planet Earth to outer space.

This means that the planet absorbs more heat, temperatures rise even higher, and
the ice melts even faster. Once this feedback loop crosses a critical threshold, it
will gather an unstoppable momentum, and all the ice in the Polar Regions will
melt even it humans stop burning coal, oil, and gas.‖ It is therefore highly
doubtful that any single nation could stop global warming by itself. The
ultimate danger, the author points out (2018, 123), is that since ―there is no
national answer to the problem of global warming; some nationalist politicians
prefer to believe the problem does not exist.‖ This is likely what is happening
in Brazil, where Pres-ident Jair Bolsonaro seems to be holding a contradictory
position. For a while he idled for days as fires raged in the Amazon region, and
spent time blaming NGOs and local farmers for deliberately setting the fires, he
now sends the military to fight the fires. He proclaims, ―I have a profound love
and respect for the Amazon . . . Protecting the rain forest is our duty.‖ This is a
position difficult to reconcile with the President‘s drive for development of the
Amazon region, development—a euphemism for burning forests and clearing
land!

The Technological Challenge. By combining infotech and biotech, this
merger of two aspects of technology today ―opens the door to a cornucopia of
doomsday scenarios ranging from digital dictatorships to the creation of a
global useless class.‖ (2018, 123) While it is simpler to agree on reducing the
risks of nuclear war and taking global measures to preserve the environment,
―people have had widely different opinions about using bioengineering and AI
to upgrade humans and create new life forms.‖ (2018, 124) In the future, we
may be facing new creations of Dr. Frankenstein! Thus, after millions of years
of natural selection, it would seem that Homo sapiens may be replaced by new
forms or even cyborgs. Future police forces may start to count Robocops in
their ranks.

A critical corollary question arises from the Technological Challenge.
Can AI and bioengineering separate consciousness from its organic structure?
Is the mind different from the brain? Can intelligence be decoupled from
conscious-ness? Will a future world be ―dominated by super intelligent but
completely non-conscious entities?‖ (idem.)

―Big Data is watching you.‖

Reminiscent of Orwell‘s (1949) ‗Big Brother is watching you,‘
algorithms are increasingly controlling daily life even today, to the extent that
in a few years, algorithms will replace humans at work. And future generations
will receive education to join what Harari (2018, 19 ff) refers to as the useless
class of la-bor.

Based on information collected by big data streams, algorithms can
determine how to make you like Coca Cola or be interested in buying Calvin
Klein underwear. In the medical field, algorithms linked to biometric sensors
can collect your life symptoms (pulse temperature, blood pressure) and
evaluate preliminary biological information, especially to measure emotional
reactions, important in creating advertising messages. More sophisticated
biometrics can deliver even more information about biochemical contents in
the human system, alcohol content, heart palpitations, and fibrations. Other
algorithms take the form of a survey or questionnaire to find out if you are a
potential victim for a scam. This is to help the would-be felons avoid wasting
time on street-wise surfers and let them focus on more vulnerable prey.

We are already used to robots answering service calls. Robot voices are
replac-ing people at call centers. At some sophisticated banks, loans are no
longer processed by tellers or loan specialists, but by algorithms that inspect
data submitted, to review financial history, determine assets, and ability to
repay. Algorithms are already at work to operate self-driving cars. Flying
drones, in small models as well as giant-sized aircraft, are already reducing the
need for human pilots. Iran last June 19, 2019, shot down a US drone said to
have been flying in their national air space in the Straits of Hormuz; the drone
was actually an unmanned spy plane. But ironically, to fly an unmanned
drone, the US Army needs some 30 people to guide and monitor the drone and
oversee its operation! (2018, 29) In this case, mechanical and digital processes,
while replacing human work, have also created new work for humans. The
future, therefore, may have to foresee methods of re-training to convert useless
people into productive laborers.

On the creative side, algorithms in chess games can defeat not only
humans but other chess game systems (2018, 31). ―AlphaZero used the latest
machine-learning principles to self-learn chess by playing against itself.
Nevertheless, out of a hundred games, the novice AlphaZero won 28 and tied
seventy-two. It didn‘t lose even once.‖ The power of algorithms is all the more
increased when, through machine-learning, the algorithms self-create their
own new pro-cesses, which make them operative in new ways.

But let‘s not stray too far away from today‘s world. The two fatal
crashes of a Boeing 737 Max aircraft may also have been due to algorithms that
malfunc-tioned. The 737 Max was fitted with a computer program to correct —
without pilot intervention—dangerous movements of the aircraft, in particular,
nose angled extremely high or nose pointed extremely downward. In these
two crashes, the evidence so far points to algorithms that wrongly interpreted
wind sensor data or operated on erroneously perceived wind sensor
information.

Normally, it should be a rather simple matter either to reprogram
the MCAS algorithm or delete it from the 737 Max computer software system
that co-pilots the aircraft. For almost a year, the Boeing 737 Max has still not
been certified for flight operation. This faulty algorithm has stuck, and the
grounded 737 Max aircraft are costing Boeing billions in losses, not to speak of
airline flight cancellations and the need to rent additional aircraft.
Similarly, accident ridden algorithms may yet be imposed on our daily
lives without our permission, without our consent or even without our
knowledge.

Overall, however, digital processes linked to algorithms will not only
collect, analyze, and reutilize big data; they will replace jobs while also creating
new jobs. Future labor forces will need to be prepared for this, and particularly
for retraining people for new kinds of work as yet unforeseen.
One early indication of this trend is the creation of Halodoc by
Jonathan Sudharta. ―Halodoc runs a platform used by about 40 million people
to connect with more than 22,000 licensed doctors in Indonesia.‖ The young
Indonesian entrepreneur has a massive platform linking patients to doctors as
well as to pharmacy outlets. Though the site charges only $1.40 (20,000
Indonesian rupiahs) per consultation, income is made on the volume of these
consultations, plus commissions on medicines purchased in pharmacies linked
to Hal-odoc and deliveries. Now worth $350 million, Halodoc has evolved so
rapidly and efficiently that the Gates Foundation is supporting it.
Coupled with the future challenges, therefore, we need to learn how to
deal with big data, to protect one‘s own privacy and confidential information,
but also to deal with algorithm propelled mechanisms that rule our lives in
banking, travel, bills payments, and several thousand other types of processes
that rule daily life.

Lesson 21: Meditation

Harari concludes his book and the trilogy with a surprise: a final
chapter on meditation. Then again, re-reading his sections on algorithms and
big data, it is not surprising that he returns to an earlier question (2018, 124), is
there a dif-ference between the brain and the mind, can they be separated: the
brain is the physical intelligence measurable by electric signals, and the mind,
the continuing ‗I‘ from birth to death that governs all that the brain does, feels
and reflects upon. No one has ever seen the mind. One tries to approach it
through medita-tion (2018, 324).

Incisively, summatively, Harari explains: ―As technology improved,
two things happened. First, as flint knives gradually evolved into nuclear
missiles, destabilizing the social order became more dangerous. Second, as cave
paintings gradually evolved into television broadcasts, it became easier to
delude the people. In the near future, algorithms might bring this process to
completion, making it well-nigh impossible for people to observe the reality
about them-selves. It will be the algorithms that will decide for us who we are
and what we should know about ourselves.‖

Consequently, the prophet author makes a strong, final appeal for
personal meditation, as possibly the last frontier and the one, personal tool to
decipher the changing reality around us. If Harari started this third book with
an imperative to seek clarity in understanding the world, his final appeal is for
meditation (2018, 321).

―If we are willing to make such efforts in order to understand foreign
cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just
as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand
our minds before the algorithms make up our minds for us.‖

Category: Book Review , Business , Economics , Information Technology