Are Cyborgs In Our Future? 'Homo Deus' Author Thinks So

Feb 21, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 8:09 pm

The human species is about to change dramatically. That's the argument Yuval Noah Harari makes in his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Harari is a history professor at Hebrew University in Israel. He tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that he expects we will soon engineer our bodies and minds in the same way we now design products.


Interview Highlights

On how we will begin to engineer bodies

The three main ways of doing that, first of all, is to take our organic body and start tinkering with it with things like genetic engineering, speeding up natural selection and actually replacing it with intelligent design — not the intelligent design of some God above the clouds, but our intelligent design.

The other way is to start combining organic with inorganic parts and creating cyborgs. For four billion years all of evolution — not just of humans but of all beings — was confined to the organic realm, but very soon we might be able to break out of the organic realm using things like brain-computer interfaces, which combine organic parts like an organic brain with inorganic parts like bionic hands or eyes or ears.

And then the third and most extreme path is to create completely inorganic beings not even needing an organic brain, but using instead artificial intelligence.

On one way a future medical breakthrough could be used to upgrade a healthy person

I think in general medicine in the 21st century will switch from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy. ... If you find ways to repair the memory damaged by Alzheimer's disease or dementia and so forth, it is very likely that the same methods could be used to upgrade the memory of completely healthy people. And if you find ways to connect brains and computers, you can rely on memory's immense databases outside your own brain. We are starting to do it, in a way, with our smart phones and computers, but what we may see in coming decades is humans actually merging completely with their smart phones and computers.

On biological inequality

It's likely that all the upgrades, at least at first, will cost a lot and will be available only to a small elite. So for the first time in human history we might see economic inequality being translated into biological inequality. And once such a gate opens, it becomes almost impossible to close it because then the rich will really be far more capable than everybody else.

On what can be done to control the growth of bioengineering and artificial intelligence

One thing that we need to do is start thinking far more seriously about global governance because the only solution to such problems will be on a global level, not on a national level.

Actually, of course, in the last year or two we are seeing a retrograde movement away from globalist thinking and into more nationalist and isolationist thinking, and this is very dangerous. I mean, traditionally, people said that nationalism is dangerous because it leads to war. But now nationalism is far more dangerous because not only it leads to war, it also may prevent us from having any effective answer that can help us cope with dangers like the rise of artificial intelligence or the implications of bioengineering.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The human species is about to change dramatically. That's the argument Yuval Noah Harari makes in his new book "Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow." Harari is a history professor at Hebrew University in Israel. He expects we will soon engineer our bodies, brains and minds in the same way that we now design products.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: There are three main ways of doing that. First of all is to take our organic body and start tinkering with it with things like genetic engineering, speeding up natural selection and actually replacing it with intelligent design - not the intelligent design of some God above the clouds but our intelligent design.

The other way is to start combining organic with inorganic parts and creating cyborgs. For 4 billion years, all of evolution - not just of humans but of all beings - was confined to the organic realm. But very soon, we might be able to break out of the organic realm using things like brain-computer interfaces which combine organic parts like an organic brain with inorganic parts like bionic hands or eyes or ears.

And then the third and most extreme path is to create completely inorganic beings not even needing an organic brain but using instead artificial intelligence.

SHAPIRO: One of the ideas that stood out to me from your book is that there is no clear line that separates healing from upgrading. So for example, plastic surgery may have begun as a tool to repair people, and it quickly became a tool to improve people. And you suggest that physical improvements of other kinds will likely follow the same path. Give me an example.

HARARI: I think in general, medicine in the 21st century will switch from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy. This is true not only of plastic surgery and improvements to the body but also improvements to our cognitive abilities - for example, memory. If you find ways to repair the memory damaged by Alzheimers disease or dementia and so forth, it is very likely that the same methods could be used to upgrade the memory of completely healthy people.

And if you find ways to connect brains and computers, you can rely on memories in immense databases outside your own brain. We are starting to do it in a way with our smartphones and computers, but what we may see in coming decades is humans actually merging completely with their smartphones and computers.

SHAPIRO: As you imagine this world in the not-too-distant future where people have the option of upgrading their bodies and upgrading their minds, what happens to people who don't exercise that option, who decide to stay natural?

HARARI: The real problem is not those who choose to stay natural but the fact that I think very few people at least in the beginning will have that choice at all. It's likely that all the upgrades, at least at first, will cost a lot and will be available only to a small elite.

So for the first time in human history, we might see economic inequality being translated into biological inequality. And once such a gap opens, it becomes almost impossible to close it because then the rich will really be far more capable than everybody else.

SHAPIRO: This near-future that you describe can quite quickly start to feel very frightening, dystopian, like a future that nobody would want to live in. Was there any moment when you were writing this book and thought, you know what; I really just don't want to immerse myself in this world. I mean you go deep into it. Was the experience of writing it as harrowing as the experience of reading it can be?

HARARI: (Laughter) No because these are not prophecies. We can still do something about it.

SHAPIRO: What can we do?

HARARI: One thing that we need to do is start thinking far more seriously about global governance because the only solution to such problems will be on a global level, not on a national level. I mean actually of course in the last year or two, we are seeing a retrograde movement away from global thinking and into more nationalist and isolationist thinking. And this is very dangerous.

I mean traditionally, people said that nationalism is dangerous because it leads to war, but now nationalism is far more dangerous because not only it leads to war. It also may prevent us from having any effective answer that can help us cope with dangers like the rise of artificial intelligence or the implications of bioengineering.

SHAPIRO: Yuval Noah Harari's new book is called "Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow." Thank you for the enlightening and slightly terrifying read.

(LAUGHTER)

HARARI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.