Not being a number does not make you a free man

Having listened last week to futurist Yuval Noah Harari talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts about his new book, Homo Deus, I am wondering how a conversation might go between Harari and The Prisoner. Next year will be the 50th anniversary since the iconic television series first broadcast what has become one of the catchcries of science fiction: “I am not a number: I am a free man!” Five decades on, the Guardian review of Harari’s book is sub-titled “How data will destroy human freedom”.

A fundamental difference between Harari’s hugely successful Sapiens and his new book is that the former involves reflections on how humanity has made it this far, whereas the new title is a speculation on the future. The former is rooted in memory; the latter involves conjectures that shift on the sands of uncertain definitions, as the above-linked Guardian review of Harari’s latest book reveals. “Now just hold on there” moments abound, as for example:

Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we are nothing but data-processing machines: we too are algorithms. By manipulating the data we can exercise mastery over our fate.”

Without having the peculiarities of that “one sense” explained, it is hard to absorb the meaning of words like “nothing”, “manipulating” and “mastery”. Words matter, of course, and there are perils attendant upon concluding too much about human identity through the links that are implicit in lazily assumed definitions.

What happens to the god-fearing woman when she discovers there is no God? Is the workingman bereft when there is no longer any work? If people refuse to accept the imprisonment of numbers assigned to them by other people, are they thus necessarily free? How much is freedom determined not by actions, but by thoughts? And critically: if our thinking is clearer and more careful, can we be more free?

In the Q&A that concluded the RSA event, Harari missed an opportunity when he was asked about the future prospects of education. What will we teach children in the data-driven future of Super Artificial Intelligence? Interestingly, neither maths nor sciences got a mention, and it seemed we might just have to see when the future arrives. But it must be true that a far higher standard in teaching reasoning and critical skills will be essential unless humanity would contemplate an eternal bedlam of making daisy chains and listening to Donovan.

Lively Stuff from Planet BAM!

  • A race of expansions: the universe, and our understanding of it

    Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss discusses the means with which we have acquired information about the universe, posing a question about the relative speed at which the universe is expanding, as against the rate at which our understanding of the universe is enabled to peer further into its vasty depths. One thing that is clear is that there are no discernible limits to what we can know, and yet the prospect looms that one day much of what constitutes the universe will “disappear from our view”. In about two trillion years.

  • Deep Mind is probing for answers in quicker cancer treatment

    We have already learned of developments in the application of AI in the diagnosis of eye disease and in reading fMRI brain scans. This story from Technology Review sees Deep Mind, Google’s machine learning division, taking on the tricky task of examining 3D scans of cancerous tumours associated with the head and neck. The key implications of this work are the increasing speed with which AI can outperform human specialists doing the same task, and the growing extent to which AI is being employed in pushing at the frontiers of personalised medicine, as was made clear in a report launched last week by NHS England at the health and Innovation Expo 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *