Radio Readers BookByte: Think About It

Oct 24, 2019

As artificial intelligence takes over more and more jobs in the future, a new leisure class could emerge.
Credit Austrian Future Cup / Wikimedia Commons

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, to chat up with you the fourth book in our Fall 2019 Book Club series.

The fourth book, yet another best-seller, is Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future.

The paradox of the title anticipates the mind-bending ideas posted by Harari, an historian and professor at a prominent university.

It’s taken me some time to read it, mostly because the ideas are so dense, so provocative, I’ve had to frequently set the book aside to think about these ideas and their implications.   

For example, in the final sections, Harari riffs on a study published in 2013 by researchers at Oxford. This study predicts that within 30 years a variety of current professions will be obsolete, the work of which will be done more efficiently and accurately by computer algorithms. The list of professions is wide-ranging, including sports referees and underwriters, lifeguards, archivists, and carpenters, security guards, chefs, tour guides and paralegals. Harari also predicts that the work of physicians, attorneys, bankers and stock brokers will also become the function of digital algorithms.  And, he asks, as humans are displaced from work, what will we do? Play computer games and self-medicate? Return to school to retool our skills?

Well, Harari quips, already, right now, companies are developing interactive algorithms that not only instruct individuals in various topics but can also – by coding reactions and responses of students-- summon up and deliver individualized instruction to best meet each student’s learning styles and needs. This is to say, we can add teaching to the list of disappearing vocations.

Then, as humans are displaced from work, Harari asks, what will we do—with our lives and to sustain ourselves? As we have more time free of work, and what with advances in medicine, more time to live, what will it mean, if anything, to be human?  History shows us similar patterns, of course, especially in historical shifts from agrarianism to industrialization to corporatization – as we know, new types of employment emerge, new ways of filling our days and lives.

But in our cybernetic era, Harari predicts the emergence of a “small elite of upgraded superhumans” – which in times past have been labeled by philosophers and graphic artists as the uber-mensch and superman.  One difference is that Harari’s upgraded superhumans are unlikely “to fight never-ending battles for truth, justice, and the American way.”

Instead having gained an invulnerable immortality, in Harari’s view, these few upgraded superhumans will have become divine. Hence, Homo Deus, literally god-men, or men who are as gods.  Of course, each of us can identify at least one or two of those in our daily lives, right?   But imagine those one or two with empowered consciousness and control of all algorithms, including each of ours.

If, or as, this comes to pass, what will life on the high plains become? More or less populated? Greater or fewer resources? Improved access to improved health care, to goods and services?  If you’d like to hear more about Harari’s ideas and vision of our future, keep listening to Radio Readers book bytes and check out his books, or catch him on a Ted or YouTube talk.  

Meanwhile, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS for HPPR’s Radio Readers Book Club.  And right now, I’m headed outside, to feel the changing of the seasons and in other ways revel in the beauty of our High Plains.