For much of the 20th century, politics was a battle between grand visions of the future. Communists, fascists and liberals sought to destroy the old world and build a new one in its place. Lenin, Stalin and Mao tried to dismantle the structure of human society, and to engineer scientifically something far better. In the process, they treated communities, families and human beings as mere clay, killing tens of millions of people while explaining that “in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs”.
Hitler and his minions employed even more ruthless methods in the service of even more ambitious plans. The Nazis aimed to remake the human animal itself, rather than just human society. They planned to re-engineer human biology, speed up evolution and create superhumans. Whatever you think about people such as Lenin or Hitler, no one can accuse them of being narrow-minded.
Liberals were perhaps more moderate in their ambitions but not by far. Custodians of utopian Enlightenment visions, liberals hoped to create paradise on earth through mass education and technological progress. They overturned millennia-old hierarchies, empowering women, minorities and the young. Even more astonishing, after millions of years of evolution during which families and communities were the stable building blocks of human societies, liberals gave centre stage to the individual. They freed people from parents, neighbours and elders, creating a new “society of individuals”. In the process, they might have condemned us to hitherto unknown levels of alienation and loneliness. The liberal vision was more benign than the communist and fascist visions but it wasn’t less radical. It seems to us unremarkable and even trite simply because we live in it.
Whatever their disagreements about long-term visions, communists, fascists and liberals all combined forces to create a new state-run leviathan. Within a surprisingly short time, they engineered all-encompassing systems of mass education, mass health and mass welfare, which were supposed to realise the utopian aspirations of the ruling party. These mass systems became the main employers in the job market and the main regulators of human life. In this sense, at least, the grand political visions of the past century have succeeded in creating an entirely new world. The society of 1800 was completely destroyed and we are living in a new reality altogether.
In 1900 or 1950 politicians of all hues thought big, talked big and acted even bigger. Today it seems that politicians have a chance to pursue even grander visions than those of Lenin, Hitler or Mao. While the latter tried to create a new society and a new human being with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and supercomputers. In the coming decades, technological breakthroughs are likely to change human society, human bodies and human minds in far more drastic ways than ever before.
Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.
On top of that, we are also developing the ability to create cyborgs. Cyborg engineering does not limit itself to using only
organic structures but makes use of inorganic parts as well. It merges the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and fix damage. This may sound like science fiction but it is already a reality. Monkeys have recently learned, using electrodes implanted in their brains, to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies. Paralysed patients are able to move bionic limbs or control computers by the power of thought alone. If you wish, you can control the electronic devices in your house using a “mind-reading” headset. The headset does not require any brain implants, because it functions by reading the electric signals passing through the scalp. If you want to turn on the lights in the kitchen, all you need is to put on the headset, imagine some pre-programmed mental sign (your right hand moving, for instance) – and the lights turn on. You can buy such headsets online from around £200.
Yet even cyborg engineering is still relatively conservative, inasmuch as it assumes that organic brains will go on being the command and control centres of life. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software that can surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds free from the limitations of organic chemistry.
Life scientists have recently come to believe that life is really just data-processing and that living beings are a collection of biochemical self-replicating algorithms that natural selection improves ever so slowly. Computer scientists and mathematicians have simultaneously honed their skills in deciphering and writing algorithms. If organisms are indeed algorithms (a big IF, but this is the current orthodoxy) then it should be feasible to create non-organic life. After all, algorithms are algorithms. As long as the maths works the same, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon, silicon or plastic? This opens the possibility that after four billion years of milling around inside the small pond of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up unimaginable new shapes.
In science fiction ruthless, Hitler-like leaders are quick to pounce on such new technologies, putting them in the service of this or that dangerous political vision. Yet flesh-and-blood politicians in the early 21st century, even in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, are nothing like their Hollywood counterparts. They don’t seem to plot any Brave New World. The wildest dreams of Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei don’t go much beyond atomic bombs and ballistic missiles: which is so 1945. As for Barack Obama and David Cameron, they can barely manage to enact health and education reforms. Creating new worlds and new human beings is far beyond their agendas.
Hence, the novel technological vistas notwithstanding, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early 21st century, politics is bereft of grand visions. No political party has any far-reaching conception of transforming the world. No political party aims to turn society upside down, let alone create superhumans. Compared to the ideological wars of the mid-20th century, present-day debates seem like scholastic hair-splitting. While one needed a telescope to follow the visions of a Lenin or a Hitler, today, when it comes to the basic outlines of human societies, you need a microscope to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or between Labour and the Conservatives.
Yes, Ed Miliband and David Cameron had somewhat different visions of the European Union, the NHS and tax policies. But the differences are nothing like those between the communist and fascist visions a century ago. No party is in favour of creating a British empire, abolishing private property or gassing minorities. This sounds so obvious that we never bother to note it. But that’s the point. A century ago it was anything but obvious. There were powerful political parties with millions of followers that openly preached imperialism, genocide and the abolition of private property.
One very good reason politicians lost their appetite for grand visions is the terrible outcome of the ideological wars of the 20th century. If thinking big leads to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, humankind is far better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats.
Another factor is that the biggest 20th-century achievement weighs down on politicians of all shades and colours. The mass education, welfare and health services now demand enormous resources and constant care and attention. Moreover, any attempt to achieve some new grand vision would likely upset this behemoth. So politicians play it safe and devote most of their efforts to just keeping the system running. They tweak here and there but are afraid to make any real structural changes.
Third, after the smoke of the 20th-century
ideological wars cleared, neoliberalism was left standing as the ultimate victor. And neoliberalism, having shaped the economy and society to its own taste, now preaches inaction. Like Zen gurus, so the neoliberal masters advise the politicians: just do nothing. Each person should focus on his or her immediate job, without losing sleep over the long-term consequences. Builders should build, singers should sing, engineers should engineer – and let market forces take care of all the rest. They will chart our way forward better than any philosopher or statesman. Governments and political parties generally follow this advice and focus on managing the state and its day-to-day crises, without giving much thought to the more distant future. Governments manage – and, generally speaking, they are doing a fine job of it – but they no longer plan or lead.
Yet the mantle of leadership and prophecy has not gone unclaimed. Abandoned by politicians and political parties, it has been picked up by business entrepreneurs and corporations. If you want to hear grand visions about the future of humankind, you will waste your time in Downing Street, the White House or the Kremlin, but your ears will start ringing once you approach Silicon Valley. That is where you will find the Lenins of our time. Let me make this absolutely clear: the tech wizards of Silicon Valley aren’t communist. Nor are they anything like as ruthless as Lenin. I am comparing them to him only in the audacity and scope of their visions, and in their aspirations to tear down the old world and build a completely new world in its place.
For when it comes to audacity and scope, even Lenin couldn’t hold a candle to the silicon prophets. Lenin and his followers still thought and operated within the confines of existing economic models and realities. They took for granted that resources are scarce, that demand must be balanced with supply, that human beings are essential for the economy and that work is a vital ingredient of human life. In contrast, today’s visionaries are looking towards a post-scarcity future, in which algorithms replace human beings in the economy, supply no longer puts the lid on demand and life no longer revolves around work.
At the core of this vision is the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or killing terrorists. However, Google, Apple, IBM and other tech companies are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence – based on machine learning and big data – that can outperform human beings in all of the above tasks and many more besides.
This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important for the economy –intelligence or consciousness? As long as the one always went hand in hand with the other, this question was a pastime for philosophers. In the 21st century, it is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for the economy, intelligence is mandatory but consciousness by itself has little value.
In 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, published The Future of Employment, in which they surveyed the likelihood of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years. The algorithm developed by Frey and Osborne to perform the calculations estimated that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 per cent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 per cent chance that the same will happen to sports referees, 97 per cent that it will happen to cashiers and 96 per cent to restaurant cooks.
For paralegal assistants, tour guides, bakers, bus drivers, construction workers, veterinary assistants, security guards, sailors, waiters, bartenders, archivists, carpenters and lifeguards the probability of redundancy ranges from 67 per cent to 94 per cent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, and for occupational therapists it is 0.3 per cent.
Even if new professions come along to compensate for the losses, they will probably require much more creativity and flexibility. It is far from certain that a 50-year-old cashier or bus driver will be able to make the necessary readjustment. Whereas the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a vast new class of urban workers, the 21st century might witness the rise of a vast new class of economically useless people.
If this indeed happens, it will pose a far bigger challenge than the Industrial Revolution and will demand new social and political models far more ambitious than those offered by Marx, Lenin or Mao. Socialists and communists tailored a new ideology to answer for the novel needs, hopes and fears of the industrial proletariat. The 21st-century class of useless people will also generate new wants, dreams and worries. To answer them, the silicon prophets are coming up with fantastic socioeconomic models, fit for a post-scarcity society in which human beings no longer produce anything and are merely consumers.
Yet the silicon prophets don’t stop there. They dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness. Google recently established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is – drums please! – “to solve death”. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In an interview last March Maris said: “If you ask me today, ‘Is it possible to live to be 500?’ the answer is yes.” He backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. The Google Venture fund is investing 36 per cent of its $2bn portfolio in life sciences start-ups, including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an analogy from American football, Maris explained that in the fight against death, “We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.”
The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has confessed that he aims to live for ever. “I think there are probably three main modes of approaching [death],” Thiel explained. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” Many people are likely to dismiss such statements as teenage fantasies. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. His private fortune is estimated at $2.2bn and he is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
As a historian, I am in no position to comment on the feasibility of such visions. Yet, as a historian, I know that what people hope to achieve is often far more important than what they can actually do. The 20th century was shaped by the communist attempt to overcome human inequality, even though this hope was never fulfilled. Our century might be shaped by the attempt to upgrade human beings and overcome death, even if this hope is a bit premature. The spirit of the age is changing. Equality is out, immortality is in.
This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.
Yuval Harari is a historian and the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (Vintage). More info: ynharari.com