Book of the Week: Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Two of the most intellectually thrilling books I’ve read in the last few years are the bestselling Sapiens and this eye-opening follow up. Sapiens married biology and history to present a sweeping exploration of the rise of our species from the dawn modern cognition about 70,000 years ago until now.

In this new book Harari uses the same technique of narrative inquiry to explore where our species might be headed. Reading it, I was reminded of Stewart Brand’s comment at the dawn of the computer age: “We are as gods and we better get good at it.”

Harari argues that man has increasingly mastered technology and we are today at a tipping point. Once the product of biological evolution, man now has some of the tools to control that evolution. Moreover, our runaway advances in high level computing are starting to match the ability of the human brain—and that while machines will not soon “feel”, machine learning will soon outstrip what the human brain can do.

In a book that is chock-a-block with insight, the really startling one to me was how far we already are down the path to routinely handing off “thinking” to computational systems that do it better than humans.

Doubt that? Here’s a simple way to test the assertion: leave your phone home for a day. If you’re like me you’ll quickly realize that you’ve turned over routing your travel to a machine that can analyze the variables more quickly and efficiently than you can–and has more information about road conditions than you do. That machine can also tell you the best time to go for your run if you want to avoid rain, remind you about your appointments, help you research the people you are meeting… oh, and supply you with the name of the actress who starred with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront when your own tired biological computer can’t remember it.

The machine in your pocket is networked to an unthinkably vast collection of data—the result of combined human and machine thinking—and it’s this network and our increasing faith in “datism” that seems poised to transform the world and perhaps threaten the primacy of species Sapiens in unimaginable ways.

What Jared Diamond said of Sapiens is true also of this book: “[It] tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.” Homo Deus is a pesky, unnerving, frightening and revelatory book. It will wake you up to the water you are already swimming in.

There’s a terrific review in The Guardian if you’d like a much more detailed assessment. I encourage you to take a look and include the conclusion here:

“This is a very intelligent book, full of sharp insights and mordant wit. But as Harari would probably be the first to admit, it’s only intelligent by human standards, which are nothing special. By the standards of the smartest machines it’s woolly and speculative. The datasets are pretty limited. Its real power comes from the sense of a distinctive consciousness behind it. It is a quirky and cool book, with a sliver of ice at its heart….But it is hard to imagine anyone could read this book without getting an occasional, vertiginous thrill….Homo Deus makes it feel as if we are standing at the edge of a cliff after a long and arduous journey. The journey doesn’t seem so important any more. We are about to step into thin air.”

Already released in the UK to great reviews, anticipation is high here—expect Homo Deus to be discussed everywhere starting with NYTBR, NPR’s All Things Considered, Wired, The LA Times Review of Books, WSJ, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, The Atlantic, Time, Washington Post Book World, The New Republic and American Scholar.

 “Throughout history, humans prayed for deliverance from famine, disease, and war with spotty success. For centuries, prophets agreed that all of the suffering was “an integral part of God’s cosmic plan.” Today, obesity kills more humans than starvation, old age more than disease, and suicide more than murder. Having reduced three horsemen of the apocalypse to technical problems, what will humans do next? Harari’s answer: we will become gods—not perfect but like Greek or Hindu gods: immortal and possessing superpowers but with some foibles….A relentlessly fascinating book that is sure to become—and deserves to be—a bestseller.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Thrilling to watch such a talented author trample so freely across so many disciplines… Harari’s skill lies in the way he tilts the prism in all these fields and looks at the world in different ways, providing fresh angles on what we thought we knew… scintillating.”
The Financial Times

Harari is an intellectual magpie who has plucked theories and data from many disciplines – including philosophy, theology, computer science and biology – to produce a brilliantly original, thought-provoking and important study of where mankind is heading.”
Evening Standard (London)

“Harari is an exceptional writer, who seems to have been specially chosen by the muses as a conduit for the zeitgeist… Fascinating reading.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)

 “Where have we been, where are we now and where are we going as a species? Pitched for the general reader with clarity, humor and many ‘aha’ examples, we are taken on an amazing journey from the dawn of humanity to the current Anthropocene Era dominated by man and the religion of Humanism. While pointing out possible pitfalls in our continuing evolution (including self-extinction), Harari remains cautiously hopeful. What separates human consciousness from other species is imagination and the drive to tell stories and Science, Politics and Religion are the tools. Is consciousness simply a sophisticated series of algorithms? Will the continued development of artificial intelligence eventually put an end to the species? We are currently in the Age of Dataism where information IS religion. This book should be required reading for all. Magnificent, profound and delightfully readable.”
— Karen Frank, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, NH

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (9780062464316) by Yuval Noah Harari. $35.00 hardcover. 2/21/17 one day laydown.

Book of the Week: Speak – Louisa Hall

This second novel by Hall arrives with some strong advance endorsements.  It received two starred reviews, the Huffington Post calls it one of “18 Brilliant Books You Won’t Want to Miss This Summer,” the New York Post deems it one of the “Best Novels to Read this Summer,” Kirkus Reviews will do a feature in July and Hall will be interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The most apt praise might come from Emily St. John Mandel, the author of the deservedly lionized Station Eleven:

Speak is that rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read. A complex, nuanced, and beautifully written meditation on language, immortality, the nature of memory, the ethical problems of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.”

I love her comment not only because it quite economically explains the marvel of this poetic, fantastical meditation on our humanity but because Speak reminds me much of Station Eleven.

The plotting couldn’t be more different. Don’t read this is you need a straightforward narrative; in its organization it owes much more to David Mitchell than St. John Mandel. But I came away from both Speak and Station Eleven feeling that they are a poignant, elegant elegies for the present moment—for the world that is disappearing around us even as we have our heads down pecking on our smart phones and computers. (Guilty here!)

I wholeheartedly recommend this one. Along with all the advance critical praise it also has many bookseller fans and was voted an Indie Next Pick for July.

In the near future, children, mostly girls, become so attached to their babybots—lifelike, speaking dolls—that the bots are banned. After the babybots are gathered up and shipped to the desert, the children start to stutter and then to freeze. One, Gaby, is only able to communicate with MARY3, a cloud-based intelligence thirsty for her story. Through excerpts from a variety of sources, the development of artificial intelligence is revealed, from the diary of a teenage Puritan on a ship to America with her family and new husband to the letters from Alan Turing to his best friend’s mother to the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor who refuses to give his computer program the ability to remember, thus estranging him from his wife. Meanwhile, Stephen Chinn, creator of the babybots, works on his memoir from prison….Speak relies on primary-source documents to tell its story…[and] subtly weaves a thread through a temporally diverse cast of narrators. Like all good robot novels, Speak raises questions about what it means to be human as well as the meaning of giving voice to memory.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Hall’s ambitious second novel reads like a cross between the BBC show Black Mirror and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas… [She] capably weaves the stories to form a beautiful rumination on the nature of memory and the frailty of human relationships….There’s something for everyone in this novel, which moves at a fast pace but goes in depth with each character’s moving struggle to be heard. Recommended for readers of literary fiction, sf, or historical dramas.
Library Journal (starred review)

“While the title of Louisa Hall’s haunting new novel, Speak, declares its thematic intent, what it most powerfully illuminates is the human need for hearing and being heard. Hall alternates between six distinct but loosely connected story lines—spanning from the mid-17th century to the mid-21st century—to devastatingly portray the costs to the individual of not being heard and to society at large of selective, self-interested and exclusionary hearing…. Suffused with dread and loss, Speak is a gripping, deeply compassionate and hope-tinged exploration of the truth that while speaking is innately human, being heard is what connects us to humanity.”
— Matt Nixon, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

These stories, these people as we meet them seem totally separate, having nothing in common. Why has Hall scrambled them together for us, rationed them out in rotating views of these seemingly random lives? If we stay with them and get to know them, Hall’s themes come to the fore….Hall allows us to suss out the relations between narrators, a few hints here and there, but more often little aha moments as we piece together parts of the puzzle. It’s a story of gain, of loss, of growth, of holding back, of life. Lots of lives. Our lives, too.”
— Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

“You can tell that Hall is a poet – her story if full of how fragile our lives are… a somber look at our humanity. And in the end, we see the baby bots, now stored in a hanger in the desert, who are slowly ‘dying’ as their power reserves are depleted reflecting that they are the record of so many human stories, of all these characters – ‘They spoke to me and I listened. They are all in me, in the words that I speak, as long as I am still speaking.’ Isn’t this the very essence of books? The gift of humanity that books speak to us every time we open them.”
— Micheal Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Speak (9780062391193) by Louisa Hall. $27.99 hardcover. 7/7/15 on sale.