Homo Deus - Book Club Synopsis

1 The New Human Agenda




“Famine, Plague and War will continue but no longer unavoidable”

Last Days of Death

“Throughout history, religions and ideologies did not sanctify life itself. They always sanctified something above or beyond earthly existence, and were consequently quite tolerant of death.”

“Modern science and modern culture have an entirely different take on life and death. They don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery, and they certainly don’t view death as the source of life’s meaning. Rather, for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.”

Right to Happiness

Gods of Planet Earth:

“once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend”

Can Someone Please Hit the Brakes

“When people realise how fast we are rushing towards the great unknown, and that they cannot count even on death to shield them from it, their reaction is to hope that somebody will hit the brakes and slow us down. But we cannot hit the brakes, for several reasons.

”Nobody knows where the brakes are.”

“Secondly, if we somehow succeed in hitting the brakes, our economy will collapse, along with our society. As explained in a later chapter, the modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive. If growth ever stops, the economy won’t settle down to some cosy equilibrium; it will fall to pieces. That’s why capitalism encourages us to seek immortality, happiness and divinity.”

“And if the government forbids all citizens from engineering their babies, what if the North Koreans are doing it and producing amazing geniuses, artists and athletes that far outperform ours?”

Paradox of Knowledge:

Brief History of Lawns

”Bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty”

A Gun in Act I

“For 300 years the world has been dominated by humanism, which sanctifies the life, happiness and power of Homo sapiens. The attempt to gain immortality, bliss and divinity merely takes the long-standing humanist ideals to their logical conclusion. It places openly on the table what we have for a long time kept hidden under our napkin.”

“You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. ”

Part I Homo Sapiens Conquer the World

2 The Anthropocene

The Serpent’s Children

“In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived as foragers. The expulsion from Eden bears a striking resemblance to the Agricultural Revolution. Instead of allowing Adam to keep gathering wild fruits, an angry God condemns him ‘to eat bread by the sweat of your brow’. It might be no coincidence, then, that biblical animals spoke with humans only in the pre-agricultural era of Eden. What lessons does the Bible draw from the episode? That you shouldn’t listen to snakes, and it is generally best to avoid talking with animals and plants. It leads to nothing but disaster.”

Ancestral Needs

Organisms are Algorithms

“life scientists have demonstrated that emotions are not some mysterious spiritual phenomenon that is useful just for writing poetry and composing symphonies. Rather, emotions are biochemical algorithms that are vital for the survival and reproduction of all mammals.”

Agricultural Deal

“Noah was instructed to save the whole ecosystem in order to protect the common interests of gods and humans rather than the interests of the animals.”

Why did god want to kill all the animals for the fault of the humans?

Five Hundred Years of Solitude

“During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show. Humankind stood alone on an empty stage, talking to itself, negotiating with no one and acquiring enormous powers without any obligations. Having deciphered the mute laws of physics, chemistry and biology, humankind now does with them as it pleases.”

“In the Garden of Eden myth, humans are punished for their curiosity and for their wish to gain knowledge. God expels them from Paradise. In the Garden of Woolsthorpe myth, nobody punishes Newton – just the opposite. Thanks to his curiosity humankind gains a better understanding of the universe, becomes more powerful and takes another step towards the technological paradise.”

“While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. ”

3 The Human Spark

“There is no doubt that Homo sapiens is the most powerful species in the world. Homo sapiens also likes to think that it enjoys a superior moral status, and that human life has much greater value than the lives of pigs, elephants or wolves.”

”The United States is far mightier than Afghanistan; does this imply that American lives have greater intrinsic value than Afghan lives?”

”In practice, American lives are more valued. Far more money is invested in the education, health and safety of the average American than of the average Afghan. Killing an American citizen creates a far greater international outcry than killing an Afghan citizen.”

“We Sapiens love telling ourselves that we enjoy some magical quality that not only accounts for our immense power, but also gives moral justification for our privileged status. What is this unique human spark?”

“The traditional monotheist answer is that only Sapiens have eternal souls. Whereas the body decays and rots, the soul journeys on towards salvation or damnation, and will experience either everlasting joy in paradise or an eternity of misery in hell.”

Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin?

According to a 2012 Gallup survey


“Why does the theory of evolution provoke such objections, whereas nobody seems to care about the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics?”

“The theory of evolution rests on the principle of the survival of the fittest, which is a clear and simple – not to say humdrum – idea. In contrast, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics argue that you can twist time and space, that something can appear out of nothing, and that a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time.”

Why the Stock Exchange Has No Consciousness

”Another story employed to justify human superiority says that of all the animals on earth, only Homo sapiens has a conscious mind. Mind is something very different from soul. The mind isn’t some mystical eternal entity. Nor is it an organ such as the eye or the brain. Rather, the mind is a flow of subjective experiences, such as pain, pleasure, anger and love.”

“The best scientists too are a long way from deciphering the enigma of mind and consciousness.”

The Equation of Life

“Scientists don’t know how a collection of electric brain signals creates subjective experiences. Even more crucially, they don’t know what could be the evolutionary benefit of such a phenomenon. It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life.”

“According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possibly distinguish from the ‘real’ world. Some brain scientists believe that in the not too distant future, we shall actually do such things. Well, maybe it has already been done – to you? For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a ‘virtual world’ game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early twenty-first century.”

The Depressing Lives of Laboratory Rats

“Initial tests on monkeys and mice indicate that at least monkey and mice brains indeed display the signatures of consciousness”

The Self-Conscious Chimpazee

“even Santino doesn’t satisfy the sceptics. How can we be certain that at 7 a.m., when Santino goes about secreting stones here and there, he is imagining how fun it will be to pelt the visiting humans at noon? Maybe Santino is driven by some non-conscious algorithm, just like a young squirrel hiding nuts ‘for winter’ even though he has never experienced winter?”

The Clever Horse

“Many rats preferred to first free their companion and share the chocolate (though quite a few behaved more selfishly, proving perhaps that some rats are meaner than others).”

“psychologist Oskar Pfungst began another investigation that finally revealed the truth. It turned out that Hans got the answers right by carefully observing the body language and facial expressions of his interlocutors.”

“Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another”

Long Live the Revolution

“Victory almost invariably went to those who cooperated better – not only in struggles between Homo sapiens and other animals, but also in conflicts between different human groups. Thus Rome conquered Greece not because the Romans had larger brains or better toolmaking techniques, but because they were able to cooperate more effectively.”

Beyond Sex and Violence

“Research indicates that Sapiens just can’t have intimate relations (whether hostile or amorous) with more than 150 individuals.22 Whatever enables humans to organise mass-cooperation networks, it isn’t intimate relations.”

“Such threats and promises often succeed in creating stable human hierarchies and mass-cooperation networks, as long as people believe that they reflect the inevitable laws of nature or the divine commands of God, rather than just human whims. All large-scale human cooperation is ultimately based on our belief in imagined orders. These are sets of rules that, despite existing only in our imagination, we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity.”

The Web of Meaning

“Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example, has no objective value. You cannot eat, drink or wear a dollar bill. Yet as long as billions of people believe in its value, you can use it to buy food, beverages and clothing.”

“That’s how history unfolds. People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously.“

”With hindsight, going on crusade in the hope of reaching Paradise sounds like utter madness. With hindsight, the Cold War seems even madder. How come thirty years ago people were willing to risk nuclear holocaust because of their belief in a communist paradise? A hundred years hence, our belief in democracy and human rights might look equally incomprehensible to our descendants.”


”Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination.”

“During the last 70,000 years the intersubjective realities that Sapiens invented became ever more powerful, so that today they dominate the world.”

Part II Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

4 The Storytellers

“Animals such as wolves and chimpanzees live in a dual reality. On the one hand they are familiar with objective entities outside them, such as trees, rocks and rivers. On the other hand they are aware of subjective experiences within them, such as fear, joy and desire.”

“Sapiens, in contrast, live in triple-layered reality. In addition to trees, rivers, fears and desires, the Sapiens world also contains stories about money, gods, nations and corporations. As history unfolded, the impact of gods, nations and corporations grew at the expense of rivers, fears and desires.”

“It goes without saying that the gods didn’t actually run their businesses, for the simple reason that they didn’t exist anywhere except in the human imagination. Day-to-day activities were managed by the temple priests (just as Google and Microsoft need to hire flesh-and-blood humans to manage their affairs). However, as the gods acquired more and more property and power, the priests could not cope.”

“This obstacle was finally removed about 5,000 years ago, when the Sumerians invented both writing and money. These Siamese twins – born to the same parents at the same time and in the same place – broke the data-processing limitations of the human brain. Writing and money made it possible to start collecting taxes from hundreds of thousands of people, to organise complex bureaucracies and to establish vast kingdoms.”

“In illiterate societies people make all calculations and decisions in their heads. In literate societies people are organised into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that makes the important decisions. This is the essence of bureaucracy.”

Living on Paper

“The vast majority of people remained illiterate until the modern age, but the all-important administrators increasingly saw reality through the medium of written texts. For this literate elite – whether in ancient Egypt or in twentieth-century Europe – anything written on a piece of paper was at least as real as trees, oxen and human beings.”

Holy Scriptures

“As bureaucracies accumulate power, they become immune to their own mistakes. Instead of changing their stories to fit reality, they can change reality to fit their stories.”

“If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.”

“if King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish exiles to return home and rebuild Jerusalem, God in his mercy must have heard their remorseful prayers. The Bible doesn’t recognise the possibility that perhaps the drought resulted from a volcanic eruption in the Philippines”

But it Works

“Fictions enable us to cooperate better.”

Which Vacation

“When examining the history of any human network, it is therefore advisable to stop from time to time and look at things from the perspective of some real entity. How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple – just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?”

“Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital.”

“We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories.”

“stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality”

5 The Odd Couple

“Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. As history unfolded, stories about gods, nations and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality. Believing in the great god Sobek, the Mandate of Heaven or the Bible enabled people to build Lake Fayum, the Great Wall of China and Chartres Cathedral.”

“Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, yet it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind, and science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before.”

Germs and Demons

“All too often people confuse religion with superstition, spirituality, belief in supernatural powers or belief in gods. Religion is none of these things.”

“Modern physicians blame disease on invisible germs, and voodoo priests blame disease on invisible spirits. There’s nothing supernatural about it: if you make some spirit angry, the spirit enters your body and causes you pain. What could be more natural than that? Only those who don’t believe in spirits think of them as standing apart from the natural order of things.”

“religion is created by humans rather than by gods, and it is defined by its social function rather than by the existence of deities. Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.”

”Religion asserts that we humans are subject to a system of moral laws that we did not invent and that we cannot change.”

“Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers.”

If You Meet the Buddha (kill him)

“The assertion that religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path.”

“Dualism instructs people to break these material shackles and undertake a journey back to the spiritual world, which is totally unfamiliar to us, but is our true home.”

“Dualism instructs people to break these material shackles and undertake a journey back to the spiritual world, which is totally unfamiliar to us, but is our true home.”

Counterfeiting God

“One view says that science and religion are sworn enemies, and that modern history was shaped by the life-and-death struggle of scientific knowledge against religious superstition.”

“More importantly, science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions. Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave. ”

“When we descend from the ethereal sphere of philosophy and observe historical realities, we find that religious stories almost always include three parts:

  1. Ethical judgements, such as ‘human life is sacred’.
  2. Factual statements, such as ‘human life begins at the moment of conception’.
  3. A conflation of the ethical judgements with the factual statements, resulting in practical guidelines such as ‘you should never allow abortion, even a single day after conception’.”

Holy Dogma

“it is not always easy to separate ethical judgements from factual statements. Religions have the nagging tendency to turn factual statements into ethical judgements, thereby creating serious confusion and obfuscating what should have been relatively simple debates. ”

“Conversely, ethical judgements often hide within them factual statements that proponents don’t bother to mention, because they think they have been proven beyond doubt. Thus the ethical judgement ‘human life is sacred’ (which science cannot test) may shroud the factual statement ‘every human has an eternal soul’ (which is open to scientific debate).”

“although science has much more to contribute to ethical debates than we commonly think, there is a line it cannot cross, at least not yet. Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.”

The Witch Hunt

“In London they killed Catholics, in Paris they killed Protestants, the Jews had long been driven out, and nobody in his right mind would dream of letting any Muslims in. And yet, the Scientific Revolution began in London and Paris rather than in Cairo and Istanbul.”

“Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.”

“It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion – namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them.”

6 The Modern Covenant

“Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die. Very few of us can ever rescind or transcend this deal. It shapes our food, our jobs and our dreams, and it decides where we dwell, whom we love and how we pass away.”

“In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. It really mattered whether they fought bravely on the battlefield, whether they supported the lawful king, whether they ate forbidden foods for breakfast or whether they had an affair with the next-door neighbour.”

“Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.”

“ if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not confined to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want – provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance.”

“On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing.”

Why Bankers are Different from Vampires

“If enough new ventures succeed, people’s trust in the future increases, credit expands, interest rates fall, entrepreneurs can raise money more easily and the economy grows. People consequently have even greater trust in the future, the economy keeps growing and science progresses with it.”

“However, unlike human bankers, vampires (bats) never charge interest. If vampire A loaned vampire B ten centilitres of blood, B will repay the same amount. Nor do vampires use loans in order to finance new businesses or encourage growth in the blood-sucking market. Because the blood is produced by other animals, the vampires have no way of increasing production. ”

The Miracle Pie

“traditional religions such as Christianity and Islam sought ways to solve humanity’s problems with the help of current resources, either by redistributing the existing pie, or by promising a pie in the sky.”

“Modern politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three principal reasons. Firstly, when we produce more, we can consume more, raise our standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life.

Secondly, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is needed merely to stay where we are.

Thirdly...If the economy doesn’t grow, and the pie therefore remains the same size, you can give more to the poor only by taking something from the rich.”

The Ark Syndrome

“Yet can the economy actually keep growing for ever? Won’t it eventually run out of resources – and grind to a halt? In order to ensure perpetual growth, we must somehow discover an inexhaustible store of resources.”

“The fox economy cannot grow, because foxes don’t know how to produce more rabbits. The rabbit economy stagnates, because rabbits cannot make the grass grow faster. But the human economy can grow because humans can discover new materials and sources of energy.”

“The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.”

“The real nemesis of the modern economy is ecological collapse.”

“Beijing has already become so polluted that people avoid the outdoors, and wealthy Chinese pay thousands of dollars for indoor air-purifying systems. The super-rich build protective contraptions even over their yards.”

The Rat Race

“For that purpose modernity upholds growth as a supreme value for whose sake we should make every sacrifice and risk every danger. On the collective level, governments, firms and organisations are encouraged to measure their success in terms of growth, and to fear equilibrium as if it were the Devil. On the individual level, we are inspired to constantly increase our incomes and our standards of living.”

“For thousands of years priests, rabbis and muftis explained that humans cannot overcome famine, plague and war by their own efforts. Then along came the bankers, investors and industrialists, and within 200 years managed to do exactly that.”

“In exchange for power, the modern deal expects us to give up meaning.”

“How did morality, beauty and even compassion survive and flourish in a world devoid of gods, of heaven and of hell?”

“Capitalists are, again, quick to give all the credit to the invisible hand of the market. Yet the market’s hand is not only invisible, it is also blind, and by itself could never have saved human society.”

“What, then, rescued modern society from collapse? Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a revolutionary new religion – humanism.”

7 The Humanist Revolution

“The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without predicating it upon some great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.”

“Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish.”

Look Inside

“According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe”

“In 1300 people in London, Paris and Toledo did not believe that humans could determine by themselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. Only God could create and define goodness, righteousness and beauty.”

“God the supreme source not only of meaning but also of authority. Meaning and authority always go hand in hand”

“Suppose that in 1300, in some small English town, a married woman took a fancy to the next-door neighbour and had sex with him.”

“Based on the eternal word of God, the priest could determine beyond all doubt that the woman had committed a mortal sin, and that if she didn’t make amends she’d end up in hell”

“Rousseau held that, when looking for life’s rules of conduct, he found them ‘in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface”

“Theoretically, the modern therapist occupies the same place as the medieval priest, and it is an overworked cliché to compare the two professions”

“Whereas medieval priests had a hotline to God and could distinguish for us between good and evil, modern therapists merely help us get in touch with our own inner feelings.”

“Today people marry for love, and it is their personal feelings that give value to this bond. Hence, if the very same feelings that once drove you into the arms of one man now drive you into the arms of another, what’s wrong with that?”

“Humanism has taught us that something can be bad only if it causes somebody to feel bad.”

“And if an action does not cause anyone to feel bad, there can be nothing wrong with it”

“how does the voter know what to choose? Theoretically at least, the voter is supposed to consult his or her innermost feelings, and follow their lead.”

“In the Middle Ages this would have been considered the height of foolishness.”

“when Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade, he didn’t claim it was the people’s will. It was God’s will”

Even in Art

“The hands of painters, poets, composers and architects were supposedly moved by muses, angels and the Holy Spirit.”

“Modern artists seek to get in touch with themselves and their feelings, rather than with God. No wonder then that when we come to evaluate art, we no longer believe in any objective yardsticks”

“If I believe in God at all, it is my choice to believe. If my inner self tells me to believe in God – then I believe. I believe because I feel God’s presence, and my heart tells me He is there. But if I no longer feel God’s presence, and if my heart suddenly tells me that there is no God – I will cease believing. ”

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

“In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures × Logic.

“The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula: Knowledge = Empirical Data × Mathematics.

“humanism offered an alternative. As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity.”

“Humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences”

“The humanist focus on feelings and experiences, rather than deeds, transformed art. Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Zola cared little for brave knights and derring-do; instead they described how ordinary labourers and housewives felt. Some people believe that Joyce’s Ulysses represents the apogee of this modern focus on the inner life rather than external actions.”

The Truth about War

“Throughout most of history, when people wished to know whether a particular war was just, they asked God, they asked scriptures, and they asked kings, noblemen and priests.”

“over the last two centuries, the kings and generals have been increasingly pushed to the side, and the limelight has shifted onto the common soldier and his experiences.”

The Humanist Schism

“Humanism split into three main branches.”

“The orthodox branch holds that each human being is a unique individual possessing a distinctive inner voice and a never-to-be-repeated series of experiences.”

“socialist humanism, which encompassed a plethora of socialist and communist movements

“evolutionary humanism, whose most famous advocates were the Nazis.”

“People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. ”

“Socialists blame liberals for focusing our attention on our own feelings instead of on what other people experience. Yes, the human experience is the source of all meaning, but there are billions of people in the world and all of them are just as valuable as I am. Whereas liberalism turns my gaze inwards, emphasising my uniqueness and the uniqueness of my nation, socialism demands that I stop obsessing about me and my feelings and instead focus on what others are feeling and how my actions influence their experiences.”

“Whereas in liberal politics the voter knows best, and in liberal economics the customer is always right, in socialist politics the party knows best, and in socialist economics the trade union is always right. Authority and meaning still come from human experience – both the party and the trade union are composed of people and work to alleviate human misery – yet individuals must listen to the party and the trade union rather than to their personal feelings.”

Evolutionary Humanism: “Some humans are simply superior to others, and when human experiences collide, the fittest humans should steamroll everyone else. The same logic that drives humankind to exterminate wild wolves and to ruthlessly exploit domesticated sheep also mandates the oppression of inferior humans by their superiors.”

“The experience of war revealed to Hitler the truth about the world: it’s a jungle run by the remorseless laws of natural selection. Those who refuse to recognise this truth cannot survive.”

Electricity, Genetics and Radical Islam

“In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.

Part III Homo Sapiens Loses Control

8 The Time Bomb in the Laboratory

“Liberals value individual liberty so much because they believe that humans have free will. According to liberalism the decisions of voters and customers are neither deterministic nor random.”

“The contradiction between free will and contemporary science is the elephant in the laboratory, whom many prefer not to see as they peer into their microscopes and fMRI scanners.”

“Decisions reached through a chain reaction of biochemical events, each determined by a previous event, are certainly not free. Decisions resulting from random subatomic accidents aren’t free either; they are just random. And when random accidents combine with deterministic processes, we get probabilistic outcomes, but this too doesn’t amount to freedom.”

“The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, a hollow term empty of any discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.”

“if humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them? According to the theory of evolution, all the choices animals make – whether of habitat, food or mates – reflect their genetic code.”

“Next time a thought pops into your mind, stop and ask yourself: ‘Why did I think this particular thought? Did I decide a minute ago to think this thought, and only then think it? Or did it just arise, without any direction or permission from me? If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?’ Try that, and see what happens.”

“Doubting free will is not just a philosophical exercise. It has practical implications. If organisms indeed lack free will, it implies that we can manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.”

“When Professor Talwar presses the remote control, the rat wants to move to the left, which is why she moves to the left. When the professor presses another switch, the rat wants to climb a ladder, which is why she climbs the ladder.”

“doctors have pioneered a novel treatment for patients suffering from acute depression. They implant electrodes into the patient’s brain, and wire them to a minuscule computer implanted in the patient’s chest. On receiving a command from the computer, the electrodes transmit weak electric currents that paralyse the brain area responsible for the depression.”

“One patient complained that several months after the operation he had a relapse and was overcome by severe depression. Upon inspection the doctors found the source of the problem: the computer’s battery had run out of power. Once they changed the battery, the depression quickly melted away”

Who Are I

“Truth be told, the experiencing self and the narrating self are not completely separate entities but are closely intertwined. The narrating self uses our experiences as important (but not exclusive) raw materials for its stories. These stories, in turn, shape what the experiencing self actually feels. ”

The Meaning of Life

“What would happen…if due to his belief in these fantasies, Don Quixote attacks and kills a real person? Borges asks a fundamental question about the human condition: what happens when the yarns spun by our narrating self cause grievous harm to ourselves or those around us? There are three main possibilities, says Borges.”

  1. Nothing
  2. Horrified, shaken out of his delusion
  3. Cling to his fantasies

“In politics this is known as the ‘Our Boys Didn’t Die in Vain’ syndrome. ”

“If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient.”

“The life sciences, however, undermine liberalism, arguing that the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms. Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence. The narrating self tries to impose order on this chaos by spinning a never-ending story, in which every such experience has its place, and hence every experience has some lasting meaning.”

“At the beginning of the third millennium liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’, but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Will democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?”

9 The Great Decoupling

“Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first century three practical developments might make this belief obsolete:

  1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
  2. The system will continue to find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
  3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will constitute a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.”

“Hi-tech forces ‘manned’ by pilotless drones and cyber-worms are replacing the mass armies of the twentieth century, and generals delegate more and more critical decisions to algorithms.”

“Within seconds a sufficiently sophisticated cyber strike might shut down the US power grid, wreck US flight control centres, cause numerous industrial accidents in nuclear plants and chemical installations, disrupt the police, army and intelligence communication networks – and wipe out financial records so that trillions of dollars simply vanish without a trace and nobody knows who owns what.”

“In the past there were many things only humans could do. But now robots and computers are catching up, and may soon outperform humans in most tasks. True, computers function very differently from humans, and it seems unlikely that computers will become humanlike any time soon.”

10 The Ocean of Consciousness

“Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That’s where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.”

“These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities.”

“Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model.”

“Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers the human will to be the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign the will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet should we ever achieve such control, techno-humanism would not know what to do with it, because the sacred human would then become just another designer product.”

11 The Data Religion

“Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.”

“Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone into knowledge or wisdom. ”

“Capitalism did not defeat communism because capitalism was more ethical, because individual liberties are sacred or because God was angry with the heathen communists. Rather, capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological change.”

Where has all the Power Gone?

“As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, political parties and parliaments might become obsolete – not because they are unethical, but because they can’t process data efficiently enough.”

“In the USA voters imagine that ‘the establishment’ monopolizes all the power, so they support anti-establishment candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The sad truth is that nobody knows where all the power has gone.”

“power vacuums seldom last long. If in the twenty-first century traditional political structures can no longer process the data fast enough to produce meaningful visions, then new and more efficient structures will evolve to take their place. These new structures may be very different from any previous political institutions, whether democratic or authoritarian. The only question is who will build and control these structures.”

History in a Nutshell

“From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips. If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system through four basic methods:

  1. Increasing the number of processors. A city of 100,000 people has more computing power than a village of 1,000 people.
  2. Increasing the variety of processors. Different processors may use diverse ways to calculate and analyse data.
  3. Increasing the number of connections between processors. There is little point in increasing the mere number and variety of processors if they are poorly connected to each other.
  4. Increasing the freedom of movement along existing connections. Connecting processors is hardly useful if data cannot flow freely.

“The first stage began with the Cognitive Revolution, which made it possible to connect vast numbers of Sapiens into a single data-processing network. This gave Sapiens a crucial advantage over all other human and animal species.”

“The second stage began with the Agricultural Revolution and continued until the invention of writing and money about 5,000 years ago. Agriculture accelerated demographic growth so the number of human processors rose sharply.

“The third stage kicked off with the invention of writing and money about 5,000 years ago, and lasted until the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Thanks to writing and money the gravitational field of human cooperation finally overpowered the centrifugal forces. Human groups bonded and merged to form cities and kingdoms.”

“This dream became a reality during the fourth and last stage of history, which began around 1492. Early modern explorers, conquerors and traders wove the first thin threads that encompassed the whole world. In the late modern period these threads were made stronger and denser, so that the spider’s web of Columbus’s days became the steel and asphalt grid of the twenty-first century.”

“If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things. Once this mission is accomplished, Homo sapiens will vanish.”

Information Wants to Be Free

“The supreme value of this new religion is ‘information flow’. If life is the movement of information, and if we think that life is good, it follows that we should deepen and broaden the flow of information in the universe.”

“Dataists explain to those who still worship flesh-and-blood mortals that they are overly attached to outdated technology. Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm.”

“Dataism isn’t limited to idle prophecies. Like every religion, it has its practical commandments. First and foremost a Dataist ought to maximise data flow by connecting to more and more media, and producing and consuming more and more information. Like other successful religions, Dataism is also missionary. Its second commandment is to link everything to the system, including heretics who don’t want to be plugged in. And ‘everything’ means more than just humans. It means every thing.”

“Just as capitalists believe that all good things depend on economic growth, so Dataists believe all good things – including economic growth – depend on the freedom of information.”

Record, Upload, Share!

“As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. Humans want to merge into the data flow because when you are part of the data flow you are part of something much bigger than yourself.”

“Data religion now says that your every word and action is part of the great data flow, that the algorithms are constantly watching you and that they care about everything you do and feel. Most people like this very much. For true-believers, to be disconnected from the data flow risks losing the very meaning of life.”

Know Thyself

“Dataism is neither liberal nor humanist. It should be emphasised, however, that Dataism isn’t anti-humanist. It has nothing against human experiences. It just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable. ”

“The Internet-of-All-Things may soon create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms would not be able to handle them. When cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens.”

“By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our primary source of authority and meaning and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century. In the days of Locke, Hume and Voltaire humanists argued that ‘God is a product of the human imagination’. Dataism now gives humanists a taste of their own medicine, and tells them: ‘Yes, God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is just the product of biochemical algorithms.”

“The shift from a homo-centric to a data-centric world view won’t be merely a philosophical revolution. It will be a practical revolution. All truly important revolutions are practical.”

“Scientists not only sanctified human feelings, but also found an excellent evolutionary reason to do so. After Darwin, biologists began explaining that feelings are complex algorithms honed by evolution to help animals make correct decisions.”

“When you read the Bible you are getting advice from a few priests and rabbis who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality-control tests of natural selection. ”

“Your feelings are not infallible, of course, but they are better than most other sources of guidance. For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world. Hence in the days of Confucius, of Muhammad or of Stalin, people should have listened to their feelings rather than to the teachings of Confucianism, Islam or communism.”

“in the twenty-first century, feelings are no longer the best algorithms in the world. We are developing superior algorithms that utilise unprecedented computing power and giant databases. The Google and Facebook algorithms not only know exactly how you feel, they also know myriad other things about you that you hardly suspect. Consequently you should stop listening to your feelings and start listening to these external algorithms instead.”

A Ripple in the Data Flow

“Dataism naturally has its critics and heretics.”

it’s doubtful whether life can really be reduced to data flows. In particular, at present we have no idea how or why data flows could produce consciousness and subjective experiences”

“A critical examination of Dataist dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the twenty-first century, but also the most urgent political and economic project. Scholars in the life sciences and social sciences should ask themselves whether we miss anything when we understand life as data processing and decision-making.”

“If Dataism succeeds in conquering the world, what will happen to us humans? Initially, Dataism will probably accelerate the humanist pursuit of health, happiness and power. Dataism spreads itself by promising to fulfil these humanist aspirations. In order to achieve immortality, bliss and divine powers of creation, we need to process immense amounts of data, far beyond the capacity of the human brain. So the algorithms will do it for us. Yet once authority shifts from humans to algorithms, the humanist projects may become irrelevant.”

“Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other animals.”

“The rise of AI and biotechnology will certainly transform the world, but it does not mandate a single deterministic outcome. All the scenarios outlined in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies. If you don’t like some of these possibilities you are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing.”

“The world is changing faster than ever before, and we are flooded by impossible amounts of data, of ideas, of promises and of threats. Humans are relinquishing authority to the free market, to crowd wisdom and to external algorithms partly because we cannot deal with the deluge of data. In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.”

“if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”