HOMO DEUS:A Brief History of Tomorrow By Yuval Noah Harari Published February 21, 2017 Illustrated. 449 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $35.
Among the many scandals and comments that derailed Andy Puzder’s campaign to become Labor Secretary was an interview he gave after visiting a partially automated restaurant, where no human interaction is required.
The CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains, told Business Insider in May that he was investing in automation as a way to deal with rising labor costs due to minimum wage increases across the country, before offering a cynical explanation of why machines are better than human employees.
“They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” he said.
It was a callous yet unsurprising remark given Puzder’s checkered history. But the worker-less future Puzder desires may not be far off, and it could have dire implications for democracy.
That’s the argument made by historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the 2015 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, a scintillating, if at times chilling, exposition of what the future may hold for humanity, Harari explores how advances in the life sciences and technology, particularly artificial intelligence, may lead to an era of mass human obsolescence.
From teachers to soldiers to cab drivers to doctors, most jobs will likely be taken over by machines within the next two decades if current trends hold, Harari says. The idea isn’t a new one, but Harari is a skilled storyteller who explores the larger political and social implications of widespread unemployment.
He stakes his claim on a number of sources, including an oft-cited 2013 study by Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frery and Michael A. Osborne. The pair created an algorithm to calculate the likelihood that certain jobs will be overtaken by machines by 2033. For example, there’s a 97 percent chance cashiers will lost their jobs to automation. For chefs, it's 96 percent. Waiters, 94 percent.
And voila, there’s Puzder’s dream restaurant workforce—none at all.
Perhaps the first sign of the era of massive unemployment Harari predicts is the automated car. Around 5 million people drive for a living in the United States, and most of them could be out of a job in the next few years. California has become the premier testing ground for the autonomous vehicle, with 27 companies currently trying out driverless cars across the state.
And voila, there’s Puzder’s dream restaurant workforce—none at all.
Amid controversy over unfair labor practices and driver protests worldwide, Uber is rushing to become the first ride-hailing app with a driverless fleet, testing out automated units in Pittsburgh and Colorado. Car manufactures like Ford and BMW say they will have their own autonomous cars on the road within the next five years.
Even CEOs like Puzder may find themselves out of jobs. Harari gives the example of VITAL, an algorithm that joined the board of a Hong Kong venture capital firm called Deep Knowledge Ventures in 2014. VITAL makes investment recommendations by analyzing vast amounts of data on the financial situation, patents, and clinical trials of prospective companies. The algorithm, Harari says, is not immune to “at least one managerial vice: nepotism.” It has recommended Deep Knowledge put its money into other companies where algorithms have decision-making power, such as Pathway Pharmaceuticals, where an algorithm by the name of OncoFinder selects and rates personalized cancer therapies.
Such developments could have disastrous effects on democracy, as displacement in the economic sector leads to displacement in the political arena, Harari argues. Amid widening inequality, the mass of humanity will become a “useless class”—ruled over by a tiny, perhaps artificially enhanced, human elite.
Those in power may decide to do away with what are today considered essential services, such as healthcare for the poor, as the vast majority of the population loses its economic value to the system, he writes. The future may hold medical breakthroughs, but “as human soldiers and workers give way to algorithms, at least some elites may conclude that there is no point in providing improved or even standard levels of health for masses of useless poor people.”
Fears that technology will decimate human employment are not new, Harari points out. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago, textile workers and weavers known as Luddites destroyed the machines that were taking their jobs, and their rebellion was violently suppressed. Back in 1930, the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes warned about a “new disease” that was on the horizon:“technological unemployment.”
As old jobs have become obsolete, new ones have appeared. The coachman was replaced by the taxi driver, for example. But, Harari warns, “This is not a law of nature, and nothing guarantees that it will continue to be like that in the future.”
That the current pace of technological advance may leave behind an unprecedented number of workers has become widely accepted by researchers. Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University studying how technological advances impact people and societies, told the magazine MIT Technology Review last month that while he is “less pessimistic” than others, the rate of technological change “is nothing like what we have seen in the past, and the issue is whether the system can adapt.”
In February 2016, computer scientist Moshe Vardi told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that more than half of the world’s population could be out of a job in the next thirty years. “We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task,” he said to the audience.
In his otherwise hope-tinged farewell address in January, Obama warned that “the next wave of economic dislocations won't come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
Shortly before Obama left office, his administration released a report titled Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy. While AI-driven automation will continue to create wealth, the report says, “aggressive policy actions will be needed to help Americans disadvantaged by these changes.”
Some Silicon Valley leaders have floated the idea of a universal basic income, defined as money for rent, clothes, and food. Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, one of the major players in the driverless car industry, told an audience at the World Government Summit in February that it’s “going to be necessary” to implement a UBI in the near future.
There are also more apocalyptic predictions: Physicist Stephen Hawking has said “full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” a sentiment echoed by tech luminaries such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Wozniak.
Harari also warns that the growing influence of social media and other online platforms may combine with massive unemployment to destroy democracy as we know it, as authority shifts from humans to algorithms. “Liberal habits such as democratic elections will become obsolete,” Harari writes,“because Google will be able to represent even my own political opinions better than I can.”
“Homo Deus” is obviously highly speculative and sweeping. But Harari makes it a point in the book, as well as in numerous interviews, to say that he is merely laying out the possibilities. We have to grapple with them if we are going to find our way to a better future than the ones he envisions.