In the mind of Harari

"I don't know if humanity can survive" is the provocative warning about artificial intelligence issued by the globally best-selling author, Yuval Noah Harari. Each prediction made by this influential Israeli writer rattles the international press and influences opinion leaders worldwide. But how did this historian, with a seemingly delicate appearance, a vegan lifestyle, and a tendency to isolate himself from the world for meditation, become one of the most celebrated public intellectuals?

19 October 2023

This text has been generated by a human,” Yuval Harari clarifies at the end of an essay on the dangers of Artificial Intelligence recently published by the magazine “The Economist.” While the phrase might initially appear ironic, reading the analysis of the Israeli historian and philosopher reveals his seriousness. “Until now, our fears were centered on machines that used physical means to kill, enslave, or replace people. However, in recent years, new artificial intelligence tools have emerged that threaten the survival of human civilization from an unexpected direction. AI has acquired remarkable abilities to manipulate and generate language, whether through words, sounds, or images, and it is hacking the operating system of our civilization. Storytelling computers will change the course of humanity. When AI hacks language, it disrupts our ability to engage in meaningful conversations, undermining democracy and fostering social chaos, which ultimately benefits autocrats,” warns Harari.

The author asserts that when people discuss ChatGPT, they often focus on celebrating the possibilities it offers for children. “However, by solely considering this perspective, we tend to overlook the bigger picture. It’s essential to move beyond just school essays and consider the implications for more significant events, such as the upcoming U.S. presidential race in 2024. Try to envision the potential impact of AI applications that could be developed to mass-produce political content and fake news.”

The historian warns that “through its mastery of language, AI could even establish intimate relationships with people and use that power to change our opinions and worldviews. In a battle to win hearts and minds, intimacy is the most effective weapon, and AI has just gained the ability to mass-produce intimate relationships with millions of people.”

Furthermore, he argues that people might come to use AI as a unique and omniscient oracle. “No wonder Google is terrified. Why bother searching for information when I can ask the oracle? The news and advertising industries should also be terrified: why read a newspaper when I can simply ask the oracle to tell me the latest news? What is the point of ads when I can just ask the oracle what to buy?

This is not the end of the story but only the conclusion of its human-dominated phase. AI can generate entirely new ideas and culture. For millennia, humans have existed within the dreams of other humans. In the coming decades, we might discover ourselves inhabiting the dreams of an extraterrestrial intelligence,” he warns, raising alarms.

The Israeli writer concludes that we are confronting a new “weapon of mass destruction that can annihilate our mental and social world,” for which it is imperative to establish restrictions. “The first step is to insist on rigorous safety controls before new and potent artificial intelligence tools are made accessible to the public domain. We require this urgently; otherwise, AI will regulate us. We have created something that diminishes our power, and it is unfolding so rapidly that most people don’t even comprehend it.”

As part of a campaign for increased regulation, Harari joined over a thousand technology leaders and researchers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk, the mogul behind SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter, in demanding a “pause until we are certain that the impacts of AI will be positive and controllable.”

Yuval Noah Harari’s journey to becoming one of the most influential intellectuals globally has been nothing short of explosive. In 2011, while teaching at the Hebrew University, he published “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” The book rapidly transcended language barriers, with translations into dozens of languages, and it sold more than 65 million copies, becoming a favorite read of prominent figures such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama. Following this success, he went on to publish “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” both of which, in line with Harari’s style, stirred up the customary controversies. In 2020, he released a comic book adaptation of “Sapiens,” where he takes on the role of a guide leading readers through human history. Additionally, he authored “Unstoppable,” a series of texts designed for children, which was recognized as one of the best children’s publications of that year.

The hallmark of success for this expert in medieval and military history lies in his ability to articulate his theories through clear and easily comprehensible concepts. However, this broad accessibility has also drawn criticism from influential publications, including Current Affairs, which raised concerns about the “populist nature of his science” and the “sensationalism in his theses,” even going so far as to label him as “a brand.” Nevertheless, Harari continues to be attentively listened to by world leaders at prominent events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and gatherings in Silicon Valley.

As a committed vegan and a staunch advocate for the State of Israel, the writer resides in a kibbutz, which is a rural collective community, near Jerusalem. Alongside his spouse, who serves as his agent, Harari co-founded Sapienship, an organization with a mission to “disseminate the sciences through entertainment and education.”

However, as he readily acknowledges, his fame and influence are not solely attributable to his erudition and knowledge but also to his practice of meditation. Harari’s lifestyle and work are rooted in Vipassana meditation, which is conducted in profound silence. Each year, the writer disengages from the world to partake in a 60-day retreat, a practice he diligently upholds. “When you train the mind to focus on something as fundamental as breathing, it also imparts the discipline to concentrate on much larger matters and differentiate between what is truly important and what is not. The ability to maintain this level of concentration, I gained through meditation and applied it to my scientific career,” he explains in his characteristic calm demeanor.