Interview: Yuval Noah Harari on AI, His "Mission," and—Did He Mention AI?

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Since his best-selling book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," Yuval Noah Harari has become one of the most prominent intellectuals on the planet. Jonathan Nicholson/Getty Images

In 2011, a little known historian from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, then 35, published his third book. It was ambitious and impressive in scope: a history of humanity condensed into four hundred pages. Its success was even grander: Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind topped bestseller lists in Israel for three years.

When an English translation followed in 2014, it sold millions of copies and received public endorsements from some of the most powerful people in the world. Bill Gates put it on a list of 10 books he would take to a desert island. Mark Zuckerberg assigned it for his online reading group. Barack Obama praised the profound influence it had on his thinking. Celebrities like Russell Brand, Janelle Monáe and Natalie Portman joined the chorus.

Harari's rise was unusual for an academic specializing in medieval military history. But he has embraced his fame. Since the success of Sapiens, he has published two more books, first Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (another bestseller) and now, most recently, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

He has become a permanent fixture at conferences for the wealthy, meeting with presidents and prime ministers in the Swiss Alps for the World Economic Forum at Davos or tech billionaires in the executive conference rooms of Silicon Valley campuses.

There is also the inevitable, and ever-growing, catalogue of Ted-Talks—the essential emblem for today's intellectual. A recent talk was delivered via hologram. It has been viewed more than a million times.

"When I embarked on my academic career, I really didn't think I could reach such a level of influence," Harari tells Newsweek ahead of the publication of 21 Lessons. "With Sapiens I thought I was writing a book aimed mainly at Israeli college students. Now, there are many more expectations and it's a big responsibility."

His unexpected popularity has prompted a shift in focus—away from the distant past and towards the pressing demands of the present and future. Harari partly relates this shift to his profession as a teacher. "I think I have a responsibility to try and help other people gain clarity," he says. "One of the biggest problems now in the world, is that people are flooded with information. It's very hard to make sense of what is happening and to get your priorities right—so people can have extremely heated debates while completely ignoring the most important questions. I see my main mission as bringing clarity to the public arena, and at least helping people agree on what are the most important questions. What are the answers—that is more difficult."

The shift also reflects the freedom of fame: as Harari admits, he can now pursue his curiosities wherever he wishes, and both his recent output and our conversation suggest that this no longer leads him to ancient civilizations. Instead, Harari now focuses his gaze on the technological frontier of artificial intelligence. The final chapter of Sapiens set the stage for this techno-turn. Harari's second book Home Deus accomplished it with a flourish. And now 21 Lessons ensures that the act continues: while it covers a myriad topics and all of "today's most urgent issues," AI dominates the book.

Almost everything we discuss over the course of our conversation comes back to AI. The current political crisis is worrying in so far as it distracts us from what we should be worrying about: AI. We need a new story for humankind because only global cooperation will protect us from: AI.

Does Harari read fiction? Yes, quite a lot of science fiction, but much of it misleads the public on: AI. And so on, for immigration, the rise of religious fundamentalism and Brexit. "In 20 years, when we look back and we ask, 'Why didn't we regulate AI in time?,' the answer will be: 'Oh because we were too busy with this Brexit thing.' This is such a waste of time."

Harari isn't the first historian to pivot from analyzing the past to attempting to predict the future. To an extent, the progression makes sense: an understanding of how and why the world changed once can be a good guide to how and why it might change again. But, as Harari himself well knows, he is far from the first person to think an incredible robot revolution is imminent. This fear, or fantasy, has recurred with unwavering certainty throughout the last century. Why will it be so much worse, and so much more dramatic, this time?

"Many of these previous prophecies of doom about "the robots are coming," they just got the date wrong," Harari says. "It's not that they were proved to be complete nonsense." He then mentions two further dimensions: first, that robots are now outperforming humans in cognitive tasks, rather than purely physical ones, and then, second, that the few jobs that will remain for humans will be high-skill, with the requisite training often both unaffordable and futile. "People will need to reinvent themselves not just once, or twice, but maybe three, four, five times within their lives," he says, because the future growth of AI will be so fast. "This is hard for humans not just financially, but also psychologically."

Harari cites as his key influences Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, which was similar in scope to Sapiens and published in 1997, and Frans De Waal's Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, which drew comparisons to human politics and was published in 1982. He also gives a special mention to Daniel Kahneman, the influential behavioral economist behind the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. "Much of my thinking is shaped by this convergence of the life sciences with the humanities," he says. "You cannot understand history if you don't understand biology."

Harari's insistence that humans are not separate from the natural world is another recurring, and often endearing, theme in his work, one that stresses humility. "Homo sapiens does its best to forget the fact," he writes in Sapiens, "but it is an animal."

But the thoughts that follow can often seem contradictory. To begin with, the natural world for Harari isn't so different from AI: Harari sees both as complex constellations of algorithms, whether digital or "bio-chemical." Harari also believes that, soon, humans will no longer be animals. They will become "like Gods," he says. "Our power is astounding." But our power is also impotent: Harari says that the future he foresees, however fearsome, is essentially unstoppable. "We can't stop it, and we won't stop it," he says. The natural advance of artificial intelligence renders us all-powerful and powerless, all at once.

Not all is lost. Besides global cooperation on regulation, which Harari sees as necessary but unlikely, he see one other, perhaps unsurprising solution to the dangers of AI: AI. "At the same time as AI learns to recognize your weaknesses," Harari says, "AI can become your defender as well." According to him, there is a "huge market worth 100s of billions of dollars" for "AI tools that serve the individual against being surveilled by all these corporations and governments." Just like the problems posed, the solutions proposed can be frustrating in their simplicity. Harari doesn't say which corporations and governments will sanction the creation of anti-corporation, anti-government AI.

Perhaps Harari's popularity rests more on what he provides than the specific ideas he presents. Like so many other current intellectual-celebrities, such as Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris, Harari hints at a meaningful life at a threatening time, premised on an acceptance of the overwhelming aspects of the world.

But it isn't always clear what lies beneath the fluency and conviction that all these thinkers share. Harari has a rabbinical love for questions, and he seems to be a more serious thinker than Peterson or Harris. But his work has a hollow expansion. Abstract questions combine with grim prophecies and glib prescriptions, often delivered with a didactic urgency that lacks any detail.

"There is a real need for grand narratives," he says, and his success proves it to be so. "But if the need is not fulfilled by responsible scientists," he continues, "then it will be fulfilled by all kinds of irresponsible conspiracy theorists." Harari's grand narratives are captivating and thought-provoking, and he is certainly not an irresponsible conspiracy theorist.

But whether we should ask more of our leading intellectual lights—not to mention whether Harari, an historian rooted firmly in the humanities, could ever qualify as a "reasonable scientist"—well, that's another question.