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The End of Homo Sapiens

 

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In the seventeenth and final week of the course on the history of humanity Dr Hariri discuss the future and perhaps The End of Homo Sapiens. Over the last few decades humans began to bend and break the laws of natural selection, laws that have governed life on Earth for the past four billion years. New technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology are giving us unprecedented abilities to design not only the world around us, but also our own bodies, our personalities, and our desires. How will this influence society and culture? Does anybody know where we are heading? What is the likely future of humankind?

In these lectures Dr Harari addresses the above questions. These are my notes taken from his course on Coursera.


Our Future

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In previous lessons we surveyed the history of Homo sapiens from 70,000 years ago up to the present day. In this, the last lesson we look at the potential future of Homo sapiens. In all likelihood our species is going to disappear. We’re probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. In the immediate future, within a few decades or couple of centuries at most, Homo sapiens will disappear. Our species won’t annihilate itself in some nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Rather, our species will disappear, because it is going to upgrade itself, into a completely different kind of being. There have already been many far-reaching revolutions in history, political, social, cultural and technological revolutions. Through all these revolutions one thing remained relatively constant and that is Homo sapiens itself. The sapiens mind and the sapiens body have been the constant base on which all societies, all identities, all religions have been founded. Our world today is very different from the world of biblical times, but people in ancient Jerusalem had the same basic bodily and mental

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abilities that we have today. People in the past experienced the world in roughly the same way that we experience it today, and this is why we still find much of interest in the Bible, or in the philosophy of Plato, or in the writings of Confucius, because they were written by people just like us. This is about to change. The next big revolution in history will of course transform the economy, politics and society, but it will also transform our bodies and our minds and will replace Homo sapiens with a very different kind of being.

When we think about the future, we usually think about a world in which people enjoy better technology. They have light speed spaceships, laser guns, intelligent robots, and so forth. The truly revolutionary potential of technology is to change people, not just our tools and our weapons. It’s not the spaceships that are going to be different in the future, but the beings that travel in them. How will Homo sapiens upgrade into a different kind of being? Currently there are three main methods humans use in order to upgrade themselves. The first method is biological engineering. The second method is cyborg engineering. Cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts. The third is by engineering inorganic life that is life which is not based at all on organic parts.

Let’s examine these three methods so that you understand what we are talking about.

Biological engineering

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Biological engineering is any deliberate intervention on the biological level. For example, implanting a gene or taking some drug which is aimed to modify the shape, the capabilities, the needs or the desires of an organism. There is nothing new about biological engineering per se. People have been using biological engineering for thousands upon thousands of years in order to reshape themselves and in order to reshape other organisms, like dogs, cows and horses. A simple example of biological engineering is castration. Humans have castrating bulls for perhaps 10,000 years in order to create oxen. Oxen are less aggressive than bulls and are therefore easier to train and to dominate and to make them pull wagons and carts and ploughs. Humans have similarly used castration on themselves. Castrating young men or, or children, in order to create soprano singers with wonderful voices, or to create eunuchs who could safely guard the harem of the sultan or the emperor without any danger that they may do something with the sultan’s women.  Biological engineering isn’t new, but what is new are the abilities of today’s biological engineering. Recent advances in our understanding of how organisms work down to the cellular and molecular levels have opened up before us, possibilities for biological engineering which previously were simply unimaginable. For example, today we can not only castrate a man, which is relatively simple, but we can use hormonal and surgical treatments in order to turn this man into a woman. This is far more ambitious than just castration.

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That’s not all. Look for example at this photograph which was published in 1996, almost 20 years ago. When it appeared it sent shock waves around the world. It caused a very huge storm. Now this is a real photograph of a real mouse. It is not something that somebody created in Photoshop, it’s a real mouse. What you see here is a very real mouse on whose back scientists have implanted the cartilage cells which they took from cattle, from cows. The scientists were able not only to implant these cow cells on the back of the mouse, but also to control the growth of the new tissue and to shape it into something that looks very similar to a human ear. They can shape it into other shapes, if they want. This process is now used in laboratories and hospitals to try and manufacture artificial ears and other artificial organic structures that can then be implanted in humans, for example, somebody who lost his ear. This photograph is a kind of eerie echo of the lion man statue from the Stadel cave that we encountered in the second lesson. In the case of the lion-man humans imagined a combination of a human and a lion. Even 30,000 years ago, people could imagine such a hybrid creature, half human, half lion, and they could make an ivory statue of it. But nobody 30,000 years ago knew how to produce a living being, which is half this half that. Today humans are acquiring the ability to produce such beings with the help of very sophisticated biological engineering. This mouse is a real combination of parts taken from cattle with the body of a mouse.

Genetic engineering

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Of all the biological engineering that we see developing, the one that attracts the most attention is genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is based on taking genes from one organism and implanting these genes in the DNA of a different organism. For example, today, we know, and it is often done how to take a gene from a jellyfish that glows in a green fluorescent light, and to implant this gene in a rabbit or a monkey, which then also start to glow in a green fluorescent light. It has been done in monkeys; it can be done with humans too. We now have the technology to take this gene from a jellyfish, to implant it in the human DNA, and you will get a human being that glows in a green fluorescent light. It hasn’t actually been done because of ethical prohibitions, but technically, we know how to do it. Another example concerns a genetic engineering of micro-organisms. The bacterium E.coli has been genetically engineered by scientists to produce biofuel to try and solve the energy problems of the world. The same bacteria E.coli and other species of a micro-organisms and fungi have also been genetically engineered to start producing insulin and thereby lower the cost of insulin and the cost of diabetes treatment.

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Another interesting example is that scientists extracted a gene from a kind of arctic fish that lives in the Arctic Ocean and inserted this gene from the fish into the DNA of potatoes, in order to make the potatoes more resistant to frost and to cold conditions. Genetic engineering is used increasingly not only on micro-organisms and in jellyfish and potatoes. It is also used on mammals. For example, every year, the dairy industry suffers billions of dollars of damages due to a disease called mastitis. Mastitis is a disease that strikes the udders of dairy cows, and causes problems there. Scientists are currently experimenting with genetically engineered cows, whose milk contains a biochemical called lysostaphin, and this biochemical attacks the bacterium which causes mastitis, Scientists hope that in this way, the problem of mastitis will be solved, by genetically engineering these dairy cows.

Geneticists have already managed to engineer other mammals like mice and rats. They’ve managed to engineer genius mice that display not only different physical qualities, but that have improved cognitive abilities, improved memory, and improved learning skills. How do you measure the cognitive ability of a mouse? It’s not so difficult.  Scientists put the mouse in a maze and there are levels of difficulty that the genetically engineered mouse is able to solve much more quickly than a normal mouse. The genius, genetically engineered mouse is able to solve very difficult mazes that normal mice cannot solve. So we have here evidence of a real cognitive change brought about by genetic engineering.

If you can do such things to mice, you can certainly do them to Homo sapiens as well. The abilities, the needs, the desires of Homo sapiens, just like those of mice, have a genetic basis, and the sapiens DNA is not much more complex than the DNA of mice. The sapiens genome is only 14% larger than the genome of mice. That’s practically the same level of complexity. There is no technical reason why we couldn’t start engineering superhumans, or why we couldn’t create entire new species of humans different from Homo sapiens. In the medial range, perhaps in a few decades or a century or two, genetic engineering and other forms of biological engineering might well enable us to make far reaching changes, not only in our physiology and in our immune system and in our life expectancy, but they will also enable us to make major changes to our intellectual and emotional capacities. If genetic engineering can create genius mice, there is no obvious reason why it couldn’t create super human, genius humans.

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The cognitive revolution turned homo sapiens from an insignificant African ape into the master of the world did not require any noticeable change in human physiology. It did not even require a change in the size and external shape of the human brain. Apparently, the cognitive revolution resulted from a few small changes in the internal structure of the sapiens brain. So perhaps another relatively small change in the human brain, brought about with, say, genetic engineering, would be enough to ignite the second cognitive revolution to create a completely new kind of consciousness and to transform Homo sapiens into something very  different from us, just as we are different from the Neanderthals. We are still not there yet, but there seem no insurmountable technical gap separating us from the production of such super humans. The main obstacles on the way to the creation of super humans are not technical. The main obstacles are ethical, and political objections that slow down the research on humans. The research on mice is much more advanced than the research on humans, because of these ethical and political considerations.  No matter how convincing these ethical and political arguments are, it is very hard to see how they could hold back the next step in the process indefinitely, or even for very long. Especially because what is at stake here is the possibility of prolonging human life indefinitely, giving humans indefinite life spans, living forever. What is at stake is conquering diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and so forth, and upgrading our cognitive and emotional abilities. It’s unlikely that these ethical and political objections will indefinitely prevent the research from going forward.

What would happen for example if scientists managed to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease that at the same time, as a side benefit, could also dramatically improve the memories or the cognitive abilities of healthy people. Would any government or any combination of governments be able to stop the relevant research? If this cure, this technique is indeed developed, would any government or any police be able to limit the usage of this invention only to cure Alzheimer’s patients and to prevent healthy people from using this technology to acquire super memories and amazing cognitive abilities? It is unlikely.

Cyber-engineering.

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Cyborgs are beings that combine organic and inorganic parts such as a human with bionic hands. In a sense, all of us are cyborgs these days, since our natural senses and functions are supplemented, improved by devices; such as, eye glasses, pace makers and even computers. Computers perform more and more tasks previously done by our organic brains and memories. However, in the near future, this process is likely to go much further. We are likely to start having inorganic devices connected directly to our brains and to our nervous systems. Devices that will be inseparable from us, and that will change our abilities, desires, personalities and identities.

One example is the bionic ear. We already have functioning prototypes of bionic ears. A bionic ear means an implant that absorbs sound waves through a microphone located on the outer part of the ear. The implant filters these sounds, identifies human voices and other important sounds, and translates them into electric signals which are then sent directly to the central auditory nerve and from there to the brain. Such a bionic ear not only enables deaf people to start hearing, but can also enable healthy people to acquire amazing new hearing abilities. The same can be done with bionic eyes, bionic noses and even bionic arms and legs.

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Here is a picture of Jesse Sullivan holding hands with Claudia Mitchell. Jesse is an American electrician who lost both his arms up to the shoulder in 2001, in accident. Claudia lost one arm in a motorcycle accident. Both of them now use bionic arms. The amazing thing about these bionic arms is that they are operated by thought alone. Signals from the brain are translated by microcomputers, into electric commands and, according to these commands, the arms move. When Jesse or Claudia want to move they do whatever any normal person unconsciously does. They just think about it and the arm moves. At present, these bionic arms are a very poor replacement for the organic originals, but, they have the potential for unlimited technological development. Bionic arms, for example, in the near future, can be made much more powerful than organic arms, even of the world’s boxing champion. Moreover, bionic arms have the very big advantage that they can be replaced every few years or upgrade it whenever a new model appears on the market. They can also be detached from the body and operated at a distance. We’re used to all the parts of our body being connected here as part of a single body, but this is just organic bodies work. Once you have bionic body parts there is no reason why they have to be connected and be in the same room, or the same city, or even the same continent or planet. Scientists at Duke University, in North

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Carolina, have recently demonstrated this with rhesus monkeys. They took rhesus monkeys and implanted electrodes in their brains. The electrodes gather signals from the brain and transmit them to external devices that control arms and legs and so forth. The monkeys were trained to control detached bionic arms and legs through thought alone. One monkey, called Aurora, learned how to control only with her mind, only with her thought, a detached bionic arm while simultaneously moving her two organic arms. So Aurora is now like some Hindu goddess. She has three arms and her arms can be located, at least the third arm can be located in a different room, in another city, in another continent. Aurora can sit, in a laboratory in North Carolina, scratch her head with one hand, scratch her back with another hand and simultaneously steal a banana in New York with the third hand, which she controls by the mind alone, and, as far as she’s concerned, this is a hand of hers. She feels it like a hand. Another of Aurora’s companions, a Rhesus monkey called Adoya, became very famous in the year 2008, when she thought controlled a pair of bionic legs, which were positioned at the time in Japan from her chair in North Carolina. She sat in North Carolina, with her brain connected through the internet to these legs in Japan and she walked in Japan. The legs in Japan were 20 times the weight of Adoya’s entire body.

Mind reading technology

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Another very interesting development concerns the possibility to mind read, to read the contents, the thoughts in the mind of a person. There is a very severe disease which is called Locked In Syndrome because people who suffer from it are kind of locked in. They gradually lose all or nearly all of their ability to move all parts of their bodies, but the cognitive abilities to feel and to think and so forth remain intact, and they become locked inside their bodies, unable to do anything. People suffering from this terrible syndrome have often now been able to communicate with the outside world.  They can still make very small eye movements and this is how they signify yes or no and things like that. There are now studies in which patients that suffer from this syndrome had electrodes implanted in their brain, like the monkeys. These electrodes register signals from the brains and scientists are making an effort to translate these signals, not only into movements of bionic arms and legs and computers and so forth, but also to translate them into words. If the experiments succeed, it means that people who suffer from Locked In Syndrome, would be able to speak directly with the outside world with a computer translating their brain signals into words. We would have at our disposal the ability to read the thoughts in the mind of another person directly, whether he wants it or not. Just think what the CIA, for example, could do with such an amazing invention.

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Of all the projects currently under development in the field of cyborg engineering, the most revolutionary is the attempt to create a two-way brain computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of the human brain while simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read, interpret and understand. Just imagine if such direct interfaces are used to directly link a brain to the internet, so you could surf the internet just with your consciousness, not with fingers and eyes, or to directly link several brains to the same computer, linking all of them together and creating a sort of interbrain net. What may happen, in such a case, to things like human memory, human consciousness, human identity if the brain can have direct access to collective databanks and collective memories? In such a situation, one cyborg could, for example, retrieve the memories of somebody else. Not hear about them or read them in the book or imagine how this person must have felt, but to directly remember the memories of somebody else as if they were his or her own. What happens to concepts like gender identity when minds become collective and men can actually remember the memories of a woman? Nobody knows the answer to these complicated questions. What is quite clear is that, such cyborgs would no longer be humans, they would not even be organic creatures, organic animals, they would be something completely different from us and from every other animal. They would be so fundamentally another kind of being, that we cannot even begin to grasp the philosophical, psychological and political implications of such an eventuality.

Non organic beings

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The third method for creating some kind of new entities that will take our place in the world is by engineering completely non organic beings. Cyborgs still combine brains with computers, organic parts with inorganic parts. There is a possibility of creating completely non-organic beings free of any organic parts. The most obvious example is computer programs and computer viruses that can undergo independent evolution and can develop and learn new things independently. Computer centres today are trying to create learning computer programs that can learn by themselves, that can evolve completely independently of the person who initially programmed, or created this program. The first such independently learning program would be created by a human, but once it exists, it can start evolving in new and very different directions, which neither its maker nor any other humans could ever have predicted. A prototype of such a program, and of their evolution, already exists, and it is called a computer virus. As the computer virus spreads through the internet, the virus is replicated. Millions upon millions of times, all the time being chased by predatory anti-virus programs that try to destroy it, and all the time competing with other viruses and other programs for the limited space in cyber space. What happens if one day, when the virus replicates itself, some mistake occurs? Some computerized mutation, perhaps the mistake, the mutation occurs because the human engineer that initially programmed the virus, programmed it to make random replication mistakes every now and then a mutation occurs due to some random error. If by chance the new virus is better at evading antivirus programs without losing its ability to invade other computers, then this new version would spread quickly through cyberspace. Mutant viruses will survive and reproduce better than the previous versions. As time goes by cyberspace will become full of new viruses that no human engineered, viruses that undergo non organic evolution. Are these living creatures? Is this life? It depends on what you mean by life and living creatures. But what is certain, is that there is a new pathway, a new a method, for evolution a new evolutionary process, which is completely independent of the organic world, of the laws and limitation of organic evolution.

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Imagine another possibility. Suppose you could take your brain and back it up on a computer and then run it on the computer. Would your computer be able to think and to feel like a sapiens? If so, would it be you, or would it be somebody else? What if computer programmers could create an entirely new, but digital mind composed of computer code with a sense of self and memories and so forth. If you ran such a program on your computer would it be a person? If you delete it, could you be charged with murder? This sounds very hypothetical but, we might have the answer to these questions much sooner than most people realize. In 2005, scientists launched the Blue Brain Project. The Project hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer with electronic circuits in the computer emulating the neural networks in the brain. Whatever electric signals are in the brain, that this neuron sends to this neuron, so they hope to replicate it inside the computer with electronic signals from this circuit to this circuit. The program’s director has claimed that if the project receives proper funding, within a mere decade or two we could have an artificially human brain inside a computer an artificial bionic brain that could talk and feel and behave much as a human does. Not all scholars agree that this is possible, because many argue that the mind works in a manner which is very different from the way that computers work.  It will never be possible to create a mind inside the computers. There’s a lot of argument about it. However, we should note that just a few months ago, in April 2013, the European Union decided to make the Blue Brain project the flagship of European science in the years to come and to donate 1 billion Euros to finance this program. So at least the head of the European Union, of the science department of the European Union, they think that there is serious possibility of this Blue Brain Project succeeding.

Rethinking humanity

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These then are the three main methods by which Homo sapiens might upgrade itself into some other kind of being, with biological engineering, with cyborg engineering and with the engineering of non-organic life. If any of these methods succeed, and if this really occurs, what would be the social and the political and the ethical implications? Presently, only tiny fraction of the potential of these methods has actually been realized. Yet, already today in 2013, we are in the middle of an immense social, political and ethical revolution. More and more spheres of activity are being shaken out of their complacent ways. Lawyers and judges need to rethink issues of privacy and identity. Governments need to rethink matters of health care and equality. Sport’s associations and educational institutions need to redefine what fair play means and what achievement means. Pension funds and labour organizations need to readjust to a world in which 60 might well be the new 30. They must all deal with the ethical and social problems which are raised by bioengineering, by cyborgs and by inorganic life.

Privacy

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Take the issue of privacy, for example. Mapping the first human genome took 15 years and $3 billion. Today, you can map your DNA within a few days, at the cost of a few hundred dollars. There are many companies on the internet that offer this service. This opens the way to a revolution in medical care. It opens the way to personalized medicine that matches treatment to your own DNA. With this print of your DNA the family doctor can tell you with greater certainty than ever before that you face a high risk of liver cancer, whereas you don’t need to worry much about heart attacks. He could also determine, based on your DNA, that a very popular medication, that helps 92% of the population, is useless for you, and you should take another pill, which is dangerous to most people, but for you it is just perfect. However, this easy ability to map your DNA may open the way to other things as well. For example, would insurance companies be entitled to ask to see your DNA scan and to raise premiums if they discover that you have a genetic tendency to reckless behaviour? So they say, okay, you have this gene, you pay double. Or, for example, when you apply for a job, could your future boss ask that instead of faxing him your CV he wants your DNA. Would the employer be entitled to ask for such a thing? And would the employer be entitled to favour somebody else because he likes her DNA more than he likes your DNA, because you have your some suspicious gene, which is often connected with problematic behaviour. Would you be able, in such a case, to sue for genetic discrimination or would this be acceptable? Why not? If we have DNA, why not use it?

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Such dilemmas are dwarfed by the ethical, social, and political implications of the Gilgamesh Project, the project to give humans eternal life and by the potential new abilities, to create super humans. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, government medical programs throughout the world, national health insurance programs and national constitutions worldwide recognized that a humane society, a good society, ought to give all its members fair medical treatment and to keep all members of society, as far as possible, in relatively good health. That was all very good and well, as long as medicine was chiefly concerned with preventing illness and with healing the sick. What would happen once medicines becomes more and more preoccupied with enhancing human abilities, giving humans new abilities instead of just healing sicknesses and illnesses? Would all humans be entitled to such enhanced abilities? Or would there be a new superhuman elite that only they have these wonderful new abilities? Our modern world today prides itself on recognizing, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans. But, we might be poised to create the most unequal society that ever existed on Earth.

Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed that they are smarter, they are stronger, they are better than the under class. But they were usually just deluding themselves. In the Middle Ages, the kings thought they were very superior to the peasants. But a baby born to a poor peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crowned prince, as the son of the king. However, today with the help of new medical and scientific capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might become an objective reality. They might really be smarter and stronger and better than the than the underclasses and everybody else.

Science fiction or fact?

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We need to realize that this is not science fiction. This is science. Most science fiction plots describe a world in which sapiens identical to us enjoy superior technology, such as spaceships that travel at the speed of light and laser guns. The ethical and political dilemmas which are central to science fiction movies and books are concerned with people like us. They are taking from our world, and mentally recreating our social tensions and our emotional dilemmas against a futuristic backdrop. The real potential of future technology is to change not the spaceships, but Homo sapiens itself, including our emotions and thoughts and desires. Science fiction rarely describes such a future because an accurate description is by definition incomprehensible to people today. Producing a film about the life of some super cyborg in the future is like producing Hamlet to an audience of Neanderthals. They won’t be able to understand what’s happening.  Similarly we can’t understand a real story about the future. The future masters of the world if all these predictions come true, will probably be much more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human and organic, these future beings are going to be god-like and probably inorganic, at least in parts of their bodies. This is why more and more scholars say that what really awaits us in the future is the singularity.

The singularity

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The singularity is a point in which our world of meaning collapses completely. A point when everything we know about ourselves and about the world, all our hopes and fears and so forth, our very identity, will all become irrelevant. We cannot imagine this point or anything happening after this point. It is singular. It is not comparable to anything else within our field of experience. The term itself, singularity, is taken from physics. Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. The Big Bang was a point when all known natural laws, including space and time, did not exist and did not function in any way that we can understand using our current models and knowledge. Hence, anything that happened before the Big Bang is also meaningless to us. The very notion of time had no meaning during the Big Bang. So, it is meaningless to speak about things happening before the Big Bang because there was no time. The Big Bang is a point of singularity in the past. We might fast be approaching another point of singularity in which our known world of meaning will simply collapse. Everything happening beyond that point is incomprehensible to us, and it’s useless to try and imagine it, or talk about it.

Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, the pace of technological development is so rapid that we will soon come to the point when Homo sapiens is replaced by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also different cognitive and emotional abilities and experiences. This is something that most people, most sapiens find extremely troublesome, extremely disconcerting. We like to believe that in the future people like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships. We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place in the universe will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our abilities, alien life forms, our descendants, who would look on us in the same way that we look at Neanderthals.

It should be emphasized that all this is, of course, just speculation. Nobody really knows what will happen in the future. It would be surprising if all the forecasts given today, and if all the forecasts mentioned in the last few paragraphs are realized in full. History teaches us, again and again, that what seems to be inevitable and just around the corner, may never materialize due to unforeseen barriers. In contrast other scenarios, which nobody foresaw, may actually happen. For example, when the nuclear age began in the 1940s, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and later on when the space age began, when the Soviets launched Sputnik to space, and the Americans landed a man on the moon, everybody began fantasizing and forecasting that in the year 2000, people would live in colonies on Mars and on the moon, and on Pluto. These were all fantasies and forecasts about the nuclear world of the year 2000. Very few of all these forecasts actually happened. We don’t live in colonies on Mars fuelled by nuclear energy.

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In contrast, nobody in the time of Hiroshima and Sputnik had managed to forecast the internet, which, in many respects is much more amazing than living on Mars in some nuclear colony. So you should take most of this lesson not as reliable forecast for the future, but more as a stimulant for your imagination. What we should take very seriously is not the exact forecasts, but the basic idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformation, but also, fundamental revolutions in human consciousness and human identity. These could be revolutions so fundamental that they will call into question the very term human. Whatever happens after the revolution, it won’t be human any more.

How long do we have until this happens? Until the singularity? Nobody really knows, of course. Some experts say that by the year 2050, less than 40 years from now, there will already be super humans living on Earth. Less radical forecasts speak about the next century or two or three centuries. From the perspective of 70,000 years of sapiens history, what are a few centuries? We’re very close to the end of Homo sapiens, to the end of history, and to the beginning of something completely different. Whether it will take a few centuries or a few decades, what’s becoming very clear is that we sapiens had better start thinking about these matters. The most important question facing humankind today is what do we want to become? This question is called the human enhancement question. In what way do we want to enhance humankind? These questions dwarf all the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, scholars, philosophers and ordinary people. After all these debates today between various nations and ideologies and religions and classes will disappear, along with Homo sapiens. If our superhuman successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness, or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness, which we can’t conceive, then it’s very doubtful that they will have any interest in Christianity or Islam, that they will organize themselves in a communist or capitalist way, or even that they will have genders like us, males and females. All this will disappear.

Most people prefer simply not to think about this possibility. Even the field of bioethics prefers, usually, to address another question. Most bioethicists, people who are interested in the ethics of all this biotechnology and so forth, usually ask themselves not what do we want to become, but what is forbidden to do? Is it acceptable for example to make genetic experiments on living human beings? Is it okay to do experiments on aborted foetuses or on stem cells? Is it ethical to clone sheep? Is it ethical to clone chimpanzees? What about humans? Now, all these questions are important. I don’t want to say that they’re not important, but it is naive to imagine that we might simply hit the brakes, and stop scientific projects that are upgrading Homo sapiens into a different kind of being. It’s impossible to completely stop such kind of projects, because they’re inextricably meshed together with the human quest to overcome disease, to overcome death – the Gilgamesh Project. Ask scientists who are studying the genome, or ask scientists who tried to connect a brain to a computer, or tried to connect a mind to a computer, why they do all this. Why do you want to do this? Nine out of ten will give the same standard answer. We are trying to connect a brain to a computer, to create a brain inside a computer, to decipher the secrets of DNA, in order to cure diseases. This is the standard answer because nobody could really argue with it. This sounds wonderful, to cure diseases. Even though the implications of breaking the code of the DNA, or the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far, far more dramatic than curing this disease or that disease. This is still the standard justification for all these scientific projects because this is justification that convinces everybody. Nobody can argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project, the attempt to overcome disease, old age and death, is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything that science does. Whenever there is doubt, we just think about that and we say okay, go on. This is why we cannot stop the march of science and technology.

The only thing we can try to do is to somehow influence the direction they are taking. We have, therefore, to start asking ourselves, not only what is forbidden to do, but we need to ask a far more important and difficult question. What do we want to become? And, since we might very soon be able to engineer our desires as well, the real question facing humankind today is, what do we want to want? Those who are not frightened, those who are not spooked by these questions, what do we want to want, probably haven’t given this question enough thought.

With this troubling question-  what do you want to want – we come to the end of this course. Before we say goodbye, Dr Harari stressed once more that what we learned during this course, the Brief History of Humankind, is not the truth, it is just one possible story about the history of humankind. If you asked ten different historians to give this course, you would most probably get ten very different stories. You shouldn’t accept you everything in this course as the truth. It is better to take it as an invitation to explore history by yourself. His aim in teaching this course was not so much to convince you that this or that particular theory is true, but rather to raise important questions in your mind about the history of humankind, about the past, present, and future of humankind. It is hoped that you leave this cause with more questions than you had when you entered it, and that you leave this cause with desire, with a wish to study and to learn more about our history. In addition it is hoped that you leave this course feeling a bit more uneasy than when you started it. Uneasy about the many questions to which we humans have no clear answer yet. Uneasy about the many problematic events that happened in the past, and uneasy about the direction history may be taking us in the future.

Final note from Dr Harari, our course presenter.

People often ask, what is the purpose of studying history? They sometimes imagine that we study history in order to predict the future, or in order to learn from past mistakes. In my view, we should study history not in order to learn from the past, but in order to be free of it.

Each of us is born into a particular world, governed by a particular system of norms and values, and a particular economic and political order. Since we are born into it, we take the surrounding reality to be natural and inevitable, and we tend to think that the way people today live their lives is the only possible way. We seldom realize that the world we know is the accidental outcome of chance historical events, which condition not only our technology, politics and economics but even the way we think and dream. This is how the past grips us by the back of the head, and turn our eyes towards a single possible future. We have felt the grip of the past from the moment we were born, so we don’t even notice it. The study of history aims to loosen this grip, and to enable us to turn our head around more freely, to think in new ways, and to see many more possible futures.

I hope that by introducing you to the history of humankind, this course has helped loosen the grip of the past.


If you enjoy reading my notes consider making a small donation to one of these charities. No donation is too small, you could change a life.


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9 Comments

  1. Thank you again for your fine notes..I completed the course and did ok on the final. I accepted the first attempt grade…lets face it., you don’t get 500 chances on a conventional final…I know that reading your notes really helped me in this course. Dr. Harari is a wonderful teacher. I thank the universe for him and how MOOCs in general enhance my life. Best wishes to you in your lifetime learning…Jim Canter, North Carolina, USA age 73.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      How kind of you to drop by and comment Jim.
      I too took the first grade attempt, I managed 25% which isn’t bad. I think that my notes really helped me.
      MOOC’s are wonderful things and I will continue doing them as they give me the education I missed when young and thought t wasn’t necessary.

  2. […] It did not even require a change in the size and external shape of the human brain. Apparently, the cognitive revolution resulted from a few small changes in the internal structure of the sapiens brain.  […]

  3. Since 2006 I introduced the term ‘Digi-Sapiens’ to describe this transition (fractalfetishes.blogspot.com). CA

  4. […] It did not even require a change in the size and external shape of the human brain. Apparently, the cognitive revolution resulted from a few small changes in the internal structure of the sapiens brain.  […]

  5. Nina Keyrouz says:

    I have a few questions about the future men/ machine or creature that I would like to share with you..

    – In the past and present homo sapiens has a dream of freedom… in the future creatures will be seeking for it ? Do they want to be free and if yes free of what?
    – What would be his need? Could it be Power? What would be the power and over whom?
    – Would money exist? What do they want to buy? What services they want to have ?
    – Sex affects most of the homo sapiens behavior and interests, would sex exist in the future human or creature?
    – Would they be having any physical interest or desire? Food, exercise, sports,???
    – Would it be important from which country they are? countries will exist?
    – Smoking and drugs will exist?
    – Gender will exist?
    – It will depend on the leader…. The leader would be a modified human or 100 non organic machine …
    – What will be the definition of ethics?
    – Will language exist? Or just some codes and computer data ? they will be talking to each other using their voice? Or through energy?
    My question for now: why would the existing human being/ homo sapiens invent something that could banish his existing and take over him and wipe up his race? Why would we do that?

    • Louise Taylor says:

      These are some very interesting questions Nina and invariably unanswerable without a time machine 🙂

      Your question for now, why ‘man’ would invent something that could wipe out his race?, is slightly different. Inventions don’t normally start out with the purpose of total destruction of humanity. The original purpose is to help humanity or at least part of it – look at the atom bomb. Our use of these instruments or weapons becomes something different. As a species we are greedy and capable of mass destruction for our own small needs or desires with no thought for the final consequences. We all know now about pollution for example, but few people do anything about it in their everyday lives. We know that the death of bees will be the death of the food chain as we know it but large corporations are not stopped from producing chemicals that kill bees.

      The answers to a lot of your questions depends on whether the planet or humanity still exists and in what form. We are quite capable of wiping ourselves out. What will the next parasite on the planet be?

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