“We are probably one of the last generations of homo sapiens.” Those were the opening words of acclaimed historian and best-selling author Professor Yuval Harari, who spoke at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where politicians, thought leaders and executives from the world’s leading companies congregate to discuss solutions to global challenges.
What comes after us, Harari said, are entities that are more different from us than we were from our predecessors, the Neanderthals. However, those species will not be the outcome of the organic evolution of human genes, Harari explained, but the outcome of humans learning to engineer bodies, brains and minds. “This will be the main product of the economy of the 21st century.”
But how will those species emerge and what will they look like?
The power will reside in the data
“Those who control the data control the future not just of humanity, but the future of life itself,” Harari said. “Because today, data is the most important asset in the world.”
In the past, control and ownership of land and subsequently industrial machinery divided humans into different classes, aristocrats and commoners, capitalists and proletariats.
“Now data is replacing machinery as the most important asset. And if too much of the data becomes concentrated in too few hands, humanity will split not into classes—it will split into species,” Harari warned.
Today, of the ten most powerful companies in the world, six are tech firms that handle very large amounts of data (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Tencent). And most of them are less than two decades old.
Why is data so important? “Because we’ve reached a point where we can hack not just computers—we can hack human beings and other organisms,” Harari explained.
It takes two things to hack human beings: computing power and data, both of which are becoming abundantly available. The processing power of our mobile phones surpass that of the most powerful computers of a few decades ago. Meanwhile, the creation of digital information is exploding. Studies show we generate 2.5 million terabytes of data per day and that number is increasing, because only 10% of available data dates before 2016. Advances in sensor technology and the internet of things (IoT) have enabled us to gather data from anything and everything from the physical world.
Understanding humans through algorithms
The combination of data and computation creates a power that surpasses that of the most powerful spy agencies of past centuries, such as the Soviet KGB or Spanish Inquisition, Harari said. “They didn’t have the computing power and the biological knowledge necessary to make sense what was happening inside your body and brain, and to understand how you feel, and what you think and what you want.”
This is changing thanks to the rise of machine learning and deep learning, smart artificial intelligence software that can mine huge sets of data and find meaningful patterns that would go unnoticed to the biologically limited minds of human beings. Presently, artificial intelligence and machine learning touch many aspect of human life, such as healthcare and medicine, transportation, education, the distribution of news and information, and much more.
Harari also points to advances in biology and the brain science as a defining factor in understanding and hacking of the human mind. “Organisms are algorithms,” Harari said. “This is the big insight of modern life sciences.” Humans are really just biochemical algorithms, and we are learning how to decipher these algorithms.
The evolution of biometrical sensors, which translate biochemical processes in the body and brain into electronic signals that a computer can store and analyze. We’ve seen huge leaps in this field, from medical devices and wearables, to the more advanced hardware that can read brain waves, such as Facebook’s upcoming brain-computer interface and Elon Musk’s Neuralink. We’ve also seen advances on the intersection of neuroscience and artificial intelligence, where a closer understanding of the human mind’s mechanics are helping create more efficient algorithms.
With the right amount of data and computing power, you can create algorithms that know people better than themselves. “And humans really don’t know themselves very well,” Harari said, bringing up his own realization of his homosexuality after years of denial as an example.
There are already computer vision algorithms that can detect whether you’re straight or gay with a high level of accuracy by analyzing your mug shot. In a few years, with body sensors becoming ubiquitous, these technologies will become even more accurate—and harder to evade.
“Even if you keep hiding from your classmates or from yourself, you will not be able to hide from Amazon, or Alibaba, or the secret police,” Harari said. “As you surf the internet, as you watch videos or check your social feed, the algorithms will be monitoring your eye movements, your blood pressure, your brain activity, and they will know.”
The mechanism behind it is in fact pretty simple. These companies compare your data against their historical data and the digital profile of the millions and billions of other people they have, and by finding common patterns, they can understand your known and hidden preferences, even if you don’t know them yet yourself.
The rise of digital dictatorships
“Once we have algorithms that can understand better than I understand myself, they could predict my desires, manipulate my emotions and even take decisions on my behalf,” Harari said in his speech. “And if we are not careful, the outcome will be the rise of digital dictatorships.”
Democracy functions by distributing information and the power to make decisions between many institutions and individuals, while dictatorship concentrates everything in one place. In the 20th century, distributed data processing outperformed centralized data processing, which is one of the main reasons democracy prevailed over dictatorship in general, Harari explained. But that might not be the case in the future.
“In the 21st century, new technological revolutions, especially AI and machine learning might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction,” he said. “They might make centralized data processing far more efficient than distributed data processing. And if democracy cannot adapt to these new conditions, then humans will come to live under the rule of digital dictatorships.”
We’re seeing evidence of this in companies vying to collect and store more and more data in order to get a bigger share of the markets they compete in. We’re also seeing the rise of data-driven government surveillance in different countries. The most notorious case is China’s social credit program, in which the government is colluding with big tech companies to keep tabs on the activities and of Chinese citizens by analyzing their data. But similar cases have happened in democratic countries such as the U.S., where the NSA tapped into the large centralized databases of companies such as Facebook and Google to establish a huge surveillance program. More recently, we’re seeing machine learning algorithms and facial recognition technology becoming the new tool to control citizens.
But digital dictatorship does not limit itself to highly accurate surveillance of citizens’ actions. It will become even more dangerous when it starts to steer those actions in its favor. We already saw what big data and AI can do in the fake news scandals that emerged in the U.S. and European elections, in which malicious actors gamed the news feed algorithms of social media networks to try to sway public opinion in a specific direction.
This can become worse as users generate more and more data and governments try to concentrate all that data under their control. At one point we might achieve the notion of persuasive computing, in which governments use small bits of targeted information to manipulate the minds of people in intended ways. In this new era of digital dictatorship, despots will no longer need to point guns at people to force them to do their bidding. They’ll have plenty of data to achieve their goals without shedding a drop of blood.
The era of evolution by intelligent design
“Control of data might enable human elites to do something even more radical than just build digital dictatorships,” Harari said. “By hacking organisms, the elite might gain the power to re-engineer the future of life itself. Because once you can hack something, you can usually also engineer it. This will be the greatest revolution of biology since the very beginning of life.”
In the past 4 billion years, the evolution of all lifeforms was governed by the simple rule of natural selection and the laws of organic biochemistry.
“Science is replacing evolution by natural selection with evolution by intelligent design,” Harari said. The driving forces behind these new designs will be the companies that own the data and algorithms. We might also see life breaking out from the confines of organic compounds, Harari added.
While the professor didn’t unpack those comments (probably because the ideas are still very vague), we’re already seeing glimmers of what the future of life will be. Technologies such as CRISPR gene editing, and other tools that help augment human capabilities might create new ways for humans to surpass the limits of their mortal shells. But they will also create the grounds for greater inequality. While organic evolution was something that all humans enjoyed equally, technological advances, AI tools and data are not evenly accessible across the human population. So we might see the emergence of supreme and lower species of humans in the future.
How to regulate the ownership of data
“This is why the ownership of data is so important,” Harari said. “If we don’t regulate it, a tiny elite may come to control not just the future of human societies, but the shape of lifeforms in the future.”
Regulating the ownership of data is much more difficult than land and machinery, Hariri explained, because “data is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” Data is ephemeral. It can be transferred and copied at incredible speeds. I can hold an exact copy (or a thousand copies) of a document you have and claim that it’s the original specimen.
Presently, big companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook own a disproportionate amount of user data, and people are rightfully worried about the implications. But handing the data over to governments—or nationalizing it, as Harari says—is not a solution either because it will only transfer the power of big corporations to digital dictatorships. “I certainly don’t think [governments] are ready to be entrusted with the future of life and the universe,” Harari said, “especially as many politicians and governments seem incapable of producing meaningful visions for the future.”
All those privacy concerns about companies knowing where we go and what we buy is just the tip of the iceberg. “There are much more important things at stake. The discussion has hardly begun,” Hariri said, “and we cannot expect instant answers.”
It would’ve been nice to hear Harari discuss giving ownership of data back to the users, the real people to whom all this information belongs. There are solutions that will help us move toward decentralized data regulation, such as the use of blockchain, the distributed ledger that ushered in the era of cryptocurrencies. We’re also seeing the emergence of platforms that help us move toward decentralized AI algorithms, which will help humankind collectively benefit from scientific advances while protecting itself against any one entity becoming too powerful.
Whether those solutions will help solve the data ownership riddle question remains to be seen. But as Harari said in his closing statement, “The future of life itself might depend on the answer to this question.”