Skip to main content

Dataism threat: Highly intelligent algorithm knows us better than we do ourselves

RB Sreekumar, former Director-General of Police, Gujarat, has reviewed the book “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2015), authored by Prof Yuval Noah Harari, published by Harper Collins. The book, he says, wonders whether our leaders trapped in past time zones accept wisdom in the book, which details these contentions: (1) Science is increasingly confirming that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing (2) Intelligence is de-coupled from consciousness and (3) Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
The book review:
***  
Reputed historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee authored “The Study of History” analysing the causative factors behind rise and fall of civilisations for formulating ‘lessons of history’. Later futurologist Alvin Toffler wrote 3 books narrating the impact of science and technology on all facets of human activity. These are, “Third Wave”, “Future Shock” and “Power Shift”. 
Latest in the futurological analysis is from historian Prof Yuval Noah Harari of Jewish origin who is not bound by any ideology and system of philosophy of ethnic, religious and political attachments. The books are: “Sapiens - A Brief History of Human Kind”( (2011) “Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2015, Pages 448) and “21 lessons for the 21st century” (2018).
"Homo Deus" published by Harper Collins makes prognostic observations about the scenario of the emerging world in manifold dimensions of human life. In author’s view, after achieving major success over distance, time, disease and menace of violence and so on, humans are endeavouring to achieve immortality, bliss and divinity. So the title DEUS. Deus is a God in classical Greek drama who resolves problems and entanglements by his super natural power and inventions.
The book is presented in three parts. Part I captioned “Homo Sapiens Conquers the World”, elucidating (1) difference between humans and all other animals and (2) how did our species surmount the world. The author examines whether humans present a superior life form or are they just the local bully.
Present world is governed by humans and their domesticated animals. To illustrate, we have 5 million domesticated dogs against 2 lakhs wolves in the forests, 600 million cats against 40,000 lions. In short, wild animals are fastly dwindling. The last 70,000 years have been anthropogenic epoch (of humanity). In earlier epochs tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, asteroid collisions (that killed dinosaurs - 65 million years ago) played decisive role in total transformation. Now mankind is found to replace “the natural selection” in Charles Darwin's evolutionary process with intelligent desires to extend life from organic to inorganic realms. Planet is converted into a single ecological unit and human species of all areas freely mingling each other.
In the pre-agriculture era of animalistic cultures, belief was about humans descending from animals. The distinction of superiority of humans, as depicted in the Bible is a product of agriculture revolution. It necessitated the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals, whose subjective needs, however, are ignored and subordinated to human requirements.
Emotional world is developed among all mammals and not merely humans, largely due to breast feeding. Life scientists assess that emotions are bio - chemical algorithms and not spiritual phenomenon. Algorithms are defined as a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. Highly refined algorithms are sensations, emotions and desire. Domesticated animals are subjected for human commerce and whims. Judaism and Christianity deem that humans are superior as God gave eternal soul to them not to non-humans. So these animals have no intrinsic value and exist solely of humans. Even Adi Sankaracharya, great revivalist saint, supporting Hindu social order of varnavyavasta in his book – VIVEKA CHOODAMANI - sloka 2, affirmed that human birth is rare and can be earned by merits of a hundred crores of lives lived intelligently. Industrial revolutions and inventions equipped humans with great powers without obligation. Algorithms operating in humans and animals are nearly identical. The author narrates the case of a German horse (Hans) who learned simple arithmetic.
The humans succeeded to conquer the world as they could cooperate better among themselves through skill in communications. It is the case of unified elite dominating the disorderly masses. The Russian Revolution in October 1917 succeeded because 3 million communication inspired people cooperated and coordinated as against 180 million unorganised, and unmotivated Russians who had no focused objective, dedication and tenacity of purpose. The collapse of Nicolae Ceausfscu regime in December 1989 in Rumania, is assessed as operation of mismatch in communication. Homo Sapiens have succeeded to build up and hold large and sophisticated social system and maintain its organisational vibrancy.
Humans rule the world as they can cooperate flexibility in large numbers. The constructions of pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, deciphering of the structure of atom, Moon landing etc are achievements of mass cooperation.
Religions, particularly of theistic variety, built upon myths and imaginative stories. The promise of after life, heaven etc are inspiringly motivating. Animals cannot invent and spread such stories. Concept of nationhood, God, value of culture etc are mere fictions because they give meaning to our lives. Muslims and Christian youth joined crusades deeming that if they are killed in war they will go to heaven. The author wrote “History unfolds as people weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart”. Homo Sapiens rule the world because they can weave an inter subjective web of meaning - a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. In the last 9000 years inter subjective realities invented by Sapiens became so powerful and so they dominate the world. In author’s view inter subjective reality and biology will merge with history. Not only scientific data, we must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.
In part II under caption “Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World” Harari explores topics like what is the kind of world created by humans, how humans control the world and also give meaning to it and how did humanism became the most important religion of all.
In chapter “story tellers” the authors observed that animals live in dual reality (1) objective reality of trees, rock, rivers and so on (2) reality of subjective experience of fear, joy, desire etc. But Sapiens imaginative mind designed stories, invented Gods, traditions, customs and usages and made these sacrosanct. Grant items were created through organisational skills of bureaucrats and massive labour force. In course of time holy scriptures emerged, believed by large majority and heretics were rejected. Loyalty to the King, being representative of God, inferiority of women to men, taxes to be paid promptly are scriptural stipulations. Even wars and natural calamities are explained as wrath of the Almighty. But in the post renaissance age, events, disasters and great human losses are explained in the light of socio-economic and political factors.
Human efforts frequently focussed on increasing glory of fictional entities such as God and nation, instead of bettering lives of real sentient beings. Now focus is on overcoming old age, and disease by deciphering the physical and biological reality, through scientific understanding. Stress is on requirements of humanism.
Humanism has 3 shades – Democratic liberalism, Nazism and Communism, each preaching its own brand. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 is a major achievement of liberalism, a move towards the dawn of a world increasingly secular, rational and prosperous with near desirable distributive justice.
Significantly, science has no authority or ability to refute or corroborate, the ethical judgments of religion. Catholic church and the Pope claimed control over European kings drawing authority from ‘Donation of Constantine Emperor dated 30 March 315 AD. This document decreed perpetual control of rulers to the Pope Sylvester and his successors, in the western part of the Roman Empire. After studies by LOREN ZOVALLA, a catholic priest and linguist in 1441 through scientific studies had fully established that this document was forged.
Award of death to homosexuals is an idea of Semitic priestocracy. But modern human physiology, exposed such contentions.
RB Sreekumar
Liberal humanists basing on science do not support the concepts of soul, heaven and hell. They stress on liberty for achieving and maximising happiness. Liberals are for free market capitalism, they dismantled traditional values that were faith-centric and God oriented. Nano-technology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence has been transforming human way of life. But the world has to be vigilant about ecological collapse with multifarious disastrous consequences. But Kyoto protocol, on remedial measures is not ratified by USA, who refused to reduce emission, for fear of slowing down economic growth.
Humanists are for primacy to human free will viz if an item or action gives a good feeling it is acceptable. To them the superior source of authority lies within ourselves. In politics the slogan is “voters know the best”. Humanist economic motto is “the customer is always right.” Humanist aesthetics hold that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Their ethics is for doing a thing which provides pleasant feeling. Liberal education pleads for thinking oneself and find solutions ourselves. No faith is transcendental power of divine law book. However, liberal socialists are against giving primacy to individual views at the cost of collective social needs. For socialists the motto is “party knows the best”. On the other hand, evolutionary humanists deem that conflict is the raw material of ‘natural selection’ and that some humans are superior to others. The road map of evolution traced in 3 books of Charles Darwin -- "Origin of Species", "The Descent of Man" and "The Man and Superman" -- is emphasised.
In the last, part III of the book “Homo Sapiens Loses Control”, the author questions (1) How long the humans run the world and give it a meeting (2) How do bio-technology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism and (3) what new religion will replace humanism.
In the present context, liberal humanist packages consisting of (1) individualism (2) human rights, (3) democracy and (4) free market dominates. Liberalism is based on constructed facts, contextually conceived truths and abstract ethical judgements. Many of the so called factual statements fail to stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. There are plenty of contradictions between free will and contemporary science. The author says “In the 20th century when scientists opened human black box they did not find soul, free will and self but only genes, hormones, neurons that obey physical and chemical laws governing the rest of reality. A murder by a criminal can be explained as electro-chemical process in the brain shaped by genetic make-up and reflecting ancient evolutionary pressures and chemical mutation. That means no free will operating. Theory of evolution also confirms that natural selection will not accept free will like it cannot accept eternal soul.”
The operation of free will is not behind desire, which process is created by bio-chemical changes in brain. The process may be deterministic or random. Today brain scanners can predict people’s desires and decisions, before they became aware of them. Complex feelings as love, anger, fun and depression can be created by the right spots in the human-brain. The U.S. military experiments with designed helmets succeeded to sharpen focus and enhance performance of soldiers, both in the training session and battle field. Development of trans-carnival stimulators are still in infancy and not a mature technology. Ultimately with advancement of technology free will of individuals will became another product we can buy.
The individualism of liberals are founded on three (3) assumptions (1) Individuals have inner core, an authentic self (2) The individual self is completely free (3) Only the individual will know his inner self. Life scientists of present times oppose these assumptions on the grounds that (1) Humans are dividuals and not individuals and an assemblage of many different algorithms without a single inner voice, (2) Algorithms constituting individuals are not free, but are shaped by genes and environmental pressures. The decisions are taken either deterministically or randomly but not freely (3) An external algorithms can know the self of the person instead of himself about what he feels, wants etc. Once properly developed an algorithm could replace, the voter, the customer and the beholder. Microsoft company is developing algorithm called Deadline which can predict your life span, considering the person’s current habits. Gene tested results prompted Actor Angelina Jolie to go for a double mastectomy. 
By DNA testing of saliva covering 90 traits, experts can predict health hazards. One can incorporate into their bodies a host of biometric devices, bionic organs and nano-robots which monitor health and protect the person from infections, illnesses and damages. In the long run the wall-between the organic and inorganic will disappear and turn computer revolution from purely a mechanical affair into biological cataclysm and shift authority from individual humans to networked algorithms. Individuals will turn into bio-chemical and electronic algorithms without clear borders, and without individual hubs.
The author predicts about emergence of inequality emanating out of threats to liberalism. The visible factors are (1) Humans lose values completely, and (2) Single individuals will be managed by external algorithms. The system will know the individual better than he knows himself and will make most of the important decisions for the person and he will be practically happy with it (3) A privileged group of upgraded humans will have better control. Splitting humans into biological castes will destroy foundation of liberal ideology. Unlike in the olden days of medieval autocrats and Brahmins, claiming blue-blooded superiority, now real gaps in physical and cognitive abilities exist between an upgraded class and the rest of society. Liberalism confront the challenge of super humans vastly superior (to ordinary humans) with exceptional physical, emotional and intellectual abilities. Super humans will treat normal ordinary humans no better than the 19th century Europeans treated Africans and colony subjects.
Algorithms empowered techno-humans (TH) still views humans as the apex of creation and cling to many humanist values. But humans use technology to create Homo Deus – a much superior human model. The author writes: 
“Homo Deus retain some essential human features and enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities to enable it to hold on against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. Intelligence is decoupled from consciousness and non-conscious intelligence is developing fast, humans have to upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game. The cognitive revolution transformed the mind of the Sapiens, gained access to vast inter subjective realm in enabling them to create God, corporations, citizens empires and eventually split the Atom and reach the Moon. A few changes to human genome re-writing of the brain would give Homo Deus access to unimaginable new realms and turn us into lords of the Galaxy.”
Under the chapter “The Data Religion”, the another views that dataism confirms that universe consists of data flows and data processing by sophisticated algorithms whose capacity far exceeds that of human brain. In a dataist perspective human species can became a single data processing system covering the number, variety and so on. In the post-modern 21st century free flow and processing of information would boost free market, proliferation of scientific knowledge, the Rule of Law and democracy. In the short, dataism since 1789 (the French Revolution) created the novel idea of freedom of information (not to be confused with freedom of expression). Harari adds “The Americans are healthier, happier, wealthier than Iranians, Nigerians, thanks to freedom of information. So, for creating a better world, the key is to set data free”
Dataism may sideline humans by shifting from homocentric to data-centric view. In the pre-renaissance era the presumption was that God created humans for some divine purpose. Subsequently it is viewed that humans are sacred in their own right and God has not existed at all. Now dataists say that “internet of all things” is sacred because humans created it for serving human needs. Under the data-centric system unlike earlier homocentric world view, a person should do DNA sequence, wear biometric devices, and utilise all scientific gadgets, permit Google like company to read all correspondence and keep a record of likes and dislikes and the great internet of all things will tell him whom to marry, career, job option and all socio-economic and political decisions suitable to him. Such astronomical amounts of data no human can analyse.
Concluding, the author observes that the critical examination of dataist dogma is not only the greatest challenge of the 21st century but it is also most urgent political and economic project. Dataism is spreading across all scientific disciplines. The catastrophe of defective and faulty data leading to tragedies cannot be ruled out. The threat of dataism can do what Homo Sapiens have done to all other animals. Whenever an animal ceased to fulfil any functions, useful to humans, it went extinct. Likewise once humans lose their functional importance to the network, humans discover that they are not the apex of creation.
Book narrates possibilities and not prophesies. But our vision is constrained by present day ideologies and social systems viz democracy, capitalism, and humanism. The book aims to broaden our horizons and make us aware of much wide spectrum of options. Really nobody knows exactly how job market, the family or the ecology will look like in 2050 or what religious, economic structure will dominate the world. To the Indian elite lost in obscurantist medievalism and lunatic religiosity the book is compulsorily readable, as Rigveda (1 – 89 – 1) exhorts, “Let noble thoughts come to us from everywhere (आ नो भद्रा: ऋतवो यन्तु विश्वत:). 
Will our leaders trapped in past time zones accept wisdom in the book detailed in contentions, (1) Science is increasingly confirming that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing (2) Intelligence is de-coupled from consciousness and (3) Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves. The book raises three key questions for those who are concerned with future. They are (1) Are organisms just algorithms and is life just data processing. (2) What is more valuable intelligence or consciousness? (3) What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Comments

TRENDING

GSFC's Rs 250 crore 'scam': Investment in Canadian firm with no returns. Who cares?

By Rajiv Shah/ A top Gujarat government insider phoned me up the other day, reminding me of a story we carried in Counterview early this year regarding how a Gujarat government public sector undertaking (PSU), Gujarat State Fertilisers and Chemicals (GSFC), “transferred” Rs 250 crore to a Canadian firm Karnalyte for a potash mining project in Canada, but the project never took off, hence whole money has “gone waste.”

Maoist ideology didn't attract people. They wanted protection from a predatory state

Development and Cooperation, a website produced on behalf of a German institute, Engagement Global, with the aim to discuss international-development affairs and explores how they relate to other fields of policy-making, recently published an interview with Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, where the academic seeks to answer when why, around the world, forest areas tend to be haunted by violent conflict, in the context of India.

Simply Keshubhai: In lieu of tribute to grand old man, one-time bete noire of Modi

By Rajiv Shah/ Keshubhai Patel, former chief minister of Gujarat, has passed away at the ripe old age of 92. Known to be an opponent (I would call him bete noire in my stories for the Times of India) of Narendra Modi, I am reproducing below a blog on him, “Simply Keshubhai”, I wrote way on June 30, 2012 for the TOI blogging site around the time he was about to dissociate his decades old association with BJP and form Gujarat Parivartan Party, which didn’t last after the December 2012 Gujarat state assembly polls.