24 April 2019 • Eline Duine, Karin Potting
Wise lessons for the 21st century
Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli professor in medieval history, states that the arrival of the supercomputer with artificial intelligence will be a greater danger to our well-being and world peace than the nuclear bomb, increasing immigration and climate change. In his latest book, 21 lessons for the 21st century, he tells us how we can prepare ourselves for the supercomputer.
A supercomputer with artificial intelligence will defeat the human spirit, while biotechnological interventions will bring physical aging of the body to a halt. This technological revolution could improve our quality of life considerably. After all, what could be nicer than algorithms that help you to make the right study choice, make friends, choose your employer or client and even your (life) partner, while at the same time freeing you from all manner of physical ailments and discomforts because algorithms will be able to warn you when you are at risk of becoming sick?
Harari warns us about the dark sides of these developments. Large groups of citizens will be sidelined if they are not capable of working together with the supercomputer. The split in society will only become deeper as it will be mainly rich citizens who can afford expensive genetic procedures which ensure that they and their children and grandchildren become smarter and more creative than robots. Education will have to be designed in a completely different way to be able to respond adequately to these new developments.
Because of technological innovations such as the smartphone, there are things we are no longer able to do which our distant forebears mastered very well, according to Harari. Thanks to their trust in their body and senses, they were perfectly capable of finding their way around unfamiliar surroundings. After all, early hunter gatherers were alert and observant. When they walked through a forest, they scanned the ground for anything they could find. They listened for the tiniest of movements in the grass. Citizens in the present welfare society do not need to be so aware of all of this and modern people rely more on Google than their senses.
According to Harari, it is precisely because of our reliance upon companies such as Google that we can be easily manipulated if we no longer know how algorithms are constructed. This puts pressure on the foundations of our reasonably egalitarian liberal society. Liberalism is based on the assumption that we have free will and the ability to make our own decisions. If algorithms are going to manipulate our behaviour, there is a real danger that we will end up in a digital dictatorship, where the people who control the algorithms will call the shots. These do not just have to be companies such as Facebook and Google, but can also be politicians who know exactly how they can take advantage of these technological possibilities. If we do not manage to create and abide by internationally accepted ethical guidelines, the feeling of discomfort will only increase.
Rely on yourself
Harari does not seem to believe that religious movements or national sentiments will be able to combat this feeling of discomfort of large groups in society. The formation of new political movements does not seem to help either as long as we are more and more afraid to rely on our own powers of perception.
Lessons for lecturers, according to Yuval Noah Harari
- Education should primarily teach you to constantly discover yourself.
- Education should teach you to interpret information so that you can make a contribution to the reorganisation of society.
- Education should primarily teach you general skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creative abilities.
- Education should teach you how to deal with constant uncertainty.
- Education should teach you who you are and where you come from.
- Education should prepare you for lifelong learning, even at work.