Artificial intelligence poses as great a threat to humankind as climate change and nuclear war and a technology race in genetics could threaten the whole of humanity, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari told Euronews.
In an exclusive interview with Euronews’ The Global Conversation programme, Harari also discussed the rise of nationalism and the risk of genetically creating a superhuman elite.
The future of the EU
Speaking shortly after delivering a lecture in Budapest he said it was difficult to predict the future of the European Union.
“Very often the most unexpected things happen in history,” he said.
“Just a few months before the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe nobody expected that. Five years before that it would have seen like a science fiction.”
The decision by the UK to leave the European Union has created political turmoil at home and sent ripples of instability throughout the whole bloc. Harari said the future of the EU lies with voters and that he hopes they will make the right decision because it has global consequences.
He said the decisions Europeans make about their future are crucial: “Not just for the peace of Europe and the prosperity of Europe. It is really essential for the peace and prosperity of the entire world.”
Harari also expressed the need for close co-operation between nations to combat many global challenges including technology designed to alter or imitate humans.
“People should realise humankind is now facing three existential threats that cannot be solved on the national level,” he said. “They can only be solved on the global level.”
“These threats are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption, especially the rise of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and bioengineering. AI and biotechnology could destroy what it means to be human.”
He said that an “arms race” in AI would result in the destruction of humanity.
“Whoever wins this race it doesn’t matter, humanity will be the loser.”
The good and evil of nationalism
On the rise of nationalism, Harari said it was a concept that was often misunderstood.
“Nationalism has been among the most positive developments of human history but also has a dangerous side,” he said.
“The positive side of nationalism is that it enables millions of strangers to care about one another and to co-operate. The other side, the evil side of nationalism, is about hating foreigners.”
Harari cites anecdotal examples of people who may be corrupt or take money from the state system but still claim to be good patriots because of their dislike of foreigners.
Harari suggests that fake news is not a new thing but that there has been a huge development in technology which has been able to manipulate and exploit human vulnerabilities.
“The problem we are facing now is that technology is overcoming our weaknesses. We now have powerful technologies that can identify your weaknesses; - what you already fear what you already hate - and grab your attention by pressing these emotional buttons.”
He says much tighter regulation is needed to restrict potentially harmful technologies and avoid the risk of human attention being abused by unscrupulous leaders or governments.
“I think that now the technology makes it possible to create far more totalitarian regimes than anything we have seen in human history. Even more extreme than what George Orwell imagined.”
He said the Orwellian vision was limited to governments monitoring only overt activity but contemporary technology is more invasive than that.
“Now we’re getting technology to monitor people 24 hours a day, the entire population and even what is happening inside their bodies. With biometric sensors and the combination of AI and biotechnology.”
He cites the example in some Chinese schools where students wear biometric bracelets to monitor if a child is bored or tired.
“But the same technology can be used for political purposes,” he says.
“What we saw in the 20th century with Stalin or Hitler or Mao will be nothing compared to these kinds of machines that have already started to be built today.”
Superhumans through 'biotech'
He expressed deep concerns about the misuse of some other technologies too, such as biotechnology. The science involves the modification of organisms for specific purposes and is commonly used in things like agriculture, brewing and baking. But it can also apply to the genetic modification of humans. He says that is very worrying.
“If we don't utilise the new technologies correctly, then the result is … Biotechnology will be used to upgrade a small elite into a superhuman status, whereas most people are left far behind.
“For the first time in history, the rich will be a different species from the poor. That’s the greatest inequality in history.”
Humanity's 'dark sides'
Harari lives in Israel and is a professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also spoke about his home country and said living there can sometimes be enlightening.
“The situation in Gaza is really terrible for the people living there, but in Israel, most of the time, most people live a very normal life.”
He says that, if he lived elsewhere, he may not be as aware of all the good and bad aspects of technology.
“If you live in Israel, you realise that humankind has a lot of the dark sides to it.”
Nevertheless, Harari ensures that he can switch off from rapidly expanding technologies by attending a long meditation retreat at least once a year.
He says it is essential to disconnect and reflect.
“We need to make the most important decisions in the history of humankind in the next few years. We now have divine powers of creation and destruction. And its humans, not gods who need to decide what to do with them.”
He said high profile figures such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz do not have time to think and consider the importance of their actions while they are managing crises.
Watch Yuval Noah Harari's full The Global Conversation interview in the player above.