The main reason i took interest in reading this book can be attributed to a podcast interview of the author “Yuval Noah Harari”. His views about AI and technology controlling our futures was what drove me to pick this book up. It didn’t disappoint me either. However, the author has also delved into topics from war to meditation by aiming to take stock of where humanity has reached, and where it might be going. To give a short introduction about the author, Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of global best selling books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind & Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow which have been translated in more than forty five languages.

My point of focus in the review of the book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” will be technology related only. The review will not include the other topics about war, terrorism and various global problems which the author has written about.

The author starts off the book by mentioning that humankind has moved from fascism/ultra nationalism to communism to the present liberal society with some exceptions like China, North Korea etc.Though we are in a liberal society with the liberal elites dominating the world since the past few decades, the future looks disoriented as even the non-liberal countries like China are doing good. This sense of disorientation is made worse by the accelerated pace of technological disruption.The liberal political system is finding it difficult to deal with the ongoing revolutions in information technology and biotechnology.

The revolutions in IT & BT will give us control of the world inside us, and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. Any creed wishing to shape the world of the year 2050 will not only have to make sense of AI, Big data algorithms and BT but also need to incorporate them into a new meaningful narrative. This revolution might push billions of humans out of the job market. But the loss of many traditional jobs in everything from art, healthcare to defense will party be offset by the creation of new human jobs in research, maintenance, remote control, data analysis and cyber security. This tells us that the job market of future will be characterized by human-AI cooperation rather than competition. However, these high level skills might not solve the problem for unskilled low level laborers. As a result of this, populist revolts in the 21st century will be staged not against economic elite that exploits people but against irrelevance of people.

The rise of AI might eliminate the economic value and the political power of most humans. At the same time, improvements in biotechnology might make it possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality. If the super rich use their wealth to buy enhanced bodies and brains, the two process together, i.e, AI and bio engineering can divide the humankind into a small class of superhumans and a massive underclass of Homo sapiens. If we want to prevent this we need to regulate the ownership of data,i.e, online data of people which the tech giants like Google, Facebook, Baidu and many others are competing to obtain. On the basis of this data, medium term algorithms might have the authority to choose and buy things for humans. However, in the longer term, by bringing together enough data and enough computing power, the data giants could hack the deepest secrets of one’s life and then use this to make choices for us or manipulate us. Bio-metric sensors and direct brain-computer interfaces are some the means by which technology can get under our skin and the tech giants may end up manipulating our entire bodies.

A closer look at chess might indicate where things are headed in the long run in AI. Several years back we heard that Deep Blue Computer program defeated Kasparov. But the latest update is that Google’s AlphaZero program defeated Stockfish 8 program in 2017. Stockfish 8 was the world’s computer chess champion for 2016, which had access to centuries of accumulated human experience in chess.In contrast, AlphaZero was never taught chess strategies, however it used the latest machine learning principles to self learn chess by playing against itself in just four hours and was undefeated!

The author also mentions that, the revolution in AI and biotechnology raises the question of human rights. If we are committed to the right to liberty, should we empower algorithms that decipher and fulfill our hidden desires? If all humans enjoy equal human rights, so super-humans enjoy super-rights? Secular people will find it difficult to digest this. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, staying relevant would be a challenge which needs to be addressed by reinventing oneself again and again. More than technical skills, emphasis should be laid on general purpose life skills at the school level.

The author ends the book with a chapter on meditation, a method to observe one’s mind. With all the technological advancements, which we can be inspired by or otherwise, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. That is the need of the hour as we need to understand our own minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.