Yuval Noah Harari sees a big-data threat to humanity

Steve Paulson interviews historian Yuval Noah Harari:

What’s different about this moment in history?

What’s different is the pace of technological change, especially the twin revolutions of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. They make it possible to hack human beings and other organisms, and then re-engineer them and create new life forms.

How far can this technology go in changing who we are?

Very far. Beyond our imagination. It can change our imagination, too. If your imagination is too limited to think of new possibilities, we can just improve it. For billions of years, all of life was confined to the organic realm. It didn’t matter if you were an amoeba, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a coconut, a cucumber, or a Homo sapiens. You were made of organic compounds and subject to the laws of organic biochemistry. But now we’re about to break out of this limited organic realm and start combining the organic with inorganic bots to create cyborgs.

What worries you about the new cyborgs?

Experiments are already under way to augment the human immune system with an inorganic, bionic system. Millions of tiny nanorobots and sensors monitor what’s happening inside your body. They could discover the beginning of cancer, or some infectious disease, and fight against these dangers for your health. The system can monitor not just what goes wrong. It can monitor your moods, your emotions, your thoughts. That means an external system can get to know you much better than you know yourself. You go to therapy for years to get in touch with your emotions, but this system, whether it belongs to Google or Amazon or the government, can monitor your emotions in ways that neither you nor your therapist can approach in any way.

Are you saying computer algorithms can break down personal data we may not even be aware of?

Yes. Fear and anger and love, or any human emotion, are in the end just a biochemical process. In the same way you can diagnose flu, you can diagnose anger. You might ask somebody, “Why are you angry? What are you angry about?” And they will say, “I’m not angry about anything, what do you want?” But this external system doesn’t need to ask you. It can monitor your heart, your brain, your blood pressure. It can have a scale of anger and it can know you are now a 6.8 on a scale of 1-to-10. Combining this with enormous amounts of data collected on you 24 hours a day can provide the best healthcare in history. It can also be the foundation of the worst dictatorial regimes in history. [Continue reading…]

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