How will the convergence of the coming InfoTech and biotech revolutions affect the human race? Will it worsen or improve global economic inequality? How will it affect the international community and democracy as we know it? These were the questions explored at the recent World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos by Yuval Noah Harari, Professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Simultaneous leaps forward in computer science and biology will bring human beings to the threshold of hacking life, allowing us to engineer both bodies and brains and create an economy in which data is the most important asset. Without regulation, however, this revolution will bring the worst economic inequality in the history of man, the loss of privacy and volition, and the prospect of digital dictatorship across the world. Yuval Noah Harari argues that we must bring together a wide range of intellectuals and experts to find a way to regulate the coming data revolution. Today’s generation of Homo Sapien could be the last truly human generation. The confluence of the InfoTech and biotech revolutions have placed human beings on the threshold of the ability to engineer both mind and body, creating a new not-quite-human generation. The InfoTech revolution will give scientists the computing power to hack humans. In order to “hack” human beings, scientists must have a huge amount of data about what is happening in the body and brain. Advances in computer science, especially the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence, will most likely give scientists the ability to compute this data in real time within the next few decades. The biotech revolution will give scientists the necessary biological understanding to hack humans. Along with data processing capability, today’s scientists are missing the biological knowledge to engineer human bodies and brains; however, recent advances in brain science have increased understanding of the brain exponentially. The confluence of the two revolutions has already produced new technology. The biometric sensor, a device that translates biometric processes in the body and brain into electronic signals capable of being stored and analyzed by a computer, is the first product of the convergence of these two revolutions. Once enough biometric data is collected, it will be possible for computer programmers to write algorithms that know human beings better than human beings know themselves.
“[Algorithms will be able to] predict my desires, manipulate my emotions, and even take decision on my behalf. If we are not careful the outcome might be the rise of digital dictatorships.” -Yuval Noah HarariThe result may be something that is not all together human. For four billion years the fundamentals of life have not changed. Organisms have been ruled by natural selection; however, if scientists are successful at hacking organisms, life itself will change. Intelligent design may replace the role of natural selection. Without regulation this data revolution will give rise to digital dictatorships. History shows that for every technological revolution few win big and the rest win nothing, resulting in economic inequality. In the case of the data revolution if the few are allowed to hold all of the data collected in the coming technological revolution loss of privacy and volition will give rise to digital dictatorships. Data monopolies could lead to the highest level of economic inequality in human history. During the Middle Ages when too few held too much land society was split into nobility and peasants. After the Industrial Revolution when too few held too much of the machinery society was split into capitalists and proletariats. After the coming technological revolution if too few are allowed to hold too much data, society could be split into two different species. Those who hold the data will decide what the world looks like. There has already been a loss of privacy due to new technology. Data collected by biometric sensors is sold to advertising companies for billions of dollars. The United States is planning a global surveillance system, while Israel plans complete domestic surveillance. As this technology improves, the theme of losing privacy will continue to develop. The profitability of holding data may make autocracy more economically viable than democracy. While democracies spread their information and power across multiple institutions, autocracies place all of their information and power in one central institution. Traditionally, autocracies have been proven to fail economically, while democracies thrive; however, the new revolutions may make it more profitable for one entity to hold all of the data rather than spread it through multiple institutions. If this is so, the tide of democratization across the world may swing back toward the creation of autocracies. The conversation on how to regulate the data revolution is just beginning. There are no clear answers on how to efficiently regulate data. What is clear, however, is that it should neither be placed solely in the hands of the government nor the private sector. Nationalizing the data corporations could lead to digital dictatorships. There are no clear governmental visions for the future. Lack of vision and the power to monitor citizens at will could lead democracies down the road to autocracy. Who should own the data is unclear. The InfoTech and biotech revolutions cannot be walked back. Society needs a wide range of fields from poets to biologists to economists to lawyers to work together to find a solution.
“If democracies cannot adapt to these new conditions, then humans will come to live under the rule of digital dictatorships.” -Yuval Noah Harari
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.