Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best-selling books Sapiens and Homo Deus, is a big fan of science fiction, and includes an entire chapter about it in his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
“Today science fiction is the most important artistic genre,” Harari says in Episode 325 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.”
Because science fiction plays such a key role in shaping public opinion, he would like to see more science fiction that grapples with realistic issues like AI creating a permanent ‘useless class’ of workers. “If you want to raise public awareness of such issues, a good science fiction movie could be worth not one, but a hundred articles in Science or Nature, or even a hundred articles in the New York Times,” he says.
But he thinks that too much science fiction tends to focus on scenarios that are fanciful or outlandish.
“In most science fiction books and movies about artificial intelligence, the main plot revolves around the moment when the computer or the robot gains consciousness and starts having feelings,” he says. “And I think that this diverts the attention of the public from the really important and realistic problems, to things that are unlikely to happen anytime soon.”
AI and biotechnology may be two of the most critical issues facing humanity, but Harari notes that they’re barely a blip on the political radar. He believes that science fiction authors and filmmakers need to do everything they can to change that.
“Technology is certainly not destiny,” he says. “We can still take action and we can still regulate these technologies to prevent the worst-case scenarios, and to use these technologies mainly for good.”
Listen to the complete interview with Yuval Noah Harari in Episode 325 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Yuval Noah Harari on automation:
“It’s questionable how many times a human being can reinvent himself or herself during your lifetime—and your lifetime is likely to be longer, and your working years are also likely to be longer. So would you be able to reinvent yourself four, five, six times during your life? The psychological stress is immense. So I would like to see a science fiction movie that explores the rather mundane issue of somebody having to reinvent themselves, then at the end of the movie—just as they settle down into this new job, after a difficult transition period—somebody comes and announces, ‘Oh sorry, your new job has just been automated, you have to start from square one and reinvent yourself again.’”
Yuval Noah Harari on dystopias:
“The only question left open after you finish reading 1984 is How do we avoid getting there? But with Brave New World, it’s much, much more difficult. Everybody is satisfied and happy and pleased with everything that happens. There are no rebellions, no revolutions, there is no secret police, there is just free sex and rock and roll and drugs and whatever. And nonetheless you have this very uneasy feeling that something is wrong here, and it’s very difficult to put your finger on what’s wrong with a society in which you’ve hacked people in such a way that they’re satisfied all the time. … When it was published, it was obvious to everybody that this was a frightening dystopia, but today, more and more people read Brave New World as a straight-faced utopia. I think this shift is very interesting, and says a lot about the changes in our worldview over the last century.”
Yuval Noah Harari on immortality:
“What kind of relations between parents and children would we have when the parents know that they are not going to die someday and leave their children behind? If you live to be 200, and, ‘Yes, when I was 30 I had this kid, and he’s now 170, but that was 170 years ago, this was such a small part of my life.’ What kind of parent-offspring relations do you have in such a society? I think this is another wonderful idea for a science fiction movie—without robot rebellions, without some big apocalypse, without a tyrannical government—just a simple movie about the relationship between a mother and a son when the mother is 200 years old and the son is 170 years old.”
Yuval Noah Harari on technology:
“You could have envisioned 50 years ago that we would develop a huge market for organ transplants, with developing countries having these huge body farms in which millions of people are being raised in order to harvest their organs and then sold to rich people in more developed countries. Such a market could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and technologically it is completely feasible—there is absolutely no technical impediment to creating such a market, with these huge body farms. … So there are many of these science fiction scenarios which never materialize because society can take action to protect itself and regulate the dangerous technologies. And this is very important to remember as we look to the future.”
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