Interview with Yuval Noah Harari
Aaronovitch (David), Harari (Yuval Noah)
Source: Time Magazine, Saturday 4th August 2018
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  1. Will Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari’s new book change the way we view our world? Climate change, artificial intelligence, technological disruption and the 21 lessons we should all learn... What the brainiest publishing sensation of the decade is thinking about now. No smart bookshelf is without a title by academic Yuval Noah Harari. With his bestseller Sapiens, he became the great thinker of our age. So could his latest work change the way we view our world - and what does he think about Brexit? Yuval Noah Harari talks to David Aaronovitch.
  2. Tel Aviv is as hot as London, but feels hotter, and the elderly taxi driver is worried about the traffic from the airport. On the one hand, it's the fast day of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction by foreign invaders of both the First and Second Temples. The original temple was razed by the Babylonians, its replacement by the Romans, so we are not talking current affairs here. On the other hand, there's a big demonstration in Tel Aviv this evening. The "lizvies and the gays", says my driver, are protesting about being denied the same rights of surrogate parenthood as straight people. My driver is on the side of the lizvies. As we enter town, there are hundreds of people, mostly young, making their way to Rabin Square for the speeches.
  3. So there it is: the biggest mash-up of ancient and ultra-modern on the planet, from Babylon to men and their husbands having children, right there within minutes of stepping off a plane. And the man I've come to meet, he tells me the next day, is out there with the protestors on this night of Tisha B'Av. It's appropriate.
  4. Yuval Noah Harari is what is called a "publishing phenomenon". This means that your first book sold millions of copies when no one expected it to and the world's most literate or garrulous celebrities gave it as presents to their friends. Think A Brief History of Time. The worst the author has to suffer is the inevitable jibe that many copies never got thumbed past page 23. He should worry. With such insults a man can live.
  5. On the back of book one comes book two, which also sells millions. And now we're on the third book. In Harari's case, the first book was Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind ("Interesting and provocative": Barack Obama). The second was the futuristic Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow ("It not only alters the way you see the world after you've read it, it also casts the past in a different light": Jarvis Cocker). And now the third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is imminent, eschewing the obvious subtitle A Brief History of Nowt but Adopting the Catchphrase "The 21st Century is Here. Learn to Live in It". Days earlier, I received notice from the publisher that in September Harari will be interviewed about the new book by Natalie Portman.
  6. We meet up in the art deco Hotel Cinema on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square, which is a circle, in the Bauhaus district of this ugly city with its fabulous beach and frankly extraordinary people. Harari is a slight, slim man, who looks a decade younger than his 42 years. He wears his hair close-cropped, spectacles and, at first, a slightly bewildered look as if to say, "I'm not sure what I'm doing here with you." It's a look destined to disappear as the publicity machine for the new book cranks up. He turns out to be a lovely, fluent interviewee. His English is almost perfect and he has a pleasant voice. And he answers your questions as though they actually matter. Unsurprisingly, given our family backgrounds, I ask him first for A Brief History of the Hararis. Where did his lot come from?
  7. Most of what he knows he got from his 97-year-old grandmother. Her father left Poland to escape conscription in 1919 and went to Germany. She was born there. In 1933, her mother persuaded her reluctant father that Hitler was not a passing phase and the family decamped to Palestine. Harari laughs. "They never had German citizenship," he says. "They're completely Polish. But she's still like, 'I'm German, you know.' She lives in the retirement house for Yekkes - that's the word for German Jews - and to be German is like it's still the most important thing in the world. For years, I was convinced she was German." Welcome to the strange world of refugee minor snobbery.
  8. Both Harari's parents were born in what was then, but only for a little while longer, British Mandate Palestine. His father, Shlomo was raised on a socialist kibbutz (communal farm) in the Jordan valley where, for the first five years of his life, he "lived the Israeli myth to the full". Then, in 1950. Shlomo's dad had a doctrinal falling out with the other kibbutzniks. Over what? Harari smiles. "I think it concerned the micro-management of the kibbutz, of whether you can choose if you want to work in the dairy farm or you don't get to choose, and who is supposed to do the laundry - tiny things like that. And on the other hand, world politics - what do you think about Stalin and the Korean War? - and it all got meshed together."
  9. This is so Israeli, in many ways so Jewish. You leave in a huff, but you can't remember whether it was the laundry or Stalin that caused the argument. In any case, the upshot was that Shlomo departed the kibbutz and wound up in the small town of Kiryat Ata, near Haifa. There he met Pnina, Harari's mother, and became an engineer. "My father was certainly the intellectual force in the house," he recalls. "He was the most non-ideological person. He had a very big disbelief in any kind of authority. But he liked history very much, and we had a lot of discussions about history and about the world. This was the favourite dinner pastime, to talk about all these kind of things." What Shlomo did not talk about, however, were his own adventures. He fought in both the Six Day War of 1967 and the more existential Yom Kippur War of 1973. "And he never said a single word about anything that happened there."
  10. Kiryat Ata, says Harari, is adjacent to a large petrochemical facility on Haifa Bay and is famous for being the most polluted place in Israel. "I remember that, as children, we would drive to my grandmother's in Jerusalem and on the way back - you know, the 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet?' - we could tell from the smell we're approaching home."
  11. Harari was always a brainbox. He started school at six. At seven, he skipped a grade. At nine, he was sent up from Kiryat Ata to a school on Mount Carmel, two bus rides away, which had a special section for gifted pupils. The symbolism is striking. "I was living at the bottom of the bottom, in the petrochemical industry, and every day I have to go all the way up to the top of the mountain." It was, he says, "one of the worst, maybe the most formative experiences of my life, to be for eight years in this jungle where it was, you know, survival of the smartest. We were pressured to excel. The kids were absolutely merciless to one another. There was no empathy." Even the girls? "There were only boys. Every year, they tried to get some girls in, and every year the girls ran away very quickly. Because they understood what was happening there."
  12. The gifted section was part of a larger school, but the pupils stayed separate. "We convinced ourselves that the other kids were dangerous, that they would taunt us and things like that," says Harari. "Like we were considered very posh. And like snobs." He smiles again. "They called us ..." He uses a Hebrew word that sounds like someone clearing their throat, "khnonim" or something like that. "It's literally the material in your nose that comes out." Snot? "Yes, snot in your nose." I tell him that the same epithet is used in English in the same circumstances.
  13. He was a gloomy child, he says. And a gloomier adolescent. From an early age, he felt that the world didn't make sense. "I go to my parents, I go to the teachers and I ask them in different ways to explain to me what's the deal," he says. "I mean, what is life all about? And they have no idea. They say things, but I know it's nonsense and I know that they don't know. But the worst thing is nobody seems to care."
  14. As he speaks, he's right back there with the uncomprehending, almost bovine adults. He even went to see the school counsellor about his feelings. "I remember quite distinctly that I had this strong notion that if I explained to her what I just understood, she would be flabbergasted, and she would say, 'I'm quitting my job and I'm going to change everything in my life.' But no. She brushed it aside. The fact that we don't understand what's happening, what the meaning of life is, it's nothing." And so it's left to him, Harari on his hillside, to save the world from the coming flood.
  15. He took refuge in the past. Though the school was heavily orientated towards maths and the sciences, Harari's interest was in history. He studied it at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then came to England and got a PhD at Oxford, specialising in medieval military history. He published studies and became a don. It was when he was asked to teach the academically unattractive course on the evolution of human history (presumably everyone else wanted to do the Nazis or the Cold War), that the ideas that became Sapiens were developed.
  16. He came out as gay at 21 and, still trying to make sense of the world and his place in it, at 24 took up meditation. He is a famous meditator, apparently practises it for two hours every day and goes on long meditation retreats. Unfortunately, the very word "meditation" relaxes me so intensely that I tend to fall asleep, so I don't ask him about it. We have, in his own favourite English phrase, "bigger fish to fry".
  17. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is new stuff edited together with various lectures and articles he has published since Homo Deus. It originated, he tells me, in questions people had been putting to him about how what was going on right now affected the picture he had drawn of the future. Or, to put it another way, what have Trump and Brexit got to do with it?
  18. The answer in the book is that they are diversions. Sometimes interesting diversions, but diversions all the same. As the book puts it, "Within a century or two, the combination of biotechnology and AI might result in bodily, physical and mental traits that completely break free from the hominid mould ... What has Israeli, Russian or French nationalism got to say about this?"
  19. Not a lot. "What I'm trying to do is change the conversation," he says. "It shouldn't be about nationalism, immigration and terrorism and trade tariffs. The conversation should be about climate change, about technological disruption, about AI, about bioengineering. These are the big issues." As with Homo Deus, the book explores the nexus of artificial intelligence and biotechnology creating new capabilities within decades that could fundamentally threaten, or immensely enhance, what it is to be human.
  20. Look, says Harari, at how the AI algorithm is beginning to be able to know you better than you know yourself, like how to choose music for you. Soon, "a machine learning algorithm could analyse the biometric data streaming from sensors on and inside your body, determine your personality type and your changing moods, and calculate the impact that a particular song is likely to have on you". He then gives a ghastly example of a song list that an algorithm might provide for someone grieving after having been dumped by their lover. It ends with Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, a song that my mother insisted was played at her funeral. I wonder if an algorithm could have predicted that.
  21. But it gets much more serious. We will have the possibility of being effectively ruled by algorithms and we will create the ability to produce a race of superhumans. That's if we survive climate change. And what are we doing to anticipate these problems? In the West, not much.
  22. "Five years ago, AI was kind of, hmm, nobody really knows what it's all about," says Harari. "But in 2018, we are already in a very serious arms race. The Chinese realised it, I think, three or four years ago; the Europeans are realising it now. But the world is in an arms race, and this is terrible news because you cannot regulate this explosive technology if you are in an arms race. Nobody can trust anybody, nobody wants to fall behind and you are making it more and more certain that the worst possibilities will be realised."
  23. In biotechnology, for example, we can't assume that everyone agrees on the ethics of a common humanity. "There are a lot of people today and certainly in the future who might actually look favourably on a scenario of creating a new race of superhumans and leaving ordinary Homo sapiens behind," he says. "And if you look at China, for example, today, it's out in the open. People speak in terms of high-quality people and low-quality people. And they say one of the reasons we don't want a democracy, like as in the United States, is that then you get Trump because you have all these low-quality people voting, and you shouldn't give low-quality people so much power. So, one way of thinking about it is that we need to improve the low-quality people and make them high-quality people."
  24. Put like that... No, get down, my own inner eugenicist, and back to Harari. The only way to deal with this, he says, is at an international level. "The first step to regulating Al is to have a strong global community. I'm not saying a global government or a global empire. You don't need to go all the way there. But you do need strong global co-operation."
  25. The problem of the past few years, as he says in the book, is that, while we now have a global ecology, a global economy and global science, "We are stuck with only national politics. To have effective politics, we must either deglobalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science, or we must globalise our politics."
  26. Harari is keen to stress that he's not anti-nation per se. He writes that it's an illusion to think that without nationalism "we would all be living in a liberal paradise. More likely, we would be living in a tribal chaos." And for all the sound and fury nationalists make, they have engineered a remarkable homogeneity. I laughed a lot at a very funny passage in the book where Harari imagines the pre-national "Medieval Olympics" of 1016. "Would," he asks, "an athlete from the Norman town of Ivry compete under the banner of the local Count of Ivry, or his lord, the Duke of Normandy, or perhaps the feeble King of France? Whichever, the chances would be that, by the time he got to the Games, the allegiance would have changed."
  27. Harari notes that in the era of nations, all national flags but one conform to the same shape and "almost all anthems are orchestral pieces of a few minutes in length, rather than a 20-minute chant that may only be performed by a special caste of hereditary priests". Imagine that at Tokyo 2020. Right now nationalism is holding us up. And here the b-word arrives. "I don't think there is anything wrong inherently with nationalism," he says. "And I don't think that Brexit in itself is a bad idea. I mean, for Britain to be completely independent of the EU? Well, why not?"
  28. I am tempted to answer him, but he rolls right on. "The worst thing about Brexit is the opportunity cost; that at this time in history, when we have these problems to deal with, nationalism is a distraction. Every minute that the UK government is dealing with Brexit is one minute less dealing with climate change and artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, and it will take years. So, you know, in ten years, when they already missed the train of regulating AI, they will look back and say, 'Oh yes, because we had this Brexit thing.'"
  29. In fact, he says, he thinks the point of Brexit may be precisely that - a distraction. "When you have these big frightening problems ahead of you, you want to be distracted by something familiar. You understand independence and national sovereignty and you don't like immigration, but this is 20th-century stuff. It's 19th-century stuff.
  30. "It's like if you have a big meeting in some company and you have a multimillion-dollar decision to make about something very complicated and a $100 decision to make about the coffee machine. You will spend two hours discussing the coffee machine and two minutes voting about this multimillion-dollar reform about something nobody understands except the treasurer."
  31. How optimistic is he about our dealing with this big stuff, when he lives in a country that can't deal with its own very local, very intimate problems? Isn't big-picture thinking also a distraction, in its own way, from thinking about horribly complicated problems in the here and now?
  32. He admits that Israelis have become very good at the art of just not seeing. "Most people, they are not, like, evil and malevolent toward the Palestinians," he says. "They just don't care. They don't want to know what's happening there. The mental distance is immense." What does he mean?
  33. "My campus is in Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. And just below Mount Scopus, there is Isawiya, which is a Palestinian neighbourhood. There is no barrier that prevents you from going to Isawiya. There is no sign. There is no block. There are no soldiers guarding you, but since 1993, that's 25 years, I reach the intersection and turn right to go to Mount Scopus. And I've never ever been in Isawiya. I've looked at it from the mountain, from above, many times, but you don't let your mind go there. Like you don't let your mind go and really think about what it means to be a child in Gaza. Your mind just doesn't go there."
  34. Not grounds for optimism. If you can't mentally get yourself to Gaza, a few miles down the road, how do you get to thinking about regulating biotechnology or stopping climate change?
  35. "I am not saying. ‘We will overcome,'" replies Harari. "But I am saying, 'We can overcome.'" When he was 13, the Berlin Wall came down and - it was a miracle - no-one was killed. "This apocalyptic Cold War eventually ended very peacefully and quietly and all the doom and gloom prophecies from the Fifties and Sixties, they didn't come true. We can do it. I still have this feeling also about artificial intelligence and about climate change. We can do it. We have what it takes.
  36. Right now, though, in the Trump and nationalism era, we're headed in the wrong direction, convulsed by the wrong controversies. Harari and I finish up and say our goodbyes and what fun it's been, and I take a long walk along the Tel Aviv beachfront, with its mixture of races and faiths on skateboards, bicycles and scooters, jogging, swimming and schmoozing, wearing bikinis, skull caps, Lycra and tefillin. And I think about our conversation.
  37. Harari may be a multimillionaire and a publishing sensation, but looking back on our interview, it's hard not to see him still as a bit on a mountaintop trying to get a distracted world to look at what is really important.
  38. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is published on August 30 (£18.99, Jonathan Cape)

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