February 2019

Dear friends,

Over the break, I reconnected with Yuval Harari through his books and talks to an almost obsessive degree. His clarity of mind, honesty and humility combine in a way that makes one want to become vegan and meditate daily for two hours as he does; and of course, read everything he’s ever written and listen to every available interview on YouTube.

There is so much about his ideas of where we come from that is enlightening and relevant but I want to reference a little of what he says about the now and very near future.

According to Yuval, the three greatest challenges facing humanity today is nuclear holocaust, ecological disaster, and the unexplored potential catastrophic scenarios from the technological revolution we are currently in the midst of.

I want to talk about the third challenge he raises. The powerful rise of InfoTech, its merger with unbelievable advances of biotech, and its possible explosive implications for humanity. Biotech has given us the ability to gather information about people in a way that no human can come near. We used to know ourselves better than anyone else. Now corporations have technology that can know exactly what you’re thinking and feeling way better than yourself. Your heart rate, eye movement, search history on Google, likes on Facebook, and countless other information is accumulated and then fed into the ever-increasingly powerful computers that organise the data into algorithms that can then get you to ‘decide’ to want this, that or the other.

One implication is that a massive proportion of humanity will lose their jobs to computers who do their job with greater accuracy, accessibility, efficiency, and much more cheaply.

But there is an even more worrisome scenario which is relevant to almost everyone and challenges the most sacred aspect of ourselves. Our individuality, our desires, our tastes, and our rights; what it means to be me as a free agent making decisions and moral choices. If a computer understands my emotional triggers more than I do then it is easy for the computer to get me to think and want what it wants.

What can we do about that? Probably somewhat limiting the wealth of information we feed AI by not being entirely hooked in. It is true that not everybody can afford the luxury of not owning a smartphone in today’s day and age like Yuval does. Surely though there is a spectrum and most people fall heavily on the side of extreme connectedness to computers which ultimately can have dire consequences for what we value in our species; self-consciousness and all that comes with it, not least our exceptional human capacity for love.

Ultimately, technology may be so pervasive that it is impossible to extricate ourselves from its web. In that case, the best thing we can do now, before it becomes so, is to focus our attention on the spiritual aspect of the human experience. One thing that technology has not moved at all on is the ability to create consciousness. Nurturing our souls and our spirituality may well be the best strategy for the brave new world. The cherry on the cake is that it gives us a much more meaningful existence which translates into greater happiness to all.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur