Home » Yuval Noah Harari: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Yuval Noah Harari: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Yuval Noah Harari

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, philosopher and best-selling author of ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’. In this full-length conversation at Talks at Google, he talks about his new book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’.

Below is the full text of Prof. Yuval Noah Harari’s talk.

Moderator: Wilson White


WILSON WHITE: Good afternoon everyone, especially for those of you who are here in California. My name is Wilson White, and I’m on the public policy and government relations team here in California.

We have an exciting talk for you today as part of our Talks at Google series, as well as a series of conversations we’re having around AI ethics and technology ethics more generally.

So today, I’m honored to have Professor Yuval Noah Harari with us. Yuval is an Israeli historian and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a dynamic speaker, thinker, and now an international bestselling author. He’s the author of three books.

We’re going to talk about each of those books today. The first book he published in 2014, “Sapiens,” which explored some of our history as humans. His second book in 2016 had an interesting take on our future as humans. It was “Homo Deus.”

And then recently published a new book, the “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” which attempts to grapple with some of the issues, the pressing issues that we are facing today.

So we’ll talk about some of the themes in each of those books as we go through our conversation. But collectively, his writings explore very big concepts like free-will and consciousness and intelligence. So we’ll have a lot to explore with Yuval today.

So with that, please join me in welcoming Professor Yuval to Google.


WILSON WHITE: Thank you, Professor, for joining us.

Before getting started, I have to say that when the announcement went out across Google about this talk, I got several emails from many Googlers around the world who told me that they had either read or are currently reading one or multiple of your books.

So if you are contemplating a fourth book, maybe on the afterlife, no spoilers during this conversation, I want to start with maybe some of the themes in both your current book, “21 Lessons,” as well as “Homo Deus,” because I’m the father of two young kids. I have two daughters, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. And the future that you paint in “Homo Deus” is interesting.

So I’d like to ask you: what should I be teaching my daughters?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: That nobody knows how the world would look like in 2050, except that it will be very different from today. So the most important things to emphasize in education are things like emotional intelligence and mental stability, because the one thing that they will need for sure is the ability to reinvent themselves repeatedly throughout their lives.

It’s really first time in history that we don’t really know what particular skills to teach young people, because we just don’t know in what kind of world they will be living. But we do know they will have to reinvent themselves.

And especially if you think about something like the job market, maybe the greatest problem they will face will be psychological. Because at least beyond a certain age, it’s very, very difficult for people to reinvent themselves. So we kind of need to build identities.

I mean, if previously — if traditionally people built identities like stone houses with very deep foundations, now it makes more sense to build identities like tents that you can fold and move elsewhere. Because we don’t know where you will have to move, but you will have to move.

WILSON WHITE: You will have to move. So I may have to go back to school now to learn these things so that I can teach the next generation of humans here. In “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” you tackle several themes that even we at Google, as a company who are on the leading edge of technology and how technology is being deployed in society, we wrestle with some of the same issues.

Tell me a bit about your thoughts on why democracy is in crisis. That’s a theme in the current book, and I want to explore that a bit. Why you think liberal democracy as we knew it is currently in crisis?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: Well, the entire liberal democratic system is built on philosophical ideas we’ve inherited from the 18th century, especially the idea of free will, which underlies the basic models of the liberal worldview like the voter knows best, the customer is always right, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, follow your heart, do what feels good.

All these liberal models, which are the foundation of our political and economic system — they assume that the ultimate authority is the free choices of individuals. I mean, there are, of course, all kinds of limitations and boundary cases and so forth. But when push comes to shove, for instance, in the economic field, then corporations will tend to retreat behind this last line of defense that this is what the customers want.

The customer is always right. If the customers want it, it can’t be wrong. Who are you to tell the customers that they are wrong? Now, of course, there are many exceptions, but this is the basics of the free market. This is the first and last thing you learn. The customer is always right.

So the ultimate authority in the economic field is the desires of the customers. And this is really based on a philosophical and metaphysical view about free will, that the desires of the customer, they emanate, they represent the free will of human beings, which is the highest authority in the universe. And therefore, we must abide by them.

And it’s the same in the political field with the voter knows best. And this was OK for the last two or three centuries. Because even though free-will was always a myth and not a scientific reality — I mean, science knows of only two kinds of processes in nature. It knows about deterministic processes and it knows about random processes. And their combination results in probabilistic processes.

But randomness and probability, they are not freedom. They mean that I can’t predict your actions with 100% accuracy, because there is randomness. But a random robot is not free.

If you connect a robot, say, to uranium, a piece of uranium, and the decisions of the robot is determined by random processes of the disintegration of uranium atoms, so you will never be able to predict exactly what this robot will do. But this is not freedom. This is just randomness.

Now this was always true from a scientific perspective. Humans, certainly they have a will. They make decisions. They make choices. But they are not free to choose the will. The choices are not independent. They depend on a million factors — genetic and hormonal and social and cultural and so forth, which we don’t choose.

Now up till now in history, the humans were so complicated that for a practical perspective, it still made sense to believe in free-will, because nobody could understand you better than you understand yourself. You had this inner realm of desires and thoughts and feelings which you had privileged access to this inner realm.

WILSON WHITE: Yeah, but that hasn’t changed today, right? Like, that –

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: It has changed. There is no longer — the privilege access now belongs to corporations like Google. They can have access to things happening ultimately inside my body and brain, which I don’t know about. There is somebody out there — and not just one. All kinds of corporations and governments that maybe not today, maybe in five years, 10 years, 20 years, they will have privileged access to what’s happening inside me. More privileged than my access.

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