The world is in the middle of a new technology arms race, according to best-selling historian Yuval Noah Harari, who warns that the prize being fought over this time is not physical territory, but our brains.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Harari predicted a future where governments and corporations will be able to gather enough data about citizens around the world that, when combined with computational power, will let them completely predict – and manipulate – our decisions. Harari calls this concept "brain-hacking".
"Imagine, if 20 years from now, you could have someone sitting in Washington, or Beijing, or San Francisco, and they could know the entire personal, medical, sexual history of, say, every journalist, judge and politician in Brazil," said Harari.
"You could control a whole other country with data. At which point you may ask: is it an independent country, or is it a data colony?"
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Harari painted the grim picture of a future only a few decades away, in which big tech, or governments, "or whoever", could know about everybody's medical conditions and personal life histories. In other words, they could know us better than we know ourselves. That's even before you throw in emerging technologies like neural interfaces that could allow real-life mind reading.
Right now, he said, the race is on between state surveillance in China and surveillance capitalism in the US. Note the difference: in the US, brain-hacking technology is a thing of Silicon Valley, not of Washington, according to Hariri.
That is not to say that big tech and politicians don't mingle. "San Francisco is now getting closer to Washington, because they need government backing on this," said Hariri.
The technology arms race will shape the future of humanity, he added – but despite his concerns with the growing surveillance enabled by data, he concluded with a positive note.
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"A lot of surveillance tools are being built," he said, "but some of us can decide to build the opposite kind of tech." Instead of designing tools to track citizens, for instance, we could have a technology that lets citizens survey governments and corporations. Or an "antivirus for the mind" that lets you know when you are being manipulated.
"Are you an engineer?" asked Harari; "then build an AI tool that surveys government corruption." Easier said than done.