Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Summary of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari : if you liked Sapiens, here’s its sequel; a compelling book that is as rich in history as it is in foresight — an absolute must-read!

By Yuval Noah Harari, 2017, 459 pages.

Review and Summary of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari

Chapter 1 (Introduction) — The New Human Agenda

In the 21st century, humanity has advanced to a stage where it is able to overcome the three great dangers that have plagued it until now:

  • Famine.
  • Epidemics .
  • War.

Yet, of course, we still have a long way to go. Far too many people still die of hunger, disease, or as a result of the conflicts that ravage the world. Nevertheless, if we look back over a long period of time, we can see a clear trend towards greater human control of these scourges.

Hence the book’s central question: [What are we going to do with ourselves now?] 

Indeed, what are we going to do with the powers we have developed to put an end to these three plagues?

The biological poverty line

Before answering this question, let’s start by recalling the progress made in each area. Let’s take famine first.

Just a few centuries ago in Europe, people were dependent on the weather and natural disasters. Not enough rain and the wheat didn’t grow; a violent storm and the harvest was lost.

This is no longer the case nowadays. Collective institutions (NGOs, insurance companies, public bodies, world trade) ensure that their networks are activated as soon as a problem arises.

Of course, people still die of hunger, and many are food insecure. However, we are dying far less from lack of food than we used to, and more people are managing to eat enough to survive.

In many countries, the problem of overeating is even becoming a major health policy issue. Some experts even predict that half of humanity will be overweight by 2030!

Invisible armadas

Epidemics and other infectious diseases have ravaged entire countries for decades. The Black Death, for example, decimated the European population in the 14th century. Later, explorers imported diseases that proved fatal to Native American peoples.

On the one hand, with the development of means of transport and population growth, the risk of epidemics is higher today than ever before. Yet, on the other hand, medical advances are succeeding in curbing it. Even AIDS, which was initially a failure in terms of treatment, has become a disease from which people no longer die.

Generally speaking, the author believes that the “arms race” between medicine and germs is evolving to the advantage of the former. Of course, new epidemics and infectious diseases are bound to occur, but we’ll be able to intervene in time.

But what if humanity itself started to develop and spread terrible pathogens?

Breaking the law of the jungle

From being certain, or at least probable, war has gradually become improbable at the beginning of the 21st century. The balance of terror created by atomic weapons played its part. Above all, however, it is the development of commercial and political relations between countries that is curbing the desire for war.

So, of course, war is still the business of many governments worldwide, but less and less so. And when it comes to terrorism, politicians tend to react with the strongest possible means and enter into the showbiz logic sought by the terrorists themselves.

To sum up:

[Famines, epidemics, and war will probably continue to claim millions of victims over the coming decades. However, these are no longer inevitable tragedies beyond the comprehension and control of a helpless humanity. Rather, they have become surmountable challenges.] (Homo Deus)

But then, [what will replace famine, epidemics, and war at the top of human priorities in the 21st century?]

The last days of death

Yuval Noah Harari’s first answer is immortality. We no longer see death as a fate, a tragedy, or a chance to go to heaven, but as a technical problem that can be overcome.

This belief applies to specialists and laymen alike. We’re all looking for the causes of death, and we intend to eradicate them, at the very least by taking offense at their presence and expressing our indignation.

But some go much further. They are already promising immortality – or rather, amortality (absence of death or tissue regeneration until an event, road accident, or other, occurs) – to the very rich.

Silicon Valley is at the forefront of this field. But will progress come in time to make the bosses of Google and Co. immortal?

More fundamentally, what would eternal life mean? Imagine living to 150 or more. This would completely change interpersonal relationships and our relationship with art or politics, for example.

Furthermore, this fight for immortality would require us to be able to completely reorganize what we are as living beings. This, of course, will not stop those who are most motivated, and we can be pretty sure that scientists and capitalist entrepreneurs will collude to make this field of research flourish.

The right to happiness

While the first challenge was aimed at the body, the second targets the mind. To be happy: this is an imperative that we all hear and internalize on a permanent basis.

People no longer want to be cannon fodder for the great powers. They no longer want to be a mere “function” of the state. On the contrary, the State must serve its interests.

How can this be done? It’s not enough to put an end to famine, epidemics, and war. In fact, we are not as quickly satisfied as we used to be. Modern comforts have led to ever-higher expectations.

We want to enjoy life, which means more pleasure than suffering. What if this were possible without the need for feats? What if the pleasurable sensations experienced on the occasion of particular events (always too brief) could be reproduced by a simple rewiring of neurons?

This is what psychotropic drugs are already doing, both those that are authorized (for example, drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or to launch soldiers into war) and those that are prohibited (drugs).

The state controls and sorts the wheat from the chaff. However, researchers and experts in human biochemistry go from invention to invention. Here again, real progress will require profound changes to our homo sapiens organisms.

The gods of planet Earth

[By seeking bliss and immortality, human beings are, in fact, trying to elevate themselves to the rank of gods: because these are divine qualities, but also because, to triumph over old age and misery, they will first have to acquire divine mastery of their biological substratum.] (Homo Deus)

Three paths emerge. Three geniuses (in the engineering sense):

  • Biological: the idea of modifying the organism by pushing it to its ultimate potential.
  • Cyborg: the fusion of the organism with inorganic compounds derived, for example, from robotics.
  • Non-organic beings: a step further still, the idea of “transferring” our minds into non-organic compounds.

Deity should not be seen as omnipotence, like the God of monotheistic religions. If Homo sapiens one day becomes Homo deus, it will be more along the lines of the Greek gods: beings endowed with superpowers, but who retain their contingency, their limits, and perhaps even their emotions.

We can’t say much more than that because we can’t clearly conceive what our descendants will be and think. What we can see and know, however, is that the paths towards this evolution are already open and that many of us are ready to commit to them, however long it takes!

Can someone please put the brakes on?

Scientific and technical progress is rapid. When the craziest projects are married to the astronomical sums delivered by the stock market, nothing seems impossible.

Some of us might feel like slowing down. But can we? The author doesn’t think so. Why not?

  1. Because nobody knows where the brakes are (it’s impossible to be an expert in everything and understand the system well enough to know how to stop it).
  2. Capitalism couldn’t stand being stopped, yet the capitalist economy supports the whole of society.
  3. Because there’s no clear-cut difference between cure and improvement: when an innovation solves a problem, it can also often be used to boost performance (this applies to medicines as well as genetic engineering and beyond).

Of course, we can choose to limit certain uses of new technologies for ethical reasons.

[That’s why it’s vital to think about humanity’s new agenda. Precisely because we have a choice regarding the use of new technologies, it’s best to understand what’s going on and decide before they decide for us.]

(Homo Deus)

The paradox of knowledge

A few clarifications are in order with regard to the thesis defended here.

  1. It’s a prediction about human collectivity, but it doesn’t imply that everyone plays a part. In fact, it is the more affluent who are already pushing humanity in this direction.
  2. This is not a political program, but a historical prediction. In other words, the author does not consider the quest for immortality, happiness, and divinity to be a good thing, but rather that this is what will probably be sought.
  3. [Seeking does not mean succeeding.] Indeed, it’s possible that all these efforts will fail and open the way to other possible narratives.
  4. The most important point: this prediction is intended to get us debating our present choices. We have the power to react to what happens to us when we’re faced with announcements like this one.

And therein lies the paradox of historical knowledge: it is useless if it does not affect human behavior, but it quickly becomes obsolete as soon as human beings change thanks to it.

A brief history of lawns

Historical predictions are not about repeating a process identically or deciding what will be most effective, but about creating the possible.

What does this mean? Well, simply that the historian helps us to become aware of our conditioning and to free ourselves from it.

We spontaneously think that “everything is the way it is,” but history helps us to understand that this wasn’t always the case and that the present state is the result of multiple accidents.

Take lawns, for example. When you bought your house (if that’s the case), in a middle-class suburb, you may have thought that it would be nice to have a lawn in front of your house, because “everybody does it.”

But has it occurred to you that the practice dates back to the nobles of the Middle Ages, who intended it as a show of power? They were followed by the Church, then by the world of sport and the rising bourgeoisie.

Now that you know, do you want to obediently follow this social injunction, do you want to show off your “little power” with a well-mown lawn next to your garage?

Knowing your history helps you make decisions by freeing you, at least partially, from the weight of the past.

A rifle in the first act

Dreams of immortality, happiness, and power stem directly from the humanist project born in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are its logical conclusion.

A quick reminder: humanism is the cult of humanity, the ideology (or even, according to the author, the religion) according to which all values and actions must be based on the development of human potential.

The following two sections will examine this “religion of man.”

  • First, by analyzing the human-animal relationship and modeling the relationship between “superhumans” and humans (this is the first part).
  • Then, by studying in detail the humanist “credo” and its consequences (part two).

Finally, if there are reasons to be depressed, we’ll see that there are also reasons to hope. Indeed, the coming downfall of humanism may not be such bad news (part three). So, are you ready to continue the journey?

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari

Part 1 — Homo Sapiens Conquers the World

Chapter 2 — The Anthropocene

The wild animals that populated our imagination are on the verge of extinction. By contrast, the population of domesticated animals has exploded, as has – of course – the population of humans.

The term Anthropocene has recently been proposed to describe this geological period (the last 70,000 years) during which human beings have become the main force transforming the world’s ecology.

Children of the snake

The animist vision of the world brings together different beings (animals, humans, spirits, etc.) in a single system of communication. Animist hunter-gatherers talk to and make arrangements with tigers and forest spirits. They see the Earth as a common place for all these beings, who can suffer and love as we do.

The Old Testament invites us to break away from animism and enter the agricultural age. At least, that’s what Y. N. Harari proposes.

And yet, what if the serpent wasn’t our enemy, but our ancestor? Some animists still believe so. What about us Moderns? Well, don’t we also think that we have a reptilian brain, a trace of a distant evolution?

The Bible, on the other hand, clearly separates humans from animals ; humans, it says, were conceived by God from inert matter.

Ancestral needs

The agricultural revolution changed man’s relationship with animals, notably by introducing domestication. Domestication brought many changes – and much suffering – to animals.

Animal needs, emotions, and instincts do not change rapidly. It may be thousands of years since wild boar were transformed into pigs, yet they still need to run, socialize, and care for their young.

Just because she lives in a tiny cubicle and is deprived of her piglets doesn’t mean she no longer has these needs. They may be unnecessary to her evolution (after all, she’s now “safe” and her offspring are assured), but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

[Tragically, the agricultural revolution gave men the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their subjective needs.] (Homo Deus)

Organisms are algorithms

An algorithm is like a recipe: a series of steps to follow in order to achieve something, calculate, or decide. A man can do it, but so can a machine. Think, for example, of an automatic hot-drink dispenser that makes you a coffee in 2 minutes.

Whereas a machine runs on electric cables, the human body – and, more generally, the bodies of all mammals and even other organisms – are thought to function on the basis of sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

The purpose of the organism (the objective of the recipe-algorithm)? To survive and reproduce. The emotions, sensations, and thoughts that jostle the body into action are like a series of calculations that seek to solve this problem.

Does your heart race at the arrival of that charming young man? That’s your body calculating the probabilities and urging you to mate! You don’t need to count, just feel.

It’s safe to say that other mammals, even birds, some reptiles, and even fish, also feel fear, attraction, and the like.

The agricultural deal

Agriculture tends to consider animals from a purely material point of view, without taking emotional needs into account. But at the same time as exploiting them, human beings are becoming aware that they have an influence on ecosystems.

How, then, did the first farmers justify this attitude of contempt towards other species?

The author’s answer may seem surprising: by developing a theistic religion, made up of gods or a God. The whole narrative of the universe changes, focusing on two main players: Man and God (or gods).

In this scenario, animals become extras to be exploited. Human beings feel superior to them because they know they can change their (and their own) environment.

However, in the past, this degradation of the value of non-human beings has often also affected humans. And so begins the whole story of slavery and ethnic cleansing.

Five hundred years of solitude

Since the 17th century, things have once again drastically changed. It was no longer religion, but science that explained the universe. And in this new story, there are no longer any gods or Gods. Man is alone and in dialogue only with himself.

Or, to paraphrase Y. N. Harari:

[Archaic hunter-gatherers were just another species of animal. Peasants believed themselves to be at the pinnacle of creation. Men of science will elevate us to the rank of gods.] (Homo Deus)

But science, like agriculture, has also brought about or created a form of “religion”: the humanist religion, which takes man as God and divides into different ideologies (liberalism, communism, Nazism, for example).

Within this framework of thought, agriculture became industrialized and even less concerned with animal welfare. Criticism has only recently begun to emerge. A part of humanity is now concerned about the outrages inflicted on “inferior species.”

Isn’t this, in a way, because we’re afraid of becoming one in the face of the growing power of artificial intelligence?

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari

Chapter 3 — The Human Spark

Does man have a soul? This is the first principle of monotheistic religions: God has given man – and man alone – an eternal soul. Now, however, scientific research is exploring another reality. More and more, scientists are coming to believe that man – no more than animals – is endowed with such an immaterial, eternal substance.

Who’s afraid of Charles Darwin?

This is the main reason why the theory of evolution is so difficult to accept in countries where religion plays a major role, particularly in the USA.

Darwinian theory assumes that the human individual (like other species) is the result of history and that it is made up of small parts that have evolved very slowly over time.

However, the soul is not subject to evolution: it either exists from the beginning, or it doesn’t exist at all. Moreover, it cannot be composed, since by nature it is indivisible. And if the soul appeared one day in a baby, what about its parents? Were they soulless?

No, evolutionary theory and the soul just don’t mix. That’s why so many religious people reject it.

Why the stock market has no conscience

If man has no soul, does he at least have a conscience (or a mind)? Consciousness is the flow of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that carries us along, and which we spontaneously recognize as “we” or “I.”

What about animals? Are they conscious? René Descartes, the famous 17th-century French philosopher, didn’t think so. For him, only man is conscious. Animals, on the other hand, are merely machines that respond to stimuli.

Problem: today, science can’t fully explain human consciousness, and loses itself in hazardous conjectures.

The equation of life

In fact, neuroscience explains sensations, emotions, and thoughts in terms of multiple nerve impulses in neurons. In so doing, they certainly help us understand how the brain works, but not really the presence of consciousness.

To put it another way: it’s as if the mechanical explanation of brain function renders the existence of consciousness superfluous.

Hence Y. N. Harari’s question: what’s the point of the mind? Or rather: why do we have subjective experiences such as hunger, anger, or joy, if no known algorithm needs them to perform actions or make decisions?

And yet, it’s impossible to deny it: if you step on a nail, “you” feel “pain” – in short, you experience it as an event that happens to you and affects you personally. Stubborn consciousness.

What if the life sciences, and neuroscience in particular, got it wrong? What if the metaphor of the organism or the brain as an “algorithm” is irrelevant?

The depressing life of lab rats

Philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists have created tests to demonstrate that a given being possesses consciousness. The best-known is undoubtedly the Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950.

We can develop similar tests and put them to animals. Some of them demonstrate a certain level of consciousness. This approach contradicts that of skeptical biologists, for whom animals are merely algorithmic machines.

It is, however, an approach implicitly recognized by tests carried out in pharmaceutical laboratories, which regularly make the assumption that animals experience the same sensations and emotions as humans.

Indeed, the rat, for example, is regularly used as a “model” in the design of psychotropic drugs, such as those aimed at alleviating depression by replacing it with a feeling of joy.

The self-aware chimpanzee

Sure, you can accept the fact that some animals may have consciousness, but are you ready to admit that they have self-awareness? Do they know who they are?

There could be different levels of self-awareness, from the simple, fleeting recognition that “I” am a singular entity, different from others, to the idea of an enduring self, with a past and a future.

Let’s take an example. Santino is a chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. He began by throwing stones at his visitors. As the visitors became suspicious, the monkey chose to hide the projectiles he found. When a visitor arrived more calmly (seeing no danger around), Santino would draw and strike.

Of course, skeptics may argue that Santino doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s driven by non-conscious algorithms. But it can be interpreted another way: Santino remembers and learns from past experiences. He knows how to play and how to fool his world.

What do you think of this behavior? Do you lean towards one interpretation or the other?

Hans the Clever Horse

This famous horse from Germany in the 1900s dazzled citizens with his supposed knowledge of the German language and mathematics.  People would ask him questions (“What’s four times three?”, for example) and he would answer correctly by clapping his hoof!

But what of it? In fact, research has shown that Hans responded to the emotions and body language he elicited from human questioners. When he approached the number 12, for example, he sensed tension in his questioner and stopped when he saw joy explode!

So, this animal wasn’t much of a mathematical or German genius, but it did possess a fascinating emotional intelligence.

True, but no animal is capable of building tools and techniques as well-developed as ours. Yes, that’s true. But in fact, neither intelligence nor tool construction provide a satisfactory explanation for Homo sapiens‘ dominance.

For Y. N. Harari:

[The crucial factor in our conquest of the world was rather our ability to link many humans together. If, today, humans dominate the planet without competition, it is not because the human individual is smarter and more agile with his ten fingers than the chimpanzee or the wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of mass and flexible cooperation.] (Homo Deus)

This is the main thesis developed in Homo Sapiens, the author’s first best-selling book.

Long live the Revolution!

The revolutions of history demonstrate this point. Every time, in Rome as in Moscow, victory was won through cooperation. The same was true in Bucharest when Ceausescu was overthrown. It was not really the crowd, but a few well-organized men and women who turned the tensions to their advantage and proposed a different form of regime.

And this story would repeat itself in Egypt, in 2011, with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Beyond sex and violence

War and love are effective ways of collaborating but on a small scale. On a larger scale, people don’t cooperate in the same way. Threats and promises work much better there. Or, to again paraphrase Y. N. Harari:

[All large-scale human cooperation ultimately rests on a belief in an imaginary order: a set of rules that we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity, even if they exist only in our imagination.]

(Homo Deus)

This is how threats and promises work. They create an imaginary order, stories to believe in, and rules to follow. Once someone believes you, you can predict their behavior.

“Visual markers of recognition” (a turban, a suit, and tie, etc.) usually help to recognize those who believe in the same stories, those who are bound by the same threats and promises.

The web of meaning

This imaginary order forms an intersubjective reality that is neither:

  • Objective reality, i.e. the independent existence of things and laws, such as the law of gravity.
  • Subjective reality, i.e. the existence of things that depend on our individual feelings and sensations (having a headache, for example).

Yet there are intersubjective entities created by human communication and cooperation. We are surrounded by them:

  • Money.
  • States.
  • Deities.
  • Our values.
  • Laws.
  • Companies.
  • Etc.

All these intersubjective entities form a “web of meaning” in which we have been immersed since our earliest childhood. And we believe in them ‘wholeheartedly.’ To study history is to study the shaping and fraying of these webs of meaning.

And indeed, some imaginary orders seem completely obsolete to us today, to the point where we wonder how other humans could have “believed” in such things.

Could it be that, in a few years’ time, our ways of living and dying will seem incomprehensible or absurd to our descendants?

Golden age

Imagination – which, as we’ve just seen, is intrinsically linked to cooperation – is therefore the force that has separated humans from animals.  Thanks to the intersubjective entities we have created, we have become more powerful than any other being on earth.

The life sciences consider that individuals and history can be reduced to the interplay of genes, neurons, and hormones. However, this “objective” explanation is insufficient or, at the very least, far from certain.

On the other hand, we can already see how intersubjective realities influence and transform objective reality. Or could transform it:

  • Climate engineering supported by economic and political interests.
  • Shaping DNA according to our aspirations for health and happiness.
  • Merging the digital world and landscapes (augmented reality).
  • Etc.

Hence the author’s insistent call: we must not simply decipher neurons, genes, and hormones, but also “the fictions that give meaning to the world.” In other words, we must make history!

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari

Part Two — Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Chapter 4 — The Storytellers

From the Stone Age to ancient Egypt, intersubjective realities became increasingly powerful.

For example, the spirits worshipped by hunter-gatherers were weak, while the pharaohs – living gods – and other gods of the Egyptian people were able to build pyramids, canals, and cities.

This story goes back to Sumer. Sumerian peasants made two crucial inventions – two sisters: money and writing – which gave rise to bureaucracy. Thanks to this new form of coordination, the Egyptian gods were able to mobilize a much larger number of human beings towards a common goal.

It may seem strange to hear ancient Egyptians tell you that “Pharaoh” or the god “Sobek” built the pyramid or dug a lake.

Yet think about it: today, we also have no problem saying that Google designed an autonomous car or that the French government built a bridge or freeway. It’s the exact same logic. It’s the thousands of people driven by a belief (in Pharaoh or Google) who actually built these extraordinary things.

Living on paper

The belief in writing – or in what is written on paper – is very powerful. The written word freezes the stories we tell. We sometimes come to give more weight to a piece of paper than to what we observe in person.

The trust and respect that paper inspires in us can save or destroy.

  • It may have saved Jews from Nazi terror, as the story of the visas issued by Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes shows.
  • Conversely, it killed tens of millions of Chinese, who died of starvation because the central government had given credence to completely fictitious reports, faked by the Party’s lower echelons.

[If the written word was undoubtedly conceived as a modest means of describing reality, it gradually became a powerful instrument for reshaping it. When official reports came up against objective reality, it was often reality that had to give way.] (Homo Deus)

Holy Scriptures

Borders are a blatant example of how the written word shapes reality. Borders in Africa, for example, were drawn arbitrarily, without taking into account the existence of rivers or ethnic groups. European bureaucrats, without having been on the ground, abstractly carved up the territory.

Take the education system. Grades are purely social conventions. Yet don’t they have a lasting effect on objective reality, as well as on the subjective reality of those who receive them?

Another example: the Scriptures (Torah, Bible, Koran, Vedas, etc.). They claim to describe reality and become the reference for those who want to know the world. Many scholars refer to them and constantly play at maintaining the link between reality and fiction.

In fact, organizations maintain their power through their [ability to impose their fictitious beliefs on a docile reality] (Chapter 4).

But it works!

Often, we tend to believe that the fabric of meaning – the imaginary order – in which we live is better than that of our neighbor or the past.  But is it ? As we are caught up in this order, we judge it by its own criteria (productivity, for example).

Judging past eras or other cultures is therefore more perilous than we often think. And it’s the same when we try to evaluate our own society.

To get a measure of the present state, the author’s proposal is to look at things from the perspective of a real entity and ask the question of its suffering. An intersubjective entity doesn’t suffer: Google or Zeus feel nothing if you burn down the premises where they reside (temple or parent company). On the other hand, the people involved in intersubjective realities do suffer.

The danger is that if we get caught up in the goals dictated by these stories (serving the state and going to war, for example), we may well suffer. That’s why it’s important to keep the stories we create under control. The right stories (the right imaginary orders) are the ones that serve us and keep us from suffering.

Chapter 5 — The Odd Couple

At first glance, science might appear to be an “objective” antidote to the power of fictions such as God or the Nation, at least when they become harmful to the very real, suffering beings that we are.

While science is indeed something other than fiction, and can sometimes help, that doesn’t mean it’s a complete game-changer. In fact, some myths are reinforced by science, and the line between fiction and reality is becoming increasingly blurred.

This raises a thorny question: [What is the relationship between modern science and religion?]

Germs and demons

Religion is not primarily a matter of the “supernatural,” or even of belief, since every believer believes he or she is in the “right.” For Y. N. Harari, religion is:

[An all-encompassing narrative, imparting superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. It legitimizes human social structures by asserting that they reflect superhuman laws.] (Homo Deus)

In this respect, Marxism and liberalism are religions, as are Hinduism and Judaism. Religions also promise rewards (promises) and punishments (threats). Catastrophe will ensue if the faithful do not follow the laws dictated to them from elsewhere (by God, Nature, etc.).

If you meet the Buddha

Surely religion is more of a spiritual journey? Religion should not be confused with spirituality. Unlike spirituality, religion gives us a total explanation of the world and [offers us a well-defined contract.] We know what we have to do. There’s a dogma.

Spirituality is more like an uncertain journey. It is therefore a threat to religions. However, successful rebels often create new religions (think of Luther and Protestantism). Ditto for Jesus and Buddha.

Refuting God

Let’s return to the relationship between science and religion. Has science put an end to religion, replacing dogma with fact? By no means. Certainly, some dogmas have been abandoned, but others have been reinforced by scientific facts.

On the other hand, science cannot answer all questions, especially moral ones. Here, religion and ideology can help.

But then, should science be content with facts, and religion with values? Well, not necessarily. In fact, every religion relies not only on ethical judgments but also on factual statements and a particular combination of the two (formulated as a practical guideline).

And while science has little to say about ethical judgements, it does have something to say about factual statements. Let’s take the case of abortion.

  • The ethical judgement is “human life is sacred.”
  • The factual statement is “human life begins at conception.”
  • From this follows a practical directive: “Abortion must never be allowed, not even one day after conception.”

Scientists may disagree about the ethical judgment, but the part they can really refute is the factual statement. Indeed, they can study embryogenesis precisely and try to define a threshold based on objective criteria.

Sacred dogma

It’s hard to separate religion and science, ethical judgment, and factual statements. One often hides the other. In any case, for Y. N. Harari, one thing seems certain: it is impossible to do without myths, religions, and ideologies to guarantee the stability of the social edifice.

The witch hunt

It’s also worth noting that science first appeared in Europe in the 17th century, at a time of fierce fanaticism (Christians versus Muslims, Catholics versus Protestants, the Inquisition, and witch-hunts). How come one hasn’t defeated the other?

In fact, while individuals – priests and researchers – are interested in the truth, the collective institutions of religion and science are more interested in acquiring power and maintaining order. So they can get along and collaborate.

And this is what happened. The two organizations made a “deal,” a kind of compromise: that of humanism, which triumphed in modern times. The question now is, does this deal still have a long future ahead of it?

Chapter 6 — The Modern Covenant

Before the birth of modernity and humanism, people believed they were part of a grand divine design. Everything made sense. After the 17th century, things changed. The deal changed.

The world no longer makes sense, and humans no longer have a predetermined place in the cosmos. On the other hand, he now has the power to change everything. In a meaningless, absurd universe, man has the power to create himself.

The problem: this generates a great deal of anxiety.

Why bankers are different from vampires

Before modernity, science and economics stagnated. Why was this? Because it was difficult to raise money, in short, to get credit. People didn’t trust each other and didn’t have confidence in the future; as a result, they didn’t lend, and research couldn’t advance.

Things have changed since then. Science and business go hand in hand, thanks in part to credit. Everything becomes an ‘opportunity. ’ Modern people look to the future with confidence. And it’s a self-perpetuating circle:

  • More economic success.
  • More confidence in the future.
  • More credit, with lower interest rates.
  • Entrepreneurs can find funds more easily.
  • The economy grows.
  • Science advances.

This is what we call growth today. We are always producing more and more. And it seems – on paper – unstoppable. But what exactly is it?

The miracle cake

Whereas we used to think that production and consumption were in equilibrium, today we believe that production and consumption sustain each other in a never-ending cycle of growth.

It’s one of the fundamental dogmas of the modern age: growth (“producing more” to solve problems) is vital. But why? Economists and politicians cite three reasons.

  1. Because more production means more consumption, and that makes us “happy.”
  2. Because the human race is growing, we need more to satisfy everyone. 
  3. Because we need to overcome poverty by giving more to those who have less.

Growth is a kind of heaven on earth for many modern ideologues. From China to the United States, Japan to Turkey, every country in the world now sings the praises of scientific progress and economic development.

In the face of this credo, all other objectives and values become futile. And since capitalism now appears to be the preferred instrument of growth (since communism lost out), it has to be cleared out, whatever the cost.

The author does, however, acknowledge that capitalism has played an important and positive role. It has reduced human violence and increased cooperation. The idea that everyone serves their own interests and comes out a winner (the win-win principle) is more effective, he says, than the Christian credo “love thy neighbor.”

In fact, capitalism is nothing less than a powerful religion.

Ark syndrome

To run indefinitely, to grow unceasingly, capitalism needs infinite resources. Initially, Europeans colonized new lands to acquire new resources. However, the number of territories is limited, and so are the resources they generate – energy and raw materials.

However, there is a third resource that makes the other two inexhaustible: knowledge. Knowledge itself is limitless since you can constantly come up with new ideas. And you can use these ideas to discover new raw materials and new forms of energy.

There’s just one major problem: ecological collapse. The “always more” approach is taking place in a fragile biosphere that is being dangerously toyed with.

The religion of growth, however, cannot hear this counter-argument: driven by “more,” it wants to create “virtual worlds and high-tech sanctuaries” in a world of ruin.

It’s hard to maintain the credo of growth while trying to avoid ecological catastrophe. For example: should we wait for a miracle invention to avoid the consequences of climate change?

What if the rich build a high-tech ark to save themselves, and themselves alone? Why don’t the poor rebel? Well, because they benefit from economic growth, and the ecological problem still seems a long way off.

Rat race

Growth is the supreme credo of the modern deal. Communists and capitalists alike hold it to be true and desirable. However, capitalists went about it differently from communists, who wanted to order and plan change.

Unlike the communists, the capitalists advocated an unbridled philosophy of “always more,” where everyone could pursue their immediate interests in a miserly and totally free way. In any case, says the capitalist, the “invisible hand” of the market will regulate everything on its own.

Of course, one could criticize capitalism and its petty philosophy. The author once again reminds us what capitalism has brought us (less hunger, epidemics, and wars).

Moreover, capitalism’s “every man for himself” philosophy has itself been counterbalanced by another element we’ve already mentioned, but which we must now shed more light on: humanism.

Chapter 7 — The Humanist Revolution

[The modern deal offers us power on condition that we renounce our belief in a grand cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. When you examine this deal closely, you discover a clever escape clause: if men manage somehow to find meaning without basing it on some great cosmic plan, that’s not a breach of contract.] (Homo Deus)

That’s what humanism is: a political and cultural project that doesn’t rely on a grand cosmic plan. No God tells us what to do anymore, yet our lives retain meaning, and even better, a social order (rather more peaceful than the one based on God) is preserved. How does this happen?


With humanism, man no longer expects the cosmos to provide him with “ready-made” meaning, as was the case with the Stoics, for example. Instead, he wants human life to give meaning to the entire universe. “Create meaning”: this is the first commandment of humanism.

It took a great deal of work on the part of many professions – artists, intellectuals, and politicians in particular – to shift the paradigm. For several decades, if not centuries, we had to convince people that human free will was the source of meaning and authority, and not God (or the Cosmos) Himself.

Now, introspection – knowing what’s right or wrong for oneself and letting oneself be guided by that – has become the ultimate beacon. Instead of referring to the Holy Scriptures, humanists will appeal to human feelings.

This is true not only of private matters but also of public ones. Democratic elections take place in the silence of the voting booth.

  • The same goes for art: from now on, it’s the artist’s sensitivity and intelligence that give meaning to the work, not its compliance with orders from on high.
  • The same goes for the economy: today, the law of supply and demand – in other words, the customer’s individual choice – is “king.”
  • As for education, of course: teaching people to think for themselves is the goal of modern teaching.
  • Lastly, today, believing in God is a matter of personal choice – proof, if any were needed, that we trust our inner voice more than the direct testimonies of external Divinity.

In this way, the inner world has become very rich (as evidenced by the development of literature), while the outer world has become poor, a mere resource and meaningless – in other words, absurd. The beings and places that populated the outer world (spirits, hells, etc.) are now inner places and states.

Follow the yellow brick road

What’s the method for being a good humanist, i.e., obtaining authentic knowledge (wisdom) that gives meaning and authority?

Here is the formula:

[Knowledge = Experience x Sensitivity] (Homo Deus)

What does this mean ? Think about it for a moment. To become wiser (to acquire knowledge about yourself), you have to learn to open up to the experiences that happen to you and learn to see, through your sensitivity, what they do to you, how they change you. This is how you can develop your full potential and become wiser.

This is what the modern world is all about: the alliance between science and humanism, reason and emotion, fact and value.

The truth about war

Humanism no longer emphasizes great military victories, divine justifications, and grand strategies of attack or defense.

What interests artists and all those who talk about war is suffering, the emotions felt, the profound effects on people’s psyches and bodies.

The humanist schism

According to Y. N. Harari, humanism has suffered the same fate as other religions: it has split into very different, not to say opposing, branches. Which branches? He counts 3:

  1. The first, orthodox branch, known as “liberal humanism” or simply“liberalism”: each human being is unique, singular, and should enjoy complete freedom to follow his or her own path.
  2. Socialist” humanism, which seeks to eliminate the alienation and exploitation of other human beings by creating collective institutions.
  3. “Evolutionist humanism, which believes that the law of the fittest and strongest properly guides human destiny.

These different forms of humanism also merged with nationalism to create “national sentiments” that were supposed to govern States.

Humanist wars of religion

In the 20th century, “humanist religious wars” exploded. Liberals found themselves caught in a pincer movement on both left and right. The two world wars and the Cold War were humanist religious wars.

Liberalism had no real competitors in the 18th century (when it first appeared) and the 19th century. But in the 20th century, things changed. The conservative right (evolutionary humanists) gave rise to Nazism and Fascism, of course, and then to numerous authoritarian regimes. As for socialist humanism, it gave rise to communism and the Soviet Empire.

In the end, it was liberalism that won the day, imposing the “liberal package” wherever possible:

  • Individualism.
  • Human rights.
  • Democracy.
  • Free market.

The end of the Cold War provided the decisive impetus for this new meteoric rise of liberal humanism. It has to be said that, at the start of the 21st century, it has no serious opponents. However, is this so?

Electricity, genetics, and radical Islam

Let’s identify the opponents.

  • There are Western protesters, but they still pale into insignificance.
  • China is more imposing and threatening, but it doesn’t really have an ideological alternative.
  • Radical Islam and other religious fanaticisms (Jewish, Christian, Hindu) exist and sometimes rattle the crowds, but have nothing really relevant to say about today’s world and the technological challenges ahead.

Remember, too, that numbers don’t matter. Only the best-organized protagonists make a difference. As it happens, the researchers, engineers, financial backers, and other politicians involved in advancing biotechnological and digital progress are few in number, but they know how to coordinate very well.

However, today’s liberals may well be the real threat to liberal humanism. With their desire to maximize human lifespan, happiness, and power, these well-organized groups of men and women could well lead us from humanism to post-humanism.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari

Part 3 — Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Chapter 8 — The Time Bomb in the Laboratory

Modern science has dealt liberalism a major blow, yet the consequences have yet to be felt. In fact, evolutionary theory, genetic researchers, and brain specialists tell us that our behavior is the result of deterministic or random processes, or at best probabilistic (i.e. a mixture of the other two).

In this case, there’s no such thing as individual “free will.” In other words, the concept of freedom that underpins liberalism is empty. Or rather: it exists only in the imaginations of those who invented it or take it for granted.

This, in turn, has practical consequences:

[If organisms are indeed devoid of free will, this implies that it is possible to manipulate and even dominate their desires through drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.] (Homo Deus)

Who am I?

The sciences don’t stop at freedom. The idea of the individual itself – that is, of a single, indivisible “self” – is being called into question, even discredited.

At the very least, as Y. N. Harari’s research in neuroscience and behavioral economics, the self is split into two relatively independent parts.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, our “self” is divided into:

  1. An experiential self, which lives in the moment, but doesn’t remember much.
  2. A narrator self, who tells stories to give meaning to life and to remember.

The meaning of life

We give meaning to life through storytelling. To avoid thinking that the world is absurd, or that we’re doing things in vain, or that we’ve made a mistake, we justify ourselves.

Our narrative self (or any other institution that wants to create meaning, such as the state) will construct a narrative in which suffering, failure and fear serve a higher, more glorious purpose.

In other words, the self is an imaginary order, as are gods, nations, and money. Each individual retains only a few snippets of his or her experiences, which help to give meaning and authority to the self (who to love and hate, etc.).

Despite philosophical considerations and scientific research that run counter to the founding theses of liberal individualism, it still stands.

But what will happen when concrete technologies use this knowledge to teleguide our desires and choices far more effectively? [Will democracy, the market, and human rights survive?]

Chapter 9 — The Great Decoupling

Y. N. Harari presents a bold analogy: according to him, liberal individualism (each man counts and is capable of deciding for himself what is best for him) is historically inseparable from military circumscription and the enlistment of said individuals in the new factories.

In his view, the army and labor of the industrial age, as they appear at the turn of the French Revolution, need (or at least find it more useful) to consider people as unique and free. This increases their motivation and initiative to take part in national efforts.

But what about tomorrow? Will individual freedom still be required to keep the military and economic machine running?

It seems that it will gradually be possible to do without it:

  • For warfare, drones, computers, and a few elite super-trained warriors already seem more or less sufficient.
  • As far as the economy is concerned, robots and 3D printers are already replacing many workers, while artificial intelligence is also performing complex tasks without being aware of it, and without needing the help of large numbers of humans (only a few experts are required).

The author takes a broad view: salespeople, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and so on. All professions, even those we still believe to be the most sheltered, could be profoundly transformed by the emergence of artificial intelligence algorithms.

The useless class

Fundamentally, this is not a new problem in itself. We’ve gone from being farmers to blue-collar workers, then employees in service companies. The tertiary sector (services) has gradually expanded, to the detriment of the primary (agriculture) and secondary (industry) sectors.

However, artificial intelligence is changing the game, as it is no longer playing on the playing field of physical abilities (like “traditional” industrial mechanization), but on that of cognitive abilities, which we thought were reserved for humans.

[As algorithms drive humans out of the labor market, wealth may well concentrate in the hands of the tiny elite who own the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality.] (Homo Deus)

It will be increasingly difficult to create jobs that can be done better by humans than by machines. This will also mean that human beings who have lost their jobs will have to reinvent themselves more often and, each time, with more demanding requirements.

87% probability

Until the end of the twentieth century, it was reasonable to believe, according to the liberal-individualist credo, that [nobody knows himself better than he does.] Well, today, computer algorithms are beginning to know us pretty damn well, too!

The step sensors (for walkers) or sugar level sensors (for diabetics) we equip ourselves with, but also our Google searches, just like – of course – the likesposts, and stories we leave on Facebook, say a lot about us.

Imagine if all these devices were connected to each other. The resulting algorithm would know you far better than you know yourself because it would no longer need to rely on your narrating self, but simply on your experiences.

From oracle to sovereign

The author predicts that computer algorithms could well go from oracles (guessing what we feel and think and answering our questions) to sovereigns (having authority over us and telling us what to feel and think).

Of course, this is only one possibility … but one we seem to be well on the way to. Why? Because biologists and computer scientists get on well together: the former think that every organism is an algorithm, and the latter strive to perfect them.

Overcoming inequality

Is it possible for inequality to become truly biological ? Racist theories have already claimed this, but only as an illusion, a pure narrative.

What if certain particularly wealthy personalities (for example, those in the hands of Google and company) genetically modified themselves to be stronger and smarter? Or if only certain enhanced elites were needed to run a country?

Chapter 10 — The Ocean of Consciousness

Silicon Valley is where the new religions are being concocted. Those that promise us immortality, happiness, and power not in the hereafter, but here below.

Opening the mind

Enhancing the human spirit is one of the aims of this new religion, which the author describes as “techno-humanist.”

But what do we know about the mind? Very little. There may be mental states we can’t even imagine in humans, but also in non-human beings.

In short, research into the human mind is a veritable expedition into the unknown!

The smell of fear

Homo sapiens has lost some of its psychic abilities or practices over the course of evolution and in recent decades. For example:

  • We no longer smell smells (we don’t smell at all, for example, the smell of fear) as well as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.
  • It’s harder for us to maintain our attention than it used to be.
  • We no longer regard our dreams as important experiences in our lives.
  • It’s also likely that we’ll tolerate doubt less and less in the future.

The nail the universe hangs from

The techno-humanist remains, for the author, a “humanist sect.” It aims to fulfill humanist ideals once and for all. The final step will be to control our desires and willpower.

With the right technologies, human beings might be able to change the desires that bother them at will, and thus have total control over their will.

Yet this is where techno-humanism would also find its limit. As a “good” humanist, it cannot bring itself to consider that techniques can thus shape what lies at the heart of human singularity: the will.

To cross this threshold, a new, even more radical religion would have to emerge. This would no longer take human desires and experiences as the central point of meaning and authority, but information, data.

Chapter 11 — The Data Religion

[For dataism, the universe consists of data streams, and its contribution to data processing determines the value of any phenomenon or entity.] (Homo Deus)

Dataism was born of the coming together of computer science and biology. Initially described as a theory, it has now taken on the form of a religion, claiming to give meaning and authority over us.

According to this approach, all areas of existence can be understood through data processing. For example:

  • Economists may see capitalism as a distributed processing system and communism as a centralized processing system.
  • Political scientists can see democracy as a distributed processing system and dictatorship as a centralized processing system.

This is one of the first, at least apparent, advantages of dataism: it unifies the domains of existence and the sciences that talk about them. Henceforth, a single language unites them.

Where has all the power gone?

Let’s stay with politics for a moment. Since the beginning of the 21st century, technological development has taken the lead.

And the consequences are unfortunate. It’s as if politicians were overwhelmed by data and technical progress: they don’t know which way to turn and are content to “manage” as best they can, without developing a long-term vision.

Even the wealthiest elites, whom some conspiracy theorists like to believe rule the world, are unable to process the complex flow of all this data efficiently enough, and thus to rule the world in a unique and coherent way.

This “power vacuum” is temporary. New institutions will undoubtedly emerge to take the place of the old.

History in a nutshell

Even history can be interpreted in dataist terms. Different eras are seen in terms of their members’ ability to process data.

If we follow this idea through to its conclusion, we discover that mankind has now become – with globalization – a single data-processing system that is only looking to improve.

What will this new system be called? The Internet-of-everything.

Information wants to be free

The credo of dataism is “information must circulate.” To achieve this, dataists seek to connect to more and more media, and to consume/produce more and more information.

They also seek to connect everything that can be connected, including those who would prefer to have nothing to do with them. In short, dataism has a universalist mission.

All the information available in each being must be able to communicate with all other beings. Information must be free to circulate from one agent to another (the latter acting as a relay, chip, or processor, whether human or non-human).

For data scientists, letting information circulate freely is necessarily a good thing, while restricting it is bad.

Let’s use an example provided by Y. N. Harari.

You don’t use your car much. It’s expensive for you and inefficient for society. Why not design a fleet of autonomous cars that would drive you to work and pick you up again? No more traffic jams, no more unnecessary costs. The only condition? Let the system access your personal schedule.

You surrender your privacy in exchange for peace and quiet.

Record, download, share!

In a sense, we’re already there – or rather, we’re all potential data scientists. We “process” thousands of pieces of information a minute, and we want to do it even faster. Reading an e-mail and responding to it efficiently: that’s probably one of your goals for the day.

Sharing is becoming the rule.  From now on, you have to blend into the flow of data by sharing every discovery, and every experience of the day.

Know thyself

[Dataism takes a strictly functional approach to humanity, evaluating human experiences according to their function in data processing mechanisms. If we develop an algorithm that better performs the same function, human experiences will lose their value.] (Homo Deus)

Humanism was based on the idea that meaning and authority come from the interiority of each individual, i.e. from the way they experience the world and interpret these experiences. Dataism places meaning and authority in data: it’s up to data to give us direction and a clear distinction between what’s right and what’s wrong.

Once (probably in a century or two, says the author) meaning and authority have been completely transferred to the globalized data processing system – the Internet-of-all-objects – it could well become sacred, i.e. untouchable.

In the meantime, data scientists recommend that you “trust the data,” which knows your feelings better than you do.

A ripple in the data flow

You’ll have to learn to criticize dataism. For the author, this is the key scientific, political and socio-economic issue of the 21st century.

Of course, the predictions made in this book are limited. History is not predetermined, which is why criticism and creativity are absolutely essential.

On a day-to-day basis, you can act in such a way as to resist the influence of these ideas and the practices they generate. There is no single, definitive scenario for the future, but a broad spectrum of options.

To help us think about the long-term issues at stake (those that can be counted in decades, or even centuries), the author suggests we reflect on three crucial processes:

  1. The unification of science around the “algorithmic” paradigm.
  2. The separation of intelligence and consciousness.
  3. The rise of non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms.

Here are the questions he poses in conclusion, in the hope that we’ll be thinking about them for a long time to come:

  1. [Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life reduced to data processing?
  2. Of intelligence or consciousness, which is more precious?
  3. What will happen to society, politics, and everyday life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?] (Homo Deus)
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow  by Yuval Noah Harari

Conclusion to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

The key takeaways from Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

After the phenomenal success of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, Yuval Noah Harari returns with this second volume, which is even more “caustic” and, in many ways, frightening.

The Israeli historian looks at the evolution of Homo sapiens over the long term and attempts to pinpoint the paths humanity is about to take. This broad perspective is invaluable, as we are accustomed to sequencing and dissociating problems from one another.

Here, on the contrary, a global narrative is proposed. Not a narrative that claims to be true, but rather a ‘history’ that aims to “open up the possibilities” and make people think, by highlighting the dangers we face in the more or less distant future.

So, if you want to read this book, be prepared to rethink your conceptions of existence. It’s not a question of agreeing with everything, but of allowing yourself to consider the author’s message and adopt a position.

Admittedly, it’s a long and complex work. However, Yuval Noah Harari does a remarkable job of simplifying the subject matter. He makes accessible not only his own thought process, but also numerous works of contemporary science (in biology as well as computer science, economics, and history) and philosophical concepts.

Strong points:
  • An exceptional book by an author who has become a worldwide reference.
  • A compelling and original perspective that helps us make sense of our contemporary situation.
  • Well-thought-out concepts.
  • Numerous examples, images, and lots of humor to boot!

Weak point:

  • Or more accurately a warning: this book is aimed at a self-motivated audience, who want to take the time to develop a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of human societies.

My rating : Permanent Record by Edward Snowden Permanent Record by Edward Snowden Permanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward Snowden

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A Handy Guide to Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

The three great dangers facing humanity:

  • Famine.
  • Epidemics.
  • War.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) concerning Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

1. How has the book been received by the public?

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus has been very well received by the public. It has become an international bestseller, selling over 200,000 copies in France, and has been translated into almost 40 languages. 

2. What has been the book’s impact?

Homo Deus offers a sobering glimpse into the dreams and nightmares that will shape the 21st century.

3. Who is the target audience of Yuval Noah’s Homo Deus?

This book is for everyone to pick up.

4. What do historical predictions mean?

Simply that the historian helps us to become aware of our conditioning and to free ourselves from it.

5. Where do dreams of immortality, happiness, and power come from?

Dreams of immortality, happiness, and power stem directly from the humanist project born in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are its logical conclusion.

3 crucial processes to ponder vs. Concluding Questions

Three crucial processes to ponderConcluding questions

The unification of science around the “algorithmic” paradigm
Are organisms really just algorithms, and can life be reduced to data processing?
The separation of intelligence and consciousnessIntelligence or consciousness, which is more precious?
The rise of non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithmsWhat will happen to society, politics, and everyday life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Who is Yuval Noah Harari?

Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari holds a doctorate in history from Oxford University. Today, he teaches in the History Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and won the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in 2009 and 2012. His works Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century are international bestsellers, with sales of 25 million in 50 countries.

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