A Dialogue Between Great Minds Cai Lei & Yuval Harari


Presenter: This dialogue is quite difficult, because you two have very different academic background and are from two different cultures. One from Israel with a location of many civilization conflicts and rich history, the other is from Sichuan, China. Both of you offered your own opinions from the perspectives of past present and future. My first question is for both of you: How do you form this way of thinking and understand history? 

Harari: It’s from years of study. I learned to read history books and I still read some history everyday. Recently I started to read more about biology and computer science. I firmly believe that if you do not undertstand biology well then you cannot understand history, cause we human beings are are also kind of animal. Without a basic understanding of biology, we cannot undersatand the thinking behaviors and emotions of human.

The knowledge of biology and history are not enough for us to learn the path of future, we need to have deeper understandings of new things, especially that of AI and computer science. These technologies can help us go beyond the limitation of living beings and develop towards a different direction. History, biology and information technology all together shaped my current history outlook.

Presenter: Then it is a conclusion of changes?

Harari: I think there are many uncertainties in history. Maybe we are in the era of most uncertainties, for there are too many things we don’t  know about the future. For example, if we live in China in 1017, you know most things in the future despite some small things you cannot be sure about. Take job market for example, at that time, most people will still be farmers in the future 20 years. Therefore, you will teach your kids how to harvest and sew, for that will still be life skills in the next 20 years. However, in 2017, the next 20 or 30 years are full of uncertainties. Nobody know what will happen in 2050, we do not know what to teach to our children, cause they might not need it hen they are 40. We are not sure what kind of job will appear in the future, either can we know what kind of skill it requires. Therefore, we can say that we live in an era with nost uncertainties.

Presenter: What can we do to control this trend, or to control ourselves?

Harari: Of course, we can have deeper understanding of what’s happening in the world, but that’s not decisive. More importantly, we need to know what we hope for the furture? What we need to do to achieve my goal? For example I brought up the issue of unequilty. There exists a certain risk that the future world is quite unequal because of biological differences. This is not a forecast, but a kind of risk, which I believe, is very likely to happen. If we do not want that kind of unequal society in which people are determined by class into superior and inferior, then we need to do something to prevent it from happening.

Presenter: Mr. Cai, why do you invite Pro. Yuval Noah Harari to share his experience with us? Is that because his cognitive approach and thinking pattern are of some reference significance to investors and entrepreneurs?

Cai Lei: Of course. Say today, Yuval and I talked about the past, present and future. We made similar judgments and both emphasized on uncertainties. From the view of history, all of our opinions are certainly influenced by culture. China has a profound history of several thousand years, during which process the Chinese people formed the thinking pattern that we would look far ahead into 1,000 years later and also back to 1,000 years ago.

We expect more knowledge systems to be in function in the future. Though I would come into contact with elites of all walks of life almost all the time, I have kept my curiosity and the thirst for knowledge. I do lots of light reading. Plus a divergent thinking, I could even learn about something watching ads. Yuval leaves me much to think about with his books. He can explain financial things with merely one or two pages of words, which is truly amazing for a man who studies history. More amazingly, he also delves into genes and society! 

I myself wish to become “a versatile person,” knowing a little about everything. As to the formation of my view of history, there are mainly two factors. First is the Chinese history. Though China has gone through twists and turns in its development, it is my belief that this long-standing history is actually one that features optimism. The Chinese people seems to be unbeatable, as there would always be someone reaching for help and pulling those in trouble out of the woods at critical times. It is pretty much the same scenario now. Though there are enormous uncertainties on the road ahead, we still have the chance to win ourselves a relatively bright future. Therefore, basically speaking, there is no need to be pessimistic.

Second, speaking from a micro perspective, the profession of investment is inherently characterized by a combination of optimism and pessimism. In face of realities, we must be extremely pessimistic, so that all considerations and decisions are made cautiously; whereas, when thinking on a long-term basis, we must be optimistic, otherwise no investment would be made. 

In a nutshell, I’ve formed my view of history based on both historical traditions and professional practices.  

Presenter: As an investor, how would you deal with uncertainties? Do you take uncertainties as predictable and controllable?

Cai Lei: This is a case for pessimism – consider problems with a plan for the worst. Be pessimistic, but careful. Think about competitive edges, and also responsiveness of changes. We do not have to worry about too much as all is going to have an end, our life included. So, let’s be optimistic about the world. 

Presenter: Currently, China is undergoing industrial upgrade and transformation, with economic development becoming more and more driven by innovation rather than factors of production. Besides, the second-generation entrepreneurs and professional managers are coming onto stage. I would like to ask you, Mr. Cai, what do you think of the view that technological revolution might give rise to mass unemployment? Which things might be drastically changed as technologies update? And which might remain just as they are? In other words, what can be handed down?

Cai Lei: A technological revolution, as an overturn of existed technologies, will surely bring forth lots of opportunities and changes. Yuval mentioned earlier that drivers might lose their jobs, and even such high-skill occupation as doctor might disappear. But as I see it, at least till today, some fundamental things have not changed. For example, resources are still in scarce. No matter with artificial intelligence or human brain, the realistic necessity of optimizing the allocation of scarce resources remains unchanged. This takes us back to the original discussion about competition and competitive edges: considering competitive advantages on a short-term basis, and revolution in the long run. All creatures, in one form or another, have to adapt to the environment through evolution. 

Surely all these can be changed, as our knowledge system is relatively static while technologies advance by leaps and bounds. Many Chinese fiction stories have similar descriptions as Yuval gives us. Mankind in the future consider things from a totally different dimension, the fifth or even tenth dimension, which is far beyond our thinking capacity now. Despite of this, however, thinking about things in the coming several decades would be enough. 

Presenter: Suppose this cycle can last, for instance, five to ten years, in terms of investment, what do you think about the trend of the current popular fields?

Cai Lei: As investors, we only choose to invest these who have done a good job. For enterprises, we will still choose the target which can bring more efficient and more cost-effective products and businesses, and hope that it can maintain a competitive advantage. As for the GDP growth, it’s not a problem for our investors to solve.

Presenter: Indeed, the future trend is only a possibility in the overall situation and investment itself is pretty practical. Mr. Yuval, what’s your opinion on the future education? Will education be able to promote developments of other industries?

Harari: Education is the biggest problem at present. Because in essence, education is about the future development rather than the current situation. If we invest in a 6-year-old child, what we want is to teach something valuable to him, so that he can use it after two or three decades, just same as the principle of commercial investment. However, the payback period of commercial investment is rather short, while education investment requires to predict the situation after two or three decades. Nobody knows what the future job market will look like and it is difficult to make sure what skills will be useful for children’s development. Therefore, I think the best investment is to bring emotional training and emotional input to the children, which is very important. The previous education is mainly based on knowledge and information, but now information is accessible everywhere. So, children no longer need more information input, but discrimination—the ability to discriminate the order of priority, as well as true and false. In addition, they need to adapt to the speed of change in the world, constantly changing and pressing forward. In the past, life was basically divided into two parts: in adolescence, people mainly focused on studying and in adulthood, they paid more attention on working with full use of the knowledge learned in the last stage. This model is no longer applicable in the 21st century, because the current social development changes are too fast, lifelong learning is a must for us.  We must ponder how to cultivate children’s thinking to make it more flexible and adaptive, forming the habit of lifelong learning. This is a really crucial challenge.

Presenter: This is really very important for a lifelong learner, no matter how old you are.

Cai Lei: Yes, it is very important. With the application of new intelligent technology in the future, a great change will happen in the method, form and measure of education itself. In the future, all the known system of information transmission may rely on a chip, instead of learning, reading and reciting. But this is just aimed at the known knowledge. The ability to adapt to the unknown situation is more valued in the future.

However, in terms of a big framework, there’s not much change. In the past, we adapted to the model of education that recognizing the world from the knowledge accumulation of our ancestors. But now, the mainstream western education model is to actively explore the unknown. However, the world is unknown in substance and we can only the limited known to explore the unlimited unknown. No change happens in this model.

Presenter: I would like to ask your opinions on one hot-spot issue today. Right now, not only the existing education system, but also the universities in China are undergoing a process of reform and innovation, such as Tsinghua University, Peking University and University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. In the reform, however, there is still a fairly long time lag between the students’ graduation and their entry into the society. Similarly, in the United States, the president-elect Donald Trump claimed to save the blue-collar whites who have long been unsatisfied with the wealth gap. But Professor Yuval just mentioned that these workers are commonly older. They cannot fit to the revolution of technology and their skills are unable to meet the demands of modern jobs. So how do you two view on this “time lag”? Thank you. 

Cai Lei: In the future, with the application of new smart technologies, education itself should make great changes in its modes and forms. Perhaps the knowledge system even all other known systems could be replaced by a chip. We will no longer need to study or read. Education in the past focused on the “known”, but what we will be emphasizing in the future is the ability to accommodate with the “unknown” situation. But viewed from a larger picture, the essence of education will not change too much. For example, in the past 2,000 to 3,000 years, human beings were getting with the “known” in the world; our ancestors told us, “Just learn from the planet.” While in the western world today, the core of education shifts to the “unknown”, requiring students to further explore. This is the education we need to master. So the truth of education does not change at all: as the world is unknown, we have to use known knowledge to explore infinite unknown areas. 

Harari: I think in the long run, today’s workers may indeed be eliminated. What is even more frightening, however, is that in this transitional period, such as 25 years later, a group of 45-year-old people, who used to be textile workers, are about to face unemployment in the future. The computers will replace them, and there will be brand new professions, such as software engineering. These workers are unable to handle these new jobs. However, they still have more than 3 or 4 decades to live. This, as a result, will generate social and political problems. 

Moreover, in some developing countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, almost all labor force are blue-collar workers, producing shoes and clothes. Although it is also a developing country, China has a fast-growing technology industry. Yet Bangladesh and Vietnam do not have. So, China can better adapt to the future. If they are not well-educated, kids from Bangladesh are not possible to have the opportunity to become a software engineer in the future. So what about the future of these people, what should these countries do? This is a big problem, and we now do not have a suitable political means to address such possibility. The only possible solution is to consider it from a global perspective. This is an issue of globalization. So what are the risks? The greatest danger we are now facing is that we are in an opposite direction. Nowadays, economy may be more and more involved in globalization, and so do technological progress. But politics still has a clear border. We respectively act in our own political system. Thus, it is difficult to settle a global political issue.

Presenter: It is not appropriate to apply domestic policies to address global issues. But today, maybe we can discuss somehow about the efficiency and fairness from the perspective of business. Currently, the government is responsible for enhancing fairness, while the industries and enterprises are responsible for strengthening efficiency. So when the industries or enterprises are developing too fast or too slow, the government needs to make a balance. The core reason for the emerging uncertainties of  today’s globalization, or even the trend of anti-globalization, lies exactly  in an imbalanced distribution. How do you think of the trend of industries and enterprises development in the next few decades? 

Cai Lei: I would also like to emphasize that we are experiencing a rapid technological development. However, the governance model of  today’s society could barely catch up the pace of changes. Actually, we have seen numerous similar events in our history, some of which were more intense. In this respect, my suggestion is that we Chinese people have been viewing the world as a whole, so each and every thing should be on the mind of the whole world other than us alone. Major reforms are realized as humankind faces various intractable conflicts. To realized some of the reforms at the bottom of the society, we also need such conflicts. 

Presenter: We often talk about many uncertainties emerging in the process of globalization. In this case, it is necessary to explore a new global governance model, or a way to effectively resolve conflicts and take on leadership. What do you think?

Harari: In terms of political side, we do not yet know what kind of structure we will build to better manage human society in the next ten to twenty years. However, we are clear that to solve these problems, we must have an effective global structure. China has a traditional philosophy; this great wisdom in the 21st century will play a more important role. This philosophy of thinking is very important, and we have realized that no country can remain isolated from the world.

Now, one thing I know for sure is that there cannot be a big empire to rule the whole world. But we can reach beyond national boundaries and create a more effective global cooperation mechanism to solve these problems. I think the future challenges include not only global warming, but growing social inequality and disruptive technologies. We cannot manage artificial intelligence at the national level, but we can cooperate with each other at the national level.

Cai Lei: I agree with you about international cooperation. In fact, in the history of mankind, the theme of the first century is the revolution. Because of the fundamental feelings and experience of revolution, we invented a lot of mechanisms, such as international consultation mechanism. For enormous social problems or even mass social problems, I think we can still find solutions, but at a price, which is also reflected in Yuval’s book. Human history is history of experiment. The experiment lacks a controlled environment. It is a trial and error experiment with a small number of individuals and at the expense of time. Sometimes, it is also conducted at the expense of individuals’ lives.

Presenter: So this is a process of trial and error. What do you think the future of artificial intelligence, the world's hottest topic? Artificial intelligence has been widely used in various fields, so how long do we need to further popularize it?

Harari: I think what surround us are constantly changing. In this era, we are witnessing a transition from people to algorithm. For example, we go to a bank to apply for a loan. In the past, it was the people who decided whether to lend you the money; but now it is the algorithm to decide. We have big data and tons of information.

Nowadays, we place more trust in artificial intelligence. The intelligence we are talking about here is the intelligence to solve problems. Human beings are able to feel joys and pains, which is closely linked to people’s intelligence. But the computer is completely different. The artificial intelligence is growing—the emergence of AlphaGo is an example. Yet a machine still cannot feel any emotions. AlphaGo cannot feel nervous, happy or sad.

Presenter: As always, robots have no consciousness and emotions. If AI flood into our society, will human be dominated or extinct? This might be a false proposition.

Cai Lei: As Yuval just said, computers don’t have consciousness, so they are still controlled by humans. This kind of future is foreseeable. But whether there will be inorganic lives with given consciousness and what would human governance be like under such a social circumstance, we do not know yet.

Presenter: For example, Yuval studies history, and believes that algorithm rules. But the entrepreneurs, especially the captains of traditional enterprises, don’t see data as an industry. These are very different understandings, and do you think one understanding will replace the other, or the two thinking patterns will spiral?

Cai Lei: I don’t care much about such discussions: it doesn’t matter if it’s big data or AI. Any sector that satisfies people’s needs can have a chance to flourish. We can decide with algorithm whether to use the big data means or the traditional means to satisfy these needs. If the means is efficient, we can develop it by turning it into products.

Presenter: Under the current market environment and overall trend, when an entrepreneur in a traditional industry faces transformation, what should be his direction? He would need to make decisions, and in this process, what would your advice be?

Cai Lei: In the future, all enterprises will be highly informationized. And I think big data is a technological issue. For enterprises, it’s for sure that big data will bring changes. An enterprise can seek transformation through self-investment and R&D, or through merger and acquisition. For example, a traditional clothing enterprise can combine online and offline business by acquisition of an online enterprise. Or, a traditional enterprise can be merged with a more mature internet enterprise and become its processing factory…These are all ways for integration. How should a traditional industry transform? I think the answer lies in network, information and data. These new technologies and innovations must be combined with traditional industries. Whether an enterprise will be chosen or choosing, it’ll be up to its own capabilities.

Harari: Take textile industry for an example, the producing process itself is data. In the future, people will be able to print clothes at home using 3D-printing technology and the only thing needed will be a 3D-printer. For the clothing industry, the clients’ needs are very important. What kind of shirt does your client need? You don’t need to make shirts exactly the same as other mass-produced shirts, just tailor the shirt to your client’s personalized needs. In the future, when the next wave of technology arrives, and when big data and AI can understand the consumers better, we will be able to combine advantages of traditional industries and new technologies, realize highly-personalized customization, and make clothes tailored to every consumer’s figure while maintaining low costs. To make that happen, I believe, data is the key. The first part is consumer data, including consumers’ figures and their needs; the second part of data is how to print and produce this piece of clothes.

Mr. He Zhiyi: I am a professor from Peking University and the Chairman of New Huadu Business School. In today’s talk, Professor Yuval’s remarks covered a time-span of 10-thousand-year and one-hundred-million-year, while Mr. Cai shared with us some of his knowledge about robots, AI and algorithm. I’ve once read a book titled Human Accomplishment. Through comparative analysis, the book puts forwards an idea saying that the Jewish people's contributions to the human civilization is far greater than that of the Chinese. I’d like to know your viewpoints towards this. And if we make a prediction about the next five thousand years, what would be the two peoples’ contributions towards the mankind look like?

Harari: I think the author of this book is a Jew. Everyone believes more or less that he is the center of the universe. From a historical point of view, I do not really think the Jews have played such a vital role. The most important contribution of the Jews is the invention of Christianity, which has transformed the world as a whole. In other areas, I believe that their influence on mankind’s civilization is very much limited. Few influential culture or inventions of technology came from the Jews. Of course, we are not saying that everyone bears the responsibility to transform the world, but it is important for everyone to realize that we should be modest in a globalized world. Otherwise, it is difficult to achieve a global cooperation. If every nation and every people can be humbler, the cooperation among different nations in the world will be better. This is the most important lesson we should learn from the 21st Century. No matter what has happened in the past, the future of human’s survival is still dependent on the global collaboration. So, even from an empirical point of view, every nation and every people should be more humble and understand the world’s history from a global perspective.

Cai Lei: I do not think this is a problem. For example, I may feel more intimate with Prof. Yuval than with many of my fellows in Sichuan, because we share the same concerns and interests. In fact, everything created by the mankind has its own value. Be it was created by the Jews, the Chinese, or the Japanese, it doesn't really matter. I think the Chinese people have always believed in internationalism and globalism. As to where we come from, it doesn't seem so important.

Presenter: Thank you very much, Prof. Yuval and Mr. Cai, for discussing and sharing with us. In today’s world, whatever cultural backgrounds one may come from, some day in the future, when we meet with each other, an open and inclusive mind will always help us reach more understanding and consensus. 

Thank you!