'Never underestimate human stupidity,' says historian whose fans include Bill Gates and Barack Obama

  • History shows us the power of human ignorance, says Yuval Harari of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
  • Speaking with CNBC, Harari expressed his concern about the ability of populists to solve global "existential" issues.

Historian Yuval Harari says the study of the past has taught him an important lesson for the future.

"One things that history teaches us is that we should never underestimate human stupidity," said Harari, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of books that have been recommended by the likes of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

"It's one of the most powerful forces in the world," he added.

Speaking with CNBC's Martin Soong, Harari expressed concern about the ability of populist leaders — a group he described as "selling people nostalgic fantasies about the past instead of real visions for the future" — to solve today's biggest global problems.

While acknowledging that such leaders likely have many insights and answers on the national level, Harari said the three biggest "existential" problems faced by the world today are global in nature: Nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption.

"These problems have only global solutions, and so far, we haven't heard anything on the global level from these kinds of leaders that offers a real solution," Harari said.

Israeli historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari lectures on artificial intelligence during the Global Artificial Intelligence Summit Forum on July 9, 2017 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China.
VCG | VCG | Getty Images
Israeli historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari lectures on artificial intelligence during the Global Artificial Intelligence Summit Forum on July 9, 2017 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China.

"It could end up very badly," he added. "They put at risk the very survival of human civilization so if we don't come up with a solution; we are in (a) really deep problem."

"You can't trust humans and even human leaders to do what is best for humanity. You can hope for it, but it's not certain."

The future of humanity and machines

On the subject of humanity's future alongside technological advancements, Harari said history has shown that such developments have the power to change the world but are "never deterministic" on their own.

While the last big revolution brought discoveries such as trains, cars, electricity and television, Hariri said "it didn't tell us what to do with it."

As emerging technologies such artificial intelligence and biotechnology gain increasing prominence, Hariri said humanity still has a choice on how they will be used.

"This is the job of governments," he said, noting that the problem lies with many administrations around the world focusing on "old problems" and placing insufficient focus on the potential of emerging technologies.

Exacerbating matters, he said, is the fact the public remains "quite ignorant about these issues" and the subject matter experts in private business or academia don't have the political mandate to regulate such new inventions.