Would you improve humanity if you could? Many of us have opinions about how we can boost up society and government. But what about just re-engineering the people themselves, to make them more advanced physically and intellectually? Would better bodies lead to better people?
The term transhumanism was coined by English biologist and philosopher Julian Huxley in his 1957 essay of the same name. Huxley referred principally to improving the human condition through social and cultural change, but the essay and the name have been adopted as seminal by the transhumanist movement, which emphasizes material technology.
The movement has evolved since its beginnings as a loose association of groups dedicated to “extropianism” (a philosophy devoted to the transcendence of human limits). Transhumanism is principally divided between adherents of two visions of post-humanity—one in which technological and genetic improvements have created a distinct species of radically enhanced humans and the other in which greater-than-human machine intelligence emerges.
Some see such technologically driven future as not just desirable, but a necessity. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX indicated an inevitability of humans to symbiotically bond with artificial intelligence, if the human species were to remain relevant.
There’s nothing wrong with madly optimistic appraisals of how technology might benefit human society. But the current drive for a post-human utopia is something else. It’s less a vision for the wholesale migration of humanity to a new a state of being than a quest to transcend all that is human: the body, interdependence, compassion, vulnerability, and complexity. As technology philosophers have been pointing out for years, now, the transhumanist vision too easily reduces all of reality to data, concluding that “humans are nothing but information-processing objects”.
It’s a reduction of human evolution to a video game that someone wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel … Zuckerberg? These billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy – the same survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with.
The Elon Musk brain interface
When it comes to something as futuristic-sounding as brain-computer interfaces (BCI), our collective minds tend to zip straight to scenes from countless movies, comics, and other works of science-fiction (including more dystopian scenarios). Our mind’s eye fills with everything from the Borg and neural interfaces of Star Trek, to the neural recording devices with parent-controlled blocking features from Black Mirror, and of course the enslavement of the human race by machines in The Matrix.
And now there’s Elon Musk, proclaiming that he’ll be wiring up people’s brains to computers starting next year, as part of this other company of his: Neuralink. Here the promises and imaginings are truly straight from the realm of sci-fi, ranging from ‘reading and writing’ to the brain, curing brain diseases and merging human minds with artificial intelligence.
Our understanding of the human brain is unfortunately rather limited. Although we have a basic understanding of how neurons work, and how they combine into larger networks, it’s only quite recently that we have begun to discover the structure of the networks that make up, for example, the outer part of the brain (cerebral cortex) where the higher-level functions of language and consciousness are thought to originate.
There are between 14 to 16 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex alone. Assuming we just focused our BCI efforts on this part of the brain, those are still a lot of neurons to monitor. Relative to Neuralink’s probes, the scale difference should make it obvious that all we can do at this point is monitoring groups of neurons, trying to integrate and interpret their collective activity.
As much fun as it is to dream about this sci-fi future, the reality is that there is still a lot of hard, tedious science to be done before we can reach that future.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a $2 billion yearly budget for research into creating a super solider as well as developing a synthetic police force. Working with the human genome, DARPA hopes to manipulate certain gene expressions. In experimentation, DARPA and the military industrial pharmaceutical complex are using natural abilities that are enhanced through genetic engineering.”
There is quite rightly a huge amount of trepidation around the creation of super-intelligence and the emergence of ‘the singularity’ – the idea that once AI reaches a certain level it will rapidly redesign itself, leading to an explosion of intelligence that will quickly surpass that of humans (something that will happen by 2029 according to futurist Ray Kurzweil).
In Who Owns the Future, internet pioneer Jaron Lanier explains:
‘Troves of dossiers on the private lives and inner beings of ordinary people, collected over digital networks, are packaged into a new private form of elite money…
“It is a new kind of security the rich trade in, and the value is naturally driven up. It becomes a giant-scale levee inaccessible to ordinary people”. Crucially, this levee is also invisible to most people.
Its impacts extend beyond skewing the economic system towards elites to significantly altering the very conception of liberty, because the authority of power is both radically more effective and dispersed.
Surplus populations removed from the productive aspects of the social world may rapidly increase in the near future as improvements in AI and robotics potentially result in significant automation unemployment. Large swaths of society may become productively and economically redundant.
The end point is predictably an entirely nonhuman – though very efficient – technological entity derived from humanity that doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose that a modern-day human would value in any way.
The ability to serve the system effectively will be the driving force.
We would be left with the scenario of a small elite that has an almost total concentration of wealth with access to the most powerfully transformative technologies in world history and a redundant mass of people, no longer suited to the evolutionary environment in which they find themselves and entirely dependent on the benevolence of that elite.
The idea of fusion with technology as a next stage in human evolution can speak to our own narcissism induced by social media attention culture. The H+ agenda can be marketed by appealing to one’s desire for recognition, to be boundless and to attain mastery of oneself. Through social engineering, it will corral the herd and achieve mass adoption. Yet this techno-utopia does not come for free. One has to pay a heavy price for the ticket to this supposed heaven on earth. In the exchange to transcend human limitations, we are asked to give up the essence of being human. What are we expected to sacrifice on this altar of transcendence.
Humanity is now at a crossroads. With the exponential growth of technology, we have the capability to bring a great turning or destroy the world. Branches of science; technology, engineering, chemistry and medicine helped mankind overcome natural disaster and disease and live more comfortably in this harsh physical environment. Renewable energy technologies can help us create a sustainable future. These are tools that can be used for the good. They can reduce poverty and enhance the quality of our lives. But they can be also used against us and our ability to make choices needs to be preserved to determine which path we will take.