Human technology is an incredible phenomenon. It’s something that grows exponentially: for every advance we make, our next advances are more varied and easier to attain.
Our inventions are all around us, every day, making every part of life easier. Some people say that’s a terrible thing. I’m a futurist — I think it’s incredible.
Another conference. “Great.”
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But hey, if you want to go back to shoveling your own waste into the ground, be my guest.
Here’s a concept that’s even more fascinating than human technology: human technology. That is, putting the technology into humans.
Transhumanism, as it’s known, is the process of augmenting ourselves with advanced technology; the point where the technology isn’t merely an extension of ourselves — like your smartphone probably is — but a part of ourselves.
In shorthand, futurists refer to transhumanism as H+, or humanity plus. In just two characters they make the claim that technology can make us better than we are.
We’re a flawed species. I’m sure there are many things that can make us better than we are, like meditation for those inclined. But this concept of transhumanism — and the technologies that put it into practice, both conceptually and in practice right now — is the method of species improvement that fascinates and captures the imagination beyond any other.
The Fathers of Transhumanism
Transhumanism, for a topic so firmly rooted in the most modern, cutting-edge technologies of our day, has surprisingly old roots. Philosophers say that the human impulses that drive this desire to become something more were first recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known recorded works of literature, which features a quest for immortality.
From the Bible’s Tree of Life to Stargate’s Ascension, the whole span of human literature is full of examples of our desire to become something more advanced than we are.
In the 19th century, Russian philosopher Fyodorov wrote about the potential of science to one day enable us to become immortal or raise each other from the dead, setting off a wave of discussion that was just as hopeful as fiction and legend but, for the first time, was speculatively serious (let’s discount the alchemists of various times and civilizations, whose theories were generally supported by supernatural assumptions).
In 1923, geneticist J.B.S. Haldane wrote that every advance in genetics and technology, when applied to humanity, would be called indecent, unnatural and blasphemous. So far, he’s been right. More time is spent discussing the ethics of human augmentation than on creating such technologies.
To be clear, I think it’s important that the ethics of augmentation are discussed. Just not the way the religious right hijacks the discussion and puts a blanket on rational debate.
It was Julian Huxley — brother of the famous science fiction writer Aldous — who first used the term transhuman, defining it as “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” It was not until the next decade that the new definition (transhumanism as a transition to posthumanism, which we’ll look at momentarily) would enter the discourse in academic circles.
In later years, transhumanism is brought into the discourse of artificial intelligence and the Singularity by important figures in those fields, Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil prime among them. Kurzweil, who outside of his synthesizers is most famous for his thoughts on the Singularity, holds to the view that transhumanism is an important stepping stone toward human immortality.
The Transhuman & The Posthuman
The ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism are closely linked. The transhuman is to the posthuman as the homo heidelbergensis is to the homo sapiens, one might say.
The posthuman is the destination: the human that transcends humanity through undefined means — technologically, spiritually, genetically. The posthuman has much in common with the Übermensch, a philosophical concept coined by Nietzsche that would come to be interpreted in many ways: racially by the Nazis, eugenically in a great deal of literature — The Wrath of Khan must be one of the seminal works in any rigorously academic posthumanist literature list — and through technology.
On the other hand, the transhuman is the journey. The term applies to people who are adopting the technologies and ideologies that lead to posthumanity — thus making them transitional: in between where we will be and where the rest of us are now.
What’s hard to determine is where transhuman becomes posthuman. Is it when mind uploading becomes a reality and we no longer need the human body? But certainly that in itself is not a final destination. Technological advancement is potentially limitless, and we’ll always find ways to apply that to our posthuman selves: bigger, better, faster memory! Better processing and indexing of input! Better hardware to allow ourselves to interface with the world!
Some may even argue that as soon as we augment ourselves in any way, we become posthuman. By this definition, everyone with a cochlear implant is posthuman. This approach has no place for transhumanism in the ideological landscape.
Like the grass that’s greener, I think it’s likely that transhumanism will always be a valid concept, even when one could argue that the posthuman has arrived. The destination is a concept rather than something we can quantify and achieve.
It’s easy to condemn transhumanistic endeavors when detractors are quick to flood the discussion with images of Star Trek’s Borg and Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But there are people who are living as transhumans today, and their quality of life (and in some cases, their life, period) can be attributed to their transhuman features.
When you take a step back and look at the good these technologies do for people — people you may well know — that harsh glare fades away pretty quickly. For most people, the families of the deaf who can now hear thanks to the cochlear implant or those with heart conditions who are alive because of their pacemaker, that these devices even exist is reason for gratitude and optimism.
The cochlear implant is an incredible invention. Granted, it’s a poor substitute for real hearing, and you can hear for yourself what speech and music sound like through one of these devices. But it’s incredible because it’s an invention that, in lieu of an ear, plugs right into the nervous system to send the electrical impulses of sound to our brain. Even if it does so badly right now, it’s a leap ahead of the regular hearing aid.
The expensive implants are purchased by those who are completely deaf or reasonably close. If they want to hear, they have no other option but to enter this static-filled world. What’s amazing is that they are often able to hear and hold conversations without assistance after some adaptation time.
Imagine what such devices will look like decades down the line. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Geordi La Forge is a blind engineer who uses a “visor” to see. This visor doesn’t just compensate for a lack of human sight, as the cochlear does for hearing. It allows him to see spectrums of light well beyond regular human perception. When will we have cochlear devices that extend the range and spectrum of human hearing beyond what is naturally possible with even the best ears?
I wouldn’t be surprised to see that before I die.
We’ve seen a wave of transhuman development in recent years. Australian researchers this year created a technology that allows the disabled to dictate to a computer. In 2004, a quadriplegic man received a brain implant that allowed him to check email and play games using his thoughts. The more recent development in Australia means people like him could soon be writing responses to those emails as well.
After forty years of academic excitement and debate around the concept of transhumanism, we’re no longer waiting for it. We’re seeing it happen.
There’s no such thing as Haldane’s Law. I’m making it up for convenience. Remember his assertion that every technology that’s developed to augment humans beyond their natural capabilities would be met with disgust, claims that scientists are playing God, and comparisons to Frankenstein?
There are many examples of this in history. One of those is IVF. The first IVF baby was born in 1978 and the public reaction was one of condemnation for the scientists, the parents and the child itself. Those scientists had to stop their work after the second delivery because of that reaction, but today over 100,000 IVF babies are born each year.
Today, we see IVF as a normal approach to solving fertility problems. The only people left opposing it would fit in Fred Phelps’ dining room.
One of IVF’s long-time detractors, Leon Kass, once said regarding cloning that those who tolerate it have “forgotten how to shudder and always rationalize away the abominable.”
This is a common argument by the group of people that Haldane’s Law refers to. What it does is take the responsibility of rationalism off of those who oppose things simply because they make them recoil.
But how do you define the abominable rationally? Historically, abominations are defined only by what we are not yet familiar with. In the past society has called homosexuals abominable. For the most part, at least in the Western world, we’re beyond that phase of societal retardation now, but as a species we’re certainly not past the instinct to recoil at the unknown.
It’s that instinct, as unevolved as it is, that people like Kass hope will prevail.
To me, they might as well say: “this isn’t rational, and we can’t defend it. We’re just disgusted.”
We continuously see this cycle in motion. People are frightened by new discoveries or just the plain old unusual, cause a public kerfuffle, and hold up social advance or technological adoption for a time — a time in which the lives of people who need such social or technological advance could have benefited.
But just for a time. As the years roll by, more and more people are willing to take risks as the public discourse and debate slowly adjusts their expectations, making people feel more at ease and familiar with such things. The early adopters — for instance, the first IVF customers — decide to go ahead at the expense of condescending looks from their friends and neighbours, until it becomes normal.
The Future of Transhumanism
As interesting as it is to consider that we’ve already taken the first steps into the realm of transhumanism, the real wonder — at least for futurists — is in what could be possible.
The cochlear implant is an amazing thing, but it’s got nothing on the speculation and predictions for the future.
According to futurist George Dvorsky, experts believe that genetic diseases can be eliminated by 2030. But that’s not all our rapid advances in genetics can help us achieve. Our intelligence and memory, our health and strength, can all be improved in the next few decades — though the costs associated with having yourself modified will likely remain sky-high for decades.
In that vein, imagine a world where you can have your metabolism adjusted to suit your line of work, instead of doing crazy things to manipulate your body’s metabolic regulation.
In science fiction, we’ve seen plenty of examples of sensory enhancement. As is often the case, futurists are following sci-fi’s lead and working to bring those things to life. We may see implants that return vision to the blind, La Forge style. There are predictions of high resolution implants that will allow humans to see things at great distances in great detail.
Forgoing the idea of implants, there’s the possibility of changing sensory organs themselves — for instance, adapting the human eye to take on some of the characteristics of the eagle eye, allowing us improved vision without the need for electronic devices in our skull.
As an extension of our eyes rather than an improvement, heads-up displays are a real possibility, and they’ll allow us to perform computing tasks in our head, with our eyes as the monitor. There are two methods that scientists speculate such technology would employ: retinal display, where the light is projected directly onto the retina, and synaptic interface, which doesn’t use light to create an image but rather transmits visual information directly to the brain.
This will no doubt inspire many run-of-the-mill applications such as checking your email in your head and quickly looking up words in the dictionary during a conversation so you don’t look like an idiot. But, as an atypical geek, I’m excited about the implications for gaming: synaptic interfacing would enable receipt of stimuli for other senses as well, meaning we could play completely life-like, realistic games in our head. It’s the Holodeck, without the need for a physical space.
Interestingly, the synaptic interface method has the reverse application of capturing visual data, using your eyes as a video camera. The synaptic interface method hasn’t been tested on humans, but there has been some success in capturing video signals from the optical nerves of horseshoe crabs, and even in sending video signals back into the crabs’ brains.
A combination of synaptic interfacing and networking would make telepathic communication one of the more basic applications of this technology. Chances are, once the synaptic interface problem is solved, telepathy will be one of the first ways for (rich) consumers make use of it.
Humans are vain, and of course cosmetic applications haven’t been ignored. Anti-aging technology could combat free radicals and oxidation through chemical/hormonal control or nanotechnology. We could control the pigments of our hair follicles, the hormones that control male baldness, and even generate tattoos that can be painlessly created, modified, animated, and easily removed.
We could disconnect our emotions when there’s a need for rationality — such as when that car salesman is sucking you in on an unnecessary upgrade — or select our instinctual motivators, switching off our desires for food, entertainment and sex when we need to focus on work we’re not motivated to complete. Or, instead of switching them off, we could re-align them so that the work feeds into and satisfies those motivators.
While you’re up there screwing around with things in your head, why not adjust your pain threshold so you can take a beating without breaking a sweat well past the point CIA trained operatives would have broken?
Here’s the kicker: the things I’ve just mentioned? They’re the small biscuits, the inventions that’ll come and go in the near future before our real breakthroughs, as far as futurist scientists are concerned.
Blood too inefficient? Replace it with vasculoid! Traumatic injury? Switch on accelerated cell regrowth! Worried about your weakest failure point, the heart, even with genetic improvements to its reliability and longevity? Get a redundancy heart system.
What if you get crushed by a train? That heart system would’ve been a waste of money — it’s not going to help you in that scenario. So how about we forget about iCloud and backup our DNA and our brain contents, ready to be restored in a new body at the drop of a.. well, train?
We can adapt our bodies to deal with extreme environments that we’re usually unable to explore without restrictive suits or remotely through robots — for instance by using the anti-freeze proteins found in the Arctic Flounder in our own bodies. It’s a technique that has already shown success in preserving citrus plants through harsh winters.
There’s a lot of talk about being unable to ever leave our own solar system because, even with the technology to create a ship that’ll get us that far, last that long, and not run out of fuel, we’ll die because even nearby trips take tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Cryostasis is a sci-fi favorite solution for this, and nanites may help to make it work. It could be augmented with the development of a natural ability to hibernate, for shorter trips within the solar system for instance.
Transhumanism is About the Dream
Some people would read that last section and feel repulsed. Many others would feel excited. Transhumanism, for the latter group of people, isn’t so much about the technology itself as it is about the dream of becoming better: of going beyond the capabilities that we were born with.
It’s no surprise, then, that transhumanism is a popular philosophy among wealthy entrepreneurs like Raymond Kurzweil. That same idea of going beyond what’s considered possible has applied in their personal and business lives, too.
Transhumanism is a heady subject. The possibilities get the mind spinning. The ethical implications result in debates that roll on for decades. It’s something that academics dedicate huge chunks of their lives to studying and considering.
For me, I’d rather leave the ethical debates to someone else and look at the sheer possibilities. I just hope that I live long enough to see some of the more radical applications of transhuman technology become a reality.