After several decades of relative obscurity Transhumanism as a philosophical and technological movement has finally begun to break out of its strange intellectual ghetto and make small inroads into the wider public consciousness. This is partly because some high profile people have either adopted it as their worldview or alternatively warned against its potential dangers.
Indeed, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama named it “The world’s most dangerous idea” in a 2004 article in the US magazine Foreign Policy, and Transhumanism’s most outspoken publicist, Ray Kurzweil, was recently made director of engineering at Google, presumably to hasten Transhumanism’s goals.
So, what are these goals and how does Transhumanism define itself? Well, since it is not some monolithic organization there are different definitions and declarations, but one of the oldest came out of The World Transhumanist Association,
Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.” (Max More 1990)
Which sounds harmless enough and rather bland. What lies beneath is most definitely neither bland nor harmless and represents a potential change in life on Earth, and Humanity as a whole, which is unprecedented not only in the historical record but the geological. It is, perhaps, the single most momentous event in a billion years – if its more ambitious goals can be realized.
These goals are so ambitious that they warrant the title of this article irrespective as to whether they are in any way feasible, and it will become abundantly clear that while we may talk of a philosophy what we have is a declaration of intent. They are aspirations that address questions that were once the sole preserve of religions, but unlike conventional religions they seek hard engineering answers rather than ill defined and ancient obfuscations. They address the deepest hopes and fears of the Human mind – life, death, the afterlife, immortality, the nature of God(s) and the destiny of the universe.
Transhumanism core tenant begins with what most people would consider an outlandish proposal, and escalates from there. It is of course, one of Humanity’s oldest obsessions – the elimination of aging. A modern incarnation of the desire to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, to drink from the Fountain of Youth, to create the Philosopher’s Stone and never have to worry about growing old and infirm.
The one thing almost all Transhumanists agree upon is the desirability of not dying of old age, and remaining healthy indefinitely, or at least until the even more exotic technologies hopefully begin to make an appearance. It is the increasingly high profile of this area of medical technology that is partially responsible for the dissemination of H+ agendas in the media as it hitches a ride on this and another area of increasing public concern – Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Of course, the promise of AI has been around, and unfulfilled, for decades. It has been a periodic fad among academics since the 1950s, often accompanied by overblown claims and predictions that never came true, followed by disillusionment and funding cuts. However, this time around it may be that the optimism (or perhaps pessimism) will be justified. In the public eye we have Google’s self driving cars; IBM’s Watson beating former champions on the Jeopardy TV game show; applications like Apple’s Siri. These are what one might consider to be the rising stars of the popular face of AI.
Then we get the science fiction style warnings that have always accompanied AI. The difference now is that they no longer come from end-of-the-world obsessives, but people such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning that we face an existential threat. In other words, one that could end our existence as a species.
The possible downside, which is now gaining some serious attention, concerns us being collateral damage if we get in the way of goals either the AIs set themselves, or goals we set for them. After all, very few Humans hate animals but that does not matter if we want to build on their habitat. The best they can look forward to is a reservation or zoo. The actual worst case occasionally discussed in H+ circles is generally considered too bizarre for popular consumption. It is of a hostile AI that is so evil that even death would not be a refuge from it.
Contrary to the claims of many conspiracy theorists Transhumanists are generally not very interested in eugenics or genetically engineering Homo Sapiens. This is not because of any ethical considerations but on pragmatic grounds – it is too slow. The favored route is to merge our existing biology with our machines through such devices as brain computer interfaces. The hope is that our AIs will become extensions of ourselves leading to the first wave of what is termed Post Humanity. Any alteration of biology to accommodate this symbiosis could involve genetic engineering of adults, and nanotechnology (another hand waving catchall which might as well be magic). How realistic these ideas might be remains to be seen, but the road map to the destination is in place.
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