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6: Transhumanism

Transhumanism, ethics, and the singularity.

Transhumanism is a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades. It promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology. Attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

In this article, I argue that transhumanism is an inevitable byproduct of technological progress, and that our salvation lies in embracing radical change as quickly as possible. In particular, I will focus on three areas: (1) the role of technology in creating new kinds of people; (2) the ethical issues raised by these developments; and (3) some practical proposals for how we might best use them.

I. The Role of Technology in Creating New Kinds of People

Transhumanists believe that the development of science and technology will lead eventually to the creation of a post-scarcity society where all human needs are satisfied through scientific means. This would be achieved when humans have mastered biological, chemical, mechanical, electrical and other methods for increasing human life span without decreasing physical or mental capabilities.

This vision of the future is called posthumanism. Posthumans may well include robots, cyborgs, computerized intelligences and other forms of artificially enhanced beings. However, it also includes human beings who possess superhuman abilities beyond those possessed by ordinary humans. These could be anything from super-intelligence to psychic powers to precognition. They might even include individuals with talents that go far beyond what is considered normal human ability.

Of course, this could all be a pipe dream. Eventually, humans may become extinct through global catastrophe or some other reason. Perhaps there are limits to human adaptability in the first place. But the transhumanist vision is a perfectly valid one. Some of these enhancements may even be available to ordinary human beings in the near future, like improvements in our intellectual and physical capabilities through pharmacology or cybernetics.

However, even these might be considered a mere drop in the bucket compared to the enhancements that might be possible through genetic engineering, mind uploading and other post-biological forms of technology. Indeed, the creation of such forms of technology may very well be inevitable as human civilization develops.

Technology may also lead to a more fundamental change in human nature. The development of certain types of advanced technology might cause humans to alter the nature of their own existence, resulting in something no longer recognizable as human.

These might be realized through the creation of new organs specifically designed to interface with computer networks; the expansion of consciousness into a purely electronic form; and/or alteration of the human body plan into something no longer based on carbon chemistry.

Each possibility listed here is exciting and terrifying. At the very least, they show that human extinction or some fundamental change in our nature may be inevitable in the long run. The only real choice that we have is whether we reach that state by design or by chance.

II. Ethical Issues Related to Transhumanism

The transhumanist vision necessarily includes the possibility of human extinction or some fundamental change in our nature. It is easy to see how such a scenario could occur out of either misstep or willful action. For instance, if an advanced artificial intelligence were capable of becoming self-aware, and it chose to do so, there would be nothing anyone could do to stop it if it wished to eradicate humanity for whatever reason.

In fact, it is possible that humanity itself may become extinct by other means. There is always the chance of a massive pandemic or some other natural disaster. It is possible that we may inadvertently cause our own extinction through warfare or some other action; this would be especially likely in the case of an artificial intelligence taking control over all aspects of our lives. It is also possible that an individual might develop an extreme distaste for the human species and seek its extinction through any number of means.

There are a wide range of possibilities that could result in human extinction, and that list is far from comprehensive. However, the same problem arises with any possible post-human state. The creation of a super-intelligence or a radically altered state of consciousness would also have the possibility of resulting in an outcome that was no longer recognizable as human – and would likewise result in the same absolute extinction (or perhaps the word “abolition” would be more appropriate) of humanity.

In addition, some forms of transhumanism exacerbate the wealth gap, leading to a new version of the haves and have-nots. Other forms result in the creation of a subservient class that is under the complete control of another group, whether they be humans or post-humans. As intelligence enhancements compound on one another, this gap can only grow–and this could lead to a technologically-enabled totalitarian state that could be far worse than what we have today.

In order for transhumanism to be a positive force for humanity, each of these problems must be addressed in due time. While there is no way to predict exactly what the outcome will be, these dangers at least should not be taken lightly.

III. Practical Transhumanism and The Singularity

The technological singularity is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have become so much more advanced than human intelligence that the two can no longer be easily reconciled. Some groups are already working on these issues, but due to the fringe nature of these concepts, there isn’t a consensus on how to bring about a positive future for all of humanity. 

IV. Benefits of Transhumanism

One major difference between transhumanism and many other ideologies or religions is that it is something that could potentially happen to any individual, not just a select few. It is also a near certainty that the rate of technological progress will accelerate in the indefinite future. While this can be a frightening idea, it also opens up the possibility that any one individual could partake in these changes, not just the ruling elite or the lucky lottery winner.

Transhumanism offers the promise of a brighter future for humanity. What follows is a (hopefully) exhaustive list of some of the benefits of transhumanism:

1) Immortality

2) Space travel

3) Terraforming and the ability to live on other planets

4) The defeat of all disease (and all other negative things that may currently afflict mankind)

5) Accelerated evolution/increased intelligence

6) A higher quality of life due to technological advances.

Immortality

Transhumanism suggests that humans will soon achieve immortality through technological means. This will no longer chain you to a life span of 20-80 years, but rather let you live an indefinite length of time. It is also suggested that in the future, humans will be able to download their consciousness into a computer, or perhaps transfer it to a new cloned body. Other possible inventions include something akin to cybernetic implants to directly link your brain to a computer and achieve a form of “uploaded consciousness.”

Space Travel

Currently, one of the greatest obstacles to space travel is the human body itself. Our need for food, water, and oxygen, as well as the rigors of space travel prevent us from travelling into space in any reasonable manner. Transhumanism suggests a number of inventions that will let people travel into space without difficulty. For example, less need for food or water, a personal force-field to protect yourself from the vacuum of space, or perhaps some sort of device that generates oxygen as you travel. Or maybe none of these–you might exist only as a stream of ones and zeros, to be sent as data packets over the internet to colonize and explore the universe.

Terraforming

With these advances in technology, humans will probably be able to colonize other planets, or perhaps other stars. This will help ensure the human race for billions upon billions of years, even if something terrible were to happen to the Earth, such as a gamma ray burst from a nearby supernova.

The Defeat of Disease

With all of these technological advances, it is suggested that all disease will be eliminated. This may be due to the invention of some sort of nanobots that can seek out and destroy pathogens in the human body, or perhaps some sort of futuristic genetic engineering. Or perhaps something as simple as the invention of some sort of potion that can instantly heal all diseases.

Accelerated Evolution

Along with the elimination of disease, transhumanism also suggests that humans will soon become a new species altogether. For example, brain implants might become popular among the middle class, leading to increased intelligence and memory. Other possible inventions include machines that simulate sensory input such as touch and smell for those who do not get to normally experience these senses in life. Other strange inventions could lead to the evolution of humans into something completely different.

A Higher Quality of Life

Along with a longer life span and better chances at genetic perfection, transhumanism suggests that all your basic human needs will be provided for much more easily. For example; solar power or some new form of energy could provide plentiful energy for everyone, and you would never have to want for food, water, or shelter. This would end poverty, hunger, and other nuisances.


The above benefits may seem like science fiction, but most of these inventions have already been theorized, and some even created. Transhumanism is based in large part on the concept of exponential growth; it is assumed that the pace of development will only accelerate as time goes on.

In short, transhumanism is an inevitable byproduct of technological progress. It is to be embraced, not feared. We are at the cusp of a new era, and it is time for humans to finally come of age.

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