Bronze-level articleTranshumanism

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We're better than you, stinky humanists!
You know what they say the modern version of Pascal's Wager is? Sucking up to as many Transhumanists as possible, just in case one of them turns into God.
—Julie from Crystal Nights by Greg Egan

Transhumanism (or H+), broadly speaking, is a futurist movement with a set of beliefs with a common theme of anticipating an evolutionary plateau beyond the current Homo sapiens. The term was coined and movement founded by the biologist Julian Huxley in 1957.

The general expectation is that in the near future greater manipulation of human nature will be possible because of the adoption of techniques apparent on the technological frontier: machine intelligence greater than that of contemporary humans, direct mind-computer interface, genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Transhumanists tend to believe that respect for human agency, even when practiced by humans in their current form, is valuable, however.

Contents

[edit] Speculation

How plausible is transhumanism? In the 1930's, many sensible people were sure human beings would never get to the moon and that was just one of many predictions that turned out incorrect.[1] Early 21st century people do not know one way or the other what will be possible in the future.

While frequently dismissed as mere speculation at best by most rationalists (especially in light of the many failures of artificial intelligence), transhumanism is a strongly-held belief among many computer geeks, notably synthesizer and accessible computing guru Ray Kurzweil (a believer in the "technological singularity," where technology evolves beyond humanity's current capacity to understand or anticipate it) and Sun Microsystems founder and Unix demigod Bill Joy (who believes the inevitable result of AI research is the obsolescence of humanity).

[edit] The promise of transhumanism

Certain recent technological advances are making the possibility of the realization of transhumanism appear more plausible: Scientists funded by the military developed an implant that can translate motor neuron signals into a form that a computer can use, thus opening the door for advanced prosthetics capable of being manipulated like biological limbs and producing sensory information.[2] This is on top of the earlier development of cochlear implants, which translate sound waves into nerve signals; they are often called "bionic ears."[3]

Even DIY transhumanism is becoming an option, with people installing magnetic implants, allowing them to feel magnetic and electric fields.[4] Others have taken to wearing belts of magnets, in order to always be able to find magnetic north.

[edit] The woo of transhumanism

[edit] Scientific criticisms

Sadly, a lot of the underpinnings of transhumanism are based on a sort of blind-men-at-the-elephant thinking — people assuming that because it can be imagined, it must be possible. Transhumanism is particularly associated with figures in computer science, which is a field that is in some ways more math and art than a true experimental science; as a result, a great many transhumanists tend to conflate technological advancement with scientific advancement; though these two things are intimately related, they are separate things. In fact, though transhumanists strenuously deny it, a great number of their arguments are strongly faith-based — they assume because there are no known barriers to their pet development, that it's inevitably going to happen. Seldom is the issue of unknowns — known or otherwise — factored into the predictions.

[edit] Singularity

The example of the singularity is instructive; for a great many people, at least part of the singularity hinges on being able to create a true artificial intelligence. While it's reasonable to contend that the complexity inherent in the human brain is entirely the result of mundane physics, and therefore can be reproduced in principle, singularitarians tend to assume that the emulation of human intelligence not being impossible means having the ability to in the near future. However, singularitarians hit the wall when confronted with the realities of brain development research — though a true AI may in fact be possible, there simply is not enough known about the brain to understand its functions to the degree necessary to create a workable emulation, meaning a prediction of such a creation is meaningless at best, dishonest at worst.

[edit] Whole brain emulation

"Whole brain emulation" (WBE) is a term used by transhumanists to refer to, quite obviously, the emulation of a brain on a computer. While this is no doubt a possibility, it encounters two problems that keep it from being a certainty anytime in the near future.

The first is a philosophical objection: For WBE to work, "strong AI" (i.e. AI equivalent to or greater than human intelligence) must be attainable. A number of philosophical objections have been raised against strong AI, generally contending either that the mind or consciousness is not computable or that a simulation of consciousness is not equivalent to true consciousness (whatever that actually is). There is still controversy over strong AI in the field of philosophy of mind.[5]

A second possible objection is technological: WBE may not defy physics, but the technology to fully simulate a human brain (in the sense meant by transhumanists, at least) is a long way away. Currently, no computer (or network of computers) is powerful enough to simulate a human brain. Henry Markram, head of the Blue Brain Project, estimates that simulating a brain would require 500 petabytes of data for storage and that the power required to run the simulation would cost about $3 billion annually. (However, he optimistically predicts this will be possible in ten years.[6]) In addition to technological limitations in computing, there are also the limits of neuroscience. Neuroscience currently relies on technology that can only scan the brain at the level of gross anatomy (e.g., fMRI, PET). Forms of single neuron imaging (SNI) have been developed recently, but they can only be used on animal subjects (usually rats) because they destroy neural tissue.[7]

[edit] Dreams of immortality: cryonics and mind uploading

Yet another transhumanist goal is mind uploading, which is one way they claim we will be able to achieve immortality. Aside from the problems with WBE listed above, mind uploading suffers a philosophical problem, namely the "swamp man problem." That is, will the "uploaded" mind be "you" or simply a copy or facsimile of your mind? However, one possible way round this problem would be via incremental replacement of parts of the brain with their cybernetic equivalents (the patient being awake during each operation). Then there is no "breaking" of the continuity of the individual's consciousness, and it becomes difficult for proponents of the "swamp man" hypothesis to pinpoint exactly when the individual stops being "themselves."

Cryonics is another favorite of transhumanists. In principle, cryonics is not impossible, but the current form of it is based largely on rank speculation and costs a load of dough.

[edit] Radical life extension

Fighting aging and extending life expectancy is possible — the field that studies aging and attempts to provide suggestions for anti-aging technology is known as "biogerontology." Aubrey De Grey, a transhumanist, has proposed a number of treatments for aging. In 2005, 28 scientists working in biogerontology signed a letter to EMBO Reports claiming that de Grey's treatments had never been demonstrated to work and that many of his claims for anti-aging technology were extremely inflated (aka. bullshit).[8]

[edit] No science necessary

Worst of all, some transhumanists outright ignore what people in the fields they're interested in tell them; a few AI boosters, for example, believe that neurobiology is an outdated science because AI researchers can do it themselves anyway. They seem to have taken the analogy used to introduce the computational theory of mind, "the mind (or brain) is like a computer." Of course, the mind/brain is not a computer in the usual sense.[9] Debates with such people can take on the wearying feel of a debate with a creationist or climate change denialist, as such people will stick to their positions no matter what. Indeed, many critics are simply dismissed as Luddites or woolly-headed romantics who oppose scientific and technological progress.[10]

[edit] Ethical and political criticism

[edit] Bioethics

Transhumanism has often been criticized for not taking ethical issues seriously on a variety of topics,[11] including life extension technology,[12] cryonics,[13] and mind uploading and other enhancements.[14][15] Francis Fukuyama (in his doctrinaire neoconservative days) caused a stir by naming transhumanism "the world's most dangerous idea."[16] One of Fukuyama's criticisms, that implementation of the technologies transhumanists push for will lead to severe inequality, is a rather common one.

[edit] Elitism and political utopianism

A number of political criticisms of transhumanism have been made as well. Transhumanist organizations have been accused of being in the pocket of corporate and military interests.[17] The movement has been identified with Silicon Valley due to the fact that some of its biggest backers, such as Peter Thiel (of PayPal and Bitcoin fame), reside in the region.[18][19] Some writers see transhumanism as a hive of cranky and obnoxious techno-libertarianism.[20][21] The fact that Julian Huxley coined the term "transhumanism" and many transhumanists' obsession with constructing a Nietzschean ubermensch known as the "posthuman" has led to comparisons with eugenics.[22][17] Like eugenics, it has been characterized as a utopian political ideology.[23] Jaron Lanier slammed it as "cybernetic totalism."[24]

[edit] Religious objections and relations

Some tension has developed between transhumanism and religion, namely Christianity. Some transhumanists, generally being atheistic naturalists, see all religion as an impediment to scientific and technological advancement and some Christians oppose transhumanism because of its stance on cloning and genetic engineering and label it as a heretical belief system.[25] Other transhumanists, however, have attempted to extend an olive branch to Christians.[26] Some have tried to reconcile their religion and techno-utopian beliefs, calling for a "scientific theology."[27] There is even a Mormon transhumanist organization.[28] Ironically for the atheistic transhumanists, the movement has itself been characterized as a religion and its rhetoric compared to Christian apologetics.[29][30]

[edit] So now what?

The important thing about transhumanism is that while a lot of such predictions may in fact be possible (and may even be in their embryonic stages right now), a strong skeptical eye is required for any claimed prediction about the fields it covers. When evaluating such a claim, one will probably need a trip to a library (or Wikipedia, or a relevant scientist's home page) to get up to speed on the basics.[31]

[edit] In popular culture

A common trope in science fiction for decades is that the prospect of transcending the current form may be positive, as in Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End or negative, as in the film The Matrix, with its barely disguised salvationist theme, or the Terminator series of films, where humanity has been essentially replaced by machine life. Change so radical elicits fear and thus it is unsurprising that many of the portrayals of transhumanism in popular culture are negative. The cyberpunk genre deals extensively with the theme of a transhumanist society gone wrong.

You are advised to not look up "Transhumanism" on Reddit, unless you're remarkably interested in eugenics.[32]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Incorrect predictions on Wikiquote
  2. Scientists Race to Create ‘Biological’ Prosthetic Arm for Wounded Soldiers, RedOrbit
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Cochlear implants.
  4. Scrapheap Transhumanism, H+ Magazine
  5. See North Carolina State University's Strong AI page for arguments for and against strong AI and other issues relating to it.
  6. Out of the Blue, Seed Magazine
  7. New imaging method developed at Stanford reveals stunning details of brain connections, Stanford School of Medicine
  8. Huber Warner et al. Science Fact and the SENS Agenda, EMBO Reports. 2005 November; 6(11): 1006-1008.
  9. 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, ScienceBlogs
  10. The Trouble with "Transhumanism": Part Two, IEET
  11. A Conversation on the Ethics of Transhumanism, IEET
  12. Jaynce C. Lucke and Wayne Hall. Who Wants to Live Forever?, EMBO Reports. 2005 February; 6(2): 98-102.
  13. Medical Ethics Symposium Demystifies Cryonics
  14. Susan Schneider. Transcending and Enhancing the Human Brain, Science Fiction and Philosophy.
  15. MJ McNamee and SJ Edwards. Transhumanism, Medical Technology, and Slippery Slopes, Journal of Medical Ethics. 2006 September; 32(9): 513-518.
  16. Transhumanism, Foreign Policy. See also the response by Nick Bostrom.
  17. 17.0 17.1 If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg, CounterPunch (Oh God.)
  18. No Death, No Taxes, The New Yorker
  19. Immortality 2.0: A Silicon Valley Insider Looks at California's Transhumanist Movement
  20. The Ultimate Escape: The Bizarre Libertarian Plan of Uploading Brains into Robots to Escape Society, AlterNet
  21. The Politics of Transhumanism, presentation to the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science
  22. Stefan Lorenz Sorgner. Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and the Transhuman, Journal of Evolution and Technology. Vol. 20; Issue 1 – March 2009, pgs. 29-42.
  23. Michael Hauskeller. Reinventing Cockaigne: Utopian Themes in Transhumanist Thought, Hastings Center Report 42, no. 2 (2012): 39-47.
  24. One Half a Manifesto, edge.org
  25. Christianity versus Transhumanism, Wired
  26. Why Christianity and Transhumanism Are Not Enemies, H+ Magazine
  27. Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies, IEET
  28. Mormon Transhumanist Association homepage
  29. Pitching the New Transhumanism Religion in the NYT, First Things
  30. The title of this thread at the Kurzweil forum says it all: "Beginning to Lose Faith in the Singularity/Transhumanism."
  31. Of course, people should always do this any time they encounter extraordinary claims.
  32. Oh Reddit, where all the stupidity on the Internet comes to roost.
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