or hardly thinking?
|Major trains of thought|
|The good, the bad|
and the brain fart
|Come to think of it|
|—Julie from Crystal Nights by Greg Egan|
Transhumanism (or H+), an intellectual movement, is greatly influenced by science fiction and presents an idealistic point of view of what technology could do for humanity in the future, not what it can do; it's all hypothetical. Transhumanism explores the benefits and repercussions of what technology could do for humanity; however, it assumes the technological boundaries are nonexistent.
How plausible is transhumanism? In the 1930s, 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. Early 21st century people do not know one way or the other what will be possible in the future. However, the scientific claims of transhumanism still need to be examined critically, because some of these technoscientific prophecies may not be plausible; after we got to the moon, people expected we'd have a permanent colony there by the end of the century.
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.
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. This is on top of the earlier development of cochlear implants, which translate sound waves into nerve signals; they are often called "bionic ears."
Even DIY transhumanism or 'biohacking' is becoming an option, with people installing magnetic implants, allowing them to feel magnetic and electric fields. Others have taken to wearing belts of magnets, in order to always be able to find magnetic north. Prosthetic limbs with some level of touch are also now being developed, a major milestone. One notable individual who's received magnetic finger implants is Zoe Quinn. The current scientific consensus seems unclear: although humans are not thought to have a magnetic sense, there is a cryptochrome protein in the eye which could potentially make humans capable of Magnetoreception, like certain other mammals such as mice and cows appear to be.
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 is). There is still controversy over strong AI in the field of philosophy of mind. If human brains are physical systems, and the Physical Church-Turing Thesis holds, then a Turing machine can compute any process that can happen in the human brain, and strong AIs must be possible. But there is no clear proof or disproof for the Physical Church-Turing Thesis yet.
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, in 2008, he optimistically predicted this it would be possible ten years from 2008.) 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.
The problem with emulating a brain is not just the hurdle of creating a digital model of the brain, which contains 100 billion neurons, nor the fact that the brain is fluid, which makes it difficult to predict the way molecules will travel in the brain. The biggest problem is the fact that our brain is not a singular entity which functions on its own, it is an organ whose function is connected to our whole body (consisting of over 37 trillion cells, and a similarly massive microbiome). More importantly, its function and behavior is a product of interaction with the massive and complex biological world and universe we live in, much of which we are yet to fully understand. If we simply created a digital model of a brain on a computer, it would just be a dead model on a computer. If you really wanted it to function like a real brain, you would need to create an environment which is an exact replica of our universe for it to function within. Oh, it would probably need a body too. Unless we somehow gained ultimate, god-like knowledge and understanding of the universe and everything within it, then built a computer powerful enough to create an exact copy of our universe, then created a digital version of our universe on said computer, our digital brain model (or anything which we try to emulate) is never going to behave the same as the real thing.
Immortality, cryonics and mind uploading
“”First, let me say that I’m all in favor of research on aging, and I think science has great potential to prolong healthy lives…and I’m all for that. But I think immortality, or even a close approximation to it, is both impossible and undesirable.
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." It does, however, run directly into a similar problem, the "Ship of Theseus" problem: when all of the brain's parts have been replaced, is it still fundamentally the same as the original brain? Furthermore, if the parts of the old brain were somehow to be restored and reassembled into a brain in a way that restored the consciousness inherent in the full brain, would it be considered the original brain- and if so, would this mean the cybernetic brain is no longer the original? (In L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books, this is the origin story of the Tin Woodsman, who later ends up in a dispute with a man built from his old body parts over this very subject.)
Cryonics is another favorite of many transhumanists. In principle, cryonics and revitalization are only remotely possible in the broadest sense. If one day we can repair all damages freezing does to biological membranes and proteins in a human body (or, at least, a human brain), revert all DNA damages that naturally accumulate during the freezing, and restore all necrotic and lysed cells to their states before the person died, we can then bring a frozen person back to life. When compared to these technological requirements, the difficulties mind uploading is currently facing seem trivial.
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 has proposed a number of treatments for aging. In 2005, 28 scientists working in biogerontology signed a letter to EMBO Reports pointing out that de Grey's treatments had never been demonstrated to work and that many of his claims for anti-aging technology were extremely inflated. This article was written in response to a July 2005 EMBO reports article previously published by de Grey and a response from de Grey was published in the same November issue. De Grey summarizes these events in "The biogerontology research community's evolving view of SENS," published on the Methuselah Foundation website.
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", and taken it literally. Of course, the mind/brain is not a computer in the usual sense. 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.
Ethical and political criticism
Transhumanism has often been criticized for not taking ethical issues seriously on a variety of topics, including life extension technology, cryonics, and mind uploading and other enhancements. Francis Fukuyama (in his doctrinaire neoconservative days) caused a stir by naming transhumanism "the world's most dangerous idea." One of Fukuyama's criticisms, that implementation of the technologies transhumanists push for will lead to severe inequality, is a rather common one.
One of the most common concerns is the abuse of hypothetical future brain implant technology by governments, militaries, coorporations or any other nefarious acting groups & individuals. The premise of having implants and surgeries which could alter your brain and personality, threaten your mental autonomy & privacy, and/or allow strangers to potentially read or control your thoughts and behavior, is not something that would appeal to most sane individuals. Being forced or pressured to receive unwanted surgeries and implants in the future due to societal pressure to keep up with "enhanced" individuals is another major concern. Many transhumanists either ignore these concerns or insist that their vision of the future is the "right" or "natural" path of humanity, regardless if many people fear or disagree with it. They often present their future cyborg vision of humanity with a very forceful, "Resistance is Futile" undertone. Rather than viewing them as "utopian idealists", many people view their vision for the future as a dystopian nightmare.
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. 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. Some writers see transhumanism as a hive of cranky and obnoxious techno-libertarianism. The fact that eugenicist 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. Like eugenics, it has been characterized as a utopian political ideology. Jaron Lanier slammed it as "cybernetic totalism".
Religious objections and relations
Some tension has developed between transhumanism and religion, although there are many secular liberal people who are skeptical or opposed to transhumanism as well. 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. Other transhumanists, however, have attempted to extend an olive branch to Christians, and the Christian Transhumanist Association group on Facebook has over 1,100 members.
Some religious transhumanists have tried to reconcile their religion and techno-utopian beliefs, calling for a "scientific theology." There is even a Mormon transhumanist organization. Ironically for the atheistic transhumanists, the movement has itself been characterized as a religion and its rhetoric compared to Christian apologetics. Interestingly the word transhuman first appeared in Henry Francis Carey’s 1814 translation of Paradiso, the last book of the Divine Comedy as Dante ascends to heaven during the resurrection.
The very small transhumanist political movement has gained momentum with Zoltan Istvan announcing his bid for US president, with the Transhumanist Party and other small political parties gaining support internationally.
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.[note 1]
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.
On closer inspection, this should not be surprising. Since transhumanism is ambitious about conquering age-related illnesses (extropianism), death (immortalism), ecological damage (technogaianism), gender differences (postgenderism) and suffering (abolitionism), a fictional world where this has already been achieved leaves a story with few plot devices to exploit. Additionally, it could be hard for the public to identify with flawless, post-human characters.
Among the utopian visions of transhumanism are those found in the collaborative online science fiction setting Orion's Arm. Temporally located in the post-singularity future, 10,000 years from now, Orion's Arm is massively optimistic about genetic engineering, continued improvements in computing and materials science. Because only technology which has been demonstrated to be impossible is excluded, even remotely plausible concepts have a tendency to be thrown in. At the highest end of the scale is artificial wormhole creation, baby universes and inertia without mass. Perhaps the only arguably positive depiction of transhumanism in video games is the Megaman ZX series where the line between human and reploids has begun to blur. Defining at what point the definition of the singularity was met in the centuries long Megaman timeline can be a useful way of illustrating how nebulous the terminology is during a debate.
- Transhumanism, the 1957 paper by Julian Huxley coining the term
- Nick Bostrom. The Transhumanist FAQ, Oxford University (See Bostrom's homepage for more articles on transhumanism)
- Journal of Evolution and Technology, a transhumanist theoretical journal published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology (IEET)
- A Thinking Ape's Critique of Trans-simianism (Humor)
- I am the very model of a Singularitarian (More humor, plus music!) Lyrics on Ray Kurzweil's site
- Dresden Codak, transhumanist comics oh my goodness
- A Condensed Critique of Transhumanism, Dale Carrico
- Transhumanism vs. Anthropology, Christopher Kelty
- Is Futurama the Best Argument Against Transhumanism?, PBS
- Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Philosophical, Religious, and Ethical Considerations, Arizona State University
- Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron. The Californian Ideology, University of Westminster
- Keith A. Bauer. Transhumanism and Its critics: Five arguments against a Posthuman Future, International Journal of Technoethics
- Philippe Verdoux. Transhumanism, Progress, and the Future, Journal of Evolution and Technology
- Charlie Stross, Crimes against Transhumanity, antipope.org
- Of course, people should always do this any time they encounter extraordinary claims.
- Hughes, James (2004). Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-4198-1.
- Mercer, Calvin. Religion and Transhumanism: The Unknown Future of Human Enhancement. Praeger.
- Incorrect predictions on Wikiquote
- Is Transhumanism scientifically plausible? Post- Predictions and the Human Predicament
- A Rationalist Approach to Transhumanism and the Singularity
- The Robot Menace
- Scientists Race to Create ‘Biological’ Prosthetic Arm for Wounded Soldiers, RedOrbit
- See the Wikipedia article on Cochlear implants.
- Scrapheap Transhumanism, H+ Magazine
- , Wired
-  NBC News
- Foley, Lauren E.; Gegear, Robert J.; Reppert, Steven M. (2011). "Human cryptochrome exhibits light-dependent magnetosensitivity". Nature Communications 2 (Article 356): 356. Bibcode 2011NatCo...2E.356F. PMID 21694704.
- See North Carolina State University's Strong AI page for arguments for and against strong AI and other issues relating to it.
- Gualtiero Piccinini, The Physical Church–Turing Thesis: Modest or Bold?
- Lehrer, Jonah. Out of the Blue. Seed Magazine. March 3, 2008
- New imaging method developed at Stanford reveals stunning details of brain connections, Stanford School of Medicine
- ‘Mind Uploading’ & Digital Immortality May Be Reality By 2045, Futurists Say
- The immortalist: Uploading the mind to a computer
- Huber Warner et al. Science Fact and the SENS Agenda, EMBO Reports. 2005 November; 6(11): 1006-1008.
- de Grey, Aubrey (July 2005). "Resistance to debate on how to postpone ageing is delaying progress and costing lives". EMBO reports. 6 (S1): S49–S53. PMID 15995663.
- de Grey, Aubrey (November 2005). "Like it or not, life-extension research extends beyond biogerontology". EMBO reports. 6 (11): 1000. PMID 16264420.
- de Grey, Aubrey. "The biogerontology research community's evolving view of SENS". Methuselah Foundation. Retrieved on July 1, 2008.
- 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, ScienceBlogs
- The Trouble with "Transhumanism": Part Two, IEET
- A Conversation on the Ethics of Transhumanism, IEET
- Jaynce C. Lucke and Wayne Hall. Who Wants to Live Forever?, EMBO Reports. 2005 February; 6(2): 98-102.
- Medical Ethics Symposium Demystifies Cryonics
- Susan Schneider. Transcending and Enhancing the Human Brain, Science Fiction and Philosophy.
- MJ McNamee and SJ Edwards. Transhumanism, Medical Technology, and Slippery Slopes, Journal of Medical Ethics. 2006 September; 32(9): 513-518.
- Transhumanism, Foreign Policy. See also the response by Nick Bostrom.
- If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg, CounterPunch (Oh God.)
- No Death, No Taxes, The New Yorker
- Immortality 2.0: A Silicon Valley Insider Looks at California's Transhumanist Movement
- The Ultimate Escape: The Bizarre Libertarian Plan of Uploading Brains into Robots to Escape Society, AlterNet
- The Politics of Transhumanism, presentation to the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science
- Stefan Lorenz Sorgner. Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and the Transhuman, Journal of Evolution and Technology. Vol. 20; Issue 1 – March 2009, pgs. 29-42.
- Michael Hauskeller. Reinventing Cockaigne: Utopian Themes in Transhumanist Thought, Hastings Center Report 42, no. 2 (2012): 39-47.
- One Half a Manifesto, edge.org
- Christianity versus Transhumanism, Wired
- Why Christianity and Transhumanism Are Not Enemies, H+ Magazine
- Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies, IEET
- Mormon Transhumanist Association homepage
- Pitching the New Transhumanism Religion in the NYT, First Things
- The title of this thread at the Kurzweil forum says it all: "Beginning to Lose Faith in the Singularity/Transhumanism."
- "God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism" The Guardian
- See http://www.orionsarm.com/xcms.php?r=oa-intro and http://www.orionsarm.com/eg-article/49a7d33abf557