News for April 2010

Transhumanism and the Future of the Human Race

David Bowie once said “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.'”

Of course he’s not the only one. It’s an aspiration as timeless as the quest for the fountain of youth, or at least mere immortality.

In the meantime, we’ve seen Michael Jackson use technologies such as plastic surgery and skin-lightening drugs over the course of his career. He effectively blurred all identifiers of gender, race and age in one of the most dramatic transformations publicly witnessed. He left us at a turning point in the development of technologies for human enhancement. We are now learning to perform body modification at the most fundamental level.

The scientists currently grasping at the reigns of evolution are known as transhumanists. In 2008 the World Transhumanist Movement became Humanity+. (The term ‘transhumanism’ is now often symbolized by H+ or h+, as in ‘human enhancement’.)

Last weekend David Wood led the Humanity+ UK 2010 conference, and I felt privileged listening to ten equally brilliant speakers representing a full spectrum of the transhumanist agenda. With technology advancing at the rate that it is, Mr. Bowie’s ‘repulsive’ needs just may be met. New developments blur the lines between high-tech and sci-fi.

The convergence of current technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) and future technologies such as artificial intelligence, mind uploading, cryonics, and simulated reality, is truly inspirational. Overwhelming however are the numerous moral debates which dominate the transhumanism Wikipedia page. There are so many different ways humans may be enhanced, so many ways of defining enhancement, and of course, the existential risks we face if those enhancements go wrong.

I think we all have a vested interest in Aubrey de Grey’s idea that aging is simply a disease, and a curable one at that. His plan is to identify all the components that cause human tissue to age, and design remedies for each of them through his approach called SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). Once we can extend human life spans by thirty years, we’re well on our way to immortality. Aubrey de Grey claims that the first human being to live a thousand years has probably already been born. From the way he talks, the biggest challenge in the race against mortality is funding! So I highly encourage those of you with means and an interest to donate to the SENS Foundation.

Another fascinating speaker was David Pearce, advocating the abolition of suffering throughout the living world. This mission can be accomplished through the use of drugs or ‘wire-heading‘ but perhaps more interestingly through genetic engineering as we come into a ‘reproductive revolution‘. He argues that as we develop these technologies, it is both our moral and hedonistic imperative to rid all sentient beings of pain. He has a fantastic array of resources for you to read through online. Within a few decades, we will see breakthroughs in in-vitro meat. It will be grown in a lab without any killing or cruelty, but tastier than any ‘real’ meat. A cruelty-free world without even having to revolutionize our diets by ‘breaking our addiction to meat’!

On a final philosophical note, Amon Twyman reminded us that we are naturally unaware of the limits of our perception, and that trans- or post-humans may sense things imperceivable to us now. I’ll leave you with Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Future Shock Levels (SL), an interesting way of categorizing just how familiar or far out different technological developments or concepts are:

• SL0:  The legendary average person is comfortable with modern technology – not so much the frontiers of modern technology, but the technology used in everyday life.  Most people, TV anchors, journalists, politicians.
• SL1:  Virtual reality, living to be a hundred, “The Road Ahead”, “To Renew America”, “Future Shock”, the frontiers of modern technology as seen by Wired magazine.  Scientists, novelty-seekers, early-adopters, programmers, technophiles.
• SL2:  Medical immortality, interplanetary exploration, major genetic engineering, and new (“alien”) cultures.  The average sci-fi fan.
• SL3:  Nanotechnology, human-equivalent AI, minor intelligence enhancement, total body revision, intergalactic exploration. Extropians and transhumanists.
• SL4:  The Singularity, Jupiter Brains, Powers, complete mental revision, ultraintelligence, posthumanity, Alpha-Point computing, Apotheosis, the total evaporation of “life as we know it.”  Singularitarians and not much else.

I say if you can speculate what SL5 is, you’re already post-human.