What is Transhumanism?
The Definition of Transhumanism
Transhumanism is defined as the belief that people can and will be enhanced and made better through science, and that eventually we will be so changed as to be considered transhuman or posthuman. Transhumanists believe that through science, we will take evolution into our own hands. Science will enable us to become enhanced physically, mentally and emotionally, and allow us to evolve far beyond the limitations of our biological nature. Technology will transform us into something superior to humans – a human plus, or H+ - the symbol of transhumanism.
Artificial Intelligence and The Singularity
Transhumanism is a term first used by biologist Julian Huxley (brother of author Aldous Huxley) in 1957. He defined it as “man remaining man, but transcending himself by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature”. Interest in this concept grew as artificial intelligence was explored in the 1960s. In 1965, the statistician I. J. Good predicted that machines would one day learn how to make themselves smarter. Once this happened, their knowledge would increase at such a rapid rate that an “intelligence explosion” would occur, and machine intelligence would leave human intelligence far behind. Vernor Vinge was the first one to expand on this and to coin the phrase “The Singularity”. In 1993 at a NASA sponsored symposium, he presented a paper “The Coming Technological Singularity” in which he stated that perhaps as soon as 2030 we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. In this frightening prediction, he said that shortly after this event occurs, the human era will be ended. He projected that “From the human point of view, this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever) will likely happen in the next century”. Vinge warns of the dangers of this happening if mankind doesn't control it, stating that it could cause the extinction of human beings. However, he also envisions a way of escaping mankind's extinction, and sees a world where instead of machines surpassing mankind, humanity merges with technology, thereby becoming super-humans.
This concept was built upon by Ray Kurzweil, the author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines” - a book which discussed the enormous possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. In March of 2001 he explored The Singularity in an important paper “The Law Of Accellerating Returns”. Kurweil stated that technology advances exponentially rather than linearly. Therefore, in the next 100 years we will see advances equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today's rate. Such advances in computers would mean that machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence. Once that happens computers themselves would be in charge of advancing technology, and profound technological changes would happen so rapidly that there would be a “rupture in the fabric of human history” - The Singularity Event. Rather than allowing computers to take charge of advancing technology, Kurzweil speaks of man merging with machine, and eventually being able to download his entire consciousness into a machine, thus making him immortal.
The Transhumanist Movement Forms
As these concepts emerged, a movement was formed around this possibility that science could enhance us by giving us better bodies and minds and longer, maybe even immortal lives. The philosopher and futurist Fereidoun M. Esfandiary (known as FM-2030) wrote the book “Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World” in 1989. In 1990 the British philosopher Max More began to refine and clarify the concepts behind transhumanism, and he formed the first transhumanist group in California. This has since spread and become a worldwide movement. A transhumanist believes that disability, disease, and death are undesirable human conditions that could and should be alleviated by science. While supportive of science enhancing the human condition, transhumanists are also concerned with the dangers involved and with the ethical considerations.
Humanity+ , the largest transhumanist organization with over 6,000 members, states its philosopy in a quote by Max More:
“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.”
Issues Surrounding Transhumanism
Transhumanism does seem tempting. Computer science, genetics, nanotechnology, cybernetics and biotechnology all offer the possibility of greatly enhancing our human existence. Genes could be altered so that all of our children would be more intelligent, stronger, more beautiful. Physical deformities would be a thing of the past. A computer chip could be implanted directly into our brains, allowing us to tap into great resources of knowledge at any time. Nanotechnology could produce tiny robots that would target cancer cells and destroy them. Cybernetics could produce limbs that would be stronger and more capable, eyes that could not only see better but that see across great distances by zooming in like a camera. Biotechnology could produce body parts for transplant organs, and we could easily replace any diseased organs. These technologies could expand our lifetimes, perhaps keeping us young forever. But what are the dangers inherent in such a world? Would these enhancements be available only to an elite class, or would everyone be able to get them. Would those who declined getting enhancements be looked down on and become a sub-class of humans – less intelligent, weaker, uglier? If our lives were extended, perhaps indefinitely, would we become bored? Would life lose much of its value if there were no end to it? How about over-population?
Age-old philosophical and religious questions surround this issue as well. Are we merely a mass of biological tissue, or do we have souls that will survive after our bodies perish as many religions believe. What defines our humanity? How is spirituality dealt with? Perhaps we should strive to perfect ourselves as humans rather than attempting to become transhuman.
What Do You Think?
Is Transhumanism a beneficial or dangerous movement?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Margaret Perrottet