Monthly Archives: January 2017

What is transhumanism?

(An address to the Byron Bay Philo Cafe 3rd Feb. 2017

The last time I spoke to this group, I considered the question of time from a philosophic point of view. Can time have a beginning? Obviously not. And therefore Quantum Theory is false. This time, in talking about transhumanism, I want to talk about time in a more concrete fashion.

Four billion (1,000 million) years ago, first life appeared on earth. (By way of contrast, it has been estimated that four billion years into the future, the earth itself will end.) Three billion years ago, photosynthesis first occurred and two billion years ago, oxygen was created. One billion years ago, sexual reproduction occurred for the first time and half a billion years ago, the first living creatures crawled onto land. 250 million years ago, dinosaurs first appeared and the first flowers existed 125 million years ago.

Apes first appeared 10 million years ago and human-like apes walked the earth 5 million years ago. The hair covered Australopithecus existed 4 million years ago and homo habilis who invented stone tools lived 3 million years ago, followed shortly after (2 million years ago) by homo erectus who was a hunter-gatherer. Neanderthals flourished 500,000 years ago and at 280,000 years ago homo sapiens appeared, followed by homo sapien sapien (anatomically modern humans) at 200,000 years. 60,000 years ago, behaviourally modern human appeared with their capacity for abstract thinking, capacity for planning, and use of symbols and the earliest cave art appeared at 30,000 years ago.

Agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, followed by the discovery of writing at 6,000 years ago and the first emergence of human civilisation. The Sumerians flourished 4,000 years ago with Bronze Age Egypt and Babylonia following 3,000 and 2,000 years ago respectively. At 500 BC, we have the start of the classical Greek culture, followed at 100 BC by the emergence of the Roman Empire at 100 BC which eventually collapsed in 500 AD. This was followed by the Middle Ages until the start of the Renaisannce in 1500 AD, a point which we typically describe as the start of modernity. Industrialisation began in 1800 and, if I am right, the transhuman period is beginning in the period 2000-2050 AD. This fifty year period, when compared to the previous 4 billion years of life on earth, is equivalent to one second every 137 years.

I have taken the time to detail this brief history of life on earth because people often say to me when I’m discussing transhumanism and post-humanism that it is ‘off in the future’. Clearly, when we consider these questions, the question of time is a question of perspective. Do we, when estimating the impact of technology on the human species, imagine 100 years into the future or 1,000 or 1 million or 1 billion? So, when we estimate the changes that may occur up to say 2050, we are estimating on very small time frames indeed. (As an aside, there is now research investigating a new geological timeframe called the Anthropocene epoch because the impact of human activity on the earth’s environment since 1950 has been so significant, that future geologists will be able to look back and specify the start of this new geological era.)

Now back to transhumanism. It is a clumsy, imprecise term. It refers to the transitionary period from Renaissance Humanism and its optimistic belief in the unparalleled capacities of biological humans to a post-human future where fully biological humans are only one sentient species (and indeed a rare one) amongst many others. A post-human will be primarily composed of artificial parts and organs and will be distinguished from other artificial sentient beings by the fact that a post-human, despite all its technological accretions, was once a human at some point in its past. This part may be very small, limited perhaps to the brain or even merely neural pathways, but that will be enough to designate it as a ‘post-human’. So while we might know when transhumanism is beginning (now) we don’t know when it’s going to end (and the post-human period begins) or even what its defining characteristics are.

In its most general sense, transhumanism refers to the modification and adaption of the biological human body by the use of technology. This process began a decade or so before the end of the twentieth century but has really accelerated since about 2005-2010. However transhumanism also refers to the development of non-biological Artificial Intelligence and robots which will replace humans in many fields of social endeavour and will even surpass human capacities.

Lets consider the first sense of transhumanism. The technological modification and adaption of the human body can be done in two ways. The first is biological and involves three possible processes. The first process in the enhancement of the existing human body by the means of drugs and supplements. This has been common for several decades, especially in sport, and continues to predominant in many sports. Bans on supplements and drugs are common because it is believed they give an unfair advantage to those athletes who take them. Supplements and drugs are also used to improve individual’s cognitive abilities. This is human enhancement in a trivial sense. The individual reverts back to their former capacities once they stop taking these drugs. The second process is genetic engineering which is the alteration of individual embryos to promote so-called desired qualities. This is also known as ‘designer babies’. By its very nature, this is a more permanent alteration of individual capacities and can be said to be human enhancement in a non-trivial sense. There does not appear to be any logical limit to the sort of capacities that could be engineered.

A third process of biological modification is through the growth of organs and limbs under laboratory conditions. In principle, there is no restriction of the sorts of organs which could be cultured and grown and hence no restriction to the number of such organs an individual may have in their body. This is not technically human enhancement (the individual in not enhanced in any way) although it is human modification. Significantly, the organs do not need to be grown from the individual’s own DNA, so technically the individual can, in time, become less of ‘themself’ and more of an ‘other’. Given that there is no logical limit to the parts of the body that could be replaced, it is possible that over time the individual will have none of their original parts, not even their brains. This raises special problems regarding the identity of the individual. Technically, this is not human enhancement because the individual does not gain any new ability, except for the capacity to live longer.

The second technological modification of the human body is by artificial or synthetic (i.e. non-biological) means. For example, many humans now alive have pacemakers, cochlear implants, or insulin pumps attached to their bodies. These attachments form an interactive feedback loop with the bodily processes. A human who is modified in such a way is known as a cyborg. Much public perception of cyborgs is informed by science fiction portrayals of them as inhuman monsters (e.g. The Terminator) whereas in fact cyborgs are quite ordinary human beings. However with the increasing sophistication of mechanical limbs (think of Luke Skywalker’s mechanical arm in Star Wars) the distinction between biological and synthetic will become increasingly blurred. Consider, for example, Darth Vader, whose biological parts are ultimately only a very small part of his overall being. Cyborgs will become increasingly common in the transhuman period.

In the second sense of transhumanism – that of AI and robots – the emphasis is on non-biological sentience and labour. Lets consider the coming impact of Artificial Intelligence. In many ways, the domination of AI over humans has already occurred. All the reigning champions of chess, Go, and Jeopardy are AI programs. The sophistication of these systems will only improve throughout this century and beyond. AI programs will also, in the very near future, perform many tasks currently carried out by medical, legal, and educational professionals, thus reducing the employment prospects of those professionals.

Much contemporary talk on the dangers of AI centres around the idea of the Singularity. This is the point – commonly said to be 2050 but this is being revised earlier on regular basis – when an AI program will design its own operating parameters and there will be no further need for human involvement in that process. At that point, it is argued, AI will become a self-sustaining entity. And from that point, there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why future AI systems will need to take account of human requirements and needs in the design of its own parameters. Many contemporary thinkers such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkins believe there is a great existential danger in this. We only need to think of Hal from 2001 Space Odyssey or Skynet from Terminator to get a sense of this danger. Others, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that only good will come from this. Either way, it is certainly true that AI programs currently outstrip human cognitive ability and by the start of the 22nd century the capacity of these programs will appear god-like to humans. It could be replied that no artificial system will ever equal human biological creativity and speculative capacity but this would appear to be a question that can only be answered empirically and not one known a priori.

The other important issue in this sense of transhumanism is robots. Robots have been in use for manufacturing purposes since the 1960’s but since the start of the 21st century the development of humanoid robots for use in a variety of industries has grown rapidly. For example, in 2015 robots were used in a number of positions in a new ‘robot hotel’ including three on the reception desk – one with the appearance of a ‘robot’, one with the appearance of a human, and another with the appearance of a reptile.

Robots are also being developed for a number of military and public safety functions and humanoid versions of these have the capacity to walk and run, even on slippery surfaces such as ice. Humanoid robots are also being given human appearance and the female versions of these – gynoids – are expected to be popular in the sex industry. It is quite possible that employment in the oldest profession in the world will go into irreversible decline by the end of the century. One expert recently predicted that robot sex will be ‘normal’ by 2070. And if we have sex with robots and if we also form romantic attachments with them, will be able to marry them? This has already been a book written on this subject.

Humanoid robots will also become popular in domestic and personal care situations. Our psychologists will even be robots. The television series, Humans, touches on many of these issues. At any rate, unemployment due to the spread of robot labour will skyrocket during the century. This will necessitate a re-thinking of our taxation and social service systems and Elon Musk believes that a Universal Basic Income Scheme is inevitable. Finally there is the question of whether sentient robots will have the right to be treated as sentient beings in the same way as humans are. Could a robot be tried for murder? Again, this is a question taken up in the series, Humans.

Clearly there are many vexing questions concerning the emergence of transhumanism and many of these are moral and legal questions. What can be done to advance or hinder the progress of transhumanism? Should anything be done at all? But there are also political questions as to the access of the population to the benefits of transhumanism. One school of thought is Libertarian Transhumanism which argues that these benefits should flow to those most able to afford it. In contrast, Democratic Transhumanism holds that such benefits should be available to all, irrespective of income.

A curious offshoot from Democratic Transhumanism is known as Technoprogressivism. This radical offshoot incorporates a number of various ideas including abolitionism (the abolition of suffering in sentient entities), immortalism (the pursuit of technological immortality), extropianism (the pursuit of long term biological life extension), technogaianism (the use of technology to restore the earth), post-genderism (the use of technology to create a society free from gender roles), biopunk (the open access to genetic material) and many others including body modifiers, world federalists, nanosocialists, socialist feminist cyborgs, bioutopians, and revolutionary singulartarians. The transhuman future will be a very strange place indeed.

But even stranger will be the post-human future. Now while there is no clear consensus of when the dividing line between the transhuman and post-human periods will be, we can safely estimate that by the year 3000, we will be living in a post-human future. One writer gives a reasonable outline of the development of the human species within this timeframe. George F. Hart, a palaeontologist and emeritus professor at Louisiana State University, argues that the next stage in human development from homo sapien sapien will be homo roboticus which will be a conscious human mind attached to a manufactured body. He suggests that the simplest way of doing this is to simply attach a human head to such a body, with this body being either totally biological, totally mechanical, or bio-mechanical. He believes that this species will emerge within 300 years. (I think Hart needs to distinguish between homo roboticus and homo cyborgus. A cyborg will, by definition, always be a human and never a robot, whereas a synthetic biological body with human brain attached will not be neither a cyborg nor a robot.)

The next stage in the evolutionary development according to Hart will be a manufactured mind within a manufactured body which he describes as robotico earthensis. This will, in fact, be the creation of a new genus, robotico, with its differentia being its point of origin, Earth. The final evolutionary step that he envisages is homo cosmos which occurs when homo sapiens migrate into deep space and form genetically isolated populations. Genetic engineering will allow for the modification of homo sapiens to survive in potentially hostile environments. Hart argues that this post-human future which will be achieved within 1,000 years.

As it happens, there is other speculation about the state of humanity by the year 3,000. The Millenium Project, a joint enterprise of the U.N. University and the Foundation for the Future, postulates several alternative scenarios for the year 3,000. The first, and most optimistic, is that humans are alive and thriving. Through biological and artificial enhancement, humans survive and prosper, with an earth population of 10 billion and a population of 50 billion humans in space. The second, and most pessimistic, is that environmental degradation and biological viruses leads to the end of the human species. The third postulates that the development of greatly advanced AI and sentient robots leads to a conflict with humans and the outbreak of robot wars. Humans are marginalised and pushed to the edge of extinction but, according to the authors of this scenario, somehow recover and come to an uneasy truce with the robots.

The final possibility, called the Great Divide, postulates the existence of three sentient lifeforms. The first are standard biological humans who refuse to adopt any form of biological or artificial enhancement and become like a religious cult. The second are modified humans known as con-techs (conscious technology beings) who use biological enhancement, mechanical attachments, and AI to survive and prosper, first on earth, and then in outer space. The final group are known as artificials, which may be sentient robots or may be nano-lifeforms which breed with a range of biological creatures including humans, even though they have vastly superior capacities compared to the ‘standards’.

A final vision of this post-human future can be found in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. In his Robot and Foundation series, Asimov introduces us to Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist working for the U.S Robots Corporation in 2007. By the time of her death in 2064, humans have started colonising other planets, but the development of sentient robots has been so successful that civil unrest breaks out and robots are banned from the cities. Humans eventually gather and live underground to escape the conflict on the surface.

Further into Asimov’s future to the year 3,200 AD, a humanoid robot with a wide emotional range, Daneel, is created who then becomes a central character in the remaining books. At about the same time, Asimov introduces us to a female human, Gladia, who has had every part of her body, except for her brain, replaced with a biological or mechanical parts. She is 230 years old and still only in mid-life, with about another 100 years to live. She feels emotionally close to Daneel because she once had a romantic relationship with a similar robot named Jander. Another robot from this time is Giskaard who is non-humanoid and with a limited emotional range but is able to control humans by manipulating their emotions. Giskaard eventually ‘dies’ after 500 years, but Daneel survives for at least 22,000 years. Asimov’s imagination takes him a long way into the post-human future.

So what is transhumanism? It is not some imagined future. It is an actual reality, existing right now. As I said before, it is a clumsy and imprecise term and while we can only guess at some of the consequences and even the timeframe for the transhuman period, we can see now that the characteristics of the transhuman are quite clear: the transformation of humans through technological means and the emergence of artificial entities which are, in many respects, superior to humans. And these issues are not merely technological and social but also philosophical. What does it mean to be human, or, more precisely, what does it mean to be homo sapien sapien? If the essence of our humanity lies in our capacity for thinking and reasoning, then is the modification of our bodies irrelevant to the definition of us as humans? But if AI enhances our capacity for reasoning and thinking, will the next stage of our evolutionary development be homo AI? In other words, what are the dividing lines between human, transhuman, and post-human?

Some questions to consider

1. Would you, when faced with chronic illness or death, have an artificial organ or instrument placed in or attached to your body so you could survive longer? If no, would this be a decision taken as a matter of principle, irrespective of the consequences? If yes, is there a point where you would refuse to accept any further technological adaptions? Would you have any difficulty with being described as a cyborg?

2. Would you ever contemplate having an electronic probe placed into your brain that would replace your phone and computer and give you instantaneous access to any knowledge whenever you wanted it? Would you consider having such a probe inserted that would stimulate your pleasure centres, or suppress feelings of pain, at your command?

3. Would you consider having a romantic or sexual relationship with a robot that is indistinguishable in feeling, appearance, thought, and action from an ordinary biological human? If no, how would you know the difference between the human and the robot? If yes, would you like to choose the personality profile and appearance of the robot yourself? Is it possible that you would consider marrying such a robot?

4. Should sentient robots have rights similar to human rights? If yes, do we need a broader classification of sentient rights than simply human rights? Is an AI without any physical ‘body’ entitled to sentient rights?

5. Which, if any, of the following transhumanist philosophies would you support?

a. Abolitionism: the abolition of suffering in sentient entities
b. Immortalism: the pursuit of technological immortality
c. Extropianism: the pursuit of long term biological life extension
d. Technogaianism: the use of technology to restore the health of the earth
e. Post-genderism: the use of technology to create a society free from gender roles

6. In the above discussion, I mentioned the fictional character Gladia, who had all of her organs and body parts replaced except for her brain. We would probably want to say to this point that, in a meaningful sense, Gladia had retained her identity as Gladia. But now consider that Gladia has her brain replaced with a new empty brain and all her previous memories are uploaded into this new brain. Is she still Gladia in the same sense as she was before?