PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism

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PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism is a video produced by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies in 2013.



Every aspect of our lives has been reshaped by technology. From the way we get around, the way we seek information, and the way we communicate. It's easy to think that if only our technology advances enough, we'll finally be satisfied. The fact is, we remain shackled by our primitive Darwinian brains. Humanity, for whatever progress we have made, is the result of an unguided, natural, 3.8 billion-year-long experiment of chemistry. Evolution is the process that has made you what you are. But it is not far-seeing. It does not, and cannot, consider the future, make decisions about where we ought to go, how we ought to be. Passing on genes is the only objective.

But as thinking human beings, we care about far more than that. Consciousness means that we have the capacity to experience the world, to reflect upon, and, most importantly, to shape it. And so, what begins as humanism (our most sympathetic understanding and treatment of human nature) becomes transhumanism, the drive to fundamentally revolutionise what it means to be human by way of technological advancements.

Changing human nature might be the most dangerous idea in all of human history, or perhaps the most liberating. Generally speaking, transhumanist thought does two things: first, it considers current trends to see how future technologies will develop, and how they might affect us. Second, it calls for the use of current, and upcoming technology, to bring about beneficial societal change. We'll examine three central areas of transhumanist thought: "superlongevity", "superintelligence" and "superwellbeing”, dubbed "the three supers" because of their extraordinary transformative potential.

So let's begin with a thought experiment to get your intuitions flowing. Consider this: an evil organisation creates an airborne virus. It infects you, and the entire human race. As a result, 100,000 people are dying every day. Within thirty years, one in seven, a billion people, will have died because of the virus. Now, how much money should world leaders put into research to develop an antidote? How high on a list of global priorities would you rate this? There is no denying the situation would be dire. Most people would demand immediate action.

But, hey, this is just a thought experiment, right? Not quite. 100,000 people really do die every day from diseases caused by ageing! But no-one treats ageing as a global priority... So what explains this double standard? Are we are simply resigned to death by ageing? Aubrey de Grey, an expert in research on ageing, argues that our priorities are fundamentally skewed, and that we must start thinking seriously about preventing the huge number of deaths due to ageing the greatest cause of fatal diseases in the western world.

The goal of this strand of transhumanism is "superlongevity". Today, we have the minds and the equipment to begin developing technologies to combat ageing. Unfortunately, we lack the will and the financial support to do so. Most of us are so accustomed to the idea of growing old that ageing seems like just a fact of life. If modern medicine is supposed to keep us alive and healthy for as long as possible, then the anti-aging movement takes medicine to its logical conclusion. It's what happens when "as long as possible" means "as long as we want".

But what would a world without ageing look like? How would we manage the huge population growth? And who would own the technologies that make it possible? These are huge questions, but we only have time to raise them. We'll investigate them in depth, in future videos.

Let's move onto the next area of transhumanist thinking. Every year computers are getting more powerful. What used to fill up a room now fits in our pockets. More crucially, the time it takes for computer power to double is also getting shorter. At the outset of computing, the doubling process took 18 months, and this interval appears to be getting smaller. Plot this on a graph and it's not a straight line, but an exponential, upward curve. We need only project into the future to see that there is a point at which this line is practically vertical: a moment in human history referred to as the technological singularity.

The futurist thinker Ray Kurzweil postulates that as these technologies develop, we will likely edit our bodies in order to integrate with computers more and more. This concept should be familiar: we're already in a symbiotic relationship with technology. You can send your thoughts at incredible speeds to recipients on the other side of the planet, find your precise location using satellites, and access the world's repository of recorded human knowledge with a device you carry with you at all times. And all of this was unthinkable 20 years ago.

Out of this predicted computer capability explosion, may eventually come artificial intelligence; a simulated consciousness in silicon. Given the rate at which an AI will be able to improve itself, it will quickly become capable of thought with precision, speed and intelligence presently inconceivable to the human mind. If Kurzweil is right, and we end up integrating ourselves with technology, we could be in private contact with this AI whenever we choose. The result of this is that we effectively merge with this AI, and its abilities become our own.

This would propel the human race into a period of super-intelligence. But, perhaps, as some argue, no non-biological computer could ever become conscious. Or what if, as every other dystopian science fiction plot goes, this AI's goals differ from our own? And what does our increasing reliance on computers mean for our future? Super-longevity and super-intelligence are all well and good, but only insofar as they make us happier, more fulfilled, more content.

Let's look at the last section, which deals with the issue of wellbeing. Imagine you're soon to be a parent. Your doctor informs you that, if you wanted, you could choose certain features of your child's biology. You could choose how genetically prone to depression they will be, their levels of anxiety, jealousy, anger, and even their pain threshold. Would you choose a high likelihood of chronic depression? An intolerably low pain threshold? How about panic attacks and anxiety? Probably not.

The last major branch of transhumanism, spearheaded by philosopher David Pearce, aims to investigate and phase out suffering. He argues that ultimately, all our conscious states (our feelings, mood, and emotions) are all an expression of our brain chemistry. For Pearce, it is clear that natural selection hasn't designed us to be happy; it's designed us to be good at surviving and passing on genes. A species that is permanently anxious and discontented will have a higher motivation to watch out for predators, and take precautions for survival.

But in today's world, these emotions are vicious. Our biology has barely changed in 200,000 years, which means that whilst culture and society has arguably made progress, we are still those same aggressive, jealous, anxious savannah-dwelling hunter-gatherers. This is why Pearce argues that if we ever hope to increase the wellbeing of our species, we will have to edit our genes.

Minimizing our suffering (and the suffering of those we care about) is a crucial part of what drives us. Hence, so called "abolitionists" argue that we start using modern technologies to do exactly that: minimize and eventually abolish suffering, ushering in an era of so-called superwellbeing.

At present, every child is a roll of the genetic dice. Pearce argues that the least we can do is load the dice in our favour, to create happier, healthier, longer-living humans. But might our compassion, curiosity, and pursuit of knowledge become secondary to our hedonism? If we're all content, why visit the stars? And isn't suffering sometimes a good thing?

These are three key areas of transhumanist thought, and we've only begun to scratch the surface. The three supers: superlongevity, superintelligence and superwellbeing, might radically change human history if, or when, they are realized.

One of the main issues facing transhumanist ideals is that they are seen as far-fetched or perceived as just science fiction. But this is a big mistake. We are already transhuman. We're living longer, integrating more with technology, and emphasising quality of life. We're in the process of redesigning what it is to be human, only the effects are still so subtle, and so slow, that it doesn't look like much. But these changes will come faster and faster, and it's only wise to be an active, informed participant in the next stage of human development. Thanks for watching.