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There’s not a single aspect of the human experience that hasn’t been touched by technology. Everything from industry, to medicine, to how we work has been fundamentally reshaped by the technologies which emerged in the second half of the 20th century.
Technology can also change the human in terms of his or her characteristics and abilities. Want to be smarter? You can take a Nootropic. Want to perceive the world with more detail and more information? Put on Google Glasses. Want to get stronger or more physically agile? There are medicines or robotic exoskeletons.
Technology has moved away from merely making our lives more convenient, and now it has the potential to change every aspect of what we are as humans. We are becoming transhuman. But what does that mean?
What Is Transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a movement that aims to understand what makes one human, and how we can surpass our natural limitations. It believes that there is an imperative to enhance our capabilities, and that limitations to those abilities can be overcome. More importantly, it believes that technology and science are the keys to overcoming them.
But what are those limitations? They could be life expectancy. They could be mental acumen and intelligence. They could also be physical in nature, such as one’s strength, the speed in which one runs a race, or perhaps the way one metabolizes food.
Technologies and medicines that address these limitations are constantly being released, developed, and improved upon. More and more enhancement supplements or drugs are hitting the shelves of stores, and are being prescribed by doctors. But what does this mean for our society- are we all heading towards becoming more than human?
Why Do We Try To Enhance Our Species?
It is only recently that we’ve found ourselves actually able to extend our lifespans, our biological abilities, and our intellectual capabilities with technology. For millennia, humans lived within their biological boundaries, never overcoming them. Despite that, humans have always found an urge to become more than what we are, as history and anthropology shows.
Indeed, one can look back as far as the ancient Greeks for stories of people looking to enhance their physical capabilities. Perhaps the most famous of these is the tale of Icarus and Daedalus, who constructed wings so that they might take to the skies like a bird, and escape from imprisonment in Crete.
One should also note that Greek mythology is replete with tales of quests for mythical Fountains of Youth which would eternally stave off death and allow one to become immortal. The desire to become more than human is certainly not new.
One individual who has done significant research in the field of transhumanism is Prof. Nayef Al-Rodhan, an Oxford University Scholar and senior fellow. He is also the Director of the Centre for the Geopolitics of Globalization and Transnational Security in Geneva, Switzerland.
This Harvard and Yale educated neuroscientist, philosopher and author has written prolifically on the subject of transhumanism and its role in society, and is widely regarded as one of the foremost authorities in his field.
Prof. Al-Rodhan believes that humans have an innate nature that compels us to enhance our physical and mental abilities. This drive will eventually bring us to the brink of what he calls ‘Inevitable Transhumanism’, where humans fundamentally enhance their abilities through the convergence and adoption of a number of emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and genomics.
In ‘Inevitable Transhumanism? How Emerging Strategic Technologies will affect the Future of Humanity‘, Prof. Al-Rodhan postulates that humans are genetically and neuro-chemically hardwired to ‘feel good’, and are driven by a number of factors he collectively calls ‘Neuro P5’. These consist of power, profit, pleasure, pride and permanency.
Any technology that enhances a factor in the Neuro P5 is likely to be adopted, since it appeals to the feelings that make us ‘feel good’. This will then push us further and further to a transhumanist outcome, where the human experience is artificially enhanced or changed. Prof. Al-Rodhan believes in the inevitability of this, and describes it not as a question of ‘how’ or ‘if’, but rather ‘when’ and ‘at what cost’.
If we’re truly driven to artificially evolve past our biological capacities, then there are some questions that should be asked. Firstly, what will that look like? Secondly, what is our capacity to become transhuman? Finally – and perhaps the most pertinent question – what will the cost of doing so be?
Technologies That Enhance The Human Experience
Human-enhancing technologies tend to be grouped under the all-encompassing term ‘Human Enhancing Technologies’. These do not refer to technologies and tools that treat illness and disabilities, but rather enhance our physical and cognitive abilities past what is realistically biologically possible.
One example is Lockheed Martin’s Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). This hydraulic-powered exoskeleton was developed at the University of California, and aims to enhance the endurance, strength and speed of soldiers on the battlefield.
It allows soldiers to carry weights of up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds) whilst running at a top-speed of 16 kilometers (10 miles) per hour for extended durations. Although the HULC is still in an early stage of its development, it seems almost certain that this endurance, strength and speed enhancing technology could eventually find itself onto the battlefield, not only transforming the capacities of soldiers wearing it, but also potentially giving the US military a real, tactical edge.
One doesn’t have to stay in the military field to see how HETs can allow us to exceed our biological limitations. Take, for example, the latest piece of wearable technology from Google – Glass. Although it is still far from being a mature product, Glass has demonstrated how it can rapidly enhance one’s cognitive abilities past what is considered normal.
It has been dubbed the ‘Transhumanist’s Swiss Army Knife’, and for good reason. Glass allows users to communicate in languages they’re not familiar with, to ‘offload’ their memory to Google Glass for later recall, and to view meaningful information about their surroundings in their peripheral vision.
And then there are technologies that, although they are nothing more than a distant speck in the horizon, present an encouraging avenue for significant human enhancement. Technologies such as human genetic engineering, may be used in the near future to enhance our capabilities beyond what is biologically tenable.
Animal testing has already shown that subtle tweaks to a genetic makeup can result in increased physical performance. Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have been able to exponentially increase the strength of mice by genetically suppressing an inhibitor called NCoR1, which resulted in greater muscle growth, improved muscle density, and larger amounts of mitochondria.
The human application of this is still somewhat speculative. Despite that, it remains a probability that one day we could adapt gene therapy and genetic engineering in order to make one live longer, become more intelligent, or able to perform significantly demanding physical tasks.
HULC, Google Glass and human genetic engineering each compliment one of the factors in Prof. Al-Rodhan’s Neuro P5 list. And as one might expect, public enthusiasm and interest for these transhumanist technologies is huge, and looks set to become a significant part of the world in which we live.
Transhumanism truly does seem to be inevitable, and has a capacity to change our lives and our potentials. But what does this mean for the evolution of our species?
Transhumanism, Evolution And You
Darwinian evolution by means of natural selection is by far the most convincing explanation for the origin of our species. It can be concisely explained as descent with modification. As genes are passed down, ‘errors’ are made. The genetic changes which are best suited to an environment are retained, as they contribute to the survivability of the carrier.
But what about evolution through ‘unnatural selection’, as National Geographic puts it. It seems that our natural, biological evolution simply cannot keep pace with the dizzying array of human enhancing technologies that emerged, and have shaped how we think, and our physical capacities.
It could be argued – as it was in Smithsonian magazine – that we have become the engineers of our own evolution. Citing developments in nootropics, genetic manipulation and nanomedicine, the case was made that we are approaching the precipice of being able to effectively shape our own species through artificial means, effectively supplanting our biological processes.
It’s also been hypothesized that human enhancing technologies will circumvent or undermine thought processes and instincts that developed as a result of our biological evolution. In ‘Inevitable Transhumanism’, Prof. Al-Rodhan wrote:
“The use of technologies to modify our emotions, our bodies and our neurochemical balances, is bound to undermine and alter the instincts that have developed over millions of years in the process of human evolution and was pivotal to our survival thus far.”
The transformative effect technology has had on the development of our species cannot be denied. Despite its promise, there are a number of concerns about transhumanism, and what it means for the human experience, and the future of the human race.
Concerns About Transhumanism
The Transhumanist movement is not without its share of detractors. The concerns about it are diverse, as are the detractors themselves. And they don’t mince their words.
Take Francis Fukuyama , a well-known American political scientist. In an op-ed for Foreign Policy Magazine, he described transhumanism in no uncertain terms as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Idea‘.
He is best known for his ‘End Of History’ thesis which postulates that the evolution of human governance has stopped due to a lack of necessity, since we have reached the pinnacle of our political and economic evolution. Its main argument is that Western liberal democracy and free-market economics is the most perfect system to rule by, and has regularly and historically demonstrated to be a better system than anything else, including communism and authoritarianism.
The success of countries that have adopted a liberal democratic system of governance are so successful, and so developed they have effectively signaled the final form of human government, as there is nothing else that could possibly surpass it in terms of its economic success, and its ability to ensure political representation for the masses and social cohesion.
Fukuyama has a number of concerns about the move towards human enhancement. The first is that it could fundamentally reshape human nature, the outcome of which could be impossible to predict. Another concern is that it threatens one of the fundamental tenants of liberal democracy: the absolute equality of people, regardless of their status, color, class or ability. In the same piece, he asked:
‘If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?’
These are difficult questions, but ones that seemingly have an answer. Prof. Al-Rodhan reconciles transhumanism with human rights and dignity with his ‘Sustainable History’ thesis, where he argues that the stability and longevity of any political order relies entirely upon a guarantee of dignity for all citizens, at all times, and under all circumstances. Al-Rodhan insists that moral, ethical and legal global guidelines are urgently needed to make sure that these technologies are used correctly.
Therefore, any technological advancements that would result in the improvement of the cognitive and physical abilities of some would not result in the marginalization of others, as it would eventually result in the disastrous unraveling of society.
‘While dangers to human nature, dignity and destiny are real, I am not suggesting that technological innovations and the potential for enhancement should be halted or stifled. I am instead calling for urgent global action at the UN level to define international moral and bioethical guidelines on what potential enhancements are acceptable to our global societies and on what terms.’
He also raises the concerns that there are some significant challenges to be addressed and soon: for example, who gets enhanced, who has the right to decide, and do adults have the right to choose their own babies attributes. Are these choices determined by economics, politics or ethnic and ideological persuasions? These are all very serious considerations that must be addressed before humanity goes along that inevitable path to make sure that the dignity of all is maintained in this brave new world.
Others are concerned that any change in our biological limits would result in the undermining of the human experience, and render our existence devoid of meaning. This argument has been made by the Californian environmentalist and ethicist Bill McKibben, a noted and fierce critic of transhumanism.
In his book ‘Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age‘ he argued that human limitations – such as mortality – exist for a reason. He believes that to remove them would result in making human life meaningless, and that removing our biological limitations would also remove the necessary context in which we make meaningful choices about our life.
This argument is a convincing one, albeit one that makes a significant number of assumptions about what a technologically enhanced life would look like. Firstly, it assumes that such a life could not possibly have meaning.
I find that hard to swallow. Surely a person with an artificially enhanced life-span would still be able to find meaning in doing the activities that person enjoys, and in spending time with loved ones? One might also find meaning and pleasure in using one’s enhanced abilities to accomplish tasks and solve problems they find to be particularly challenging.
There are countless other arguments surrounding transhumanism. These stretch from the belief that one should not play God, to the prediction that a transhumanist future would result in such enhancements only being available to the wealthy, whilst the poor would be left behind.
These arguments are hard to respond to. Perhaps the only real answer is to wait and see what happens when our technological capacity catches up with our ambition to rebuild the human.
Excited About Your Transhumanist Future?
It’s hard not to be excited about a future where one can be engineered to be smarter, stronger and healthier. This future seems inevitable, as our human nature pushes us towards self-improvement by any means possible. With that said, many are concerned about the transformative effect transhumanism would have on human society, and its implications for human rights and governance.
The debate surrounding transhumanism will rage on. With that said, I’m willing to bet that our future will be an enhanced one.
But what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments in the box below.