“Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” (Humanity+)
Serious words, very serious. This is an extract from the declaration of Transhumanism on Humanity+’s website who are an npo that explores and advocates the use of technology to elevate the human condition. Their website is full of statements about the vision of the Transhumanist movement and they claim to aspire to inspire a new generation of individuals who dare to envision humanity’s future. Aspire to inspire, a bit difficult I know, but how very melodic. All in all the website promotes a lot of ambition but as Figure 1 shows, is quite vague in its explanation of how this can actually materialise. Despite this it is a very good opening account into this research as it is very precise about the vision of Transhumanism.
The idea concerning human enhancement involving technology fused with the body originates back to 1960 with Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Their paper, Cyborgs and space pitched the idea that scientific advances of the future could facilitate man’s existence in unfamiliar environments which at the time would not be possible (or limited at least). They coined the term ‘Cyborg’ defining the incorporation of exogenous components that extended the abilities of the natural body to be able to cope in different environments, claiming Cyborgs would “free man to explore”. (Clynes & Kline 1960).
In discussing Transhumanism It is important to establish a strong explanation of what being a Transhuman and Posthuman entails. Nick Bostrom, who contributed to the Humanity+ Transhuamanist declaration claims that Transhumanism is a loosely defined term and that “the word often causes more confusion than clarity” (Bostrom 2006), even claiming that it may be better to replace the word altogether. I can relate to this during my studies as it is often difficult to discuss aspects of the subject without having a complete understanding between these terms. For myself, and the purpose of further relation during this post I refer to the idea of Transhuman as the fusion of biology and technology within the human race where technology is the minority and Posthuman as an era in which the human body is predominantly composed of or infused with technology, or its effects at least. Humanity is at a point where we are amid concepts of transhumanism but the ideas that are circulating are still very much in preliminary stages and therefore it is hard to gauge when these technologies will be constant in our lives.
Jason Sosa, the founder and CEO of IMRSV, a computer vision and artificial intelligence company looks at various technologies that are at the forefront of Tranhumanist study in relation to their time of development. He states that, “One of the principals of this evolution in technology is that technology is getting smaller, faster, cheaper and more powerful every day […] and is 100 times smaller every decade” (Sosa 2014: 3.00)
This explores moor’s law which tracks exponential growth in computing hardware in which the performance doubles every 2 years. This idea is represents the notion that what now fits in our pockets would once consume a whole room, and this illustrates the rapid progression of technology, which is something Venor Vinge discusses.
You only have to read the short abstract of Vinge’s paper (1993) where he discusses the end of the human era shortly after 10 years (30 at the time he wrote the paper) to get almost a foreboding sense of what is to come with a serious statement like that. Even reading on the way he discusses the technological era we are in is fascinating. He argues that we are at a point of change comparable to that of the start of human life and this really highlights the importance of the Transhumanist movement. Vinge focuses on the development of artificial computing and argues that we are on the edge of technology having equal to or greater intelligence that could very well become autonomous.
Returning to Sosa it has to be pointed out that despite his rightful optimism he does fail to show an appreciation for the harm that these technologies would facilitate. At 7.50 he excitedly reveals the idea of being able to augment your memory and cognitive process via computer chips but he does not discuss the possibility that this could malfunction, like any technology can, or the manipulation of one’s cognition by another individual. These are all very important and what could be devastating repercussions of augmentation of the human body with electronic input.
Susan Schneider (2009) and Nick Bostrom (2005) do however both focus on the negative actions and behaviour of individuals that could arise from a result of the pending infusion of technology within the human body. Schneider(very seriously) argues that the development of artificial intelligence, biological weapons, advanced nanotechnology and other technologies bring forth global catastrophic risks, that is, risks that carry the potential to inflict serious damage to human well-being across the planet” (Schneider 2009: 26). To develop on the argument of the negativity associated with the Transhumanist movement I feel it is also essential to recognise that often the values are discussed in a sense of heightened optimism and it is vital to accept that whilst this technology could enhance the human body it is all relative. For example what is the point in living longer when there are people who are living a very poor quality of life? This poses a lot of questions, essentially, how are the ramifications of a proposed Transhumanist society being considered.
However it has to be accepted that it is human nature that we, as a species are inclined to develop our bodies and minds with the best technologies available. However we are going through a transition of enhancement where digital and electronic technologies are becoming very much integrated into our lives and the degree to which it is happening is very fast and so is causing concern and disagreement amongst some people.
An important point that Jason Sosa makes, which I believe is often overlooked is that many of these concepts; prosthetic limbs, artificial organs and computing chips that can control sensory neurones to name a few have been approved and are in advanced stages of development. I think that this is not an accepted fact in society and rather than being viewed upon as what will be the norm, it is seen merely as science fiction.
George Dvorsky (2008) however argues that it is important for people to know about Transhumanism, so that people are aware of what is happening. He says that awareness of the movement will encourage it to develop and allow people to learn about why it can benefit the human race and most importantly to ensure this potential reaches maximum capabilities. Dvorsky argues that, on the contrary if people are unknown to the implications of a post human era, their ability to deal with the dramatic change will be extremely overwhelming.
Of course we are very far away from what Clyne and Kline’s envisioned the cyborg to be about, but given his predicament the question, when will we no longer be human has to be asked. Marshall McLuhan argued that the thought or imagination was the message and the platforms that presented these ideas were merely the medium to extend the thought. (McLuhan, M 1964: 8) When humanity becomes greatly immersed in technology and cyborgism, and the device inside of us is our medium, will we still have control over the message?
A lot of this blog post has regarded the discussion of ethics about the state of humanity and what will be when we become more infused with technology and so in consideration, I think this quote from Katherne Hayles, a postmodern literary critic, is a strong note to end on.
“The posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human.” (Hayles, K 1999: 286).
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Anon. (n.d.) Humanity+. Available at: http://humanityplus.org [Accessed on 24/10/2014]
Bostrom, N. (2005) Transhumanist Values’, Oxford University, Faculty of Philosophy. [journal online] Issue 4. May 2005. Available at: http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/values.html [Accessed on 24/10/2014]
Bostrom, N. (2006) Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up. [online] pp. 107 – 137. Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity. Available at: http://www.nickbostrom.com/posthuman.pdf [Accessed on 24/10/2014]
Clark, A. (2003) Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Clynes, M & Kline, N. (1960). Cyborgs and space. Journal. [Online] Available at: http://cyberneticzoo.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/cyborgs-Astronautics-sep1960.pdf [Accessed on 22/03/2013]
Dvorsky, G. (2008) Better Living through Transhumanism, Journal of Evolution and Technology. [online] 19(1) September 2008, pp. 62–66. Available at: http://jetpress.org/v19/dvorsky.htm [Accessed on 25/10/2014]
Hayles, N.K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media. United Kingdom: Routledge.
Savulescu, J & Bostrom, N. (2010) Human Enhancement. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Schneider, S. (2009) Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons.
Sosa, J. (2014) The Coming Transhuman Era: Jason Sosa at TEDxGrandRapids , June 2014. Available at: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Coming-Transhuman-Era-Jason%5B [Accessed on 22/10/2014]
Vinge, V. (1993) The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. VISION-21 Symposium. [online]. Available at: https://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html [Accessed on 25/10/2014]
Vinge, V. (n.d) Vernor Vinge on the Technological Singularity . Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zMAiGcDHG8 [Accessed on 22/10/2014]
Figure 1. Humanity+. Available at: http://humanityplus.org/ [Accessed on 26/10/2014]
Figure 2. KClynes and Kline’s Mouse. Available at: http://www.umich.edu/~engl415/cyborgs/cyborgs.images/mouse.jpg [Accessed on 26/10/2014]
Figure 3. Moore’s Law. Available at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/00/Transistor_Count_and_Moore%27s_Law_-_2011.svg/2000px-Transistor_Count_and_Moore%27s_Law_-_2011.svg.png [Accessed on 26/10/2014]