Screenshot from the movie Metropolis courtesy of The Warning Sign.
What if you could live to be a thousand years old, never get sick, and have superhuman strength and brainpower?
That’s the promise of the loosely-organized transhumanism movement, which claims that it’s wrong to accept death, disease and inadequacy as facts of life.
It’s relentlessly future-oriented and optimistic, some say to a fault (pdf). Here’s why, and how, transhumanists want to change our species.
The basic philosophical tenets of transhumanism is that “humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized,” according to a declaration on the website of the transhumanist nonprofit Humanity+.
That potential is being held back by a number limitations, transhumanists believe, such as our finite lifespan, limited intellectual capacity, lack of control over body mechanisms (such as resistance to disease or metabolism), five senses, and mental states.
It’s also being held back by the unfair “‘genetic lottery’” in which some people are born with more advantageous traits (such as higher IQ or physical strength) than others.
All of these limitations mean we’re only seeing a fraction of the total imaginable possibilities of human experience.
But by using emerging technology, humans can, and should, “consciously and deliberately decide” which aspects of humanity to keep and which ones to overcome, transhumanists argue.
There’s a range of emerging technologies that could assist the transhumanist cause, including:
Genetic engineering. By scanning an embryo’s genetic traits prior to birth, scientists can already determine many genetic traits, including proneness to disease and eye and hair color. Coupled with emerging embryonic genetic modification tech, this could allow people to decide the genetic traits of their unborn children.
Gene therapy. Genetics can also be modified after a person is born by injecting genes into a patients’ cells. This could effectively knock out mutated, disease-causing genes or insert new, beneficial ones.
Brain implants. Computer chips implanted into your brain could have numerous positive effects, from recovering lost memories, allowing the control of external machines, or potentially improving self-control. It can even allow someone previously only able to see in grayscale to “hear” colors:
Nootropics. Maybe the most mature of these technologies, nootropics is the field of “smart drugs” that enhance brain function. These already include the concentration-enhancer Adderall and the anti-fatigue pill Dexedrine, favored by the Air Force.
Cell repair machines. Replicating the activity of regular human cells, future nanorobots could build and repair cells, potentially (pdf) destroying cancer, assisting healing, and strengthening bones.
Therapeutic cloning. By using embryonic stem cells, scientists can theoretically clone human tissue and grow new organs or limbs, which can replace diseased/damaged ones or provide, for instance, improved lung capacity.
Mind uploading. Through a process called Whole Brain Emulation (which we covered here), some believe that it will be possible for people to upload their entire consciousness to a computer, thereby being able to live for as long as that stored memory exists. This, in turn, could theoretically lead to the “singularity” in which the curve of human progress becomes nearly vertical.
Of course, while transhumanists see that list as a smorgasbord of future possibilities, to others it reads like sci-fi horror.
It’s been called “the world’s most dangerous idea,” defying both the history and the very nature of human beings.
The eradication of our shared misfortunes and limitations might lead to an uncaring, Nietzschean meritocracy, others have argued.
There are also echoes of eugenics, and the potential for a “genetically engineered and pharmaceutically enhanced divide” in which the wealthy have an insurmountable, built-in advantage over those who don’t have the means to pursue transhumanism.
And of course there’s the spectre of existential risk brought on by hyper-accelerated technological advance.
The transhumanist response is that research and progress on this topic needs to be carefully deliberated and evenly distributed.
It also encourages a focus on moral responsibility towards future generations and individual choice, and an emphasis on healthy, positive lifestyle choices.
Already existent for decades, the transhumanist movement seems spurred by the rapid growth of technological advance. There are numerous foundations dedicated the movement, and it’s gaining traction among a new crowd- wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.