Adam Ash

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Deep Thoughts: those wacky transhumanists

1. The ideas interview: Nick Bostrom
John Sutherland meets a transhumanist who wrestles with the ethics of technologically enhanced human beings.
By John Sutherland

The World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1998 by the philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce. It describes itself as "an international nonprofit membership organisation which advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities." Its proclaimed goal is that people should be "better than well", and that human development, in evolutionary terms, has not reached anything like an endpoint: all kinds of emerging technologies - neuropharmacology, artificial intelligence and cybernetics, and nanotechnologies - have the potential, it says, to enhance human abilities. In effect, it is interested in self-improvement and human perfectibility through the ethical application of science.

In a world suffused with gloom, is the WTA project not wildly utopian, I ask Dr Bostrom, who is the association's principal spokesperson and teaches at Oxford University.

"That might be true for some transhumanists," he replies. "I personally don't think of myself as either an optimist or a pessimist. I believe that if you look at the best-case scenarios, the upside is enormous. But there are clearly major risks that humanity will have to confront in this century. I can see a downside scenario as well, reaching down as far as the level of total human extinction. The possibilities range from the wonderful to the horrible. If I had to pull a number out of a hat, I'd say a 20% probability of extinction. Non-trivial."

How is transhumanism different from discredited notions of "creative evolution" - the idea that mankind, as a species, was evolving ever higher up the ladder, passing on its acquired traits to succeeding generations?

"Creative evolution, as propounded by Lamarck, was discredited by Darwin. Traits acquired during one's lifetime - muscles built up in the gym, for example - cannot be passed on to the next generation. Now with technology, as it happens, we might indeed be able to transfer some of our acquired traits on to our selected offspring by genetic engineering."

Transhumanism, as I understand it, is moving its focus on to ethics, regarding many of the technological enhancements as being in place. Is that the case?

"When I first got interested in this area a few years ago, the discussions would typically revolve around the question, 'Is this science fiction? Or are we dealing in realistic future possibilities?' Now the discussions tend to start from the position that, yes, it will be increasingly possible to modify human capacities. The issue now is whether we should do it. And, if so, what are the ethical constraints?"

When you say "modify human capacities", are you thinking of prenatal, postnatal, or midlife interventions? Prosthetic devices, for example?

"Prosthetic devices don't come into it except for people who happen to have some specific disability. For healthy adult people, the really big thing we can foresee are ways of intervening in the ageing process, either by slowing or reversing it."

How will technology achieve this?

"In the case of ageing, what you would need to do is either slow the rate at which this damage accumulates, or, even better, go in after the damage has accumulated and remove it. Stem cells, for instance, can be used to regrow cells that we have lost. And we might develop new enzymes which could break down those substances that the body, unaided, cannot deal with."

Transhumanist discourse often uses the term "post-human". What precisely is that?

"'Post-human' is a vague concept and people have used the term to mean entirely different things. It tends, in my opinion, to introduce more confusion than clarity. But one central meaning of the word would merely be an optimally enhanced human being."

Would this enhanced human being be what Nietzscheans call "the superman"?

"Nietzsche had a different view. He envisaged a moral and cultural transcendence: a very few people endowed with strong willpower and great refinement would throw off the shackles of traditional morality and convention, and so rise above the rest of humanity. That's a very different mission from transhumanism where, ideally, everybody should have access to enhancement technologies."

Everyone their own superhuman?

"Well, it would be good if everyone had the option of, say, sharper memory and better health and longer life."

What are the ethical dilemmas that need to be solved?

"It's one thing if we are talking about adult, competent citizens deciding what to do with their own bodies. If, on the other hand, we are thinking of modifying children, or selecting embryos, then there is another set of ethical questions that arise. There is a further set of ethical questions relating to access. If some of the technologies, as they well might, turn out to be very expensive, then what mechanisms should be in place to ensure fairness?"

Surely the mechanisms are already in place? The rich will be able to afford them; the rest of us won't.

"One must ask, when these enhancement technologies are available and have been proven to work, whether they should be included in the package of treatments routinely offered to all by the NHS"

(Nick Bostrom is the director of the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute. A list of his publications is available at

2. Among the Transhumanists
Cyborgs, self-mutilators, and the future of our race
By William Saletan

Heeeeeeere's Cat Man!
On a projection screen at Stanford Law School, an auditorium full of nerds stared at a picture of a guy who'd done himself up like a cat—not with makeup, but with tattoos and surgery. The guy's whiskers were implanted. His nose had been converted to a cat nose. His teeth had been filed into the shape of cat teeth. His head has been flattened, and he was looking for a doctor to implant a tail. And that's just the tip of the freakberg. Behind him, there's Lizard Man ,Amputee Online , the Church of Body Modification , and, the Web site for people who like to be impaled on hooks .

Our guide to the self-mutilators, professor Robert Schwartz of the University of New Mexico, wasn't trying to gross us out. He was trying to show us the irrationality of regulating body modification based on grossness. Why do we shrug at botox, liposuction, and circumcision? Why do we think it's no big deal if models, actors, and athletes have themselves cut open for professional advancement? Why did tattoos remain illegal in parts of the United States until three weeks ago? Why did we have "ugly laws" that ordered maimed people off the streets? Why did we operate on sexually ambiguous infants to "correct" their gender, often with disastrous results?

That's the curious thing about the folks at the Stanford conference . Some were from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies , an offshoot of the World Transhumanist Association , which advocates the transformation of our species through drugs, "genetic engineering, information technology ... nanotechnology, machine intelligence, uploading, and space colonization." Others were from the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics , which wants to use "neurotechnologies" to " foster the unlimited potential of the human mind ." Lunch, featuring chicken, was provided by the ExtraLife Foundation . These are weird people with weird ideas. But sometimes it takes a weirdo to see what's odd about what the rest of us call normal.

Remember those kids who played Dungeons & Dragons and ran the science-fiction club in your high school? They've become transhumanists. Their resident immortalist, Aubrey de Grey, walks around in sneakers, a ponytail, and a 14-inch beard that he strokes like a cat. One of the CCLE officials at the conference calls herself Wrye Sententia ; the other dresses like an LSD trip . This was the kind of conference where people talked about the Matrix the way Christians talk about the Bible, and where speakers apologized for their discomfort with piercings or tattoos.

A while back, I'm told, there was a left-right battle for the soul of transhumanism, and the left won. Libertarians got a few nods at the conference, but mostly for opposing drug laws and the draft. Speakers and attendees called themselves visionaries, futurists, or revolutionaries. They invoked Marcuse, Sartre, and Heidegger. They preached struggle and solidarity. They spoke of speciesism, morphological diversity, techno-progressive transhumanism, somatic epistemic technology, nonanthropocentric personhood ethics, and the "illusory distinction between self and cosmos." They called the United States a "bloated uberpower." They cheered calls for a worldwide guaranteed income, free lifelong therapy, and a universal right to art and paid vacations. "I'm a very pragmatic kind of anarchist-feminist," said one speaker.

The sessions were ... interesting. A panel on religious views consisted of a transhumanist Zen Buddhist priest, an advocate of human enhancement as divine healing, and a pro-cryonics "Christian immortalist." Another panel addressed "the self-demand amputation community." You've heard of a woman trapped in a man's body? Imagine being a one-legged person trapped in a two-legged body, said the speakers. A third panel brought up the "cyborg dialectic": thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prothesis. I have no idea what a prothesis is. I assumed the cyborg dialectic would culminate in a prosthesis.

De Grey, the guy with the beard, called for higher taxes and research funding to "end the slaughter" of human aging. He argued, incoherently, that our failure to do everything possible to stop aging this instant was tantamount to mass murder. He also floated the creepy idea that overpopulation might not become a problem because once we're immortal, we might realize children are no fun. Even so, he asked the kind of penetrating question only a big-thinking oddball would come up with. Are we stuck in a "trance" of fatalism about aging? If we realize it can be slowed or stopped, "will aging become repugnant," like any other disease?

My favorite panel began with the president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association . He runs a Web site called betterhumans . He and I share a moral objection to killing animals . But letting animals live isn't enough for him. Inspired by an experiment in which chimpanzees were given a kitchen and flush toilets, he wants to use cyber- and biotechnology to elevate all animals to human status. "Anything less than human-level capacity would be unacceptable," he declared—including the ability to operate tools remotely through the Internet.

He was followed by a transsexual transbemanist. Transhumanism, apparently, is too parochial. It's too focused on humans, too narrow for the "mindfiles," "mindware," and "virtuality" into which we're going to upload ourselves. According to the speaker—picture Willie Nelson with a shave—our identities can be broken down into units called bemes, in the same way that culture can be broken down into memes. These, in turn, can be "bemed up" and preserved in media outside our bodies. As examples, she suggested your smile, how lasagna tastes to you, and your memory of your first bike ride. The idea of extracting such plainly body-dependent things is ridiculous. But her basic point is right: Bemes, not genes, are what capture and preserve our essence.

Maybe the cockeyed thinking of transhumanists is what allows them to see the illogic of the way we dope kids with caffeine while banning other stimulants. Maybe that's why they find it odd that we denounce steroids as cheating but ignore athletes who get Lasik or muscle-enhancing surgery. Maybe that's why they look back at the doubling of human life expectancy in the last century and wonder why we shouldn't try to double it again. To our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they figure, we already look posthuman.

Meanwhile, they look at cyborg technology and see in it what's human. During the conference, I noticed a little guy sitting near the back with a gizmo stuck to his head. I thought he was some kind of techno-showoff. When he finally got up to give his talk, it turned out that the gizmo was the outer part of a hearing-assistance implant. He's deaf. He showed us the inner part on the projection screen: a metal doodad that says "Advanced Bionics" and is wired through the gore in his head. Then he played audio of what he used to hear through his crude old implant, and what he hears now through his new one. How sweet the sound. Amazing grace.

(William Saletan is Slate's national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.)


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