Welcome to the Era of Transhumanism
BY Rich Haridy NEW ATLAS
In a compelling webseries from 2012 entitled H+, we were introduced to a future world where much of the population has a hi-tech implant, allowing individuals a direct neural interface with the internet. As often is the case in science fiction, things don’t turn out well for those technological pioneers. A virus infects the implant and chaos quickly descends on a human race that has become biologically fused with technology.
The series was an overt examination of a transhumanist future, with the title H+ being an appropriation of the common transhuman abbreviation. Five years after the series’ birth, we live in a present even more entrenched on a path towards the realization of transhumanist ideals.
Early in February 2017, innovative billionaire Elon Musk reiterated an idea he had floated several times over the past year: Humans need to merge with machines. Musk sees a direct brain/computer interface as an absolute necessity, not only in order for us to evolve as a species, but as a way of keeping up with the machines we are creating. According to Musk, if we don’t merge with the machines, we will become useless and irrelevant.
While Elon Musk does not self-identify as a “transhumanist,” the idea of fusing man with machine is fundamental to this movement that arose over the course of the 20th century. And as we move into a tumultuous 21st century, transhumanism is quickly shifting from its sci-fi influenced philosophical and cultural niche into a more mainstream, and increasingly popular, movement.
Zoltan Istvan, a prominent futurist and transhumanist, is currently making a bold political run for the position of Governor of California. “We need leadership that is willing to use radical science, technology, and innovation – what California is famous for –to benefit us all,” Istvan declared in a recent editorial published by Newsweek. “We need someone with the nerve to risk the tremendous possibilities to save the environment through bioengineering, to end cancer by seeking a vaccine or a gene-editing solution for it.”
What is Transhumanism?
Simply put, transhumanism is a broad intellectual movement that advocates for the transformation of humanity through embracing technology. Thinkers in the field opine that our intellectual, physical and psychological capabilities can, and should, be enhanced by any and all available emerging technologies. From genetic modification to make us smarter and live longer, to enhancing our physical capabilities through bioengineering and mechanical implants, transhumanists see our future as one where we transcend our physical bodies with the aid of technology.
The term “transhuman” can be traced back several hundred years, but in terms of our current use we can look to 20th century biologist and eugenicist, Julian Huxley. Across a series of lectures and articles in the 1950s, Huxley advocated for a type of utopian futurism where humanity would evolve and transcend its present limitations.
“We need a name for this new belief,” Huxley wrote in 1957. “Perhaps transhumanism will serve; man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing the new possibilities of and for his human nature.”
Huxley’s ideas were arguably inspired by influential speculative fiction of the mid-20th century from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, and consequently his more specific transhumanist philosophies went on to influence a generation of cyberpunk authors in the 1980s. It was in this era that the first self-described transhumanists began appearing, having formal meetings around the University of California.
With the pace of technological advancement dramatically accelerating into the 21st century, transhumanist thinking began to manifest in more specific futurist visions. Cryonics and life extension technology was one focus of transhumanists, while others looked to body modification, gender transitioning and general biohacking as a way of transcending the limits of our physical bodies.
What Could Go Wrong?
Plenty of criticisms have been lobbed at transhumanists over the years, with their extreme views of the technological future of humanity causing many to question whether this is a direct pathway to losing touch with what makes us essentially human. The fear that we will merge into some kind of inhuman, god-like, robot civilization quite fairly frightens and disturbs those with more traditional perspectives on humanity.
Science fiction classically reflects many fears of transhumanist futures, from Skynet taking over the world to a Gattaca-like future where genetic modification creates dystopian class separation. But prominent transhumanist critic Francis Fukuyama has soberly outlined the dangers of this modern movement in his book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.
Fukuyama comprehensively argues that the complexity of human beings cannot be so easily reduced into good and bad traits. If we were to try to eliminate traits we considered to be negative, be it through genetic modification or otherwise, we would be dangerously misunderstanding how we fundamentally function. “If we weren’t violent and aggressive we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves; if we didn’t have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn’t be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love,” he writes.
Some of the more valid concerns about the dawning transhumanist future are the socioeconomic repercussions of such a speedy technological evolution. As the chasm between rich and poor grows in our current culture, one can’t help but be concerned that future advancements could become disproportionately limited to those with the financial resources to afford them. If life extension technologies start to become feasible, and they are only available to the billionaire class, then we enter a scenario where the rich get richer and live longer, while the poor get poorer and die sooner.
Without exceptionally strong political reform maintaining democratic access to human enhancement technologies, it’s easy to foresee the rise of a disturbing genetic class divide. As environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben writes: “If we can’t afford the fifty cents a person it would take to buy bed nets to protect most of Africa from malaria, it is unlikely we will extend to anyone but the top tax bracket these latest forms of genetic technology.”
Remember Eugenics …
The looming specter of eugenics hovers over a great deal of transhumanist thought. In the first half of the 20th century the term became disturbingly, but not unreasonably, associated with Nazi Germany. Sterilizing or euthanizing those who displayed characteristics that were deemed to be imperfect was ultimately outlawed as a form of genocide. But as the genome revolution struck later in the century a resurgence in the philosophical ideals of eugenics began to arise.
Transhumanist thought often parallels the ideals of eugenics, although most self-identifying transhumanists separate themselves from that stigmatized field, preferring terms like reprogenetics and germinal choice. The difference between the negative outcomes of eugenics and the more positive, transhumanist notion of reprogenetics seems to be one of consent. In a 21st century world of selective genetic modification, all is good as long as all parents equally have the choice to genetically modify their child, and are not forced by governments who are trying to forcefully manage the genetic pool.
Prominent transhumanist advocate Nick Bostrom, labeled by The New Yorker as the leading transhumanist philosopher of today, argues that critics of the movement always focus on the potential risks or negative outcomes without balancing the possible positive futures. He advocates that the mere potential of a negative future outcome is not enough to stifle technological momentum.
Bostrom lucidly makes his point in an essay examining the transhumanist perspectives on human genetic modifications. “Good consequences no less than bad ones are possible,” he writes. “In the absence of sound arguments for the view that the negative consequences would predominate, such speculations provide no reason against moving forward with the technology.”
But What About God?
At first glance it would seem like the transhumanism movement would be synonymous with atheism. In 2002 the Vatican released an expansive statement exploring the intersection of technology and religion. The statement warned that changing a human’s genetic identity was a “radically immoral” action. The old adage of the scientist playing God certainly raises its head frequently in criticisms of transhumanism. Zoltan Istvan even penned an op-ed entitled “I’m an Atheist, Therefore I’m a Transhumanist” in which he, rather weakly, attempted to blend the two movements.
But there are some compelling intersections between religion and transhumanism that point to the possibility that the two sides are not as mutually exclusive as one would think. A poll by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, founded by Nick Bostrom, discovered that only half of the transhumanists it surveyed identified as either atheist or agnostic.
Lincoln Cannon, founder of both the Mormon Transhumanist Association and the Christian Transhumanist Association (the very existence of these entities says something), has been advocating for a modern form of post secular religion based on both scientific belief and religious faith. Cannon sees transhumanism as a movement that allows for humanity to evolve into what he labels “superhumans.”
In his treatise titled, “The New God Argument,” Cannon envisions a creator God akin to our superhuman future potential. He posits an evolutionary cycle where we were created by a superhuman God, before then evolving into becoming our own superhuman Gods, from which we will create new life that will worship us as Gods and continue the cycle anew.
The New God Argument presents a fascinating case for an evolution of religious thought, but it also pushes transhumanism into the realms of spirituality in ways that are bound to make many of the movement’s advocates uncomfortable. Another more extreme religious offshoot of transhumanism is Terasem, a self-described “transreligion.”
Terasem recalls a 1990s-styled new-age sentiment with its four core beliefs: life is purposeful, death is optional, God is technological, and love is essential. Founded by millionaire entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, Terasem functions as both a spiritual transhumanist movement and a charitable organization that invests into technological research. The movement is especially focused on cryonic technology and researching ways to preserve human consciousness through downloading one’s thoughts and memories into either a mainframe or an independent social robot.
The Rise of the Biohackers
At the turn of the century, a transhumanist community began to form that fused the ethos of computer hacking with a body modification movement determined to create do-it-yourself cybernetic devices. These “Grinders” embraced cyborg technologies that could be directly integrated into their organic bodies.
Biohacking can take the form of pharmaceutical enhancements that hack one’s body chemistry, to implanting electronics into the body such as magnets or RFID and NFC tags. These transhumanist grinders sit at the furthermost borders of the movement, experimenting on their own bodies with occasionally quite extreme DIY surgical procedures.
Lepht Anonym is a Berlin-based biohacker who advocates cybernetics for the masses. Lepht (who identifies as genderless) has performed numerous body modifications over the past decade, including implanting neodymium metal discs under fingertips to enable the physical sensing of electromagnetic fields, and several internal compass implants designed to give a physical awareness of north and south magnetic poles.
But the biohacking movement is moving in from the fringe, with several tech start-ups arising over the past few years with an interest in developing a commercial body modification economy. Grindhouse Wetware, based on Pittsburgh, has been prominent in creating technology that augments the human body.
The company’s most prominent device is called the Northstar, which is an implant that it is hoped will have Bluetooth capabilities allowing the user to control their devices with simple hand movements. The first iteration of the device simply had an aesthetic function with LED lights under the user’s skin that mimic a form of bioluminescence. Future uses for the Northstar could see it interfacing with your smartphone, tracking biometric data, such as blood sugar, or acting as a controller for a variety of devices connected to the internet of things.
Hitting the Big Time
Transhumanism is moving inexorably into the mainstream as technological advances accelerate. Proponents advocate we dive head first into this brave new cybernetic world, while traditionalists grow increasingly nervous.
Regardless of one’s personal view there is undoubtedly an enormous number of people lining up to have that first brain/computer interface implanted into their head, or to genetically cue a set of specific characteristics for their baby. We live in exciting times that’s for sure … now excuse me while I re-watch Gattaca and hope it doesn’t turn into a documentary-like premonition of our future.
Zoltan Istvan on Transhumanism, Politics
and Why the Human Body Has to Go
Istvan is currently running for Governor of California (Credit: Zoltan Istvan)
Zoltan Istvan is a transhumanist, journalist, politician, writer and libertarian. He is also running for Governor of California for the Libertarian Party on a platform pushing science and technology to the forefront of political discourse. In recent years, the movement of transhumanism has moved from a niche collection of philosophical ideals and anarcho-punk gestures into a mainstream political movement. Istvan has become the popular face of this movement after running for president in 2016 on a dedicated transhumanist platform.
We caught up with Istvan to chat about how transhumanist ideals can translate into politics, how technology is going to change us as humans and the dangers in not keeping up with new innovations, such as genetic editing.
New Atlas: How does transhumanism intersect with politics?
Istvan: For me you can never make any headway in the universe, or on planet Earth, if you don’t involve politics because so much money for innovation or research and development comes from the government and so many laws about what you can do. Genetic editing, chip implants, can you get a brain implant that makes you smarter than other people? These things are often directed by the government determining whether it’s illegal or not. You can either be thrown in jail or not thrown in jail – so you must have a political footprint, you must have attorneys on the ground, you must have that kind of legal position that can explain things in terms that a government will understand.
One of the things that happened to me was that when I became a public figure in the movement, I realized very quickly there was zero political framework for this entire movement. It was one of the reasons why I founded the Transhumanist Party and also then went through the process to become the 2016 nominee.
As part of his 2016 Presidential campaign Zoltan Istvan traveled through the United States in a bus shaped like a coffin (Credit: Zoltan Istvan)
You’ve recently announced your run for California governor as a libertarian. How do you reconcile the small government “hands off” ideals of a libertarian ideology with your transhumanist goals of keeping technological innovations accessible to all?
Well, tranhumanism began as a libertarian philosophy really, with most early people who thought about it having the point of view that we should have the right to merge with machines, we should have the right to overcome death.
To actually make real headway in politics it would takes years, maybe decades, to get the Transhumanist Party with enough funding and infrastructure to make a difference. But with the libertarians you walk directly into a party that got four million votes for Gary Johnson, its 2016 presidential nominee. Four million votes is a lot of votes.
That’s one of the reasons why I am running for the Libertarian Party. It’s not that in any way am I changing my science or technology beliefs. It just happens to be that the libertarian philosophy is pretty equivalent with tranhumanism and it fits very well for the next journey of my life.
What do you see the government’s role is in preventing technological inequality between the rich and poor?
In my opinion the government should obviously be around to make sure we don’t create a dystopia. Everyone thought the Transhumanist Party was totally optimistic of technology and, while it totally is, it is also very fundamentally concerned with things like being able to go onto eBay and for a thousand dollars buy some kind of a virus making kit where you can create a virus that could take out millions of people. Or the idea of artificial intelligence, some people just want to let AI run wild whereas I’m not really sure we want a species on Earth that is smarter than human beings. I’m not sure that makes any sense.
So despite the optimism of the Transhumanism Party and that political element, we were also very conscious that inequality was growing because of technology. That said the standard of life was improving around the world even if inequality was growing. But still, I think the role of transhumanism in politics is not just to say, ‘this is the greatest thing ever, let’s go full force with whatever new technological development is happening.’ We need to be concerned about these things.
Transhumanists can play a political role by stepping up and saying there are limits to where technology goes, and at the same time some things like genetic editing are things that we should put our foot down and say this should be open market. We should find out where this takes us and seek to improve ourselves as human beings. As you probably read all the time, Christian America is literally trying to shut down genetic editing and they are only getting certain types of things going. It’s just like when George W Bush ran the government and stopped stem cell funding for seven years. They are trying to do the same thing now with genetic editing, which is perhaps the most promising science of the 21st century.
This is where transhumanists have to stand up and just say no, this has to be determined by the market. If people start creating monsters and those monsters do evil things that’s a whole different story, but what we’re trying to do right now is eliminate cancer, augment our intelligence so we can become smarter, and do away with hereditary diseases. Very few people in Congress are talking about it, yet it is probably the most important science of our time.
So, for example, in terms of genetic editing that creates IQ boosting – how do you manage that so it’s not just an expensive process only available to the rich? Do you agree there needs to be a heavy regulatory hand from the government to ensure we don’t move towards a dystopian future?
Tough question. I would’ve answered in the past that certainly some regulatory hand has to be involved, and I still think some regulatory hands have to be involved. I just think at this point in time we’re not really talking about the rich becoming super smart and the poor not getting these kinds of technology. We’re just fighting for the right to even do experiments.
I do believe that there’s a libertarian version of universal health care and universal income out there that would be good. I just think at the very top of the food chain is where we really need to let people, those very rich and super innovative people, do exactly what they want to do. But as a left-leaning libertarian I’m probably always going to say that some regulatory hand has to be in there to protect the poor.
My entire goal, and one of the things I’m standing behind is that we all have a universal right to indefinite lifespans. That’s something I can promise you in the 21st century will become one of the most important civil and ideological rights of humanity. That everybody has a right to live indefinitely. Right now we still think death is natural, but that’s gonna be changing over the next five, 10, 15 years.
I want people to feel entitled to an indefinite lifespan where if they choose to live for a long period of time, they will. And to get there we’re going to need some type of government hand that says, enough with the bandaid medicine, enough with your Christian antics where you must die to meet God and it’s okay to age. I believe aging is a disease. I believe the government needs to classify it as a disease. We need to tackle aging, let’s stop it.
It’s not really libertarian or democratic or republican. It’s a humanitarian point of view. People should have the right to live as long as possible. We should stop trying to fix the human body when we need to realize that moving beyond the human body is probably the very best scenario for getting rid of some of the maladies and diseases we suffer from. And you can call this universal health care, the libertarians may get all grumpy and angry, but the reality is I think there is a very libertarian nature to it.
The most important thing about the libertarian point of view here is private property, and this private property extends all the way to yourself. If you see yourself as something that wants to be left alone, then you want to be left alone, not only from other people, but from the ravages of nature, from the ravages of disease and I think the libertarian calling could be to come up with these solutions that could change humanity forever so we really could live a truly libertarian life where you’re not constantly attacked. We’re all being bothered by biological issues so I’d like to take that libertarian philosophy one step further and apply that to the human body.
You’ve done a little biohacking yourself. Can you tell us about the chip in your hand and what it does?
On my bus tour recently, the very first stop on that four-month tour was this place called Grindfest. All the biohackers across the country fly in and they do things to themselves. They put chips in, they electrocute each other, they party, they do drugs, it’s a very free society.
One of the things I did was I got chipped. I got a tiny little implant in my hand. It’s about the size of a grain of rice and it allows me to open my front door. I’m trying to get the software right now to get my car to start with it. It also sends out a text message if you get close enough to me and have the right software. It can do all sorts of little things.
The biohackers are some of the most important people in the transhumanist movement. They’re some of the ones that are really out there beyond the academics of it. They’re doing things, they’re testing things. I’m a big believer that a lot of people will get chip implants soon. I’m a surfer and when I go surfing I don’t have to hide my keys underneath my car somewhere or worry about them getting wet. I just go because the housekeys are in my hand.
Do you think there is a line in how far human enhancement and augmentation can go before we can’t really classify ourselves as humans anymore?
I would say that when we start really merging with machines, maybe over the next five or 10 years, that’s when mainstream people will say, yes, we are fundamentally crossing that line of becoming less human.
I think when we start affecting our thoughts, and that’s gonna come through the neural laces or the neural prosthetics. When you start getting into the matrix you’re really no longer a human being, but the reality is that we’re probably going to keep the best of our human traits with us for a long time. There’s this idea that we may not ever even see that change because it happens so slowly and it will be hard to diagnose when it does. We’ll always just think, oh, we’re who we are.
So you’re not afraid that we’re moving into a phase where we are potentially losing an essential sense of self or individuality through this augmentation? You’re embracing a future with a new type of human?
Oh I’m totally embracing it! I have called for the end of humanity as we know it. The reality is that I think the human body is frail. I don’t want to say the human body is evil, but I don’t like it. I’m not a fan of the human body. I think it’s something that is designed to be replaced and replaced as quickly as possible.
When you tell me that a third of everybody I know dies from heart disease and my father has had four heart attacks, I’m not saying the human body is something wonderful. I’m saying look, the heart is a terrible frigging mechanism. Awful mechanism. Terrible. We need to replace it and we need to replace it quickly. Frankly you could say the same thing about the human body as a whole. Every single part on the human body has to go and can be substantially improved. And will be substantially improved over the next 25 years.
We need to get over this idea that the body is something holy. Of course this is classic Christian ideology teaching us that, the human body is holy, marriage is holy, all these things are holy. Listen, none of that is holy. The only thing that really makes sense is what’s most functional to increase our living standards for ourselves, for our families and for our community and humanity as a whole. And frankly, to do that, the most functional thing is to upgrade ourselves. To get rid of limbs. To get rid of blood. To get rid of breathing air. To get rid of eating and pooing. I mean if you were to create a machine, you had all the power in the world, you would never create a human being.
You would never create the human mind, three pounds of meat. It’s nowhere near as sophisticated as the Empire State building having servers lined up to the windows. Here, in just a few years we’re gonna see exactly how complex a machine we can create.
The human mind is something that’s just evolved over a period of 150,000 years from being essentially apes and we think we’re really smart, but we have no idea the sophistication we can get to. If you look at the trajectory of how intelligence is increasing in the machine world. If you take that out a hundred years, just on that trajectory, the artificial intelligence would probably be approximately one trillion times smarter than a human being. We have no idea what a trillion times smarter than our brains would look like. I think we should do the best to be that change and go with it rather than be left behind.
Hah, house pets would be lucky! We would be much more like ants! If an ant sees a human being it has no idea what that human being is. It just sees something moving in its vision. In fact I’ve often speculated that this is why we have never made contact with any other species out there or any other kinds of intelligence. Any other intelligence out there is almost certainly going to be some kind of machine, perhaps even more complex than we even know.
Elon Musk is 100 percent right. That is why the Transhumanist Party never advocated for artificial intelligence to go beyond the human being. I would not be surprised whatsoever if machines suddenly decided, why would we want to keep humans around?
What I have advocated is that we need to spend more time working on neural prosthetics so that when we create an AI that can become smarter than us we can directly tie ourselves into that AI and become an intrinsic part of it. So that anywhere the AI goes, we also go. That’s the only way I’d like to let loose a machine like that, where we were a huge part tied directly into it.
Just finally, is there a specific area of research or technological development that is happening right now that excites you?
To me, the most important development of the last decade, or even century, is genetic editing. It’s here, it’s real and it’s now. It’s not just about giving babies blue eyes or brown eyes or blonde hair or black hair. It’s about going in and eliminating cancer before you ever get it. It’s going in and saying, this is something that Einstein had in his brain and we’re going to create a genetic component so that you have it and then all of a sudden you are 20 percent better in physics than you would have been.
And this is something that the Chinese have been working on and leading the way. They’re moving forward on it in ways that America is totally stopped on because we have all these laws in place. So we’re very much stuck at a point where the most important science, being genetic editing, we could lose our entire teeth on it while Asia takes the lead.
What does it matter if a couple of hundred million Chinese kids have augmented intelligence that makes them twenty to thirty percent smarter than us, but for religious reasons Americans aren’t? What happens in the 15 years after that? There is no way to compete against them.
It becomes a great controversy not only between rich and poor, but between Chinese citizenry and American citizenry. This is a very real civil rights debate that America and the world has to have. Everybody knows how thorny it is, but none of the politicians want to discuss it because it is so thorny. There is no right way about it and yet the technology is here and we all know it has the potential to completely change human nature.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.