Interviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
(Reprinted with permission from SF Diplomat - Dec 19, 2006) For most people, the idea of altering human cognitive and physical capacities so as to improve the fundamental character of the human condition is nothing more than science fiction. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a contemporary work of science fiction that does not engage with the ideas of transhumanism whether it is in the shape of cybernetic implants or genetic engineering or even the singularity.
However, far from being the preserve of science fiction writers such as Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow or Vernor Vinge, the ideas of transhumanism have enough academic and political weight to them to lead Francis Fukuyama to declare transhumanism the greatest threat to the future of humanity.
In order to find out more about the realities of the transhumanist movement, SF Diplomat sought out Nick Bostrom to ask him about transhumanism, the end of the world and the future of academic research.
Jonathan McCalmont: Nick Bostrom, you are a philosopher, the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, a university fellow in the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at the university of Oxford and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association. How did you come to be a transhumanist?
Nick Bostrom: It was a matter of discovering rather than becoming. I discovered that there was a name for a view that made a lot of sense to me. The view was that people ought to have the opportunity to live much longer, healthier, smarter, and happier lives, and that technological enhancement of human capacities could enable this. The name was transhumanism.
JM: Did your studies in philosophy and science lead you to that view or did the view prompt you to undertake the course of study you chose?
NB: I was in London at the time, studying computational neuroscience, when I learned about the term "transhumanism" and that there were other people interested in this. But by then I had already been concerned for many years that future technologies might enhance human intelligence and emotion, or create artificial intelligence.
I have a childhood memory of overhearing part of a short news segment on a television set that was on in another room. I don’t remember the details but it had something to do with some scientists who had cultivated neurons in vitro and speculated that maybe one that this could be used to treat Parkinson’s. I was dumbstruck because it occurred to me that we would eventually learn to manipulate and engineer the stuff that thinks, and this might result in above-human intelligence. That prospect seemed uniquely important. Such a premonition guided my choice of subjects to study later at university.
JM: Francis Fukuyama famously described transhumanism as the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity ahead of more intuitive choices such as nuclear weapons and religious extremism. Would you describe the transhumanist movement as politicised, and how much of a threat are you?
NB: Transhumanism is compatible with a wide range of political views. The WTA has members who are social democrats, libertarians, green party members, and almost any other political stripe. We also have Buddhists, Catholics, atheists, agnostics, and a variety of other spiritual affiliations among our membership.
Obviously I don’t consider myself a threat! Quite a large chunk of my work is on risk analysis and how we might make the world safer from the greatest threats to humanity. I am trying to draw attention to existential risks and to help create a community of scholars and policy-makers to address these issues.
It is true that there are some risks in human modification and human enhancement, and not only medical risks. Changes that seem a good idea at the time could have subtle negative long-term consequences. One might worry about the erosion of deep human values. These risks arise from the potential unwise use of (anticipated future) human-modification technologies. I don’t think the transhumanist movement is creating these risks. If anything, it might help to reduce the risks by stimulating discussion and by attempting to build a constructive ethical framework for thinking about these technological developments. Also, we should not forget the risks and the certain downsides of the status quo.
JM: Absolutely, the technologies underpinning transhumanism are not unlike any other advanced technology in this respect. However, regarding your first point Fukuyama’s position seems to be a reaction to a possible future in which you have humans and then you have posthumans. Clearly part of the problem is that Fukuyama considers posthumans to be some whole other species. Even if we reject the idea that there’s such a thing as a narrowly defined "human essence" (which he clearly seems committed to), are you not just widening the definition? Is there not a point at which a posthuman ceases to be human? how much would we have in common with someone from a post-Singularity Earth?
NB: If we are talking about species, then why only two? Why not a vast spectrum of different kinds of intelligent beings?
You ask how much we would have in common with someone from post-Singularity Earth. This is a parameter which we want to influence. Transhumanism does not espouse the suicidal view that we should replace ourselves with whatever "more advanced" life form we might be able to create. The idea, rather, is that humanity can develop to new levels. Ideally, existing human beings would have the opportunity to continue to grow into "posthuman" beings, in much the same way as infants already grow into adults. Whatever it is we value about humanity should be preserved, cultivated, and expanded.
JM: Would you say that transhumanism is a broad church because it has yet to really politicise or is it simply that, like atheism for instance, a commitment to transhumanism doesn’t commit you to any particular political views? are there different approaches to transhumanism?
NB: I don’t think transhumanism should be a huge take-it-or-leave-it package deal. The basic idea can be combined with many different political views. It is possible that a more unified body of political implications will emerge from transhumanism as the idea develops. It is also possible that there will be different branches of transhumanism created by combining it with different political outlooks. So far, there seems to be two main branches, one social democratic, the other libertarian.
JM: As Olaf Stapledon might have put it, are we among the last of the First Men? In other words, how close would you say we were to the beginning of the posthuman era and are there any particular technologies we should be keeping an eye on?
NB: Time frames are difficult to predict. I’d say very likely within this century, and possible within the next few decades. Many possible future technologies are important enough to keep an eye on. I’d put molecular manufacturing (advanced nanotechnology), uploading, and artificial intelligence high up the list.
JM: How would you characterise the relationship between transhumanism and science fiction? Vernor Vinge might well have given you the term "Singularity" but do the catgirls and cyberpunks make your life more difficult?
NB: Personally, I’m not a great fan of science fiction, but this is probably just a matter of taste. Others seem to draw inspiration from science fiction. I would caution those who look to science fiction for insight into what the future might bring to beware of the good story bias. Stories must be interesting in order to sell, and what makes for an interesting story diverges (often radically) from what makes for a plausible forecast.
JM: But wouldn’t you agree that the relationship goes deeper than mere representation? After all, noted science fiction author Vernor Vinge (who coined the term "Singularity") is also a mathematician and a computer scientist. Also, you mentioned earlier that the WTA is concerned with discussing the implications of certain technologies, is that not what a lot of science fiction does?
NB: Yes, science fiction does that, and some science fiction does it well. My worry is that even good science fiction serves two masters, truth and entertainment, and entertainment is usually top dog.
JM: You’ve also written about John Leslie’s Doomsday Argument that states that, statistically speaking, the extinction of humanity is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Are such arguments mere thought experiments or can they really be used to predict the future? How long do you think we’ve got?
NB: I don’t think the Doomsday Argument fails for any easy, trivial reason. But I think it is inconclusive for deep methodological reasons. However, the same sophisticated methodology that is needed to see the real reason why the Doomsday Argument is inconclusive turns out to have other useful and important applications. I developed such a methodology in my doctoral dissertation and subsequent writings, the first mathematically explicit theory of observation selection effects. It has applications in cosmology, and it is a necessary tool when thinking about certain kinds of question about humanity’s future and our place in the world.
JM: Which kinds of questions?
NB: For example, whether we’re likely ever to encounter extraterrestrial life, how likely it is that we’ll ever colonize space, the probability that we are living in a computer simulation, etc.
JM: I notice that you make your academic articles available on your website. Not many academics do this, in fact, unless you’re enrolled in a university it can cost a fortune to try and keep in touch with what’s going on in academia. Would you be in favour of all academic articles being freely accessible to the public?
NB: The Internet is a big boon to academic research. Gone are the days spent in dusty library stacks digging for journal articles. Many articles are available free to the public in open-access journal or as preprints on the authors’ website. Sometimes there are copyright issues preventing authors from posting preprints online, and sometimes they are worried about other people steeling their ideas, or about revealing to the world anything other than their final fully polished product. But there is a clear trend towards increasing amounts of scholarly material being available free of charge online. This is a trend to be welcomed and encouraged. There are also many other ways in which the Internet is used or could be used to accelerate academic research. I don’t think its potential has been anywhere near fully tapped yet.
JM: So would you say that the days of the hugely expensive, subscription-only academic journal are limited? after all, it’s not as if the researchers or the referees get paid very much for their work. Would you like to see similar arrangements for academic books?
NB: Researchers get paid indirectly. Publishing in journals gives them prestige, which advances their careers. Refereeing is done partly from a sense of professional duty, but it also is an opportunity to learn of new research early. Yes, the cost of journal subscriptions is an issue. I think there are even bigger problems with the current system, such as the imperfections of the peer review system. There is no accountability for referees. Good referees don’t get rewarded. Referees who reject articles that later turn out to be seminal suffer no consequences. The process is often very slow, especially in the humanities. If I spot a flaw in a philosophical paper that has been published, my options are basically to either do nothing or to write an entire paper on this perceived flaw and try to get it published. If it turns out that I misunderstood the original paper, its author would in turn have to write an entire new paper clarifying her position and try to get that published. Years go by. Surely there is a better way.
JM: Are there any books you would recommend to someone who was looking to learn more about transhumanism?
NB: One could start with the FAQ, which is available online.
JM: Thanks for your time Nick.
If you want to learn more about transhumanism or any of the issues raised in this interview then I would recommend visiting Nick’s website as well as Wikipedia. Nick is one of the few academics who makes all of his articles downloadable for free. They range from academic philosophy papers to more accessible works and is definitely worth browsing.