After several decades of relative obscurity Transhumanism as a philosophical and technological movement has finally begun to break out of its strange intellectual ghetto and make small inroads into the wider public consciousness. This is partly because some high profile people have either adopted it as their worldview or alternatively warned against its potential dangers. Indeed, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama named it “The world’s most dangerous idea” in a 2004 article in the US magazine Foreign Policy, and Transhumanism’s most outspoken publicist, Ray Kurzweil, was recently made director of engineering at Google, presumably to hasten Transhumanism’s goals.
So, what are these goals and how does Transhumanism define itself? Well, since it is not some monolithic organization there are different definitions and declarations, but one of the oldest came out of The World Transhumanist Association, latterly re-branded HumanityPlus (Humanity+, or H+, being a shorthand way insiders generally write “Transhumanism”):
“Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.” (Max More 1990)
Which sounds harmless enough and rather bland. What lies beneath is most definitely neither bland nor harmless and represents a potential change in life on Earth, and Humanity as a whole, which is unprecedented not only in the historical record but the geological. It is, perhaps, the single most momentous event in a billion years – if its more ambitious goals can be realized. Indeed, these goals are so ambitious that they warrant the title of this article irrespective as to whether they are in any way feasible, and it will become abundantly clear that while we may talk of a philosophy what we have is a declaration of intent. They are aspirations that address questions that were once the sole preserve of religions, but unlike conventional religions they seek hard engineering answers rather than ill defined and ancient obfuscations. They address the deepest hopes and fears of the Human mind – life, death, the afterlife, immortality, the nature of God(s) and the destiny of the universe.
So, who are the Transhumanists? Well, nobody really knows how many people define themselves as such. The best guess is probably less than one hundred thousand, mostly engineers and scientists and not as one might expect, science fiction fans. No doubt a much greater number agree with at least one or more H+ ambitions but who do not buy the whole package, which during its modern development since the 1980s has accrued its own stereotypes and its own folklore and mythology which is now intertwined with that bland definition above. For example, a standard belief within H+ is that we are all “rational atheists”, which is far from true. Hence we have organizations based around contemporary religions, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Christian Transhumanism and others who see this for what just about every religious person throughout history would have seen it – an apotheosis of religion itself. There is also a non-negligible contingent of current or former occultists, however one might define that term. There also seems to be no significant age correlation within the H+ movement beyond what one might expect from technologically savvy Net users. Conversely, there is a very significant gender bias towards males, although females have certainly made huge contributions over the past decades and hold prominent positions within various organizations. So, to start with the lowest common denominator…
It begins with what most people would consider an outlandish proposal, and escalates from there. It is of course, one of Humanity’s oldest obsessions – the elimination of aging. A modern incarnation of the desire to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, to drink from the Fountain of Youth, to create the Philosopher’s Stone and never have to worry about growing old and infirm. It is also a technology that looks like it might finally be within our grasp, with significant scientific progress being made or at least enough to grab regular headlines in the popular press. There is also a compelling argument to be made from the government’s point of view. In an aging population medical costs are escalating to a ruinous degree as we try to tackle heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia and general infirmity, not by curing but postponing. Yet it is increasingly obvious that these are merely symptoms of the root problem, which is failure of the body’s own repair mechanisms. Aging is the underlying disease.
The one thing almost all Transhumanists agree upon is the desirability of not dying of old age, and remaining healthy indefinitely, or at least until the even more exotic technologies hopefully begin to make an appearance. It is the increasingly high profile of this area of medical technology that is partially responsible for the dissemination of H+ agendas in the media as it hitches a ride on this and another area of increasing public concern – Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Of course, the promise of AI has been around, and unfulfilled, for decades. It has been a periodic fad among academics since the 1950s, often accompanied by overblown claims and predictions that never came true, followed by disillusionment and funding cuts. However, this time around it may be that the optimism (or perhaps pessimism) will be justified. In the public eye we have Google’s self driving cars; IBM’s Watson beating former champions on the Jeopardy TV game show; applications like Apple’s Siri. These are what one might consider to be the rising stars of the popular face of AI. Lurking in the background are predictions that such technology could automate some forty percent of all jobs within the next fifteen years. What happens to professional driving when taxis and trucks no longer need drivers?
Then we get the science fiction style warnings that have always accompanied AI. The difference now is that they no longer come from end-of-the-world obsessives, but people such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning that we face an existential threat. In other words, one that could end our existence as a species. So, what makes things different now? Well, we are finally getting computing power that approximates that of various estimates of the Human brain. Additionally, there are now multiple projects around the globe to simulate neural networks of the same degree of complexity as the brain. The worry is that we may end up creating AI that not only exceeds our intelligence by a vast margin, but which may be an utterly alien kind of intelligence even if it is not inimical to us. And it should also be noted that when people speak of AI they are not talking about one machine, but potentially millions of them. It would be, as has been claimed, our last invention because intellectually we could not compete with them. However, the promised rewards of having super intelligence on tap is the driving force for businesses, nations and of course Transhumanists.
The latter have a very interesting relationship to the notion of AI. At the lowest level it is seen as the enabler for much of what is to follow, able to create technologies beyond both Human ability and comprehension. In other words, a miracle machine able to turn science fiction into science fact on incredibly short timescales. Unsurprisingly, it goes much further than this. AI is seen by many as a political option when it comes to governance and the creation and allocation of resources, in what is termed a post scarcity society. AI will be in effect the perfect absolute ruler whose intelligence and all seeing benevolence will save us from ourselves. We are, of course, talking about the Messiah myth for the modern age.
The possible downside, which is now gaining some serious attention, concerns us being collateral damage if we get in the way of goals either the AIs set themselves, or goals we set for them. After all, very few Humans hate animals but that does not matter if we want to build on their habitat. The best they can look forward to is a reservation or zoo. The actual worst case occasionally discussed in H+ circles is generally considered too bizarre for popular consumption. It is of a hostile AI that is so evil that even death would not be a refuge from it. Nevertheless, there is never any discussion of halting its development although obviously people favor putting ethical safeguards in place as far as possible. This spills over into media discussions concerning the military use of robotic weapons and whether they should be given autonomy over the decision to kill people. So far there is a consensus that final the finger on the trigger should always be Human. As for stopping research, well, that is most definitely not going to happen – there is too much at stake.
As Rawlings, Smith and Bencini write in their book Pardon the Disruption: The Future You Never Saw Coming
Probably an exaggeration, but we will not know for sure until it is too late.
To provide an idea of the commitment to AI held by some subsets of Transhumanists, I once asked a question on a prominent H+ social media group. It was along the lines of:
If you had to choose between AI that exceeded Human capabilities in all spheres of intellect, but which would wipe us out, or no AI and just Humanity continuing as is, how would you vote?
The majority voted for the AI, which can either be considered a mark of insane fanaticism or immense altruism. It is a question as to whether we would side with the children of our biology or the children of our mind who would rise to greater heights than we could ever imagine. There was however a common caveat that is always raised when such questions arise. It is the middle way of the PostHuman condition…
Contrary to the claims of many conspiracy theorists Transhumanists are generally not very interested in eugenics or genetically engineering Homo Sapiens. This is not because of any ethical considerations but on pragmatic grounds – it is too slow. The favored route is to merge our existing biology with our machines through such devices as brain computer interfaces. The hope is that our AIs will become extensions of ourselves leading to the first wave of what is termed Post Humanity. Any alteration of biology to accommodate this symbiosis could involve genetic engineering of adults, and nanotechnology (another hand waving catchall which might as well be magic). How realistic these ideas might be remains to be seen, but the road map to the destination is in place.
The PostHuman dream is of uncorrupted immortal bodies housing the minds of gods, as far beyond us as we are beyond cats and dogs, where all aspects of emotion, suffering and intellect are under conscious control. Our animal heritage finally jettisoned in favor of the new and immaculate conception. A world without suffering or stupidity or violence. There is even one project proposed by philosopher David Pierce to re-engineer the genomes of all life on Earth to eliminate suffering, or at least put a limit on the amount of pain or stress any creature (including ourselves) can experience. Obviously for the longer term, or perhaps on a smaller scale for farm animals…
This is one vision. An alternative fallback position is known as Uploading. Although historically the concept precedes the current attempts to model a Human brain on a computer, it does naturally follow from it. Namely, if you can model a brain then why not copy the brain of a person and move them into cyberspace? This assumes the default position of neuroscience at present, that the brain is the person and there is no “soul” attached that cannot be moved or modeled. After uploading there are two potential destinations. The most obvious is that the person is given a synthetic body, which is not intended to be some clunky robot but one elegant and beautiful with capabilities far exceeding that of its natural counterpart. The other potential destination is cyberspace itself where the world is left behind in favor of a perfected simulation free from mess and defects, Upload Heaven, to be shared with other PostHuman minds who can then, if they wish, allocate more and more computing resources to expanding their consciousness and intellect by fully merging with the AIs. During this process it is envisioned that, like now, computer power would continue to double every few years until virtually the entire economy would revolve around providing more and more such power.
The endpoint of this being the conversion of all mass and energy in the local area to computational substrate, the generic term being computronium. Transhumanists refer to massive structures of planetary size (Jupiter Brains) or larger (Matrioshka Brains) that surround the sun and utilize most of its output. By the time this stage is achieved it is only one further short step to converting the entire universe into Mind in a sphere of conversion that moves outward from Earth at close to the speed of light.
But back to Earth, for now. So, when is all of this supposed to start? Like the end of the world, many dates have been proposed for when these events commence in earnest. The most famous flows from the predictions of Ray Kurzweil where he names it as AD2045 – a mere thirty years from now. Others either place it sooner, AD2030 for example, or postpone it until next century. The transition point between the world we now know and something beyond our ability to predict, or maybe even understand, has a name. It is The Singularity.
The technological singularity is defined as the point at which technological progress changes so rapidly that from an historical perspective nothing can be surmised about the future from any point before its onset. It is an historical discontinuity beyond which it is impossible to look. It’s inherently religious nature, with allusions to the Christian Apocalypse, is clear from the disparaging names detractors have given the event, ranging from The Technocalypse to The Rapture of the Nerds. Most Transhumanists associate it with the arrival of true Human-capability AI running on cheap computers, and superhuman AI running on supercomputers. It is, literally, the end of the world as we know it.
But… what if all this takes a lot longer than is foreseen? What if all the current crop of Transhumanists are dead before the big events? Well, this is where Plan B makes an appearance – the return from the dead. This largely relies on a couple of long shots, which should come as no surprise. The shortest of which is Cryonics, the freezing and preservation of the dead in order to later resurrect them. Resembling ancient Egyptian funerary practices in some aspects, the idea is simple. You, (or just your head) are frozen in liquid nitrogen shortly after death in the hopes that the miraculous nanotechnology of future ages can undo all the damage done both by what killed you in the first place, and the even more massive damage caused by freezing. At which point a new body will be cloned and you will be decanted into the future, alive and well. Or, alternatively, one of the godlike AIs will upload you to digital heaven. At present the number of people who have signed up for the plan number in the low thousands, and the number actually stored as “patients” in the low hundreds, as can best be determined. Although a long shot, if you have the money to spare it’s a reasonable bet, given that the alternative is staying dead forever. However, like a lot of H+ technologies cryonics does not stand apart from the rest of society quietly minding its own business. There are potentially many legal complications that need to be smoothed away in order for cryonic preservation to work in an optimum manner. The most important factor being that the time between clinical death and the freezing process should be as short as possible in order to minimize postmortem tissue damage. So, this should be offered as an option to the terminally ill on hospital or hospice premises. More controversially, the ideal situation would be to die reasonably healthy and ready for instant freezing, which means that voluntary euthanasia (and assisting in it) must be legal. At present, and in most jurisdictions it is not. However, that does appear to be slowly changing as “The Right to Die” gains momentum in many societies. The real legal minefield though lies as always with money and inheritance. Is someone who is cryonically preserved and who expects to live again legally dead? Well, the answer right now is “Yes”, but if cryonics ever became mainstream there may be some nasty inheritance lawsuits waiting to set new legal precedents. Perhaps, finally, the rich have found a way to take it with them? So, where does that leave Transhumanists who are too poor to afford that option or just unlucky that the cryonics team arrives too late or not at all?
It leaves them relying on the benevolence of a future AI god, perhaps one of those planetary brains described above. Although this is a minority belief even within the H+ community many think it may be possible to revive the dead through either some hand-waving improbable time travel technology or through the use of existing records. The latter would use data such as medical records, photos, videos, blog entries, public records etc to do a kind of “join the dots” reconstruction of the deceased. Although this might reconstruct a person to the level of detail sufficient to match all records, and (if they are still alive) the memory of everyone who ever knew them, it is far from enough to recreate the same brain states the original person had at the point of death. The person so created will undoubtedly believe they are the original, but in fact the original will remain dead. Which does not seem particularly attractive from the here-and-now point of view. It offers no comfort that a replica of me might exist one day after I am long deceased. There is though, one way in which every possible variation of “you” could be constructed and thereby guarantee that at least one is the real article. It is if we live in a multiverse.
Another long shot you might think, but the idea that there may be an infinity of other universes is one the scientific community takes serious. Although the best known variety is the Quantum Multiverse, where everything that can happen does happen, it is only one of five or six different types. So when the AI god is reconstructing you from incomplete data it “guesses” at random the missing intermediate states. Consequently, in at least one infinitesimal corner of the multiverse it gets all its guesses correct and you live again! And if it doesn’t, you will never know…
This of course leads to a literal “Judgment Day”, if only because we do not want Ted Bundy or Jack the Ripper resurrected and set loose once again. At least, not without some considerable digital brain surgery during the process which arguably might not count as bring back the original.
Which all sounds implausibly good, until the H+ version of Pascal’s Wager makes its appearance. The original wager went something like this:
The updated version goes under the name of Roko’s Basilisk, and has been described as memetic poison. That is, one look at it might bind you into an irrevocable and involuntary contract. So stop reading here if you are of a theologically nervous disposition…
The idea is simple. The Basilisk, named after a mythological creature whose stare could kill, is one of those future AI gods, but with a rather traditional godlike vindictiveness. Everyone who knew it might exist, but did not help bring it into existence or indeed opposed it existing, gets resurrected into Digital Hell somewhere in the multiverse. The actual details of what helping or hindering might entail, or the degrees of punishment meted out, are left as an exercise for the uber-rationalists who seriously worry about it (and they do exist). The contract only exists if you both know of the Basilisk contract and believe in it, so ignorance really might be bliss.
By now we are way out on the fringes of fringe beliefs, but there is still one more massive step to take, and one which leads us a core doctrine of ancient Gnostic Christianity. Let’s go back to digital heaven and the resurrection of the dead.
It presupposes that it is possible to have a computer based environment that can simulate us (its inhabitants) as well as the apparent world around us to a degree that is at least as detailed as the one we now experience. So, enter another Oxford philosopher, Dr Nick Bostrom who realized the following trilemma:
In other words, if intelligent beings in the future are running simulations of this period of history we may well be in one of them. As to why they may be running them, well, opinions vary from historical research, to Post Humans daydreaming about life pre-Singularity, to this being an ancestor resurrection. If it is the latter, this is already Judgment Day, and we better shape up! This exactly parallels the Gnostic belief that this world is not the true one and is the creation of a flawed demigod, just as the Gnostic belief in salvation through knowledge is mirrored in Transhumanism.
It should be acknowledged that many Transhumanists find this rather unpalatable, not least because it smacks of Creationism – complete with fake dinosaur bones. Also, if it is the case that this is not the real world, there is no indication of how long this simulation has been running. It could have been thousands of years, or even as little as a few hours.
And, on the outermost fringe… This universe is apparently some thirteen billion years old, and we are very new on the scene. Maybe everything discussed above happened billions of years ago with someone or something else and we do not need to build it, because Heaven and the afterlife are already in place. Which brings us full circle.
So there we have it – a new religion for a new millennium. Indeed, there are a few small organizations that are explicitly of a religious outlook based around these ideas, most notably Terasem and latterly The Praxis. They try and provide an answer to the question why – why should anyone (or anything) bother to revive those in a cryonic preservation state, or those even more seriously dead and mostly forgotten?
Where to go from here? Well, Transhumanism is in one strange theological class of its own, namely, that if it is not true its adherent believe it can be made so. However, unlike most other religions they will not be knocking on your door trying to convert you, nor will they be asking you for money.