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IEET > Security > SciTech > Life > Innovation > Vision > Technoprogressivism > Staff > Kyle Munkittrick

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From Gears to Genes: A Sea Change in Transhumanism


Kyle Munkittrick
Kyle Munkittrick
Pop Transhumanism

Posted: Jun 11, 2010

Transhumanism is the idea of guiding and improving human evolution with intention through the use of technologies and culture. If those technologies are not robotic and cybernetic but, instead, genetic and organic, then so be it.


For the better part of its existence, transhumanism was a philosophy built around computers, robotics, A.I, and nanotech. Extropianism, one of the most impressive and potent iterations of transhumanism, was born out of Silicon Valley. Many transhumanist research institutes still operate out of the lovely California epicenter of futurist dreaming.
image
Only in the past decade have we started to realize that transhumanism won’t realize its dreams through mechanization and computerization. Though seminal authors on transhumanism, like Kurzweil,

Morovac

Moravec, Drexler, and More focus on nanotechnology and cybernetics, those technologies haven’t seen real progress since the 70’s.

But genetics and biotech has. Starting in the 1950’s with the Pill, vaccines, and antibiotics, our knowledge of medicine and biology radically improved throughout the second half of the twentieth century with assisted reproduction technologies like IVF, not to mention genomic sequencing, stem cell research, organ transplantation, and neural mapping, advances in biology and medicine are what are driving the transhumanist revolution. When someone like Mark Gubrud starts arguing transhumanism won’t work because we can’t upload our minds into robot bodies, one has to gawk for a moment in awe at the irrelevance of the argument. It’s like arguing we can’t ever cure cancer because cold fusion is impossible.

Transhumanism is the idea of guiding and improving human evolution with intention through the use of technologies and culture. If those technologies are not robotic and cybernetic but, instead, genetic and organic, then so be it. And that seems to be the way things are going.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment of change, but 2001 seems to be a good year as any. Before that you have an engineer’s perspective on how to improve humanity, as with the above authors. After that, you have writers like Bostrom, Pearce, Hughes, Agar, and Bailey nodding to the older, mechanical ideas, but instead choosing to focus on pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, senescence, cognition enhancing drugs, growth hormones, eugenics, mood control, suffering, sentience, sexuality and neurodiversity. The clone has replaced the cyborg, and the only engineering that matters has the words “genetic” or “chemical” as a prefix.

Cryonics, A.I., and nanotech remain points of interest, but of significantly reduced importance. One of our best and most amazing cybernetic devices, a cochlear implant, is rudimentary compared to the fantastic goals of syncing a mind, a thing we can’t even define, with circuitry. Yet our efforts to sequence the very instructions from which a mind is grown, DNA, has been a smashing success. Genetics and biotechnology is currently where electronics and computing were in the 1960’s: the very basics have been established and we don’t even know what we’re going to do with the technology. We don’t even know what we have yet: biology is in a liminal space.

And it is because of that liminality that we as transhumanists must not focus on technologies, on possibilities or guesses as to what may come, but rights and responsibilities. No one, and I mean no one, predicted the iPhone and everything it entails (cellular communication, hand-held computing, the internet, digital music and video, mass affordability) at the dawn of the computing era. No one even predicted it during the Dot Com Boom. To guess as to where biotech might go in the next 50 years is an equally huge exercise in futility.

The critical difference is, of course, that the human body is biological. Unlike technology, which mediates our interaction with the world, whatever advances occur in biology will mediate how we are embodied and will directly effect our state of existence. It is this existential threat to the “human” that is triggering the backlash and why opponents of transhumanism are no longer Luddites, but bioconservatives. Technology is no longer the enemy, but the very nature of humanity itself.

To be a bioconservative is to pick a moment in time and choose it as the appropriate point for human beings to remain in evolutionary stasis. That we have gone from a pre-sapiens, hunter/gatherer, small tribe, nomadic, raw-food-processing species that lacked language, culture, and higher reasoning to a sprawling, urban, technological, language-based, culture-ruled, rational super species is irrelevant. The cry of the bioconservative is, to paraphrase McKibben, “Enough! This far, but no further, in the name of ‘humanity’ as we have retroactively defined it!”

But their movement will fail as bioconservatives oppose the very essence of the thing they claim to love: human nature.

If there is one thing humans do, it is change, learn, and evolve. We are the apotheosis of evolution, because for the first time in the universe the process has a conscious agent. Like a confused and frightened Urizin stumbling along with the love and wisdom of Sophia as our guide, we desperately seeking to live up to our potential and the racking weight of the knowledge that we may fall short. As with computers and the digital revolution, we do not know where biotech and the genetic revolution will take us. But we know it will take humanity somewhere else, somewhere new.

One can reject that change, concede to fear and in doing so reject one’s humanity; or one can take hold of the brighter burning flame of science and philosophy and, in doing so, dare to believe we can ethically and boldly bring our species out of the biological Dark Ages and into a future of unexpected wonders and challenges.


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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COMMENTS


Great article!
with one exception. I believe computational technologies and biotechnologies will evolve together, and there is no reason why they should not?

Underpinning both physics and biology is maths and arithmetic, such like the simplicity of binary or black and yellow peas, to DNA coding, nature’s way is to take the simple and efficient way, (mutations and wildcards aside).

There may be computational speed limitations with biological functions, and so far only mechanical systems can survive the vacuums of space and with limited resources.

re bioconservatives… I wonder how open minded Darwinians like Richard Dawkins are towards these manipulations of biology and genetics? Perhaps we should ask him and find out?





Good article, except that you completely overstate your case by attempting to deny that any progress is being made in cybernetics, robotics and nanotechnology.

Genetics is indeed progressing quickly, but so are the other technologies you try to downplay. Graphene is rapidly becoming the likeliest candidate for a new generation of computers, and is also proving to be quite biocompatable.  DNA based nanoassemblers are already in the labs. Highly sophisticated cybernetic limbs controlled by thought already exist.

Will genetics play an enormous role in shaping the future? Of course, but it will be in concert with the other technologies, not instead of them.





Genes ARE gears. They are nanomachines which have been engineered by evolution, rather than designed in a lab. Switching from gears to genes, if such a think is happening, does not change the nature of the game: using technology to radically change humans.





Eugenics all over again. It’ll never happen.
Your “bioconservatives” label and “for or against it” false-dilemma are laughable. I’m only a bio student, so I can’t claim to know all the science, but you know a great deal less, by the looks of it.





Moravec would probably approve of his name being spelled “Morovac” about as much as he approves of the rest of this article.





@Cygnus: I believe computational technologies and biotechnologies will evolve together

So do I. Wet and dry engineering will converge, blend and ultimately merge. Future thinking beings will be based on blended wet-dry computational substrates, and it will make little sense asking whether they are “organic” or “artificial”. I also think ex-organic uploaded minds will blend with pure software intelligences, and our specie will leave biology behind and evolve beyond the meatspace.





@Ping ping: could you elaborate?

@Tim Tyler: woopsie daisy. Thanks for pointing out the mistake.

@Cygnus/Giulio/Valkyrie: When I say the shift is from gears to genes, I mean the focus, not the totality of the movement. Twenty years ago transhumanism’s braintrust was located in Silicon Valley, now it’s located in bioethics departments and genetic engineering labs. Of course they rely on nanotech and robotics, but as tools, while DNA, cell function, and body systems are the areas of research and progress.

I have no doubt that both sides of the tech will merge, but biology will lead the way, both in terms of real scientific progress and in the realm of ethical debate.





“nanotechnology [hasn’t] seen real progress since the 70’s”

Such statements don’t give a very good impression regarding how much you know about the topics you’re talking about.


“Only in the past decade have we started to realize that transhumanism won’t realize its dreams through mechanization and computerization.”

Such statements of certainty also don’t give a good impression at all.





@ Aleksei: Name one advance in either nanotech that matches the scale of either the discovery of antibiotics or the sequencing of the human genome.





@Mike: I don’t see a fundamental difference between a gene and a nanorobot. Both are small devices which perform some computations based on their state and inputs, and act on their environment based on the results.

There is, of course, a practical difference: genes exist here and now, while nanorobots entirely designed in the lab don’t (Venter might object). It follows that working via the bio route may be more practical at this moment. But this may change suddenly.

As you know, I also think our transhumanist goals, even the more extreme (mind uploading etc.), may eventually be achieved but probably not as fast as envisaged by many transhumanists in the 90s (actually, I thought the same in the 90s). But transhumanism in the 90s was exciting, and FUN. Let’s not make it boring, and let’s go back to the enthusiasm we had in the 90s.





@Kyle:

Antibiotics seems a weird point of comparison, since that part of bioscience was also developed a lot earlier than the 70’s.

Sequencing of the human genome, on the other hand, is a valid point for you to invite comparisons to, since it happened after the 70’s.

Regarding nanotechnology in general, I’ll quote here from Wikipedia:

“Nanotechnology and nanoscience got started in the early 1980s with two major developments; the birth of cluster science and the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM).”

The scanning tunneling microscope, for example, is something I indeed consider “real” progress, whereas you apparently do not.

I’ll also note that I see sequencing of the human genome as more of a theoretical/non-practical milestone, than an actual “real” milestone like the STM. If we count it as real progress, then we should also count Drexler’s and later e.g. Robert Freitas’s theoretical work as real progress.





The one thing I fail to understand is how so many people can fool themselves into thinking that Nanotech/biotech/robotics/VR are all decades away.

We are already past the tipping point on automation, and quickly developing “printing” processes for more and more goods. The progress in just the last year alone made in stemcell use, bioprinting, using bacteria as assemblers, and dna based nanoassembly should tell you that practical applications for these technologies is less than a decade, as should advances in carbon manufacturing, carbon electronics, and electronics and 3d printing.

There is a VERY strong chance that basic nano/bio assembly could be FUNCTIONAL by the end of the decade, not “feasible in the future” but working at a basic level enabling simple molecular manufacturing. If you toss in the enormous advances in cybernetics in control systems, synthetic muscle, and biomemetics, it seems quite likely that cybernetic limbs by the end of the decade could be extremely likely, possibly even using bioglucose fuelcells, and even a stemcell created “skin” like that of a “terminator”

You cannot look at any single field of science and build an accurate picture of current capability. You MUST look as broadly as possible, and see where developments in other fields create answers to problems in completely unrelated fields. 

so to Kyle, to be honest, your post does more to reveal your biases against “cyborgs” then it honestly assesses the state of the art in transhumanist tech. Yes, bioscience is advancing rapidly. Because all of science is being fueled by the rapid advances in electronics, which is in turn being fueled by rapid advances in nanoscale engineering, which is benefiting from rapid advances in many fields, including bioscience. It’s a massive positive feedback loop, and it seems quite probable that it’s all going to hit the knee of the curve within the next decade.

@Mike.  Lifeforms may operate slowly when left to natural evolution, but we’re not talking about natural evolution are we? We’re talking about highly directed and human guided evolution in which the life span of an organism is meaningless as a measure of the rapidity of knowledge gain. We can progress our knowledge of genetics without even having to make a lifeform, as our increasing knowledge will soon allow us to simulate hundreds of millions of generations of any dna based organism in far faster than real time. The larger the DNA database grows the more subject DNA research is to acceleration via automation. It’s just another rules based system after all. once enough rules are found, we can use a computer to speed up the process of finding the remaining rules. And as above, the faster computers get, the faster everything else gets.

Well, if you’ve read my article on graphene a H+ you should realize that computers are about to get faster.  A LOT faster. Over 1000x potentially with just graphene using conventional particle electronics, and potentially 100,000x faster if they can create plasmonic computers using quantum wave electrons instead of particles.

That means research is likely to speed up by at least one order of magnitude, and possibly by several.

All of which tells me that multiple decades is far too conservative an estimate for the basic primitive phases of Bio/nanotech and quite probably even narrow AI.





To re-purpose an old quote, “All transhumanism is either neurotechnology or stamp collecting.”  I’m trying to echo the words of Jaron Lanier who said that virtual reality and other types of technologies that directly alter our conscious experience is the ultimate type of transformative technology and will always be the most exciting thing we can be involved in.  Whether by gears of by genes, applying technology to our minds and eventually invasively to our brains is what transhumanism always meant, at least to me anyway.





@haig: Oh Jaron Lanier, still pouting about the fact that his “most interesting room in the world” produced a whole heap of nothing. Augmented reality is blowing the promises of VR out of the water and for all his brilliance, he never caught a wave of technological development that amounted to anything. His saving grace is that his hippie-cyberpunk technoskepticism earned him enough cred with people like Rushkoff, Doctorow, and Carr that he still is seen with some sort of urgency. You Are Not a Gadget’s only great sections were where he admitted that corporations make better stuff than open source, which is why Google and Apple are doing so well.

@Giulio: DNA is the program, tRNA and organelles are the “nanorobots” if you have to draw an analogy at all.

@Aleksei: I picked antibiotics not because of time frame but because of their massive impact on medicine. They represent the fruition of cell/germ theory. STM is a breakthrough, but on no where near the scale of antibiotics. Genome sequencing just became economically feasible this year and Venter’s synthetic DNA project was a success, so I’d consider this year zero (not the completion of the Human Genome Project) for measuring the impact of the modern genetic engineering. Again, the point is not that nano/robo/comp don’t matter or aren’t significant, but that they do not represent the center of the movement as they did 15 years ago.

@Valkyrie: All of the major proponents of those innovations said they were supposed to reach fruition by this year or earlier. The goal posts keep getting moved. The problems are FAR more complex than anyone imagined.

I’m not biased against cyborgs, far from it. I’m not arguing that genetic engineering is going to be perfected in a decade, but that bio holds more immediate and direct potential given the current state of science and tech than mechanization and computerization. Of course technology assists biology, but using a nano-scale microscope to investigate and perfect DNA manipulation is a far cry from artificial manufactured nanobots coursing through my bloodstream.

I agree with ALL of the above arguments that the technologies all work together and are converging. My point is that engineering - nano/robo/comp - is no longer the CENTER of the movement, but has shifted to a supporting role while biotech becomes the driving engine of transhumanism.





“Again, the point is not that nano/robo/comp don’t matter or aren’t significant, but that they do not represent the center of the movement as they did 15 years ago.”

I haven’t argued against (or for) this point, just pointed out that while writing in support of this point, you made rather questionable statements that don’t give a good impression of your thinking.

Regarding your main point, it would make more sense to me if you were arguing that in the *near future*, the bio-stuff will be of more interest to transhumanists (though I’m not convinced of that either, but it’s certainly possible—and though my personal focus and the focus of those transhumanists most like me will continue to be on existential risks, also long-term existential risks, and this doesn’t lead to a particular focus on bio-stuff). When you claim that transhumanists already have been more interested in bio-stuff for over 10 years, you seem to be flatly wrong. Your characterization of e.g. Bostrom’s focus does not seem truthful at all; he’s certainly just as interested in e.g. AI than in these other things you mention.

But if you tweak a bit who you mention and who not, you could certainly arrive at a list of people who have mostly been interested in bio-stuff. Then you could claim that your list represents the majority of the transhumanist movement, according to some convenient definition of who is a transhumanist in your books and who’s not.

I’d say that Silicon Valley, the current importance of which you try to play down, still is the most significant center for high-achieving transhumanism. As an example, look at what kind of transhumanism is on the front page of the New York Times business section today:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/business/13sing.html

(not that I’d be perfectly happy with NYT’s focus in that article)





My point is that engineering - nano/robo/comp - is no longer the CENTER of the movement, but has shifted to a supporting role while biotech becomes the driving engine of transhumanism.

Biotech IS engineering.





> ‘Oh Jaron Lanier, still pouting about the fact that his “most interesting room in the world” produced a whole heap of nothing. Augmented reality is blowing the promises of VR out of the water and for all his brilliance, he never caught a wave of technological development that amounted to anything. His saving grace is that his hippie-cyberpunk technoskepticism earned him enough cred with people like Rushkoff, Doctorow, and Carr that he still is seen with some sort of urgency. You Are Not a Gadget’s only great sections were where he admitted that corporations make better stuff than open source, which is why Google and Apple are doing so well.’

You really didn’t reply to my statement, only to my reference to Jaron Lanier (which I see in retrospect I should have avoided).  I agree with your take on Lanier, he is mostly an idealist and says a lot of things I disagree with, but I still respect and admire him.  Anyways, getting side-tracked, the point I was trying to make is that everything we are and experience is seated in our brains, and so the ultimate transformative technology will directly apply to the brain itself (and I’d argue, culminate in uploading,  which truly is a ‘singularity’ event).

I’m not saying biotechnology does not have the potential to radically shape our near-term future, but when I think of transhumanism I don’t think of advanced biofuels or cures for diseases (which are great), what I think about is transforming what it is to be human, which is our minds, which is our brains.  I do think biotechnology will aid in this process.  Optogenetic neuromodulation would not be possible without advanced molecular biology and genetics.

So yes, gears or genes, it doesn’t matter, but what we do with those things does.  And when we apply them to the brain, that is when our humanity is radically changed and what transhumanism should mainly focus on.  Otherwise its just plain, vanilla bioethics.





“virtual reality and other types of technologies that directly alter our conscious experience is the ultimate type of transformative technology and will always be the most exciting thing we can be involved in. Whether by gears of by genes, applying technology to our minds and eventually invasively to our brains is what transhumanism always meant, at least to me anyway.”

“when I think of transhumanism . . . what I think about is transforming what it is to be human, which is our minds, which is our brains.”

“And when we apply them to the brain, that is when our humanity is radically changed and what transhumanism should mainly focus on.”

I think this is such a key point it should prominently feature in all transhumanist/singularitarian FAQs and articles.

(Sorry for shouting, but…) THIS. IS. TRANSHUMANISM!





@Kyle You know.. the sequencing of human genome, while impressive didn’t yield much results yet.

I don’t think transhumanism is guided by any field. It’s a way of thinking that with technology (this include biotechnology), we can improve society and the humans. This also include research in energy, transportation, educations,... everything.





@giulio: But it is organic engineering. That’s why I said “genetic” has to be in front of the word. Engineering an ecoli to produce insulin is vastly different from engineering a circuit board. I didn’t think I needed to explain that, but that’s what I get for assuming.

@haig: You’re right, I was non-responsive. As for directly affecting our brains, I am simply arguing that we are going to see biochemical and genetic alterations take direct action on mental states before we see significant direct mind-to-computer (be it cyborg or uploading) interaction. They may happen simultaneously, but mind altering drugs, be they recreational, theraputic, or enhancing, exist now and are being refined; direct mind-to-computer systems do not exist.

Second, “vanilla” bioethics is where the biggest and best transhumanist discussions are occurring. You wanna talk human enhancement, you talk Bostrom, Bailey, Savulescu, Hughes, Agar, Caplan, etc. all bioethicists. Tech heads are old guard, bioethicists are vanguard.

@re-engineer: I never said the other stuff wasn’t transhumanism, I said it wasn’t where the movement centers itself anymore. I’m noting a paradigm shift.

@Simon: agreed that it isn’t guided, and, in fact, I make the point that we don’t know where we will be in 20 years. I predict nothing and show that past predictions didn’t even consider the hugest benefits of the computer revolution. My point is that with the human genome project completed, we’re basically at the same research point as computers were when “enigma” was produced. The knowledge of what a genomic sequence is and how it works is still so incredibly new that real advances might not happen for fifty years, but that right now the majority of near-future literature and ethical debate is biology centric.

Second, I would argue Venter’s synth-bio project wouldn’t have been possible without the HGP’s influence, and we have yet to see the results of that.





And just to clarify, by progress, I mean genuine breakthroughs. I’d argue 20th century medicine only had about five: applied hygiene, full anesthesia, vaccines, and antibiotics, and organ transplantation. Cancer treatments, AIDS control cocktails, preventative health, and diagnostic tools represent advances, but only partial ones and beyond that it’s symptom control. Equivalents in computing would be the microprocessor and the internet. I can think of no equivalent level of breakthrough for either nanotech or genetics, but philosophically, the issues raised by enhancement, particularly genetic engineering, have become central issues of ethical debate. That debate is framing the movement: stem cells, eugenics and cloning are more immanent than uploading and A.I. in the minds of bioconservatives.





Kyle: “That debate is framing the movement: stem cells, eugenics and cloning are more immanent than uploading and A.I. in the minds of bioconservatives.”


If your goal is to do some groundwork for a personal career in bioethics, as opposed to trying to do an unbiased analysis of the state of transhumanism, then yes, this article of yours makes perfect sense.

Indeed you’re not going to find many bioconservatives to argue with around some technological fields that however have at least as great relevance from a broader point of view.





> “I am simply arguing that we are going to see biochemical and genetic alterations take direct action on mental states before we see significant direct mind-to-computer (be it cyborg or uploading) interaction. They may happen simultaneously, but mind altering drugs, be they recreational, theraputic, or enhancing, exist now and are being refined; direct mind-to-computer systems do not exist.”

I implore you to catch up on the latest research on optogenetics.  I think we’re just knit-picking here, since it really is the combination of cybernetics and biotechnology working alongside each other.  No amount of gene therapy or synthetic biology alone will ever give you the amount of control over neural circuitry needed to do anything of substantial consequence without some type of ‘cybernetics’ or good old fashioned computational enhancement; the brain just doesn’t work that way.  Optogenetics did not exist 5 years ago, and now we have forecasts of clinical trials for within the decade!  As for your statement, “direct mind-to-computer systems do not exist”, I’m sure you’ve seen the videos of monkeys controlling robotic arms and people moving cursors with their Braingate implants.  This is only the tip of the iceberg.





@haig: All worthy points. We aren’t in disagreement that the technologies are merging or working together. A few quick notes:

1. “genetics” is still the base word of optogenetics - wet biology is at the core of the research. The research is literally focused on biology, specifically that of brain chemistry, reinforcing my point.

2. Braingate and robot arms, though mapped to the brain, are not dealing with actual mind-to-computer connections. The technology that picks up brain-based electrical signals isn’t significantly different from that which picks up muscle-based electrical signals. The newer tech merely cuts out the nervous system middleman.

I am not downplaying the huge strides both of these technologies are making, but neither undermines my original points.





@Kyle: The technology that picks up (and interprets) brain-based electrical signals IS an actual mind-to-computer connection, albeit a very primitive one compared to future standards.

Once again, I find this insisting on the “differences” between wet and dry tech entirely pointless. In both cases, it is engineering: modifying our environment according to our will.

@Mike: We may still get to all those utopian dreams of immortality, uploading, post-scarcity, and FAI sky-daddy, but if we do it will be many decades later than what was being talked about just a few years ago.

So what? If it were easier, it would be less fun. I can wait a couple or perhaps three decades, and I can use brain preservation if it takes longer. If I don’t make it, I am still happy for our grandchildren who may live forever.





“But their movement will fail as bioconservatives oppose the very essence of the thing they claim to love: human nature.”
Actually, they oppose humans:
<http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html>





David, in order to prove that bioconservatives oppose humans, you’ll have to deal with more than just one issue; the article only discussed the relationship with the wilderness. (Which article, by the way, didn’t seem to discuss bioconveratives at all.)





Biology for the win! Nice!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRDO1cyct74





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