According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2015? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 30 articles published this year on our blog (out of more than 1,000), based on how many total hits each one received.
The following piece was first published here on April 27, 2015, and is the #23 most viewed of the year.
The founding of the Transhumanist Party of the United States, the intensifying of the U.S. BRAIN-Initiative and the start of Google’s project “Ending death” were important milestones in the year 2014, and potential further steps towards “transhumanist” politics. The most significant development was that the radical international technology community became a concrete political force, not by chance starting its global political initiative in the U.S. According to political scientist and sociologist Roland Benedikter, research scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “transhumanist” politics has momentous growth potential but with uncertain outcomes. The coming years will probably see a dialogue between humanism and transhumanism in—and about—most crucial fields of human endeavor, with strong political implications that will challenge, and could change the traditional concepts, identities and strategies of Left and Right.
An Interview with political analyst Roland Benedikter. Katja Siepmann and Annabella McIntosh conducted the interview.
Katja Siepmann, MA, is a socio-political analyst, Senior Research Fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington D.C., Member of the German Council on Foreign Relations, Lecturer at the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Cultural Sciences of the European University Frankfurt/Oder and has written for Foreign Affairs, Harvard International Review and Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs.
Annabella McIntosh is a freelance political writer based in Berlin, Germany.
Question: In the book you co-authored with Pentagon-advisor and Georgetown-neuroscientist and neuroethicist James Giordano “Neuroscience and Neuroethics: Impacting Human Futures“ you state that these two fields at the interface between science and politics might lead to bigger changes in the coming years than either conventional politics or science. The reason: Technology is becoming an increasingly more powerful political and social force – not only sectorially or nationally, but globally.
Benedikter: In recent years technology has indeed emerged as a concrete social and political force. 2014 has seen a noticeable intensification of that trend. The traditional political players are poorly prepared for it. What, for example, nowadays takes place in just one year at the interface between the human brain and technology, until recently required a decade. It is an exponential development. The mechanization of society and humanity is occurring within many disciplines– for example, in the form of neurotechnology, which is increasingly used for medical and both dual-use and direct military purposes. But there are other fields too. From neuroeconomics to, neuroaesthetics, neurosprituality, neurosociology and even neuropolitics, the “neuro”-prefix is becoming omnipresent in the understanding and meaning of our time and civilization – and with regard to its self-ascribed identity.
What exactly is going on?
Supporters of “human enhancement”, which encompasses scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians and transcends language, cultural and ideological barriers, advocate mechanization of the human body in general and the broad “culturalization” of brain-machine interfaces in particular as the progressive, transformative path for humanity in the 21st century. By playing a consulting role in the “high spheres” of politics, science, and management, representatives of the transhumanist movement (including the World Transhumanist Association), which was initiated in the 1980s, are promoting the fusion of humans and computers. Among other things, they recommend the broad use of implants to enhance cognitive abilities, neural engineering to expand human consciousness and the cyborgization of the body and its tissues and systems in order to increase resilience, flourishing and lifespan.
Sounds gruesome at first. What is the idea behind all this?
The name “transhumanism” is the basic concept that tells it all. Its followers want to go beyond the present human condition. At its core it means to overcome the “natural” limitations inherent in human existence, which is to be born, live relatively short, half-conscious lives, and then die. The supporters of “human enhancement” and “transhumanism” intend to break through these current physical and cognitive (and perhaps even spiritual) barriers. In order to do that, they will pursue biotechnological upgrades to the human body and thus, conceivably, try to eliminate the negative effects of ageing and eventually (at least in their aspiration) even death.
You state (in a scientifically “neutral” sense) that the first breakthrough of this development could now be imminent, but there will also be inescapable associated ethical problems?
Possibly. Those who view the future human being as a technoid being, if not as a body fully integrated into technology – as seem to do, for example, Google’s chief engineer Ray Kurzweil or the Oxford professor of philosophy Nick Bostrom, who is the head of the “Future of Humanity Institute” at the faculty of philosophy and the Oxford James Martin 21st Century School—regard the mid of the century as a probable date for reaching the “singularity.” That’s the moment when artificial intelligence allegedly surpasses that of human intelligence and becomes in some way “self-conscious”, as these thinkers expect. Kurzweil has recently even referred to the year 2029 as the date when technology could reach a level of self-conscious “intelligence”. If that happens, even on an approximate basis, it will without doubt affect virtually everything, even though it will likely not occur in as spectacular ways as predicted.
Why will it affect everything?
Every conscious “being”, not even speaking of a self-conscious “being” (assuming that technology can achieve such a status, which is contested) possesses the first and basic instinct of self-preservation. Like other beings, a technological singularity will presumably apply its intelligence anticipatively once it has a satisfactory level of consciousness in order to preserve its status. That could hold true also for highly developed Artificial Intelligence (AI). Due to that Bostrom in his current book on “Superintelligence” believes that the most important question of the coming decades will not be how to prevent wars or how to build the best weapons or the best international relations, but how to control an increasingly intelligent technology – a “superintelligence” which is coming into existence through the combination of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. The question is how to provide some kind of AI-inherent “control mechanism” to prevent it from turning against humans in order to eliminate the only ones who could switch it off.
There is in fact an increasingly intense debate about the possibility that artificial intelligence may harm humanity – to the point of wiping it out.
That’s right. Influential opinion-makers like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, investor Elon Musk or scientists like Cambridge’s Stephen Hawking believe that artificial intelligence could become a serious threat, actually the most important threat to humanity in the coming decades, because it could become too powerful to control. In contrast, others like Microsoft’s Research lab’s managing director, Eric Horvitz, are of the opinion that we will be so “pro-active” in implementing the new intelligent technologies, that we will master their inborne threats before they become harmful.
Both sides, the apocalyptics and the optimists, have good arguments.
In fact, with a strong surplus still on the optimistic side. If you’ve noticed, essentially all internet- and technology-based firms in the meantime are committing a good part of their innovation efforts to the development of artificial intelligence, and if you follow the parallel developments in the traditional heavy industry towards non-human production through the massive substitution of robotics for humans, combined with AI, then it becomes clear that this development will impact humanity’s future as perhaps no other – not only by merging man and machine, but also by replacing humans with technology. For example, automaker Volkswagen (VW) is replacing a large part of its work force with robots, and will deploy artificial intelligence on a large scale. A member of VW’s board of management for human resources, Horst Neumann, declared in February 2015, that this will dramatically reduce costs from 40 euros per human working hour in Germany and 10 euros per hour in China to just 5 euros for a robot. And this is only the beginning of a massive wave of change coming throughout industry, and from there reaching out to most other fields too.
You state, that in terms of technology as an increasingly “universal factor” the year 2014 generated three important developmental steps, that some consider milestones on the way to “transhumanism”. What are those?
Firstly: Tech giant Google—which has recently been focusing more and more on transdisciplinary “moon shots” or “major advances” that others may regard as utopian or fantasy—launched its new project Calico to “stop ageing and eliminate death” under the guidance of its technology director Ray Kurzweil. The aim of the project is to make information on how to fight ageing more “intelligent” by combining data volumes, some of which have been collected and compared by Google’s search engines, with a “self-learning” ability. Information could then potentially develop itself further generating new information. As a first step this is supposed to eliminate disease and increase the lifespan of the human body by a measurable amount and ultimately – if possible – defeat death. According to those responsible for this and similar projects, new life-technologies such as the prevention of telomere shortening or genetic modification, are available for this purpose but need to be combined with artificial intelligence in order to become sufficiently sophisticated to reach an advanced level.
Leading transhumanists, for example the cofounder of the transhumanist movement Nick Bostrom, have been providing commentary input to the USA BRAIN-initiative since summer of 2014. On the initiative of President Barack Obama, the BRAIN initiative is generally dedicated to unraveling the secrets of the brain through the use of neurotechnologies so as to improve human health and well-being. Explicit to this is the “enhancement” of the human brain and cognition (“cognitive enhancement”). It deals with fundamental questions of how to improve human existence based on consciousness issues, and it focuses on the responsibility that derives from the perspective that a possible transformation of the human being as we know it is becoming feasible. The BRAIN initiative and its European counter-part, the Human Brain Initiative of the European Commission since 2012, set a trend– willingly or unwillingly– that conveys a strong transhumanist message. As James Giordano and I have noted, and urged preparation for, this trend will not only have an impact in the USA but also will have international influence. It is already being imitated, and embellished upon by nations such as China within their current capabilities.
Thirdly, the transhumanism movement organized itself for the first time as a concrete political force in autumn 2014, thereby reaching a new level of public visibility and potential impact, irrespective of the immediate success it can or will have at the ballots. In October 2014, the American philosopher and futurist Zoltan Istvan founded the Transhumanist Party of the USA and wants to run for president in 2016 as its candidate. Istvan published the book The Transhumanist Wager in 2013, which became an Amazon number one best seller, and he is the founder of the philosophical current Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF) that advocates radical efforts to transform oneself, for example, through “enhancement” of one’s own body and brain. Istvan wants to fashion this into a concrete political agenda that will play a role in the US-presidential campaign. For this purpose he apparently has financially strong sponsors, who are supposed to guarantee his party public attention.
Istvan’s step did not just appear out of nowhere?
The founding of the Transhumanist party of the USA was based on several pre-initiatives. One impulse for the political mobilization of the radical technophiles was the open letter of the second Global Future 2045 Congress on 11th March 2013, addressed to UN-general secretary Ban Ki-moon. In this letter important philanthropists, such as sponsor James Martin, and members of important universities such as Oxford or opinion leaders and entrepreneurs from the USA, Great Britain, Russia and Canada, demanded among other things governmental support for the development of artificial bodies (anthropomorphic avatar robots), for a conjunction of them with further developed brain-computer-interfaces, for extending life supporting measures, especially for the human brain, for the development of a “fully technical equivalent of the human brain” and finally for its “embodiment in a non-biological substrate” for the purpose of immortality, which basically means the reproduction of the human mind as an individualized computer program. The Congress assumed in 2013 that humanity today is facing a “threshold in its history” and that only a radical technology offensive could “free” humans from several of their existing problems. According to these transhumanists, technology is the key to basically every single problem of our time and the future: it could prevent wars, find a solution to global resource problems and pave the way for a global society centred on the individual. These aims of the Global Future 2045 Congress of 2013 in essence correspond to those of the Transhumanist Party in the USA founded in 2014. Istvan’s proposed presidential candidacy in 2016 takes this agenda to the next political and policy level.
With this in mind, the international media posed the question: What if a U.S. presidential candidate for 2016 were a transhumanist, wanting to become a cyborg?  Would the predominantly religious Americans tolerate such a candidacy?
A good question. Istvan responded to this with an ingenious manifesto in which he explains why a transhumanist should run for the U.S. presidency, even if it is unrealistic, at least for the near term. The political agenda of the Transhumanist Party of the USA is primarily threefold, as Istvan presents it: 1) To provide scientists and technologists with the means to overcome human aging and mortality within 15-20 years – an aim which, according to Istvan, a growing number of scientists regard as realistic; 2) to create a “cultural mentality” in the U.S. that assumes that: to “accept and produce radical technology” is in the best interest of Americans and humanity “as a species”; and 3) to protect citizens from the misuse of technology and to explain the planetary dangers implied by the transition to a “transhumanist era.” The latter goal of course alludes to the NSA scandal, which alarmed the general public and even led Republican Senator Rand Paul to sue the government for violating the U.S. constitution. A move which in some ways, according to Istvan, is in accordance with the third goal of the Transhumanist Party. All this suggests that the Transhumanist political movement is looking to the traditional parties to collect some votes out of their clientel not only in Silicon Valley, but beyond. It’s a serious endeavour with rather traditional plays and strategies.
However, is the third goal not rendered absurd by the first two goals?
To a certain extent, maybe. Who will define the limits and the terms of protection when “radical technology” is the aim? This is just one of the potential contradictions to be found in transhumanism and therefore in Istvan’s election program. However, it shouldn’t be overvalued at this point since the party is in its first steps.
How is this to be evaluated?
The most ambitious aim of the Transhumanist Party is to overcome ageing and, ultimately, death in the next 15-20 years. I consider this period of time not quite realistic. Overcoming death will stay out of reach for the time being, even though progress towards the extension of life could indeed be made rather quickly. From a political view it seems more important that Istvan’s party tries to create a mindset in American society which views radical technologies and science as the best solution to basically each and every challenge of the 21st century. This could translate something that can already be found as a fundamental conviction in Silicon Valley (and the likes in other countries), into a concrete political platform and therefore have a nation-wide impact. In the same way as the U.S. has a Green Party, which is hardly institutionally present but does have an influence on parts of the Democratic Party, and therefore is at least a mediating factor of influence on U.S. domestic policy, the technophiles could now play a role and maybe gain increasing influence on the big popular parties of the U.S., as technology is said to be “non-ideological” and is in principle viewed positively by conservatives and liberals alike.
Is technology really “non-ideological”?
It is of course not “true” that technology is “non-ideological”, and Istvan and the transhumanists know that well. It has ideological implications, as it outlines a very particular conception of the technologization - and probably even cyborgization - of humanity as the only meaningful pathway to the future, or at least by far most suitable. That might even be a more fundamental and radical – and, depending of its future use, also more discriminatory— ideology than those of the left and the right, as it is not only directed at social adjustment but also directly touches the future of the human body, and thus of human nature and the human being itself.
So how should the political programme of the Transhumanist Party be judged?
Istvan could be right in asserting, as he does, that “certainly (politicians) are gonna have to consider it. Transhumanism is here to stay. In the next ten years everyone is gonna be forced to deal with how we deal with Artificial Intelligence, everyone is gonna be forced to deal with longevity as people live longer, everyone is gonna be forced to deal with some of the biotics, the chip implants and the mind uploading. These are very difficult bioethial questions… and every government is gonna have their policies for.” He is also without doubt correct in claiming that “society will be greatly changed by radical science and technology in the next 5-15 years. Most people are unaware how significant these changes could be. For example, we might all be getting brain implants soon, or using driverless cars, or having personal drones follow us around and do our shopping for us. Things like anonymity in the social media age, gender roles, exoskeleton suits for unfit people, ectogenesis, and the promise of immersive virtual reality could significantly change the way society views itself.” While this is accurate, my skepticism is toward the proposed “transhumanist” answers. Should we simply and unconditionally embrace the trend towards universal technology and its global substitution of the difference of historic cultures, as Istvan and his party followers in essence, propose, or are more cautious and multi-level approaches the safer and better way? Should we as fast as possible get rid of the human being as we know it, or is it necessary to get to know ourselves better before we make irreversible decisions? In the end, humanity has just begun to explore itself. Here is the chance for the more traditional big popular parties like the Democrats and the Republicans to get to more broadly pondered and shared views. If nothing else, it’s their strength to forge great compromises involving as much people of different strata of society as possible.
Does Istvan succeed, as he aspires, to „present transhumanism in the media in noncontroversial ways that emphasize health, wellbeing, democracy, and the upholding of humanitarian values“ in order to get as many votes as he can and get global attention?
Its too early to judge this, but certainly the goals of the Transhumanist Party are controversial. Again, there are many contradictions in Istvan’s discourse. For example, the concept of “transhumanism” according to Istvan himself means “... beyond human. In this way, transhumanism aims to leave behind the problems and bickering the human race has undergone for millennia, especially ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural divisions. The language of transhumanism is science — and that language and cultural framework is universal.” That means that Istvan’s concept of “transhumanism” as such ) is to go beyond human, and thus it per definitionem excludes the “upholding of humanitarian values” since it actively aims at overcoming their basis which is being “human”. Or, as another interpretation, Istvan wants to suggest that “humanitarian” nowadays means “beyond human”, which is a quite dangerous combination in times of new martyrs that are springing up in the age of fundamentalist religious politics. So if Istvan claims the Transhumanist Party “to be a bridge to a scientific and tech-dominated future, regardless what the species may eventually become”, this is a profoundly ambiguous statement. It suggests that transhumanism is going to take care of something that in the end doesn’t matter: to be human (in the accepted sense, including the ethics tied to this discourse), since regardless what the species may become, technology is the answer, independent of other considerations. These contradictions cannot just be taken as if they wouldn’t matter, since they could point to a deeper, fundamental contradiction in transhumanist reasoning that we have to explore.
This ambiguity is also found in the so-called “three laws” of transhumanism that Istvan outlined in his recent book “The Tranhumanist Wager”, that allegedly inspire the political agenda of the Transhumanist Party.
Exactly. As you know, these three laws are, according to Istvan:
“1. A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
2. A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible — so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
3. A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe — so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.”
Concepts like “omnipotence” stemming from the USA with a global aspiration and outreach are not so very popular these days in most other countries. Yet the three laws’ values are very clear: first comes the individual, then “value in the universe”, i.e. first the ego, and only then communitarian and social values. This is clearly an egoistic agenda that is in contradiction with the essence of politics, which is fo forge a social contract and dialogue between many, in the ideal sense all social actors. Politics is by its very nature in essence about community, not about individuals.
But on the other hand…?
On the other hand, Istvan and the transhumanists are right in asserting that “if energetically adopted, these deceptively simple maxims ultimately compel the individual to pursue a technologically enhanced and extended life. (Transhumanists) have come to see the choice to accept or reject these principles as something far more fundamental than the choice between liberal or conservative principles.” Istvan is right that the decisions made necessary by the new “body inversive” technologies will be crucial for the future, more that most economic, political or military issues, since they touch the core of being human. The discussion is, how the related questions should be properly addressed by not simply dismissing humanism and the democratic culture and society created by it since the founding of the USA in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789 for the sake of radical technological individualism (or, as Istvan calls it, “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”). In contrast, James Giordano and John Shook have proposed a set of principles to guide the use of emerging biotechnologies that I believe to be more realistically oriented toward humanist values, and more soundly focused upon how such technologies should be ethically leveraged to sustain the relationships of individuals-in-community. Giordano and I have also produced considerations about this issue (together with John Shook and others), and our upcoming new book will also be dedicated to the related challenge which is not a merely theoretical one, but one with strong practical anthropological implications.
The Transhumanist Party’s two other goals are…
… as Istvan states, to “challenge other major political candidates, like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush: How shall America handle coming ‘designer baby’ technology? If robotic hearts can wipe out heart disease, should governments allocate many billions of dollars to it (since heart disease is the #1 killer in many countries, including America)? Will there be a global arms race for militaries around the world to develop a superintelligent Artificial Intelligence?” Second, and this is of particular importance, the goal of the politization of transhumanism is “to unite the transhumanists, singularitarians, cyborgists, biohackers (grinders), cryonicists, roboticists, longevity advocates, futurists, and all tech and science-minded groups and people out there under one banner. Currently, many pro-technology and science people don't get along with one another… The transhumanism movement is becoming so popular, that it must try to find common ground and a single optimistic vision of the future, irrespective of differences in politics, age, and ideologies.“ That means that there is the practical ambition to indeed build a transnational, global political movement beyond cultural and civilizational borders.
You and James Giordano stated years ago that there would be a trend of transhumanism towards politics, and that this trend could prove to be more important on the medium and long term than many still think, independent of the destiny of the Transhumanist Party of the USA in the immediate future.
Yes. Independent of persons and fashions, the trend toward an increase in crucial questions at the interface between technology and the human body seems to be inherent to the present stage of evolution of our civilization: of the present phase of human development. With or without the “Transhumanist Party”, and independent of its further path, questions at the interface of humanism and transhumanism are going to be at the center of the political, social and cultural debate of the coming years. The healthcare sector has been a forerunner to a certain extent, including its recent politization in the Obama era, but the spectrum of influence and effects is rapidly broadening. We believe that if there was no “Transhumanist Party”, the issues would nevertheless come up through the ethical deliberations and decisions that will unavoidably have to be made in face of the new options fostered by the interactions of technology, the human body, individual and collective consciousness, artificial intelligence and the self-image of the human being.
This trend seems to be the more radical, the more the combined size and outreach of the politicization of “transhumanism” on a global level is considered.
Right. To think that the politization of transhumanist thinking and ideals will be confined to the world’s most important technology-driven nation, the U.S., would be a miscalculation. The Transhumanist Party is gaining traction also in other parts of the Western world – mainly in Europe so far. Among them are the “Tranhumanist Party of the UK”, the “Transhumanist Party of Germany” (Transhumanistische Partei Deutschland) and others, all currently in the process of foundation. In all these nations, the Transhumanist Party websites are online, and their members are preparing for the next elections – in the UK for example for the general elections of 7 May 2015. Apparently, these parties are being founded in an internationally at least partially concerted action. Interestingly, there is a response through the founding of new “Humanist” political parties in some places, like for example in Germany the “Humanist Party of Germany” (Partei der Humanisten Deutschlands). This is a development that hasn’t yet received enough attention by political analysis.
Some worry that the Transhumanist political movement could become a new “Internationale” – like the Communist was. Do these parties want to overcome national souvereignities (as the “Internationale” did) in order to establish a global technological order?
I don’t think this is the appropriate approach. This isn’t in principle about class struggle, even if it could be involved in some way or another, for example by creating different “classes” of who gets access to certain options and who doesn’t. It would be a misunderstanding to interpret the current transformation of the “transhumanist” movement into a (probable) international alliance of national political parties through the viewpoints of the 20th century. This is something different, and it has to be approached with new concepts and instruments.
Some fear that this could engender a new war of worldviews – in this case about the further self-concept of the human being embattled between humanists and transhumanists.
As at now, I am not really worried about this. It might rather be a dialogue between different concepts of what the human body, and with it human consciousness,human nature, the human being and its self-concept(s) in general can and should become in the coming decades. If this will be the case, it will certainly be a very important discussion at the core of our further notions of progress and of the public imaginary in technologically advanced societies in more general terms, given that the technological means to alter the human body undoubtedly are increasing with every year. In any case, there are signals that some of the “Humanist Parties”, for example the German one, want to go in the direction of dialogue, not confrontation. I see similar signs from the side of moderate transhumanists. The larger these movements grow by organizing themselves politically, the more they will necessarily shift to a position of inner compromise, and thus to the center: to more centrist and moderate positions. At least this would be the “natural” process as we know it.
Will a similar dialogue take place also between transhumanists and the religious? There seem to be certain transcendent, if not even religious implications in the merging between computer, human consciousness and machines, allegedly making “mind over matter” a reality?
Indeed that is what some interested in such an interpretation assert. For example, some expect that broader use of brain implants, including certain forms of Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCI’s), such as those yoked to prostethic limbs, will lead to breakthroughs in overcoming disablement, physical handicaps, and by extension the general limits of the human body (including particular functions of the brain).. In this case, “mind over matter” means that the inventiveness of the human mind transcends the limits of the human body – and that the self is taking control of its material restraints. Personally, I would see this not as a religious issue in the strict sense, but rather as something like “metaphysics put into action” in ambiguous ways.. Such a general motive had been forecast by Post-Humanists such as philosopher Martin Heidegger in the 1960s to necessarily rise out of the trend toward further technological advancements. Heidegger saw technology, in anticipation of its merging with the human body and human consciousness, as the embodiment and reality of metaphysics in a new form, which would lure humans to superstition and thus threaten traditional human ethics with extinction. He was certainly right in poiting out the deep ambiguity and the dangers in the current stylization of technology as the new metaphysics. On the other hand, Heidegger was hoping for “a god” to save us from the unparalleled metaphysical power of technology, which seems to be a very traditionalist answer of a similar ambiguity, considering that Heidegger didn’t speak of “god”, but “a god”, probably appealing to the “god” of the self in everybody’s own mind. Be that as it may, indeed, to a certain extent, transhumanist politics is the politics of metaphysics in a different way. It is a more naturalistic approach that James Giordano and I call “idealistic materialism” (or, dependening on the inclination of the single representant within the transhumanist movement, “materialistic idealism”), which while not necessarily incorrect in its naturalistic orientation, in its more assertive stances, tends to ignore realistic considerations of the limitations of technology, and the vulnerability of humanitiy to avant-gardistic ideas. We’ve called for a more reasoned approach that seeks to be prepared for the momentum of technology, yet calls for responsible deliberation in its use.
In total, what is intended by the founding of these Transhumanist parties?
That the radical international technology community gets used to the “post-ideological” struggle for concrete political power. And that transhumanism will become an ever-present political factor in public reality – in “natural” ways originating from the politically and technologically most powerful force on earth, the USA. But this seems to be seen as only the starting point since transhumanism is, in its own understanding, a global “materialistic idealism.” It wants to reach out to the whole of mankind and “help” it take the “next step” to go beyond its current human form. Without that step humans allegedly might reach a dead end, as for example Nick Bostrom has described in his poetry (“On the Bank at the End”), published on his website.
What do those developments mean?
They will become challenges to traditional parties in the USA as well as in Europe in the medium term, without them drawing much attention yet, and probably also for non-democratic parties like the so-called Communist Party in China. The biggest challenge for traditional parties might indeed be the transnational political organization of technophiles that has already begun. It could be similar to the development of modern TV: from channels offering a broad spectrum of programming to specialized channels - from people’s parties to specialized parties, from ideology to technological applications. The message is: technology is going to solve everything, it is a universal mechanism and it is beyond all parties and ideologies. In 2014, this mindset started its quest to find a political identity.
The humanism of the 20th century did not have this kind of direct political organization.
No, not really. And in today’s era of “human enhancement” and “body engeneering” it has even less, whereas transhumanism is increasingly influencing decision-makers and now openly asserting a claim to aquire political power. Do we now have to get used to relatively radical technophilic views in the public realm, received especially by the newer generations of internet and mobile phones? This is going to be one of the big issues in forthcoming years – not only in the USA, but in the West, and given the increasingly global trend in biotechnology, maybe internationally.
What is the biggest problem inbuilt in this trend?
As the second congress “Global Future 2045” described in its open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in March 2013, the current human form is supposed to be replaced by a “neo-mankind.” It is characteristic that transhumanists use the term “neo-humanism” synonymously with “transhumanism”. They clearly want to gain supremacy in the use of the “humanism” term. Humanists now have to respond to this in a constructive manner offering a different meaning of the word “neo-humanism.” We have barely begun to understand what defines a human being and wherein lies our humanity. So before we focus on transhumanism we should “complete” humanism to a certain extent. We are far from that – very much to the detriment of a balanced human self-concept.
What is your conclusion?
As contemporary humanism is in some ways too weak and partially indulges in outmoded ideas, transhumanism has the opportunity to thrive. Therefore, we need a new global humanist agenda – especially a policy-oriented development program for humanity and a constructive discussion on new technologies. That should not come only from the private sector, but also requires institutions, such as universities and research centers, to participate on behalf of their own interest. It is important to avoid dividing society into “warring” factions over ideology concerning the human being and being human. A sensible discourse is of mutual interest – for transhumanists and humanists alike.
Is this expectation realistic?
We will have to see if the foundation of political parties on both sides would rather lead to dialogue or to conflict. As I said, currently I see rather reasonable signals and am hopeful that there will be a constructive conversation. The fact that in in Germany for example, large organizations like the Daimler Benz Foundation in Berlin are dedicating increasing space and funds to discuss the topic publicly is a positive signal.
Would you give an example of the differences between humanists and transhumanists in concrete matters?
One central problem is - and will increasingly be - inequality, which is one of the big issues of our time, not only in the economic and social spheres, but increasingly also in the technological domain, as Nick Bostrom stated in front of the The U.S. President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical issues in August 2014. Interestingly, this is a point also made by the rather “humanistic” co-inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, outlined in December 2014 with regard to the access to new technologies.  Bostrom made a strong point in asserting that “there are already large inequalities in cognitive capacities—partly biological, partly because different people have different amounts of education, and so forth… One question that one can ask about a hypothetical new cognitive enhancement intervention is whether it would increase or decrease that. That might partly depend on the system we have to access [the enhancement].” So that inequality will be a core issue, is widely out of discussion. But the opinions are divided when it comes to how we should concretely react to inequality. Berners-Lee demands, as a reaction to the recent report of the World Wide Web Foundation, which is led by him and measures the contribution of the Internet to social, economic and political progress in 86 countries, that we acknowledge access to new technologies as a human right. Transhumanists would never come up with that idea– simply because they want to overcome the classic meaning of “being human” and thereby in essence “human rights” as they have been defined so far as well. Looking at classical philosophies, Shintoism is probably the one closest to transhumanism: objects, plants, animals and humans all have a soul and are equally “of value”, so in principle there are no differences between these things and a human being – and thus there are no special “human rights”.
So will the mechanization of our environment proceed due to the combination of artificial intelligence and the internet?
As it seems today, that is probable – with opportunities, contradictions and challenges ahead. For example, Microsoft advertises the development of Artifical Intelligence, despite the outspoken skepticism of its founder Bill Gates about the potentially upcoming superintelligence that could arise out of it: “The cloud that is helping cure cancer. Research that once took years now happens in hour. Using Microsoft (technology), scientists at Virginia Tech harness supercomputing power to analyse vast amounts of DNA sequencing information and help deliver lifesaving treatments. Now the next big breakthrough might not be found in a test tube, but in big data.” This is basically the same program as the one I have mentioned with regard to Google’s planned “moonshot” to modify aging and eventually “end death” by combining large amounts of data into something new. These types of ideas seem to be going ever more mainstream, and it will get to a point where politics will have to make difficult decisions.
You say there is evidence that a similar process is occurring at the same time on both sides of the Pacific?
Yes. The Chinese version of Google, Baidu, is also working on creating a “learning intelligence” through the use of its data archives and network connections involving tens of thousands of computers. For this venture, Stanford-researcher Andrew Ng founded in 2014 a new research institute for Baidu, located in California. At the same time, Facebook is striking out in a similar direction: In 2014, the company worked intensively on a so-called “digital assistant” for their users. This is a feature where artificial intelligence operates a self-learning mechanism in terms of identification tasks, which for example can (and according to Facebook should) prevent users from posting pictures of themselves when they are drunk. The central problem with all these efforts is to integrate the quickly developing artificial intelligence, and hence the possible “singularity,” with human consciousness and behaviour without asking many questions about the multi-dimensionality of the potential outcomes. A formal, even highly developed and “learning” operative logic, is, as far as we know today, in reality not the same as an ontological understanding, which is aware of its actions while acting with self-consciousness. Ironically, it is transhumanist forethinker Ray Kurzweil who states that consciousness, especially human consciousness, is more than pure logic and learned combinations of algorithms - which is an interesting contribution to the problem.
Is mechanization of the human an inevitable development?
Not inevitable, but technology and humans are indeed getting closer on several levels with an exponential speed, now for the first time including ordinary, everyday reality. For example, there are items of clothing, such as jeans, which are already manufactured to block wireless signals in order to prevent indentification and payment information from being stolen from mobile phones. Or the Apple-watch, which is probably only a very first step toward a permanent human connection to intelligent technology (or, as Lev Grossman describes it, “never to be offline again”). To be realistic, these are signs of mechanization of everyday life rather than of an anthropologization of technology. In 2014, technology surely set into motion important impulses and trends that will evolve quickly and affect vast numbers of people. That should make us think, especially with regard to the future of the social, and that in a democracy ultimately means the future of politics.
Transhumanists themselves keep emphasising that the transition into a transhumanist era also poses significant risks. What kind of possibilities do you see for misusing the new technologies and what does that mean for future security policies of the USA?
Nick Bostrom has indeed eloquently pointed out some of the dangers in his controversially discussed book “Superintelligence,” published in 2014: the already mentioned problem of control - i.e. the issue of how to build an ethical code into AI - will be a central question when defining and securing the future relation between artificial intelligence and the human being. However. what is missing in these precautionary measures to be considered are the internal contradictions of transhumanism, particularly, the problems associated with the relation between our current physical form and human consciousness.
Transhumanists usually claim: “There is no ‘I’”, thereby suggesting that human self-consciousness is in principle nothing special compared to a (upcoming) intelligent machine, and that the human self thus can’t have a special status as compared with technology. Therefore this human self can be “modified” more or less at random. But who says that – that sentence: “There is no ‘I’”? Strictly logically speaking, there already has to be an “I” present and enacted here and now to formulate and express that sentence at all. When it needs an “I” to say: “There is no ‘I’”, the sentence logically countermands itself while it is uttered. What the “I” and the “self” are in contradiction to this statement must still be defined by an “I” or “self”, and every notion of “superintelligence” still depends from an “I” that is coining that notion as an act of self-consciousness here and now. These are blind spots in transhumanism that will have to be considered by politics, the more the technological options advance and the human being is being merged with technology.
Recently even Apple-Co-Founder Steve Wozniak has joined those who are alarmed by the overall development and has spoken out about the dangers – with dramatic words.
Yes. Wozniak went so far as to forecast that superintelligence will rule the human species, making us a sort of slaves of machines – and he didn’t offer much of an alternative to that scenario, but rather depicted it as sort of inevitable. Personally I must say that I am rather skeptical about such prophecies of doom, to which paradoxically some of the very fathers of contemporary technology and its development like Wozniak or, in a similarly resignative way, Sun Microsystem’s Bill Joy, one of the inventors of the microchip and thus forefathers of everything that came after, seem to transform. I instead believe we should be in favor of technology, but also be very careful about the new anthropological and ethical implications it generates. That may sound simple, but it implies a new awareness of complexity whose mastery will be a huge challenge with insecure outcomes.
Do you believe the founding of the “Transhumanist Party” is a clever step?
The founding of the “Transhumanist Party” is at least a clever step for the transhumanists. Although some in the USA believe that the transformation into a political party may be counterproductive in the end, because as long as the transhumanist influence was not obvious and directly political, there was hardly any resistance. Now that they stand for elections, resistance may grow. It’s hard to imagine that such a program could gain a majority at the polls at the moment, as it is too radical for most citizens. But it will induce a critical debate. In the long term it will have some attractiveness. I estimate the party’s potential to be up to 15-20% of the popular vote.
What do you see as the concrete task for political analysis and ethics in this debate? What possibilities are there to deal with the outcomes of technological and scientific progress?
The only possibilities, as I see it, to influence the development – apart from a more contemporary self-organisation of political humanism and the development of alternative programs on the future of the human body, which should indeed seek dialogue with transhumanists – are first, not to confine the development only to its negative aspects, but ponder the different aspects carefully; and second, not to look away. On the contrary, we should pay as much attention to the present “deeply ambiguous” tendencies as possible and do everything to intensify the public discourse on the topic. In my opinion, the topic is still underexposed especially in Europe. Most people know hardly anything about what is going on, because the discussion is still too rarely present in the media. That should change as soon as possible, so that the debate gains maturity.
 Bostrom, N.: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press 2014.
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 Cf. J. Bartlett: Meet the Transhumanist Party: «Want to live forever? Vote for me». Jamie Bartlett meets Zoltan Istvan, the man behind a political movement in America that wants to make us all more than human. The Telegraph, December 23, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/11310031/Meet-the-Transhumanist-Party-Want-to-live-forever-Vote-for-me.html.
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 Transhumanist Party UK: http://www.transhumanistparty.org.uk/.
 Transhumanistische Partei Deutschland: http://transhumanistische-partei.de.
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 Transhumanist Party Global Europe: http://transhumanistpartyglobal.org/europe/.
 Partei der Humanisten Deutschlands: https://parteiderhumanisten.de.
 Partei der Humanisten Deutschlands: Die Transhumanistische Partei der USA – ein Partner für die Zukunft?, 2. Dezember 2014, https://parteiderhumanisten.de/die-transhumanistische-partei-der-usa-ein-partner-fuer-die-zukunft/.
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 Ibid. Cf. many other examples at http://www.extremetech.com/tag/bci.
 Nick Bostrom’s Homepage: http://www.nickbostrom.com/.
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 Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies: Nick Bostrom Testifies on Cognitive Enhancement for Obama BRAIN Initiative, August 22, 2014, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/bostrom20140822.
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 Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies: Nick Bostrom Testifies on Cognitive Enhancement for Obama BRAIN Initiative, loc cit.
 BBC News Technology: Net is ,less free and more unequal’, says web founder. December 11, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30432487.
 N. Bostrom: Technological Revolutions: Ethics and Politics in the Dark. In: Nick Bostrom Homepage (2006), http://www.nickbostrom.com/revolutions.pdf.
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 BBC News Technology: Facebook offers solution to end drunken posts. December 11, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30432493.
 BBC News Technology: Jeans made that will prevent ,digital pickpocketing’. December 17, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30513497.
 L. Grossman, M. Vella: Never offline – The apple watch is just the start. How wearable tech will change your life – like it or not. In: Time, September 11, 2014, http://time.com/magazine/us/3326552/september-22nd-2014-vol-184-no-11-u-s/.
 N. Bostrom: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford University Press, September 3, 2014, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0199678111/.
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 Savulescu, J., Bostrom, N. (Eds.): Human Enhancement. Oxford University Press, 2009, https://global.oup.com/academic/product/human-enhancement-9780199299720?cc=it&lang=en&.
 WTA World Transhumanist Association: http://www.transhumanism.org/resources/transhumanism.htm.
 Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, http://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/.
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 Global Future 2045: Towards A New Strategy For Human Evolution, http://www.gf2045.com/.