Will technology allow us to transcend the human condition?

June 18, 2016


While it may sound like something straight out of a sci-fi film, the U.S. intelligence community is considering “human augmentation” and its possible implications for national security.

As described in the National Intelligence Council’s 2012 long-term strategic analysis document — the fifth report of its kind — human augmentation is seen as a “game-changer.” The report detailed the potential benefits of brain-machine interfaces and neuro-enhancements, noting that “moral and ethical challenges . . . are inevitable.”

The NIC analysts aren’t the only ones following the rapid growth of technology. Today there is an entire movement, called transhumanism, dedicated to promoting the use of technological advancements to enhance our physical, intellectual and psychological capabilities, ultimately transcending the limitations of the human condition. Its proponents claim that within the next several decades, living well beyond the age of 100 will be an achievable goal.

Coined by biologist and eugenicist Julian Huxley (brother of author Aldous Huxley) in 1957, transhumanism remained the the terrain of science fiction authors and fringe philosophers for the better part of the 20th century. The movement gained broader interest as science advanced, leaping forward in credibility in the 1990s with the invention of the World Wide Web, the sequencing of the human genome and the exponential growth of computing power.

New technologies continue to push the limits of life. CRISPR enables scientists to alter specific genes in an organism and make those changes heritable, but the advancement is so recent that regulation is still up for debate. Meanwhile, participants in the “body-hacking” movement are implanting RFID microchips and magnets into their bodies to better take advantage of potentially life-enhancing technology. (Some claim, not unfairly, that these modifications aren’t so different from much more accepted technologies such as pacemakers and intrauterine devices). Just last week, in a closed-door meeting at Harvard University, a group of nearly 150 scientists and futurists discussed a project to synthesize the human genome, potentially making it possible to create humans with certain kinds of predetermined traits.

Transhumanism, in its most extreme manifestation, is reflective of an increasingly pervasive and influential school of thought: that all problems can and should be solved with the right combination of invention, entrepreneurship and resource allocation. The movement has its critics. Techno-utopianism is often described as the religion of Silicon Valley, in no small part because tech moguls are often the only ones with the resources to pursue it, and the only ones who stand to benefit in the near term.

As the solutions that transhumanists champion slowly enter the market, high prices leave them far out of reach for the typical consumer. Even today, the ability to make use of neuro-enhancing drugs and genetic screening for embryos greatly depends on whether one can afford them. If the benefits of human enhancement accrue only to the upper classes, it seems likely that inequality will be entrenched in ways deeper than just wealth, fundamentally challenging our egalitarian ideals.

And for many religious and philosophical opponents, transhumanism appears at its core to be an anti-human movement. Rather than seeking to improve the human condition through engagement with each other, transhumanists see qualities that make up the human identity as incidental inconveniences — things to override as soon as possible.

But for all its misgivings, transhumanism is making its way from the world of speculative technology into the mainstream. Google recently hired Ray Kurzweil, the inventor best known for his predictions of “the singularity” — simply put, the moment at which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence — and his assertions that medical technology will soon allow humans to transcend death, as its chief futurist. At the same time, the Transhumanist Party is floating Zoltan Istvan as its own third-party candidate for president.

The transhumanist movement is growing in followers and gaining media attention, but it’s unclear whether its particular preoccupations are inevitable enough to concern us today. Yet as technology continues to provide tools to manipulate the world around us, it becomes more and more likely that we will reach to manipulate ourselves. What could be the ramifications of a new wave of human enhancement? And what does our increasing fascination with technological futurism say about our priorities today?



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