Transhumanism is the belief that we can use science and technology to evolve beyond our biological bodies and the limitations these bodies place on us. As such, the augmentation of the body and mind is at the forefront of the movement; a movement that is not quite so niche as you might expect.
Technologists and futurists, from Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, to Bill Gates and Prof. Stephen Hawking, are all convinced that artificial superintelligence is on its way – that within a matter of perhaps only two decades, AI technology will exceed human intelligence. At that point, these experts warn, humanity could face an unprecedented existential crisis, to rival that of climate change and overpopulation. Elon Musk has gone as far to say that it is our “biggest existential threat”.
Whilst some, like Hawking, advise that we should strongly consider what technologies we progress with and what the future ramifications could be, Musk and Kurzweil (Head of Engineering at Google) take another approach. What is their solution? To evolve.
Among Ray Kurzweil’s ideas for how we can evolve is through the use of nanobots. He has gone on record repeatedly to state that, by 2030, we will have nanobots flowing through our bloodstreams. These nanobots, he predicts, will go around healing us at the earliest signs of illness or disease, thus keeping us healthier for longer. These tiny robots, that can be injected using a normal hypodermic syringe, could also play their part in uploading our minds to the cloud. Yes, you read that right… uploading our minds.
Mind upload might sound like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard, but to the chaps in Silicon Valley, it’s old news. Facebook announced earlier in 2017 that they are working on an interface that will allow us to post directly to Facebook using only the power of our minds. And, famously, Elon Musk has backed a company called Neuralink, whose business is to create neural laces that can be injected into the jugular vein, unfold like an umbrella onto our brain, and enhance our cognitive ability – mind upload is a key part of this.
Of course, these predictions would seem absurd if they weren’t coming from some of the greatest minds on the planet. Renowned author and academic, Noam Chomsky, is, however, critical of whether this mind-control thing will ever really work. He has repeatedly told interviewers that it is patently impossible, given the limits of our understanding of thought and consciousness. Either he’s right, or those big science guys know some things we, and Chomsky, don’t.
These ideas form part of the upper end of the scale of transhumanism. However, we are already seeing small bodily enhancements powered by technology creeping into everyday life. For example, a tech startup in Sweden has recently offered their staff the opportunity to have implants placed under the fatty skin of the palm below the thumb. Why? To enable them to open the office doors, use printers, and order food. It’s very basic tech, no more complicated than that with which we microchip our pets, but what it represents is something far bigger.
Prostheses, from artificial legs to glasses and contact lenses, have helped us move beyond our weaknesses for centuries. But now, rather than focusing on disabilities and impediments, transhumanists are arguing that, essentially, we are all impeded. No longer suited to our environment, and with the looming threat of artificial superintelligence knocking like the Big Bad Wolf at the door of our straw hut, it’s time those impediments were set right. As Kurzweil puts it:
“Biology is a software process. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, each governed by this process. You and I are walking around with outdated software running in our bodies, which evolved in a very different era.”
At no point in the history of the Earth has a species consciously enacted its own evolution. But with the strongest cognitive ability on the planet, humans have evolved to a point at which this possibility is well within our capability.
Evolution, historically, has taken place when a species finds itself ill-adapted to its environment. When the environment is not sufficiently nourishing, the organism must alter the way it functions in order to thrive within that environment. It’s a simple case of evolve or die; survival of the fittest, if you will.
Few with half a (feeble human) brain would argue that our environment is changing. We live on a planet that we have dominated, that we wantonly destroy to feed our every need and every whim. And artificial intelligence technology, the Frankenstein’s monster we are mid-way through creating, has the capacity to alter that environment even more dramatically. If this really is the future, evolving into it is the logical answer.
Okay, so let’s say that someone perfects the technology that allows us to inject nanobots into our bodies to keep us fit and healthy. What if we perfect gene therapy to extend healthy, vital life exponentially? And what if Elon Musk and Neuralink manage to work out the whole neural lacing thing and make us superhero smart, smart enough to rival AI? Sounds great, right? But the question is, who gets the privilege?
We all know that technology starts out expensive. Just look at the ubiquitous smartphone, or even the personal computer. Yes, these enhancements will start out as being only available to an elite few, but – like HIV drugs or the iPhone, they will become available to all via the laws of trickle-down economics. That is, if the current capitalist system holds. Who can say?
Then, of course, there’s the basic question of whether we should be doing this at all. Well, the fact is that we are way past that. We already have AIs talking to one another in a language that researchers cannot understand, AIs that can beat the world’s best Go player (a feat that far surpasses the impressiveness of winning a game of chess), and AIs that can name guinea pigs (holy moly!). To evolve, as Musk and Kurzweil would argue, is not just a whimsical move, but a defensive one.