TN Note: Transhumanism is a global movement. In this article The Irish Times discusses everything from philosophy to singularity; basically, its about creating humans 2.0.
January is a month for renewal and for change. Many of us have been gifted shiny new fitness trackers, treated ourselves to some new gadget or other, or upgraded to the latest smartphone. As we huff and puff our way out of the season of excess we find ourselves wishing we could trade in our overindulged bodies for the latest model.
The reality is that, even with the best of care, the human body eventually ceases to function but if I can upgrade my smartphone, why can’t I upgrade myself? Using technology, is it not possible to live forever(ish)?
After all, humans have been “upgrading” themselves in various ways for centuries. The invention of writing allowed us to offload memories, suits of armour made the body invincible to spears, eyeglasses gave us perfect 20/20 vision, the list goes on.
This is something that designer and author Natasha Vita-More has been thinking about for a long time. In 1983 she wrote The Transhumanist Manifesto, setting out her vision for a future where technology can lead to “radical life extension” – if not living forever, then living for a lot longer than is currently possible.
Vita-More has also designed a prototype whole body prosthetic she calls Primo PostHuman. This is a hypothetical artificial body that could replace our own and into which we could, in theory, upload our consciousness. This is more in the realm of living forever but is a concept as distant to us as Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a flying machine was to 15th century Europeans.
Even so, while the replacement body seems much closer to science fiction than science, recent advances in robotics and prosthetics have not only given us artificial arms that can detect pressure and temperature but limbs that can be controlled by thoughts using a brain-computer interface.
As a transhumanist, Vita-More is excited by these scientific developments. She defines a transhumanist to be “a person who wants to engage with technology, extend the human lifespan, intervene with the disease of aging, and wants to look critically at all of these things”.
Transhumanism, she explains, looks at not just augmenting or bypassing the frailties of the human body but also improving intelligence, eradicating diseases and disabilities, and even equipping us with greater empathy.
“The goal is to stay alive as long as possible, as healthy as possible, with greater consciousness or humaneness. No-one wants to stay alive drooling in a wheelchair,” she adds.
Who wouldn’t want to be smarter, stronger, healthier and kinder? What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, says Dr Fiachra O’Brolcháin, a Marie Curie/Assistid Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Dublin City University whose research involves the ethics of technology.
Take for example being taller than average: this correlates with above average income so it is a desirable trait. But if medical technology allowed for parents to choose a taller than average child, then this could lead to a “height race”, where each generation becomes taller and taller, he explains.
“Similarly, depending on the society, even non-homophobic people might select against having gay children (assuming this were possible) if they thought this would be a disadvantage. We might find ourselves inaugurating an era of ‘liberal eugenics’, in which future generations are created according to consumer choice.”
Then there is the problem of affordability. Most of us do not have the financial means to acquire the latest cutting-edge tech until prices drop and it becomes mainstream. Imagine a future where only the rich could access human enhancements, live long lives and avoid health problems.
Elysium, starring Matt Damon, takes this idea to its most extreme, leading to a scenario similar to what O’Brolcháin describes as “an unbridgeable divide between the enhanced and the unenhanced”.
Despite the hyper focus on these technological enhancements that come with real risks and ethical dilemmas, the transhumanist movement also seems to be about kicking back against – or at least questioning – what society expects of you.
“There’s a certain parameter of what is normal or natural. There’s a certain parameter of what one is supposed to be,” says Vita-More.
“You’re supposed to go to school at a certain age, get married at a certain age, produce children, retire and grow old. You’re supposed to live until you are 80, be happy, die and make way for the young.”
Vita-More sees technology as freeing us from these societal and biological constraints. Why can’t we choose who we are beyond the body we were born with? Scholars on the sociology of the early Web showed that Cyberspace became a place for this precise form of expression. Maybe technology will continue to provide a platform for this reinvention of what it is to be human.
Maybe, where we’re going, we won’t need bodies.
Read full story here…