Though much of what follows sounds like a nightmare made in homage to all your favourite sci-fi films, the leading exponents and adherents of transhumanism include some of the greatest inventors and experts in a broad range of disciplines, from neurology to artificial intelligence.
Broadly speaking, transhumanism belongs to a species of post-humanist thought which can be conceived to consist of several different branches (of which transhumanism is the most revolutionary). Several post-humanist schools take up some perspective related to humanism, most generally involved in unseating humanity from the centre of our observations, by extending subjectivity beyond the human sphere, or, otherwise, by re-defining traditional ideas from outside of a conventional human-centric position.
Pessimistic branches of post-humanism include ‘AI takeover’ and ‘Voluntary Human Extinction’. The former focussed on fears that stem from artificial intelligence and its potential – along the lines of the Terminator movies – with the latter positing humanity as a virus which should rightly opt out of the future due to our destructive nature, a la Agent Smith of The Matrix.
Essentially, it’s a philosophic position on the near-term place, prospects, and priorities of our species, wedded to a particular kind of technological vision. Their field of study encompasses the singularity, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, virtual spaces capable of hosting consciousness, and combating ageing as a disease. In its aims, it humbly strives towards no less than immortality.
As far as beliefs are concerned, they consider it dangerous if not fatal not to pursue the clear evolutionary path they see ahead of us. They share an optimism that fusing our bodies with cybernetics, nanobots, and by disembodying consciousness entirely will open our species to an entirely new chapter in our long evolutionary journey from single-celled goop and that we should be bold enough to make that leap with hope instead of fear.
FM-2030, an essayist and sci-fi author, stands as an early proponent of futurism and transhumanism and helps us understand the perspective from a socio-cultural viewpoint. FM-2030 legally changed his name, inspired by his wish to live to 2030 – at which point he believed that the singularity would have been reached – however, he fell ill, and instead became the first human to be vitrified, and remains in a suspended cryonic state today. His name change follows his belief that naming conventions belong to our tribalist human history, and that the social-cultural-racial traditions in which they were rooted should now be committed to our past.
Other prominent figures in the field of transhumanist studies today include Max More, founder of the philosophy of Extropy or extropianism, a perspective which takes an optimistic stance on the possibility of the transhumanist endeavour. More developed the idea of the proactionary principle, a set of principles for guiding the development of technological advances seen at odds with the precautionary principle which emphasises the dangers and risks of such developments. It has been suggested that the 21st century will see a mainstream proactionary – precautionary divide which will eventually replace a traditional left-right divide in politics as the ideas come to the forefront of our lives.
Philosopher Francis Fukuyama, best known for his ‘End of History’ theory, suggests that globalisation, the spread of liberal politics, and the dawn of a global consciousness signal the end of social and cultural evolution as we have known it historically. And that the advent of transhumanist ideals will open our futures to an entirely new type of future in which we may even come to re-shape the wider cosmos.
Perhaps the most renowned figure associated with transhumanism is the computer scientist, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, who is known for making some fairly bold assertions and predictions for the near future of humanity. Kurzweil is hailed as one of history’s greatest inventors and has been referred to as the true descendant of Edison, he is also the author of the best-selling ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’. One such prophecy states that in around 20 years our bodies will be home to millions of blood cell sized ‘nanobots’, equipped to fight disease, mend damaged tissue, and assist memory recall among other things.
Kurzweil discusses how our ancestors developed beyond their animal counterparts with the development of the neocortex around 200 million years, and that while this development can be seen as a huge qualitative change in our cognitive abilities, that the neocortex is essentially qualitatively very similar to other parts of the brain. He concludes from this that quantitative growth can lead to qualitative progress and that by augmenting our brains with technology we will find a similar leap in our evolution.
Though all of this sounds farfetched, to say the least, and we will be forgiven for not down tooling our lives in search of a cyborg host quite yet, two very clear reasons justify the faith that transhumanists have in their project.
Firstly, the technology is very real, and whether we land on the precautionary or proactionary side of the debate is a matter of pessimistic or optimistic attitude, but none the less, it seems as though at some point an active decision will need to be made regarding the prospects of a new cyborg race. Secondly, Kurzweil explains that tremendous progress is already being made in the associated fields of AI, neuroimaging, and cybernetics, and extending Moore’s law concerning the development of computation power, that these fields will only continue to develop at an exponential rate.