As an eye surgeon and a patent attorney, concerned, at first, with intraocular implants, and then with other implants, stem cells and regenerative drugs, I watched the steady erosion of what I called the organic-inorganic divide. People were becoming more and more dependent on intricate and elegant machines. And, machines were becoming more and more like people. Technologies continue to converge with a largely unexamined consequence: the transformation what it means to be human and the transformation of the very nature of nature.
The impending transformation of our “humanness” won’t happen because of some educational or psychological alteration of our consciousness, awareness or a point of view, although these may well change. This transformation will arise from the enhancement of our biological physicality and neurobiological mentality.
In the summer of 2013, I attended Global Future 2045, a conference with the theme “Towards a New Strategy for Human Evolution.” The conference was convened to promote a 2045 Initiative, which, among other things, “aims to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life … to the point of immortality.”
The goal of extending life, in principle, to the point of immortality, is also known as radical life extension. Viewing aging as a disease, it is being pursed by many groups that look to genetic engineering, stem cell technologies and regenerative medicine to provide the cure. The transfer of human personality to a non-biological carrier, also known as mind-uploading or substrate-independent minds, is being facilitated by the NIH’s Human Connectome Project, which is mapping the neural pathways that underlie brain function. Add to these enterprises the advent of synthetic biology, which enables the creation of organisms and organelles with no living precursors, and artificial intelligence, which may trump human intelligence, and the outlines of a fundamental social political, cultural and economic paradigm shift become clear.
Encircling the real world and on the fringes of the virtual world is a movement called transhumanism. Comprised of people who embrace this impending paradigm shift, the movement has already formulated a set of rights for a transhuman citizenry, such as:
Procreative Freedom – a right to enhanced reproduction using technology;
Morphological Freedom – a right to enhance the body using technology;
Cognitive Liberty – a right to enhance the mind using technology coupled with a right of privacy for feelings and thoughts.
Because transhumanism’s enabling technologies are, among other things, wresting evolution from the hands of natural selection, reviving the specter of eugenics, and threatening many theologies, transhumanism has been called the most dangerous idea in the world. Still, this has done nothing to moderate the exponential growth of its enabling technologies. One might ask why. Part of the answer can be heard from parents of children with congenital defects or genetic illnesses, and from children of parents undergoing the ravages of aging. Such parents and children would willingly risk the danger to alleviate the suffering of their loved ones.
Political battle lines are being drawn around the perils and promises of transhumanism’s enabling technologies. I’ve asked myself who I am in this battle. It took some time, even though the answer, so to speak, was right in front of me. In 1977, while an attorney in Manhattan, it was necessary for me to have my left cornea transplanted. The eye of a 19-year-old who died in a car accident was harvested; and, after my own genetically malformed cornea was removed, his cornea was sewn onto my eye. The experience was so moving that I left the law to train as an ophthalmic surgeon. I accomplished this goal only to injure the same eye a few years after completing my training. That injury returned me to law as a biomedical patent attorney, witnessing the erosion of the organic-inorganic divide.
Before 1931, removing a dead person’s eye so that a living person could see again might have been viewed as both radical and dangerous. What next on the slippery slope of transplantation — brains? I asked myself whether my corneal transplant made me a transhuman. I now think so.
Knowing that wherever battle lines are drawn, opposing sides are in a symbiotic relationship productive only of more conflict, I want to get the legal system ready for the day this conflict arrives in our courts and legislatures. And, I want to foster interdisciplinary education that supports human technological enhancement while minimizing its potential harm to all of humanity.
To me, for better or for worse, the vector of inevitability is pointing to transhumanism as a defining cultural, social, political and economic movement of the 21st century. I hope to have many participate in defining that movement.