Transhumanism in a Brave New World

“Who wants to live forever?” asked Freddy Mercury in the title song to the quintessential ’90’s movie Highlander, a movie about immortals. Or more accurately: amortals, since a well-aimed, swift sword strike to decapitate a Highlander would still result in their death. The Brave New World conference in Leiden (NL) opened with a question similar to the one sang by Queen: “Would you freeze yourself after death if you had the means?” (the idea being, it goes without saying, to be defrosted at a later date in a new world, brave or otherwise). Interestingly enough, I later learned that this question, for budgetary reasons, also deals with decapitation.

A clear-cut answer to the opening question of the second day of Brave New World?

Leiden hosted, for the third year running, the Brave New World conference, a conference which brings together artists, scientists, designers, writers, and thinkers from different walks of life to discuss the role of advanced technology in society. I was particularly adamant to visit the second day of the conference because of Mark O’Connell, a writer for, among other outlets, The New Yorker, would share the insights from his book To Be a Machine. Mark had spent over two years among a group of people calling themselves transhumanists.

The transhumanism movement

Transhumanism is typically described as a movement aimed at enhancing human capabilities using any number of new technologies to become better, faster, stronger, than our current biology allows. An important element of transhumanism is using technologies to vastly extend human life. This can either be by freezing oneself (a process known as cryogenics), gene-editing to prevent aging, or by uploading one’s mind to a computer.

With the first talk of the day photographer Murray Ballard provided a helpful insight into transhumanism and the currently lived lives of its proponents. The photographs Ballard shared highlighted the somewhat odd and DIY nature of many cryogenics institutes. The cooling chambers shown in the photographs at times looked more like a well-packed, but rather large, lunch wrapped in aluminium foil, or a camping trip gone horribly wrong with a corpse wrapped in a sleeping bag hung upside down to be dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Murray Ballard’s photography shows the sometimes DIY nature of cryogenics.

Supposedly the first person to be cryogenically preserved (one Dr. Bedford) is still at Alcor, the largest and oldest cryogenics facility in the world, located in balmy Arizona. Places such as Alcor typically offer their customers two packages: the deluxe one where your entire body gets preserved or the, let’s call it ‘Cartesian’ version, where your head gets detached from your body and only your head is frozen, presumably to preserve your mind and discard your body. A decision which, any Highlander will tell you, is straight-up foolish.

Ballard’s series of photographs would have made a great addition to Mark O’Connell’s book which covers many of the same institutes shown in the photographs. O’Connell’s talk at the conference was just an excerpt from the book but it was nice to hear him deliver it. He takes an almost laissez-faire attitude to transhumanism, with himself coming across as a curious observer. That he is not too enamored with the ideas, principles, and goals of the movement became more clear when he was pressed during the panel discussions.

Why indeed.

The panel discussion was made all the more interesting by the presence of João Pedro de Magalhães. De Magalhães was in a sense the odd one out, in Huxley’s Brave New World terms, the Bernard of the afternoon, if you will. Some of the terminology used in his talk (‘fixing aging’) was slightly hair-raising, and more reminiscent of Silicon Valley techno optimism than of genetic science. In the panel discussion it became clear De Magalhães’ view was not necessarily to extend life, but to extend healthy life, an important distinction. The topic of transhumansim, as he acknowledged, is not without criticism so rather than speak of it, or use to only slightly more accepted term ‘longevity’, he instead liked to talk about the ‘health span’. His advice on achieving a long health span?

Choose your parents and grandparents very carefully.

I am very skeptical about the whole concept of cryogenics especially when taking into account the latest evidence from neuroscience that makes a strong case for cognition being fundamentally embodied. In other words the body is necessary for consciousness. This is the problem I have with mind uploading as well, a topic that was covered by Stephen Cave of Cambridge University. Cave outlined how throughout history the same ideas about life extension kept returning, albeit in different forms. Mind uploading is the generally preferred road to immortality of computer scientists. Simply download the structure of every neuronal connection of the brain to a computer and run the program. Skipping over the energy requirements to do so. One member of the audience suggested we would need the energy provided by about 6 million planets in order to run everyone’s mind on a computer. Compare that to the roughly 20w of power our brain uses and the unfeasibility of the idea in technical terms alone becomes more clear. Like the Cartesian cryogenics, mind uploading is a view that seems completely ignorant of the notion that the mind, or the self, exists by the grace of the body.

Host Jim Stolze asking Mark O’Connell some tough questions.

Eternal social life

A question that inevitably raises its head when one considers life extension is: what will we do with our time? Stephen Cave, in the panel discussion, quoting writer Susan Ertz, summarized this thought nicely:

Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon

Some argue that vastly extended life spans (sorry, health spans) will go hand-in-hand with profound artistic and scientific progress. Then again, one could argue that we need new thoughts, visions, and ambitions of young minds to progress. After all, we stand on the shoulder of giants but I am not at all sure what the giants would think of this would they still be alive and kicking.

Speaker Sara Kaiser brought up another interesting thought on how life extension could exacerbate loneliness, an ill that is said to be on par with smoking for its negative effects on health. This got me to wonder about how life extension would fundamentally change our view of social relationships. How long does the average marriage last right now? Are we equipped to have 150 year marriages or 200 year friendships? What to think of a generation that lives to be a 1000 years old? Will they even still remember their parents and their upbringing when they are 100, 200, or 500 years old? Stephen Cave picked up on this and suggested that with longevity we should not view life as linear, moving from one defined stage — school, marriage, retirement — to another, but to view life as a more circular, recursive process where we might, say, marry for 20 years, get divorced, and move on to another marriage after that. At least divorce lawyers will have job security in the brave new world.

A future for all?

A sizable chunk of funding for some of the most cutting-edge research on life extension comes from some well-known billionaires, among whom Peter Thiel and Sergey Brin. With the growing income gap between the worlds richest and the worlds poorest it is interesting to consider what an amortal billionaire will do with their time. Will they make an effort to close the gap between rich and poor or will longevity only increase inequality? In relation to this question De Magalhães stated that the medication that is available and that can already enhance certain aspects of one’s life span is cheap. Then again, what is considered by modern western standards as cheap does not necessarily translate to other societies. Millions of people around the globe are still unable to obtain sufficient contraceptives, malaria medication, or HIV blockers, all of which are absolutely necessary and life-saving drugs that we, in the west, have ready access too. This, I think, also points to the arrogance of the transhumanism movement. When we speak of increases in life span we do so from a predominantly WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) perspective. Do we not have the moral obligation to get the rest of the world up to par on where contemporary health care is concerned before we start to consider extending our own lives?

Jeanette Winterson talking about the potential positive impact of robotics and AI on gender stereotypes.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit I had never heard of Jeanette Winterson, but reading up on her work she seems an author that definitely deserves her own shelve in my book case. At Brave New World she spoke with a quiet kind of intensity about her views on robotics and AI. One potential upside, she argued, of the rise of robotics and AI is that these technologies can help us move away from traditional binary views on gender, to a vision that is more inclusive. The artificial nature of these technologies is not necessarily an issue here, as Winterson said in relation to the characters of her novels:

Some of my best friends have never existed

Then again, the bots that are now commercially successful, such as Alexa and Siri, represent current gender inequalities quite clearly through their predominantly female and servile nature, a view of women that still seems to perpetuate. In relation to this Kanta Dihal, in her talk, made the compelling argument that it is easier to give (human?) rights to AI’s and robots than it is to give such rights to individuals and groups who may actually use such rights to improve their own position. A prime example is the fact that animatronic humanoid Samantha has received citizenship in Saudi Arabia, a country in which women’s rights are still vastly behind on those of the male population. I agree with Dihal that we should burst the bubble and see these things for what they are: promotional gimmicks rather than true harbingers of artificial life.

A grave new world

The final talk of the day was delivered by Andrew Keen. Keen, casually leaning over the table that was on the podium, opened by observing that Huxley’s Brave New World was, so far, missing from the conference. A fact he was, apparently, adamant to rectify as he proceeded by giving his views on the book and the themes therein, followed by sharing his admiration for Jeanette Winterson’s work to which he referred back frequently.

His opening felt a little out of place topic wise, and haphazard and tad dry in its delivery, but Keen soon hit his stride and started speaking — preaching, dare I say — with an intense and almost angry confidence. Keen is clearly a technology sceptic and highly critical of our current-day “technology-saturated society”. Keen exclaimed how he missed the politics and a call to action in the entire conference thus far. Throwing around phrases such as “usurping the sense of self” and “raping our identities” he talked in a confronting and provocative manner about the current issues our society faces in relation to the way technology permeates every aspect of our lives. It was a bold talk to end the day with but I could not help thinking about the ‘how’ to Keen’s call for action. Yes, a good start is to consider what “makes us human”, but this is something that is ever changing and the boundaries between what technology can do and what is considered a pure, human quality, are constantly shifting and blurring. Keen challenged the audience to think about what makes us different from, say, an AI, and to focus on leveraging those aspects of our ‘being human’. With this, in a sense, Keen’s talk was the opposite of what transhumanism sees as the future for humanity. Transhumanism paints a picture of what future humans will be like; perhaps some evolved form of Homo Longaevitas with an extended life span, or a Homo Computatrum, existing only as an uploaded mind in the cloud somewhere.

In all likelihood the eventual course of history for humanity will move somewhere between these two lines of thought. In any case, after a day of talks on cryogenics, mind uploading, AI, and robotics, I remain skeptical and rather leave the life-extension rhapsody to the bohemians of transhumanism.

For the full roster of speakers visit www.bravenewworld.nl