Transhumanism, The Unavoidable Venture?
Nathan Redin & Elias Achermann
During a transhumanist summit in 2012, Kenneth Hayworth, a neurosciences researcher working at the Harvard University, announced his will to commit suicide in order to upload his mind on a computer. Thereby, he is trying to achieve one of the oldest dreams of humanity: immortality. Since the technologies are not advanced enough yet, his bet is on the future possibility to analyse and replicate all the neural connection and thus to compute a replication of his brain patterns.
The concept of transhumanism is a philosophical and scientific approach, which seeks to use different technologies as a vector of human biological improvement: DNA manipulation, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence, transference of consciousness, bionic limbs… The goals are to increase cognitive abilities, to enable wellbeing and ultimately to get rid of oldness, sickness and death.
What would be the implications, if Kenneth Hayworth was right? It’s not quite clear whether optimism is the only appropriate attitude to the development. Humanity might be facing a fork in its evolutionary path. The progress of the technologies might indeed allow people not to rely on their physical abilities anymore and at a point not even on their physical existence. Thus, a strong artificial intelligence coupled with a deep understanding of the neural mechanisms might allow humankind to reach its oldest and most phantasmagorical dreams of eternity. Meanwhile, it could also sign its death warrant. Either way it would end up in the biggest revolution of human existence and constitute the end of the biological humankind, legacy of thousands of years of Darwinism.
It is important to realize that humans have always augmented their physical and mental capabilities. In a primitive way we increased our craftsmanship with a hand axe, our memory was increased by scripture and our communicative abilities was revolutionized with the internet. Whether smartphones constitute already a natural extension of our body might be debatable, but the “Braingate” implant connecting the nervous system with electrodes or the antenna transmitting i.a. electromagnetic radiation through audible vibration into the skull, certainly are.
The further advancement of transhumanism is inherently intertwined with the technological advancements. Thus, a transhumanist revolution would be a technological revolution of a very particular kind. The paradigm of our very existence is shaken. Our existence as beings, who are born into a world with scarce resources only to ultimately die, is no longer the same in a transhumanist world. Hence, the possible elimination of scarcity clearly entails a new techno-economic paradigm, but would by far not be limited to it.
The interconnection of technology and transhumanism reveals the materialist nature of the philosophy. Changing material conditions, namely “humanity’s power over the material world” through technology is a prerequisite for the revolutions to happen (Steinhoff, 2014, p. 4). Marxism, another materialist theory, had the goal of a communist society. The transhumanist idea goes beyond cognitive improvement and wellbeing. Ultimately, humans might transcend their body altogether. According to Randal Koene, this idea that we will eventually be able to process a mind requires three necessary steps: First, decoding the Connectom which is the whole of the neural connections in a human brain. But knowing the map is not enough. The activity of the brain through this neural map is what defines us as individuals. Thus, the second step would be to understand how those connections are created, how the memories are made and how the perceptions of the world is transformed into neural connection and activation functions. As a third step, we would have to be able to replicate those parameters into a supercomputer.
In other words, it is the least to say that there is still a monumental amount of work to accomplish. But many private companies and governmental program invest on the research sector. The most important current projects are Neuralink (created by Elon Musk), the Blue Brain project and the Human Brain Simulation Project (co-created by the Lausanne Polytechnic university and IBM), or as one of the amazing research subject of the Calico laboratories (founded by Google and led by Ray Kurzweil).
Finally, there is reasonable case to be made that the technological advancements put our existence into jeopardy. While the revolution might increase the likelihood of self-annihilation, the danger could be even bigger if humanity was to try to prevent the progress instead of fomenting and catalysing it. According to Verdoux (2009) we have already crossed the Rubicon at our current technological level. Further, an abandonment of all achievements in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics would significantly increase human suffering. Hence, there is only one way to go: forward, into the unknown.
Steinhoff, J. (2014). Transhumanism and Marxism: Philosophical Connections. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 24(2), 1–16.
Verdoux, P. (2009) Transhumanism, Progress and the Future. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 20(2), 49–69.