(RNS) Humanity is on its way out. Post-humanity -- technologicallyenhanced and perhaps even immortal -- is coming. The stuff of science fiction? No, it's creed to transhumanists, adiverse group of technological optimists who advocate the transformation ofhomo sapiens into a new species, one "better than human." Transhumanists see our era of rapid technological advance as thetransitional phase between our human past and post-human future. Cochlearimplants, artificial joints, genetic engineering, mood-altering andmemory-enhancing drugs -- all are preludes to an era when people willroutinely enhance their brains, improve their bodies and perhaps liveforever. Critics, however, think this could be the worst calamity to befall us,both as individuals and as a species. And they argue we should be takingsteps to prevent it now. Transhumanists come in a wide variety, said James J. Hughes, executivedirector of the World Transhumanist Association based in Willington, Conn. Some are interested in life extension. Some want to be immortal. Somethink nanotechnology -- the emerging science of molecular machines -- willsome day repair our bodies from the inside out. Others are convinced they'llsomeday extend their memories with computer implants or upload theirconsciousness into a smarter-than-human artificial intelligence. What all share is the desire "to ethically use technology to become morethan human," said Hughes, whose organization has 3,000 members in 24chapters across 98 countries. If transhumanism has a poster child, it's Steve Mann. A professor at theUniversity of Toronto, Mann is arguably a cyborg -- a bionic human. For more than 20 years, he has invented and worn electronic equipmentthrough which he experiences the world. Strolling the street, Mann canbrowse the Web or monitor his heart rate, pulse and brain waves throughsensors implanted in his body. He can simultaneously videotape everything hesees. Glasses correct his vision electronically -- the prescription can bechanged through software -- and help his memory by giving people virtualname tags. Mann next hopes to implant the entire system, to give people afull-time "visual memory prosthesis," he said. Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a post-human futurepopulated by cyborgs, designer children, conscious computers, immortals anddisembodied minds roaming the Internet. Some think we could engineerourselves out of meaningful lives. "There is the thinking that we will get the `real us,' the better,higher us, from technology," said William B. Hurlbut, a Stanford biologistwho serves on the President's Council on Bioethics. But Hurlbut argues that what makes us human depends on being in bodiesthat aren't always perfect and that can fail. "Our bodies are not justpieces of biochemical equipment," he said. "Our bodies are ourselves." Some transhumanists don't see what's so special about being human.Marvin Minsky, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and pioneerin the field of artificial intelligence, calls humans "meat machines"possessed of limited, frail minds and mortal bodies. Like other leading computer scientists, Minsky celebrates a future whenhumans will be able to "upload" the contents of their brains into computersor robot brains.
Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first computer systems that could readaloud to the blind, is a prominent transhumanist thinker. He has longpredicted the merging of humans and computers, and recently called forreplacing the body's often imperfect molecular blueprint, DNA, withsoftware, which unlike DNA wouldn't suffer mutations. These visions of man-machine fusion have parallels in religion, saidAnne Foerst, professor of theology and computer science at St. BonaventureUniversity in New York. For one, they offer adherents the hope of an everlasting, perfectexistence that brings "solace to those struggling with the injustices ofdaily life," Foerst said. One must also take on faith, in the case of braindownloads, that the mind works like a computer and that consciousness cansimply be siphoned off like so much software, she said. Then there's immortality. "Transhumanists want to use technology to enhance and fulfill humanpotential," said the World Transhumanist Association's Hughes. "That's veryhard to do if you die after only 70 years." "Most of my friends would have no problem with living 500 years orlonger; there's so much to learn," said Ralph Merkle, a computer scienceprofessor at Georgia Institute of Technology and vice president oftechnology assessment for the Foresight Institute, an advocacy group fornanotechnology development based in Palo Alto, Calif. But living forever could rob life of its meaning, said Bill McKibben,author of "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." In the book heargues that without death, humans have no opportunity to sacrifice for theirchildren, no reason to pour out a life's work under the literal deadline ofmortality. "Human meaning is more vulnerable than they imagine," McKibben said. Samantha Atkins, an avowed transhumanist employed as a software engineerin San Jose, Calif., thinks we have little choice: Improving on humanity, inher view, is the only way to save the species.
"A lot of us don't believe that the current model of humans is adequatefor solving the problems we face," Atkins said. "Holding onto the norm, the`way nature made us,' may condemn us."