(RNS) Humanity is on its way out. Post-humanity -- technologically
enhanced and perhaps even immortal -- is coming.
The stuff of science fiction? No, it's creed to transhumanists, a
diverse group of technological optimists who advocate the transformation of
homo sapiens into a new species, one "better than human."
Transhumanists see our era of rapid technological advance as the
transitional phase between our human past and post-human future. Cochlear
implants, artificial joints, genetic engineering, mood-altering and
memory-enhancing drugs -- all are preludes to an era when people will
routinely enhance their brains, improve their bodies and perhaps live
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 taking
steps to prevent it now.
Transhumanists come in a wide variety, said James J. Hughes, executive
director of the World Transhumanist Association based in Willington, Conn.
Some are interested in life extension. Some want to be immortal. Some
think nanotechnology -- the emerging science of molecular machines -- will
some day repair our bodies from the inside out. Others are convinced they'll
someday extend their memories with computer implants or upload their
consciousness into a smarter-than-human artificial intelligence.
What all share is the desire "to ethically use technology to become more
than human," said Hughes, whose organization has 3,000 members in 24
chapters across 98 countries.
If transhumanism has a poster child, it's Steve Mann. A professor at the
University of Toronto, Mann is arguably a cyborg -- a bionic human.
For more than 20 years, he has invented and worn electronic equipment
through which he experiences the world. Strolling the street, Mann can
browse the Web or monitor his heart rate, pulse and brain waves through
sensors implanted in his body. He can simultaneously videotape everything he
sees. Glasses correct his vision electronically -- the prescription can be
changed through software -- and help his memory by giving people virtual
name tags. Mann next hopes to implant the entire system, to give people a
full-time "visual memory prosthesis," he said.
Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a post-human future
populated by cyborgs, designer children, conscious computers, immortals and
disembodied minds roaming the Internet. Some think we could engineer
ourselves 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 biologist
who serves on the President's Council on Bioethics.
But Hurlbut argues that what makes us human depends on being in bodies
that aren't always perfect and that can fail. "Our bodies are not just
pieces 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 pioneer
in 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 when
humans will be able to "upload" the contents of their brains into computers
or robot brains.
Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first computer systems that could read
aloud to the blind, is a prominent transhumanist thinker. He has long
predicted the merging of humans and computers, and recently called for
replacing the body's often imperfect molecular blueprint, DNA, with
software, which unlike DNA wouldn't suffer mutations.
These visions of man-machine fusion have parallels in religion, said
Anne Foerst, professor of theology and computer science at St. Bonaventure
University in New York.
For one, they offer adherents the hope of an everlasting, perfect
existence that brings "solace to those struggling with the injustices of
daily life," Foerst said. One must also take on faith, in the case of brain
downloads, that the mind works like a computer and that consciousness can
simply be siphoned off like so much software, she said.
Then there's immortality.
"Transhumanists want to use technology to enhance and fulfill human
potential," said the World Transhumanist Association's Hughes. "That's very
hard to do if you die after only 70 years."
"Most of my friends would have no problem with living 500 years or
longer; there's so much to learn," said Ralph Merkle, a computer science
professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and vice president of
technology assessment for the Foresight Institute, an advocacy group for
nanotechnology 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 he
argues that without death, humans have no opportunity to sacrifice for their
children, no reason to pour out a life's work under the literal deadline of
"Human meaning is more vulnerable than they imagine," McKibben said.
Samantha Atkins, an avowed transhumanist employed as a software engineer
in San Jose, Calif., thinks we have little choice: Improving on humanity, in
her view, is the only way to save the species.
"A lot of us don't believe that the current model of humans is adequate
for solving the problems we face," Atkins said. "Holding onto the norm, the
`way nature made us,' may condemn us."