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What is Transhumanism?
the past few years, a new paradigm for thinking about humankind's future
has begun to take shape among some leading computer scientists, neuroscientists,
nanotechnologists and researchers at the forefront of technological
development. The new paradigm rejects a crucial assumption that is implicit
in both traditional futurology and practically all of today's political
thinking. This is the assumption that the "human condition"
is at root a constant. Present-day processes can be fine-tuned; wealth
can be increased and redistributed; tools can be developed and refined;
culture can change, sometimes drastically; but human nature itself is
not up for grabs.
assumption no longer holds true. Arguably it has never been true. Such
innovations as speech, written language, printing, engines, modern medicine
and computers have had a profound impact not just on how people live
their lives, but on who and what they are. Compared to what might happen
in the next few decades, these changes may have been slow and even relatively
tame. But note that even a single additional innovation as important
as any of the above would be enough to invalidate orthodox projections
of the future of our world.
has gained currency as the name for a new way of thinking that challenges
the premiss that the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable.
Clearing away that mental block allows one to see a dazzling landscape
of radical possibilities, ranging from unlimited bliss to the extinction
of intelligent life. In general, the future by present lights looks very
weird - but perhaps very wonderful - indeed.
of the possibilities that you will no doubt hear discussed in the coming
years are quite extreme and sound like science-fiction. Consider the
machines. Superintelligence means any form of artificial
intelligence, maybe based on "self-taught" neural networks,
that is capable of outclassing the best human brains in practically
every discipline, including scientific creativity, practical wisdom,
and social skills. Several commentators have argued that both the
hardware and the software required for superintelligence might be
developed in the first few decades of the next century. (See Moravec
 and Bostrom
emotional well-being through re-calibration of the pleasure-centers.
Even today, mild variants of sustainable euphoria are possible for
a minority of people who respond especially well to clinical mood-brighteners
("antidepressants"). Pharmaceuticals currently under development
promise to give an increasing number of "normal" people
the choice of drastically reducing the incidence of negative emotions
in their lives. In some cases, the adverse side-effects of the new
agents are negligible. Whereas street drugs typically wreak havoc
on the brain's neurochemistry, producing a brief emotional "high"
followed by a crash, modern clinical drugs may target with high
specificity a given neurotransmitter or receptor subtype, thereby
avoiding any negative effect on the subject's cognitive faculties
- (s)he won't feel "drugged" - and enables a constant,
indefinitely sustainable mood-elevation without being addictive.
David Pearce  advocates
and predicts a post-Darwinian era in which all aversive experience
will be replaced by gradients of pleasure beyond the bounds of normal
human experience. As cleaner and safer mood-brighteners and gene-therapies
become available, paradise-engineering may become a practicable
pills. Drugs and gene therapy will yield far more
than shallow one-dimensional pleasure. They can also modify personality.
They can help overcome shyness, eliminate jealousy (Kramer ),
increase creativity and enhance the capacity for empathy and emotional
depth. Think of all the preaching, fasting and self-discipline that
people have subjected themselves to throughout the ages in attempts
to ennoble their character. Shortly it may become possible to achieve
the same goals much more thoroughly by swallowing a daily cocktail
colonization. Today, space colonization is technologically
feasible but prohibitively expensive. As costs decrease, it will
become economically and politically possible to begin to colonize
space. The thing to note is that once a single self-sustaining colony
has been established, capable of sending out its own colonization
probes, then an exponentially self-replicating process has been
set in motion that is capable - without any further input from the
planet Earth - of spreading out across the millions of stars in
our galaxy and then to millions of other galaxies as well. Of course,
this sequence of events will take an extremely long time on a human
time-scale. But is interesting to notice how near we are to being
able to initiate a chain of events that will have such momentous
consequences as filling the observable universe with our descendants.|
nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the hypothetical
design and manufacture of machines to atomic-scale precision, including
general-purpose "assemblers", devices that can position
atoms individually in order to build almost any chemically permitted
matter-configuration for which we can give a detailed specification
- including exact copies of themselves. An existence-proof of a
limited form of nanotechnology is given by biology: the cell is
a molecular self-replicator that can produce a broad range of proteins.
But the part of design space that is accessible to present biological
organisms is restricted by their evolutionary history, and is mostly
confined to non-rigid carbon structures. Eric Drexler (, ) was
the first person to analyze in detail the physical possibility of
a practically universal molecular assembler. Once such a gadget
exists, it would make possible dirt-cheap (but perfectly clean)
production of almost any commodity, given a design-specification
and the requisite input of energy and atoms. The bootstrap problem
for nanotechnology - how to build this first assembler - is very
hard to solve. Two approaches are currently pursued. One of them
builds on what nature has achieved and seeks to use biochemistry
to engineer new proteins that can serve as tools in further engineering
efforts. The other attempts to build atomic structures from scratch,
using proximal probes such as atomic-force microscopes to position
atoms one-by-one on a surface. The two methods can potentially be
used in conjunction. Much research is required before the physical
possibility of Drexlerian nanotechnology can be turned into an actuality;
it will certainly not happen in the next couple of years, but it
might come about in the first few decades of the next century.|
extended life spans. It may prove feasible to use
radical gene-therapy and other biological methods to block normal
aging processes, and to stimulate rejuvenation and repair mechanisms
indefinitely. It is also possible that nothing short of nanotechnology
will do the trick. Meanwhile there are unproven and in some cases
expensive hormone treatments that seem to have some effect on general
vitality in elderly people, although as yet nothing has been shown
to be more effective at life-extension than controlled caloric restriction.|
of intelligent life. The risks are as enormous as
the potential benefits. In addition to dangers that are already
recognized (though perhaps inadequately counteracted?), such as
a major military, terrorist or accidental disaster involving nuclear,
chemical, viral or bacteriological agents, the new technologies
threaten dangers of a different order altogether. Nanotechnology,
for example, could pose a terrible threat to our existence if obtained
by some terrorist group before adequate defense systems have been
developed. It is not even certain that adequate defense is possible.
Perhaps in a nanotechnological world offense has a decisive intrinsic
advantage over defense. Nor is it farfetched to assume that there
are other risks that we haven't yet been able to imagine.|
interconnected world. Even in its present form, the
Internet has an immense impact on some people's lives. And its ramifications
are just beginning to unfold. This is one area where radical change
is quite widely perceived, and where media discussion has been extensive.|
of our consciousness into a virtual reality.
could scan the synaptic matrix of a human brain and simulate it
on a computer then it would be possible for us to migrate from our
biological embodiments to a purely digital substrate (given certain
philosophical assumptions about the nature of consciousness and
personal identity). By making sure we always had back-up copies,
we might then enjoy effectively unlimited life-spans. By directing
the activation flow in the simulated neural networks, we could engineer
totally new types of experience. Uploading, in this sense, would
probably require mature nanotechnology. But there are less extreme
ways of fusing the human mind with computers. Work is being done
today on developing neuro/chip interfaces. The technology is still
in its early stages; but it might one day enable us to build neuroprostheses
whereby we could "plug in" to cyberspace. Even less speculative
are various schemes for immersive virtual reality - for instance
using head-mounted displays - that communicate with the brain via
our natural sense organs.|
of cryogenically-suspended patients. Persons frozen
with today's procedure can probably not be brought back to life
with anything less than mature nanotechnology. Even if we could
be absolutely sure that mature nanotechnology will one day be developed,
there would still be no guarantee that the cryonics customer's gamble
would succeed - perhaps the beings of the future won't be interested
in reanimating present-day humans. Still, even a 5% or 10% chance
of success could make an Alcor contract a rational option
for people who can afford it and who place a great value on their
continued personal existence. If reanimated, they might look forward
to aeons of subjective life time under conditions of their own choosing.|
prospects might seem remote. Yet transhumanists think there is reason
to believe that they might not be so far off as is commonly supposed.
The Technology Postulate denotes the hypothesis that several
of the items listed, or other changes that are equally profound, will
become feasible within, say, seventy years (possibly much sooner). This
is the antithesis of the assumption that the human condition is a constant.
The Technology Postulate is often presupposed in transhumanist discussion.
But it is not an article of blind faith; it's a falsifiable hypothesis
that is argued for on specific scientific and technological grounds.
we come to believe that there are good grounds for believing that Technology
Postulate is true, what consequences does that have for how we perceive
the world and for how we spend our time? Once we start reflecting on
the matter and become aware of its ramifications, the implications are
this awareness springs the transhumanist philosophy - and "movement".
For transhumanism is more than just an abstract belief that we are about
to transcend our biological limitations by means of technology; it is
also an attempt to re-evaluate the entire human predicament as traditionally
conceived. And it is a bid to take a far-sighted and constructive approach
to our new situation. A primary task is to provoke the widest possible
discussion of these topics and to promote a better public understanding.
The set of skills and competencies that are needed to drive the transhumanist
agenda extend far beyond those of computer scientists, neuroscientists,
software-designers and other high-tech gurus. Transhumanism is not just
for brains accustomed to hard-core futurism. It should be a concern
for our whole society.
Foresight Institute is an excellent
source of information about nanotechnology-related issues. They organize
annual conferences and have built up a substantial infrastructure of
expertise in nanotechnology. The Extropy
Institute has organized several international conferences on general
transhumanist themes, and its president Max More has done much to get
extropian memes out into the mass media. (Extropianism is a
distinctive type transhumanism, defined by the Extropian Principles.)
In 1997, the World Transhumanist
Association was founded, with the aim of turning transhumanism into
a mainstream academic discipline and also to facilitate networking between
different transhumanist groups and local chapters and among individual
transhumanists, both academic and non-academic. The WTA publishes the
electronic Journal of Transhumanism,
featuring leading-edge research papers by scholars working in transhumanist-related
disciplines. The WTA web pages
are one good starting place to find out more about transhumanism.
is extremely hard to anticipate the long-term consequences of our present
actions. But rather than sticking our heads in the sand, transhumanists
reckon we should at least try to plan for them as best we can.
In doing so, it becomes necessary to confront some of the notorious
"big questions", such the so-called Fermi paradox
("Why haven't we seen any signs of intelligent extraterrestrial
life?"). This problem requires delving into a number of different
scientific disciplines. The Fermi paradox is not only intellectually
stimulating, it is also potentially practically important since it could
turn out to have consequences for whether we should expect to survive
and colonize the universe (Hanson
). At the present, though, it appears that the state of evolutionary
biology is insufficiently advanced to allow us to draw any firm conclusions
about our own future from this type of consideration. Another purported
indirect source of information about our own future is the highly controversial
Doomsday argument. This attempts to prove from basic principles
of probability theory together with some trivial empirical assumptions
that human extinction in the next century is much more likely than has
previously been thought. The argument, which uses a version of the Anthropic
Principle, was first conceived by astrophysicist Brandon Carter and
was later developed by philosopher John Leslie  and others. So
far, nobody has been able to explain to general satisfaction what, if
anything, is wrong with it (Bostrom
the wider perspective and the bigger questions are essential to transhumanism,
that does not mean that transhumanists do not take an intense interest
in what goes in our world today. On the contrary! Recent topical themes
that have been the subject of wide and lively debate in transhumanist
forums include such diverse issues as cloning; proliferation of weapons
of mass-destruction; neuro/chip interfaces; psychological tools such
as critical thinking skills, NLP, and memetics; processor technology
and Moore's law; gender roles and sexuality; neural networks and neuromorphic
engineering; life-extension techniques such as caloric restriction;
PET, MRI and other brain-scanning methods; evidence(?) for life on Mars;
transhumanist fiction and films; quantum cryptography and "teleportation";
the Digital Citizen; atomic force microscopy as a possible enabling
technology for nanotechnology; electronic commerce... Not all participants
are equally at home in all of these fields, of course, but many like
the experience of taking part in a joint exploration of unfamiliar ideas,
facts and standpoints.
important transhumanist goal is to improve the functioning of human
society as an epistemic community. In addition to trying to figure out
what is happening, we can try to figure out ways of making ourselves
better at figuring out what is happening. We can create institutions
that increase the efficiency of the academic- and other knowledge-communities.
More and more people are gaining access to the Internet. Programmers,
software designers, IT consultants and others are involved in projects
that are constantly increasing the quality and quantity of advantages
of being connected. Hypertext publishing and the collaborative information
filtering paradigm (Chislenko )
have the potential to accelerate the propagation of valuable information
and aid the demolition of what transpire to be misconceptions and crackpot
claims. The people working in information technology are only the latest
reinforcement to the body of educators, scientists, humanists, teachers
and responsible journalists who have been striving throughout the ages
to decrease ignorance and make humankind as a whole more rational.
simple but brilliant idea, developed by Robin Hanson ,
is that we create a market of "idea futures". Basically, this
means that it would be possible to place bets on all sorts of claims
about controversial scientific and technological issues. One of the
many benefits of such an institution is that it would provide policy-makers
and others with consensus estimates of the probabilities of uncertain
hypotheses about projected future events, such as when a certain technological
breakthrough will occur. It would also offer a decentralized way of
providing financial incentives for people to make an effort to be right
in what they think. And it could promote intellectual sincerity in that
persons making strong claims would be encouraged to put their money
where their mouth is. At present, the idea is embodied in an experimental
set-up, the Foresight
Exchange, where people can stake "credibility points"
on a variety of claims. But for its potential advantages to materialize,
a market has to be created that deals in real money and is as integrated
in the established economic structure as are current stock exchanges.
(Present anti-gambling regulations are one impediment to this; in many
countries betting on anything other than sport and horses is prohibited.)
transhumanist outlook can appear cold and alien at first. Many people
are frightened by the rapid changes they are witnessing and respond
with denial or by calling for bans on new technologies. It's worth recalling
how pain relief at childbirth through the use of anesthetics was once
deplored as unnatural. More recently, the idea of "test-tube babies"
has been viewed with abhorrence. Genetic engineering is widely seen
as interfering with God's designs. Right now, the biggest moral panic
is cloning. We have today a whole breed of well-meaning biofundamentalists,
religious leaders and so-called ethical experts who see it as their
duty to protect us from whatever "unnatural" possibilities
that don't fit into their preconceived world-view. The transhumanist
philosophy is a positive alternative to this ban-the-new approach to
coping with a changing world. Instead of rejecting the unprecedented
opportunities on offer, it invites us to embrace them as vigorously
as we can. Transhumanists view technological progress as a joint human
effort to invent new tools that we can use to reshape the human condition
and overcome our biological limitations, making it possible for those
who so want to become "post-humans". Whether the tools are
"natural" or "unnatural" is entirely irrelevant.
is not a philosophy with a fixed set of dogmas. What distinguishes transhumanists,
in addition to their broadly technophiliac values, is the sort of problems
they explore. These include subject matter as far-reaching as the future
of intelligent life, as well as much more narrow questions about present-day
scientific, technological or social developments. In addressing these
problems, transhumanists aim to take a fact-driven, scientific, problem-solving
approach. They also make a point of challenging holy cows and questioning
purported impossibilities. No principle is beyond doubt, not the necessity
of death, not our confinement to the finite resources of planet Earth,
not even transhumanism itself is held to be too good for constant critical
reassessment. The ideology is meant to evolve and be reshaped as we
move along, in response to new experiences and new challenges. Transhumanists
are prepared to be shown wrong and to learn from their mistakes.
can also be very practical and down-to-earth. Many transhumanists find
ways of applying their philosophy to their own lives, ranging from the
use of diet and exercise to improve health and life-expectancy; to signing
up for cryonic suspension; making money from investing in technology stocks;
creating transhumanist art; using
clinical drugs to adjust parameters of mood and personality; applying
various psychological self-improvement techniques; and in general taking
steps to live richer and more responsible lives. An empowering mind-set
that is common among transhumanists is dynamic optimism: the
attitude that desirable results can in general be accomplished, but only
through hard effort and smart choices (More ).
you a transhumanist? If so, then you can look forward to increasingly
seeing your own views reflected in the media and in society. For it
is clear that transhumanism is an idea whose time has come.
Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific method
London School of Economics
Bostrom, N. 1998. "How long
before superintelligence?" International Journal of Futures
Studies, 2. (Also available at http://www.hedweb.com/nickb/superintelligence.htm)
Bostrom, N. 1998. "Investigations
into the Doomsday Argument"
Bostrom, N. 1997. "The Fermi
Chislenko, A. 1997. "Collaborative
Information Filtering" http://www.lucifer.com/~sasha/articles/ACF.html
Drexler, E. 1992. Nanosystems.
John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Drexler, E. 1988. Engines of
Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Fourth Estate. London.
Hanson, R. 1996. "The Great
Filter: Are we almost past it?"
Kramer, P. 1994. Listning to
Prozac. Penguin. U.S.A.
Leslie, J. 1996. The End of
the World: The Ethics and Science of Human Extinction. Routledge,
More, M. 1997. "The Extropian
More, M. 1995. "Dynamic optimism:
Epistemological Psychology for Extropians"
Moravec, H. 1998. Robot, Being:
mere machine to transcendent mind. Oxford Univ. Press.
Pearce, D. 1997. "The Hedonistic
World Transhumanist Association
am grateful to David Pearce and Anders Sandberg for extensive comments
on earlier versions of this text. N. B.