With the unleashing of the ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer) in November 2022, an artificial intelligence program that provides responses to questions based on its comprehensive scouring of the internet – everything that’s been written that is accessible online — there are new worries about how close the world is coming to the transhuman or posthuman future, whether The Singularity is, in fact, near.
In 2005, futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of books with titles like The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines, released The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, in which he argued that “human life will be irreversibly transformed” as humanity will transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain.” In other words, technological progress will eventually increase human longevity and cognition. Kurzweil wrote, “I set the date for the Singularity — representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability — as 2045.”
This sounds like science fiction, but it has a following. Last year, Jarod Kushner, former president Donald Trump’s son-in-law, told podcaster Richard Grenell: “I think that there is a good probability that my generation is, hopefully with the advances in science, either the first generation to live forever, or the last generation that’s going to die. So, we need to keep ourselves in pretty good shape.”
Kurzweil, and transhumanists like him, predict — and welcome — genetic, nanotechnological, robotic, and artificial intelligence developments that would lead humanity overcoming our natural biological limitations, both physically and mentally. Some predict that man and machine will merge; others see the possibility of human minds being uploaded to hardware to completely end the need for physical bodies. Some see this liberating mankind, while others see it as superseding humanity. Kurzweil’s singularity – the idea was popularized in a 1993 essay by Vernor Vinge (“The Coming Technological Singularity”) — has its intellectual roots in the late 1920s.
While transhumanism did not really enter the popular consciousness until relatively recently, it has been hinted at and discussed for decades. In 1929, the Irish scientist and communist J.D. Bernal wrote The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, predicting that eventually men would become cyborgs, their brains encased in cylinders, and communicating with one another (without speaking) through connected networks. The literary critic Robert Scholes called the book “probably the single most influential source of science fiction ideas.” Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acknowledges his intellectual debt to Bernal.
Julian Huxley, a biologist, coined the term transhumanism in the 1950s (he also coined the terms “ethnic group,” “morph,” and “ritualization”) to describe the phenomenon of human beings improving themselves through science and technology. Huxley viewed mankind as suffering unjustly (and unequally) and thought that science provided the key to end suffering. He wrote in his brief but famous essay, “Transhumanism,” that “the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.” Huxley insisted, “We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhurmanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”
Since then, the “man remaining man” has mostly been forgotten by transhumanists, with the focus becoming perfect beings who enjoy unimaginably blissful lives.
Technology and the body
Technology can be used to transform humanity, often coming in the guise of beneficent progress. Indeed, there is already a marriage of man and machine that we accept as normal and good: pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, implanted corneal lenses, and drug implant systems. But there is a difference between treatment and enhancement, although where to draw the line is up for debate. One easy example is performance-enhancing drugs in sports, which does not meliorate an ailment but gives a leg-up to competitors.
Future medical technologies may not merely repair broken body parts but provide enhancements upon the natural limits of the human body. Nanotechnology and robotics – infinitesimally small devices – are part of medicine today to cure various ailments, and it is the goal of many researchers to have these nanobots manipulate genes to possibly reverse aging by curing cancer, heart disease, or degenerative diseases. It is far from certain that nanotechnology will be able to constantly repair every molecule in the body to prevent aging. Kurzweil, like many futurists, have set aside funds for their heads to be cryogenically maintained (frozen over time) to be unpackaged when aging is finally conquered. To such enthusiasts of the transhumanist vision, there is no downside; convinced that full-body molecular repair or the uploading of minds to computers is inevitable, they are putting their money where their fantasies are, planning for the transhumanist future.
In The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil argues that eventually people’s bodies will be augmented with continuous nanobot activity that human beings will be able to alter their “physical manifestation at will.”
The fetishization of data
Computational capacity grows exponentially – that is, it multiples rather than adds – but the most powerful microchips pale in comparison to the computational capacity of the human brain. That may be about to change, and it is not necessarily the capacity of a single chip that matters, but all of them working together. The scary thing about artificial intelligence is that it can work ……
AI gone wild
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, has been saying since 2017 that the government needs to regulate artificial intelligence. He told a National Governors Association meeting, “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not — they were harmful to a set of individuals within society, of course, but they were not harmful to society as a whole.” He predicted AI would result in mass unemployment and that a universal basic income would be needed to deal with the fallout of widespread non-work by human beings.
A year later, Musk’s prediction was more dire: “So the rate of (machine) improvement is really dramatic. We have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital super intelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity. I think that is the single biggest existential crisis that we face and the most pressing one.”
It is noteworthy that Musk holds these views considering he has a business venture, Neuralink, that is working to create a way to connect the human brain with machine intelligence, a process he hopes will be symbiotic.
Kurzweil admits AI taking on a life of its own is a possibility and argues that the misuse or abuse of nanobots or artificial intelligence is investing in defensive technologies. Kurzweil is confident that if the human “values of liberty, tolerance, and respect for knowledge and diversity” in society is allowed to flourish before AI is created, “the nonbiological intelligence will be embedded in our society and reflect our values.” This sounds like wishful thinking, not properly preparing for the possibility of AI turning against humanity.
The earliest articulation of the technological singularity was perhaps described by the British mathematician I.J. Good, who wrote in 1965: “an ultraintelligent machine (can) be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever.” The machine would be so intelligent would “design even better machines” leading to “an intelligence explosion.” He memorably predicted that the “first ultraintelligent machines is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us now to keep it under control.” Some futurists predict AI could develop its own self-consciousness (feelings) and there is no guarantee that the technology would remain benign.
For some transhumanists, that’s fine. Human beings with all their flaws are a hindrance to a more perfect future – a future that may, and sometimes preferably, does not include humanity.
It may be tempting to dismiss the futurist fantasies as the fanciful wishing of some marginal pseudo-intellectuals. But that would be a mistake as transhumanism gains a foothold of respectability. The transhumanist movement has come a long way since the Transhumanist Manifesto, written by Natasha Vita-More, was released in 1980. It was not until the 1990s that transhumanism truly took off among a certain type of intellectual. Vita-More’s husband, the self-named Max More, co-founded the Extropy Institute to evangelize transhumanism and in 1998, Nick Bostrom co-founded the World Transhumanism Association (WTA) to encourage scientific research, lobby public policy, and develop an ethics of life extension technology, artificial intelligence, and the singularity. While the Extropy Institute no longer exists, the WTA was later renamed Humanity+ and is still evangelizing. WTA affirmed the desirability of improving the human condition by eliminating aging and enhancing human physical and intellectual capacities, through techniques of “applied reason.” (When transhuman enthusiasts talk about the ethics of human enhancement, they typically do not mean whether alterations to human beings are morally permissible, but whether access to human enhancement is equal across all classes and countries.) Humanity+ hosts conferences attended by business leaders and academics. Universities such as UCLA and the Stanford Law School host these conferences. There is now a Journal of Posthuman Studies published by Penn State University Press. Tech giants like Musk and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg fund transhumanist projects. Tech titans too numerous to mention plan on paying to have their heads maintained cryonically (frozen) until the technologies exist to upload their minds to computers.
Bostrom, who rejects the idea that human beings have the power to stop the inevitable progress to (machine) superintelligence, founded the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, was twice listed in Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list (in 2009 and 2015), and the author of a New York Times-bestseller, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which was praised by Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Superintelligence will eventually lead to an “intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.” Bostrom explained (elsewhere) that “you will still listen to music – music that is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak” and “you are communicating with your contemporaries using a language … that has a vocabulary and expressive power that enables you to share and discuss thoughts and feelings that unaugmented humans could not even think or experience.”
Man as gods
Bostrom, the most famous of the utopian futurists, observes that the goal of eternal life can be found in sacred texts such the Epic of Gilgamesh and geopolitical or personal adventures such as the search for the Fountain of Youth or the Holy Grail which would grant everlasting life. Or, in the words of Huxley, “the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted.” The goal of living forever and knowing all would turn man into gods. Max More envisions “human biosculpture” in which the “user” modifies his or her body, mind, and (ultimately) identity.
Transhumanism is fundamentally about overcoming human limitations. To the extent that transhumanism values human life per se, it is as a means to getting to the posthuman future.
Posthumanism is sometimes synonymous with transhumanism, with both meaning the evolution or development of beings superior in cognition to the human race as it is comprised today. While some partisans of transhumanism posit, even celebrate the end of mankind once transhumanism is achieved, it is not necessary that humanity become extinct in the predicted transhumanist world. In his 2004 book I, Cyborg, Kevin Warwick argued that humans and posthumans would co-exist, with the latter dominating society because of their superior abilities.
All this sounds like science fiction and there is good reason to believe their fantasies-cum-predictions will never materialize. But as Adam Kirsch argues in his new book The Revolt Against Humanity, ideas need not come true to be influential, and the influence of transhumanism is baleful.
Fundamentally, transhumanism is anti-human. Bioethicist Leon Kass has said that human nature is limited by our physical and mental capabilities but also the ability to satisfy our desires. Without limits, and the ability to flourish despite them, Kass argues, there is no human dignity. Kass wrote in Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity (2003) “a dignified life is all about engagement” and the good life is cheapened if technology simply hands human beings everything they want without effort.
Part II, next month, will explore the creation of virtual worlds and the diminishment of embodiment.