An introduction to transhumanism

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3A_transhumansThe idea of improving the human condition using technology raises important questions

Gizmos and Gadgets
Regan Meloche

Contributor

The quest to transcend the qualities that makes us human is as old as recorded history.

Mythology is filled with examples of humans trying to set themselves apart from the rest of their species, whether it be through immortality, increased intellectual ability, possessing the philosopher's stone, or having supreme power by wearing a tiny gold ring. It is only in the past few decades that we’ve started seeing some actual scientific methods of improving nearly every aspect of the human condition.

Welcome to transhumanism.

Transhumanism is the idea that we may one day be able to transform ourselves into more powerful beings using technology, whether it is intellectually or physically.

The futurist community is very divided on this issue. Some say that one day we may be able to scan our brain, copy our neural network onto a sophisticated silicon chip, and upload our mind, complete with our memories and personality, onto  resilient robot bodies.

The critics come from all angles. There are those who say that some of these technologies will never be possible and transhumanism is better off in the realm of science fiction. Many critics also oppose transhumanism on other grounds, such as economical, philosophical, or possibly out of a bias, to preserve the status quo.

But, these criticizms have not stopped researchers from speculating various ideas behind transhumanism.  

One of the flagship technologies of transhumanism is the already mentioned mind-uploading, which involves being able to copy a human brain down to the very last neuron and emulate it on some other platform, such as a computer processor.

Being the most exciting idea behind transhumanism, it only makes sense that it would also be the hardest technology to master. Early experiments done on insects and mice were met with little success, but the field is still quite young.

A related, but more realistic goal for these technologies, is being able to wire the brain to electronic devices so that, for example, someone who is paralyzed can control a robotic arm.

Scientists at Duke University have recently been able to connect two rat brains to a computer. According to wired.com, research shows that signals from one rat's brain can help the second rat solve a problem it would otherwise have no clue how to solve. The head scientist behind this project, Miguel Nicolelis, is hoping to be able to develop a robotic body that can be controlled by the mind of someone paralyzed. Adding on to the challenge, Nicolelis wants to master this technology by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where he is hoping to have a paralyzed athlete be able to walk onto the soccer pitch and kick a soccer ball using the robotic body.

Any transhumanist goals that involve the human brain will require considerable advances in neuroscience, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, but what other ways are there to 'transcend' humanism? And, have we already reached the point where we could be considered transhuman?

Transhumanism is a vague concept. It could involve increasing  brainpower, strengthening physical abilities, improving basic senses and  much more. With such a loose definition, anything from the use of steroids to any type of reconstructive surgery could be considered a form of transhumanism. The fact that someone  wears contacts could even be considered as transhuman technology.  

Transhumanism challenges the very notion of what it means to be human.

How many body parts and organs can be replaced until humans aren’t considered human anymore? Many critics might say there should be some limits when it comes to altering human conditions.

A common argument for transhumanism is that such technology should only be used to heal the sick or injured. This can imply a status quo bias, where the technology can only be used to try to bring humans up the norm and no further. Consider the opposite situation where some sort of accident can make someone smarter or stronger. Should technology be used to bring the person  back down to the normal level? This would likely put Marvel Comics out of business, but it also highlights the problems with the idea that  status quo is the best.

It's one thing to alter a grown adult’s condition, but what about that of a fetus in the womb?

Given the technology, should doctors be able to fix any predictable genetic defects in a baby? What if the baby is  missing a finger, and transhumanist technology has the ability to modify their genes to add another finger? Or what about adding extra fingers on each hand, to help them lean into a professional pianist career in the future?  

This may seem unethical, but again, the question that comes up is that of the status quo bias.  

An economic argument related to this is that these 'designer babies' may only be open to those who can afford it. So the rich could afford to make themselves stronger and smarter, creating more than just an economic gap between the classes.

Critics warn that this could have some very dangerous implications, as it could cause transhumanism to run the risk of being comparable to eugenics, which is the science of improving humans through selective breeding.

For everyone of the exciting transhumanism technologies, there tends to be at least one argument as to why it may be a bad idea.

Lessons from fiction and mythology warn about opening Pandora's box, bringing fire down to the humans, and flying too close to the sun.

On the other hand, many philosophers consider it a responsibility to improve the human condition. It may not be within the next century, but the technology will one day be there to realize all of these far out ideas.

The question that many have asked is not whether it is possible, rather it's a matter of how the technology is used. That, in itself, is something that science simply cannot answer.

For more information, visit Humanity+, the leading authority on all things transhumanist.

Photo courtesy of collider.com

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