Transhumanism means improving humans through technology – creating augmented humans. Giving people longer, healthier lives and improving their mental, physical and emotional abilities are the foundations of transhumanist research. And this is being brought forward by advances in NBIC technology (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science).
From its origins to the wildest dreams of immortality, here’s everything you need to know about transhumanism.
Talk of transhumanism began with Raymond Kurzweil, who is now considered the godfather of the movement. After his father tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 58, the young Ray was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Dissatisfied with the conventional treatment he received, he decided to develop his own treatment and successfully overcame the disease. His obsession with immortality and transhumanism was born.
In 2012, he joined Google, where he became head of intelligent machine development projects. According to Bill Gates, he is one of the world’s most eminent authorities on artificial intelligence.
Although Silicon Valley is the latest player to take on the challenge of achieving immortality, the desire certainly isn’t new. In 1989, the National Research Council launched the HUGO (Human Genome Organisation) project, which aimed to carry out full DNA sequencing of the human genome.
Fifteen years later, in 2004, this feat was achieved, giving scientists a working base for all their research on the human genome. It was the beginning of the dream of immortality – because the word ‘immortality’ means eradicating all of the diseases that ravage today’s world. Including ageing.
From a transhumanist point of view, the ageing of cells and of our bodies is thought of as a disease. And so, the aim of finding the remedy that can halt this process – which currently remains inevitable – becomes valid.
Does this remind you of anything? Not even the carefully thought-out plot of an American blockbuster? Of course, I’m thinking of the film Self/less, featuring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley. Kingsley plays a rich businessman with an incurable disease, who is approached by a strange company that offers to transfer his consciousness into a substitute body – a young and athletic empty physical shell. Difficult to refuse such an offer!
And as well as preventing bodily ageing, preserving our memories is another of transhumanism’s aims.
So this means that saving memories onto a hard disk is another of the key challenges of transhumanism. Leading scientists like Ray Kurzweil are already working on inserting electronic chips into the human brain to connect them directly to the internet. It’s the first step towards copying and pasting our memories.
And once again, fiction is just a few steps ahead of reality. Straight away, many people’s minds jump to Transcendence. The film features Johnny Depp as a gifted scientist at the head of a project to design a sentient supercomputer that can think independently. After he is assassinated, Johnny Depp’s wife decides to ‘transcend’ his consciousness into the machine, allowing him to control all networks linked to the internet.
But the person who’s currently pushing the concept of augmented humans to the furthest extremes has to be Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading. “I don’t want to stay as a human – I want to improve myself, to become an augmented human. A cyborg – yes, that’s what I’d like to be.”
Kevin Warwick is the first human being in the world to have had an RFID chip installed in his arm, using it to control all of his laboratory’s automated systems. And he doesn’t do things by halves. He has previously said: “We’re going to end up with two different species: augmented humans and ordinary humans. And I know which group I want to be in.”
But for the moment, the technological progress in this field is mainly used to provide physical support to people and to help them to recover from accidents.
These technological developments could truly improve our daily lives. Especially for people who carry out physically demanding jobs. Take people working on production chains or construction sites, for example – their jobs require intense physical effort throughout the entire day. Exoskeletons would help them to cope with the physical toughness of their work.
And as for prostheses, they are becoming increasingly smart and effective. They are now directly linked to the brain, giving almost unbelievable results. For example, scientists have developed a prosthetic hand that the patient can move as if it were a natural limb.
All of these experiments on humans’ physical abilities came about thanks to the military. You might already have seen American soldiers climbing the mountains of Afghanistan while wearing an exoskeleton – named HULC after the green superhero with superhuman strength. The system allows them to carry loads of up to 90 kilograms without any physical hardship.
The megalomaniac and billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has designed a suit of armour, similar to the one worn by Iron Man, for Uncle Sam’s GIs. It’s why he’s often compared to the film character Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego. He has recently held discussions on the suit with Ash Carter, the American Secretary of Defense. The US Army could use this flying suit of armour – taken straight from Stan Lee’s imagination – to boost its power. It’s difficult to tell for sure whether this is a real project or just a rumour, however.
Until then, Mr Musk is even dreaming of using his high-tech outfits to send the first colonists to Mars – making sure they get there in one piece.
Some people don’t trust artificial intelligence. And Elon Musk is one of them – to the extent that he sees transhumanism as a protective shield against the coming supremacy of machines. Maybe his fear comes from I, Robot, the film with Will Smith where robots take over, reducing humans to mere slaves. Elon Musk wants to prevent humans from simply being ‘pets’ for robots that are much more intelligent than we are.
And this is the aim he had in mind when he founded OpenAI in 2015 with Sam Altman (President of the famous startup incubator Y Combinator). OpenAI is a research centre with a focus on artificial intelligence, which aims to give humanity an active role rather than sitting back and waiting for the AI takeover.
Elon Musk believes that the technology must be made available to everyone to avoid it being the preserve of a small dominant elite. And it’s a welcome initiative when you consider the fact that artificial intelligence could outstrip our own by 2029.
This obsession with the perfect body and zero defects could result in a revival of eugenicist theories and all they entail. Through practices made easier with the advent of human DNA sequencing, it’s possible to select and adapt a human being’s biological characteristics. And that raises the possibility of creating designer babies, where everything can be chosen at will – eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, and even physical properties. In such a situation, the child would be the perfect product, tailored to meet its parents’ desires.
So we’re certainly justified in wondering – how far should we allow NBIC technology to move forwards? Is Ray Kurzweil’s dream of immortality within our grasp? Is this a good thing? Is the blending of man and machine inevitable? Is the bionic human the logical next step of the natural biological evolution of our species? How will we be able to remain human in the midst of all this technology?
The arrival of augmented humans could revolutionize your sector or profession. That’s why it’s important for you to actively monitor startups that are currently working on this hot topic! So come and find out how Agorize can help you to identify the most advanced fledgling firms that bear the most relevance to your company.
Agorize comes from “Agora” and “Rise” and empowers companies and people from all over the world through Open innovation Challenges.
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