Monday, September 15, 2003

"Transhumanism": Friend or foe?

While I was visiting NYC, I had a conversation with PM and JW (and later BM) about transhumanism, a topic that's been occupying a lot of my thoughts lately. Basically, we all agreed that it seems possible to radically alter certain aspects of the human form and psyche. What we disagreed about was whether one should use the label "transhumanism": I thought that it was an accurate word that served the useful purpose of provoking thought, whereas PM and JW thought it was an inaccurate piece of mystification whose only purpose was to obscure power imbalances in existing human societies. To summarize PM's arguments, perhaps, unfairly:

  • Humanity is not defined by its physical form, psychological urges (sex drive, etc.), or limitations (mortality, etc.); it is defined by the fact that it creates cultural artifacts. Therefore, even "transhumans", regardless of how bizarre they become, will still be "human", because they will create cultural artifacts.
  • The differences between "transhumans" and present-day humans will be no greater than the differences between present-day humans and primitive humans from, say, 10,000 years ago. Therefore, calling these future beings "transhuman" is misleading.
  • It is evil to have a society in which some people are "human" while others become transhuman (or, since PM says that the "transhuman" label is irrelevant, "much more powerful humans"). Therefore, talking about transhumanism is wrong.

All three of these points seem fundamentally wrong. To begin with, the first point's definition of "human" is deeply flawed. For example, this definition would call "human" any hypothetical race of space aliens, as long as they had something you could call culture. A spacefaring race of metal-eating bacterial colonies that communicate using protein-bearing spores? A society of sentient asteroids that travel across the galaxy searching for stars whose gamma ray signatures express the [*untranslatable*] of the [*untranslatable*]? Would these aliens be "human" as long as they produced "cultural" artifacts? This contention is absurd.

We can expect that radically altered humans would be no less foreign to us than these hypothetical aliens. No doubt they will share some characteristics with us, but they may share equally many characteristics with a termite mound, or a wheat field, or a hurricane. To call such beings "transhuman" or "posthuman" seems only accurate.

As for the second point, consider a hypothetical baby Alice born 10,000 years ago in a hunter-gatherer culture. Imagine transporting Alice into the present and raising her in a modern society. Now imagine downloading Alice's psyche into a colony of hyperintelligent nanomachines designed for asteroid mining, while simultaneously altering her personality so that she could never feel any emotions. I think you have to be willfully contrary to claim that the latter leap is no larger than the former leap. Hunter-gatherer Alice and modern-society Alice both have two arms, two legs, a face, a single brain; they'll grow up into people who walk around, who eat and drink, who desire sex, who fear death, who may feel love or anger or hate or jealousy. Nano-colony Alice's body is not even composed of biological materials; her thought processes are deeply foreign to every human being who has ever lived. To me, it seems obvious that the leap between nano-Alice and modern-society Alice is at least as great as the leap between Australopithecus and Homo sapiens. Only a tendentious reading of the facts could conclude otherwise. We call Australopithecus proto-human. We should call nano-Alice post-human.

Finally, as for the third point --- that transhumanity implies immoral differences in power --- we can clearly foresee that radical alterations to humanity will become possible. We can also foresee that some of these alterations will make people much more powerful. We can also foresee that some of the alterations that make people much more powerful will nevertheless not be universally adopted --- do you want to be downloaded into a hyperintelligent nanobotic asteroid mining colony? Some people would say yes, but most present-day humanity would say no. In other words, many people value their humanity, or at least certain aspects of it, and would therefore refuse an alteration that took away those aspects of their humanity. Therefore, one has three choices:

  1. Establish a world government that bans all transhuman alterations.
  2. Establish a world government that coerces everybody into having the same set of transhuman alterations.
  3. Establish a society based on ethical relationships between transhumans and humans.

The first two alternatives seem monstrous to me, and therefore we are left with the third. Refusing to talk about transhumanism doesn't make the third alternative any less real. And calling radically altered people transhuman doesn't obscure the power imbalance; rather, it brings that power imbalance to the fore, and highlights its unique properties. Past power imbalances among humans have mostly derived from the fact that some people wish to deprive others of power. The power imbalance between transhumans and humans is more fundamental: it derives from the fact that some humans will not wish to partake of the power offered by transhuman enhancements. To be sure, there may be transhumans who wish to deprive humans, or other transhumans, of power, but the imbalance between transhumanity as a whole and humanity as a whole is new.

When I said that transhumanist ethics should require that transhumans set aside enough space and resources for humans to live fulfilling human lives, PM derisively compared it to "keeping the savages on the reservation". But I don't see any other alternative.

Should transhumans instead compete with humans for the same resources? Transhumans would win every time. A single transhuman might produce more intellectual output than an entire human population of billions. A transhuman might be able to manipulate human legal systems with the ease of a child playing with Legos. And physics dictates that a transhuman psyche downloaded into a computer with the mass of a golf ball would be able to colonize remote planets faster than any human (who would be encumbered by a mass weighing in the tens of kilograms). Transhumans might have the power to destroy human economies, subvert human legal systems, and establish sovereign governments far beyond the reach of any human. The only forces stopping a transhuman from doing these things would be its own conscience and the will of other transhumans, not any human power.

So the resources left for humans would be only those that transhumans made a conscious effort to set aside for that purpose. (Note that a second tenet of transhumanist ethics is universal enfranchisement --- any human who wants to become transhuman should be given not only the liberty but the resources to do so. So humans would be human by choice.) For savages like us, it will be a matter of choosing between the reservation and transhumanity. There's no other choice.

And actually, I don't think PM had any other choices in mind. I strongly suspect that his reaction against my description of transhumanism stems from denial, not any positive agenda. Like many other anti-transhumanists, I think he dislikes the notion of a society founded on vast power imbalances, and therefore prefers to invent reasons not to think about it. But avoiding the idea won't make it go away.

Note, BTW, that most transhumanist thinkers are fully conscious of the risks involved in the transhumanist project, or at least as fully conscious as anyone can be. In fact, analyzing these risks is (yet another) major aim of transhumanist thought. See, for example, Nick Bostrom's many writings, including his discussion of existential risks to the human race, and his unconventional analysis of the future of human evolution.

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