Transhumanism is a philosophical and intellectual movement that aims to enhance human abilities using technology.
It advocates that we can use technology to push the physical and cognitive limits of what it means to be “human”. For example, currently, being human means that we can expect to live about 70-80 years. Transhumanism believes that we can expand this lifespan significantly, perhaps infinitely.
While much of transhumanism is future-oriented, some of its marvels are already present in our contemporary world, such as bionic implants and AI technologies. However, transhumanism also has many critics, who question its practicality as well as ethicality.
Definition of Transhumanism
Nick Bostrom defines transhumanism as:
“an intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities, with the goal of transcending human biological limitations and ultimately achieving a posthuman condition” (2005)
Bostrom points out that the desire to transcend natural human limits goes as far back as human history itself. It is evident in literary works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh or in historical quests, like the ones for the Fountain of Youth or the Elixir of Life.
The British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane laid down the fundamental ideas of transhumanism in his 1923 essay, Daedalus: Science and the Future. Later, the term “transhumanism” was popularized in 1957 by biologist Julian Huxley.
During the 1960s, a professor of futurology, FM-2030 (earlier called Fereidoun M. Esfandiary) taught transhumanist ideas at The New School. His ideas laid the foundation for the work of Max More, who organized transhumanism as a school of thought in California during the 90s.
More’s work ultimately turned transhumanism into a worldwide movement (Hughes, 2004). Let us look at some examples of transhumanism before turning to its criticism.
Examples of Transhumanism
- Genetic Engineering: Genetic engineering is the modification of an organism’s genes using technology, which alters its traits and characteristics. The fundamental ideas of transhumanism were first laid down in 1923 by J. B. S. Haldane, who had a special interest in ectogenesis (creating and sustaining life in artificial environments), eugenics, and using genetic engineering to improve human characteristics like health and intelligence. Through the application of genetics, we can possibly edit the human genome and eliminate genetic diseases, say conditions like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia.
- Nanotechnology: Nanotechnology aims to manipulate atoms and molecules at the nanoscale, that is, things that are 100 nanometers (100 millionths of a millimeter) or less in size. Currently, it is primarily used in the information & communication sector, along with food processing and energy production. Nanotechnology can become a boon for the medical industry; for example, it can allow us to make targeted drug delivery systems that can directly impact diseased cells. However, nanotechnology also poses health concerns as humans have never been exposed to synthetic nanoparticles before.
- Bionic Implants: Bionic implants are artificial devices surgically implanted into the human body to augment or restore biological functions. Bionics has already had a huge impact on the lives of patients, especially in the areas of vision, hearing, orthopedics, and some cardiac/neurological functions. Besides restoration, such implants can also enhance physical capabilities beyond natural limits. For example, artificial exoskeletons can help increase the strength & endurance of workers who perform physically demanding tasks, as depicted in the movie Elysium (2013).
- Cognitive Enhancement: Cognitive enhancement is the use of drugs, devices, or other methods to improve cognitive abilities beyond normal levels. This could possibly lead to improvements in memory, creativity, attention, etc. Medications such as Ritalin or Adderall are used to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), but they are also sometimes used by healthy people for better academic/professional performance. There are also brain-computer interfaces, which create direct communication between the brain and an external device, say a computer or robotic limp; these have huge potential to expand cognitive/physical capabilities.
- Artificial Intelligence: Artificial Intelligence refers to machines that can perform tasks requiring human intelligence. It works by combining computer science, and robust datasets, along with machine learning; the algorithms use the input data to create expert systems and make predictions. AI can perform numerous tasks, such as problem-solving, natural language processing, and even creative work. As ‘cognitive tools’ that enhance our cognitive abilities, AI can help us achieve our goals more efficiently and accurately, which ultimately has the potential to revolutionize all aspects of our lives.
- Life Extension: Technology has already helped to extend the life span of human beings, and with the integration of biotechnologies, lifespans may continue to extend beyond what is currently considered normal. Globally, anti-aging products constitute a huge industry, even though many have not been proven to be effective or safe (Holliday, 2009). However, many researchers claim that future advances in medical fields (like stem cells, regenerative medicine, molecular repair, etc.) will allow humans to have much longer lifespans, along with the potential restoration of a healthy youthful condition.
- Technological Singularity: The technological singularity refers to a hypothetical event in the future when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. The term ‘singularity’ means we can’t see beyond it, and we don’t know what consequences this will have for humanity. As per I.J. Good, artificial intelligence will eventually enter a “runaway reaction” of self-improvement cycles. This will lead to newer and more intelligent versions of AI appearing rapidly, which will ultimately create a “superintelligence” (Vinge, 1993). These systems could revolutionize science, medicine, and engineering. However, they could also become uncontrollable and turn on the human race.
- Virtual Reality: Virtual reality is a simulated environment that allows users to explore and interact with an immersive world, which seems quite close to reality. It employs 3D near-eye displays (such as helmets or goggles) and pose-tracking to create this virtual world. VR can be used for entertainment (video games), education (say creating a visual tour of a historical site), and business purposes (meetings). Augmented reality is another similar field, which overlays virtual simulations onto real-world environments, as in Pokemon Go.
- Mind Uploading: Mind uploading is a speculative technology that aims to create a digital copy of the human mind. In other words, it hopes to capture all the elements of a brain into a computer, run a simulation using it, and ultimately replicate how a conscious human would have acted in real life. The supporters of mind-uploading argue that some of the tools required for the process are already in existence, although the complete execution is still quite speculative.
- Space Colonization: Space colonization means establishing permanent human living establishments on celestial bodies other than Earth. This can be done through making space settlements or extraterrestrial mining enterprises, although none of it has been done so far. In fact, no extraterrestrial land has been legally claimed till now, as outer space is defined as a common heritage. Space colonization may eventually help us gain new insights about the universe and acquire rare resources.
Although transhumanism has the potential to revolutionize every aspect of our life, it poses serious ethical concerns and has been criticized by many.
One of the major criticisms of transhumanism is that it will exacerbate society’s inequalities. Bill McKibben, for example, points out how these new technologies would be disproportionately available to the rich, creating what he calls a “genetic divide” (2003).
We can take the case of steroids. Athletes can gain an unfair advantage over others by using them, and the same can happen with cognitive enhancements in education and workplaces. Some critics suggest that these “improvements” can lead to the creation of two distinct species.
McNamee further believes that these two “species” may acquire different social statuses. The differences in mental/physical capabilities might even make it impossible for the two to breed with each other (2006).
Some critics also believe that transhumanist ideals can create existential risks. They suggest that alternative forms of cognition (such as artificial intelligence or robotics) can threaten human life. Finally, there are scholars who question the feasibility of transhumanism, arguing that much of it is impractical & unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that advocates the pushing of human boundaries through technology.
It believes that, through new forms of technology, we can enhance our cognitive and physical abilities to such an extent that the term “human” itself will get reconceptualized. Some of its marvels already exist in our world, such as bionic implants & artificial intelligence.
Others, such as mind-uploading, are more speculative. Transhumanist ideas have the potential to dramatically change all aspects of our lives. However, critics point out that they also pose serious social and practical concerns.
Bostrom, Nick. (2005). “A history of transhumanist thought”. Journal of Evolution and Technology. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Holliday, R (April 2009). “The extreme arrogance of anti-aging medicine”. Biogerontology. Springer Science+Business Media.
Hughes, James (2004). Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Westview Press.
McNamee, M. J.; Edwards, S. D. (2006). Transhumanism, medical technology and slippery slopes”. Journal of Medical Ethics.
McKibben, Bill (2003). Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. Times Books.
Vinge, Vernor. (1993). “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”. Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace, G. A. Landis, ed., NASA Publication.
Winner, Langdon (2005). “Resistance is Futile: The Posthuman Condition and Its Advocates”. In Bailie, Harold; Casey, Timothy (eds.). Is Human Nature Obsolete? M.I.T. Press.