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Transhumanism, Ethics, and the Internet: A Dispatch from the "Transhuman Visions" conference
By Brian Green
Transhumanism is a contemporary worldview whose proponents seek to radically extend human life and grant humans enhancements in an effort to render them as powerful as possible. The first-ever Transhuman Visions conference, organized by Hank Pellissier of the Brighter Brains Institute, met on February 1, 2014, in San Francisco, California. I attended because I have longstanding academic interests in the technological, religious, sociological, psychological, and ethical aspects of transhumanism.
The very first speaker at the conference, Roen Horn, reflected some of the complex religious aspects of transhumanism; he used a lot of Christian imagery, while at the same time denying that we can appeal to a (possibly imaginary) God for our immortality. In his view, if we want to be immortal, we have to do it on our own. Atheism, anti-theism, agnosticism, and new age spirituality were subtexts in many of the presentations. Horn's use of the catch phrase "eternal life pirates never surrender" also presented something of both the whimsy and the seriousness of the movement.
Another speaker, Rich Lee, was a "grinder" – a devotee of do-it-yourself technological body modification. He had inserted magnetic implants in his own body in order to augment his own sensory perception, and electronic RFID chips into his hands so as to wirelessly control locks and other items that require identification to operate. Transhumanism and extreme body modification share the idea of the manipulability of the human body in accord with the human will. This is a movement that might grow in popularity yet remain somewhat limited in its appeal, at least for the near-term—as tattoos and body modification currently remain.
Several speakers discussed ways to increase health and longevity. Caloric restriction is the only well-proven way to extend life, but very few people actually follow it, since it is rather unpleasant. These speakers discussed a few ways, such as periodic fasting, to get some of the perceived benefits of caloric restriction without having to actually starve oneself. Among other things, the speakers also recommended wearing orange glasses in the evenings in order to prevent artificial lights from interfering with natural bodily rhythms that promote a good night's sleep.
Aubrey de Grey was the most prominent speaker at the conference. Something of a celebrity in the radical life-extension community, de Grey discussed ways to popularize the life-extension movement so as to gain more funding for its research. He argued that significant gains could be made with just $50 billion invested in anti-aging research. One clever audience member asked if de Grey would shave his long beard for a crowd-funded $5 million donation, to which de Grey replied "yes!" and then even lowered the bar to $1 million; what happens to his beard remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most interesting speaker, and one who gained great applause from the audience, was Randal Koene, who discussed his initiative to get all those working in fields relevant to "whole brain emulation" (WBE) to cooperate in their efforts. Transhumanists see WBE as a kind of Holy Grail of life extension because they believe it will allow them to upload their minds into computers and thus attain complete immortality, with humans living inside a computer network as "substrate independent minds" (SIMs). Personally, I am skeptical of the relevance of this idea to life extension, since WBEs in a computer will not be "alive" in any biological sense (a rather key aspect of "life extension")—nor do I think minds can be substrate independent. Of more relevance for life extension is neural prosthetic technology, which allows brain damage to be repaired through brain-computer interfaces. This technology is actually progressing very rapidly, with brain damaged tissue already electronically restored in animals. One might reasonably ask where the dividing line between neuroprosthetics and WBE might be: How much brain has to be replaced before the prosthetic is your brain? Could a brain-dead person be restored to life with a partial or whole-brain prostheses? But these questions will not be resolved by debate but by actual experiments.
Another speaker at the conference, Zoltan Istvan, proposed the idea that those who speak out against transhumanism might be committing a crime because they are advocating a worldview that will lead to many deaths. Perhaps such speech should be banned, he proposed. Needless to say, such a course of action would raise some grave ethical questions. This type of thinking, which could perhaps lead to a type of totalitarian transhumanism, is something that I had not heard much about before.
Utopianism was a definite ethical theme at the conference. For transhumanists, Utopia means humanity without death and with godlike powers. Utopia is a "greatest good," all other goods are subordinate to it, including, as noted above, the pleasure of eating, the absence of pain from body modifications, existence as a body of flesh, and perhaps even freedoms (of speech, etc.). As an infinite good, however, Utopia can be used to morally justify anything (by arguing that in the face of an infinite good any finite evil is negligible). This can be extremely dangerous.
While transhumanism has existed primarily as an Internet-based movement for a couple of decades now, the Transhuman Visions conference was an event intended to build face to face human relationships. As the movement has grown in popularity, especially in the tech-friendly Bay Area, it has finally passed a critical threshold, so that now in-person contact starts to make sense for those interested in it. The conference had approximately 300 attendees.
As for me, I am a transhumanism enthusiast, but also a skeptic. While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one's lives.
Research into extending healthy life is a worthy task and not one to be discouraged. While the extreme search for immortality is, I think, futile, and futile acts can be morally problematic, the general effort to extend life is not futile, and is certainly something that would interest many people. Significantly lengthened lifespans will likely not appear quickly, but by a long slow process of medical advance, and those individual medical advances, compounding over time, will be a very good thing.
Brian Green is assistant director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and an adjunct professor teaching ethics in the SCU Graduate School of Engineering.