The Transhuman Agenda

As the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill progresses through parliament, Edward Lloyd assesses the pace at which science fiction is becoming reality.

There are two contrasting ways of countering the threat of global warming — Pro-Growth and No Growth.

The Pro-Growth or Cornucopian route is championed by numerous economists ranging from Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg to Larry Summers and Nigel Lawson. They all advocate increasing the output of the global economy so that we have sufficient wealth to buy our way out of the problems the economy causes, through the development of nuclear energy, information technology, genetic engineering and more advanced technofixes. It is the approach favoured by George Bush, Gordon Brown and all free market economists, who recognize that capitalism will collapse if the economy doesn't grow.

The No Growth or Gandhian approach tailors human needs to the limits imposed by the environment, by reducing conspicuous consumption, localizing economies and relying on renewable energy. This doesn't rule out change or evolution, and so it should perhaps be called Slow Growth. This is a proven way of life that protected the environment comparatively well up until about 1800. However it is by no means certain that it will meet the expectations of a global population which has swelled to many times its previous size, thanks to 200 years of profligate fossil fuel use.

The struggle between these two ideologies can be witnessed daily in the media, for example in disputes over whether or not to build a third runway at Heathrow, an extra lane on the M25, or another round of nuclear power stations. No/Slow Growth supporters argue that rapid economic growth has so far failed to reduce emissions, and that if ever it does so, it will be late and at the expense of people in poor countries. Free market economists respond that their opponents are Luddites who want us to return to a society when life was nasty, brutish and short.

Given that, in its own terms, capitalism has been fairly successful over the last 50 years, we can hardly discount the possibility that it will be the cornucopians who will triumph. Yet, so far, few advocates of No Growth have attempted any analysis of what kind of society we will be living in if they do. Suppose that some cheap, clean and abundant form of energy is developed which enables governments to deal with global warming, and the global economy to keep on expanding ad infinitum — what will our world be like then?

Few people in the UK green movement give thought to this matter, probably because the threat of global warming is so alarming and so imminent that it seems fruitless to look further ahead. But if capitalism does cope successfully with the environmental problems it has caused, beyond lies an economic and technological trajectory that will make climate change look like a storm in a teacup. For the scientists and economists confidently mapping out this future, global warming is an irrelevance.

A Dubious Prophet

The resistance to this long-term trajectory has been perfunctory and championed by a dubious prophet. Exactly ten years ago, in May 1998, Ted Kaczynski was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Colorado penitentiary for conducting an 18 year letter bomb campaign in which three people more or less connected with high tech industries died, and a number of others were injured. Kaczynski's demand was that his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, should be published in prominent US newspapers (1). It duly was published, in the New York Times and the Washington Post amongst others, in the hope that somebody would be able to identify the writer. That is indeed what happened: Kaczynski's brother recognized the style and reported his suspicions to the police.

It is customary, when quoting Kaczynski approvingly, to take pains to distance oneself from his terrorist activities. I will let readers make up their own minds about the ethics of his actions, just as they can make up their own minds about the moral responsibility of the scientists mentioned later in this article who carry out research for the US military, an organization which has bombed 21 countries since the second world war, and caused innumerable civilian deaths.

Kaczynski's 30,000 word manifesto starts out unpromisingly with a peevish attack on "leftists" (socialists, minority rights activists etc). This is followed by a lengthy chunk of pop psychology explaining how in industrial society the "effort needed to satisfy biological needs has been trivialized" and replaced by various surrogate activities whose purpose is to give people the sense of fulfilment they would otherwise lack. Typical surrogate activities include sports, art, scientific research or conspicuous consumption. None of this commentary is particularly wacky, and some of Kaczynski's observations are quite acute. But the reader may well start to wonder why he thought it was worth waging an 18 year bombing campaign to propagate it.

It is not until past the middle of the manifesto that Kaczynski has something more important to say:

"Suppose the industrial system survives the crisis of the next several decades. That being accomplished, it does not appear that there would be any further obstacle to the development of technology, and it would presumably advance towards its logical conclusion, which is complete control over everything on Earth, including human beings and all other important organisms . . . Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be 
impotent vis-a-vis large organizations armed with supertechnology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings, besides instruments of surveillance and physical coercion."

He then continues, in this much quoted passage:

" What kind of system will it be? We will consider several possibilities. First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained."

Kaczynski goes on to describe these two scenarios in greater detail. Kaczynski's bombing campaign, and the publication of his manifesto, successfully stimulated soul-searching analysis throughout the US media. Predictably representatives of the liberal establishment and most points to the near left made efforts to disassociate themselves from his actions and his views. Alexander Cockburn in The Nation accused him of "homicidal political nuttiness" and of peddling "a rotted out romanticism of the individual and of nature". Earth First! felt compelled to issue an ultimatum under the heading "Earth First! is Not the Unabomber" and called him a "lone sociopath." The Washington Post, less liable to guilt by association, carried the non-committal headline "Unabomber Manifesto Not Particularly Unique", which is a dismissive way of saying "Unabomber's Views Supported by Others".

What was more surprising was that an influential sector of the very scientific community which Kaczynski had been targeting started suggesting that he might have a point. As an ex-Harvard PhD, he was after all, one of them. The executive editor of Wired magazine, mouthpiece of Silicon Valley's digital elite, noted some method in his madness.

"This guy is a nerd. He is one of us. The [manifesto] is structured like a doctoral thesis, or those computer science papers with numbered graphs. Very tidy. Like the bombs."

And in 2003, in another famous article in Wired, entitled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us", Bill Joy, head of Sun Microsystems argued that there was merit as well as method. Quoting the passage cited in the box above, he concluded:

"Kaczynski's actions were murderous and, in my view, criminally insane. He is clearly a Luddite, but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in the reasoning in this single passage. I felt compelled to confront it."

Bill Joy came across the passage, not through reading the manifesto itself, but in book entitled The Age of Spiritual Machines, by another computer company executive, Ray Kurweil, who admits: "I was surprised how much of Kaczynski's manifesto I agreed with." Kurzweil has since published an updated version of his earlier book entitled The Singularity is Near, in which his response to Kaczynski, and to all who share fears about machines controlling humans, can be paraphrased as follows:

"You're right, but you have barely seen the half of it. The advances made by machines will go far further than you 
imagine. Humans will not merely be controlled by machines, they will become machines. It won't be as bad as you suggest, in fact it will be wonderful. Anyway, resistance is futile, so you might as well learn to like it."

Kurzweil is one of a growing swarm of cybertechnicians and theorists who call themselves as "transhumanists", "posthumanists" or "extropians" (ie they defy entropy). There is a bubbling subculture of them out on the web, on sites with names like "transutopia" or "anarcho-transhumanism.com" or even "transhumanism.meetup.com", which welcomes browsers who want to "meet other local transhumanists" with a picture of half a dozen middle-aged Americans sitting round a table in a bar.

But however cranky transhumanists may appear, they should not be underestimated. The pioneers mapping out this brave new world are either at top notch universities, working for the US military, or running cutting edge research and development corporations — and in some cases all three. Marvin Minsky, veteran artificial intelligence futurologist, is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he has received funding from the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); Eric Drexler, who put nanotechnology on the map with his 1992 book Engines of Creation, is at Stanford University; Hans Moravec runs the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University where he carries out work for DARPA; Ray Kurzweil has founded a number of companies specializing in computer speech recognition and is a member of the US Army Science Advisory Group; Rodney Brooks, author of Flesh and Machines, is Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT and runs a company called I-Robot which manufactures military robots for DARPA . . . and so on. Nearly all are American. The UK's leading transhumanists are rather effete by comparison: Nick Bostrom is in the faculty of philosophy at Oxford University and David Pearce, a transhumanist vegan, is also an Oxford philosopher.

Most of these guys go to extremes in their own particular field. In this article I have focused particularly on Kurzweil because his books provide a thorough and far-reaching synthesis of all these "converging technologies". They are written in a popular style, often blatantly sensationalist, but they are also copiously referenced, and by no means stupid.

GNR: The Transhumanist Programme

Transhumanists anticipate the development and convergence of an array of technologies which can be grouped under three headings: Genetics, Nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence (Robotics), or GNR for short. Convergence means that the distinction between biology, chemistry and mechanics — between live tissue (G), dead matter (N) and information (R) — will become increasingly blurred and finally disappear altogether. Kurzweil reckons that the convergence of this trinity will culminate in what he calls the "singularity", occurring around 2045 when "the non-biological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today."

Of the three, genetics, although it is currently the most debated, holds the least long-term promise. Recent advances in genetics include growing meat in test tubes from cloned animal muscle tissue; manipulating the germline to produce designer babies with disease resistance or enhanced intelligence; slowing down the ageing process by growing replacement or enhanced spare body parts from cloned human tissue.

However once techniques of this kind reach maturity, according to Kurzweil:

"limits will be encountered in biology itself. Although biological systems are remarkable in their cleverness, we have also discovered that they are dramatically suboptimal. I've mentioned the extremely slow speed of communication in the brain, and robotic replacements for our blood cells which could be thousands of times more efficient than their biological counterparts. Biology will never be able to match what we will be capable of engineering once we fully understand biology's principle of operation. The revolution in nanotechnology, however will ultimately enable us to design and rebuild, molecule by molecule, our bodies and brains and the world with which we interact."

By 2030 Kurzweil reckons we will have artificial organs which will outperform "the heart, lungs, red and white blood cells, platelets, pancreas, thyroid and all the hormone producing organs, kidneys, bladder, liver, lower oesophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines and bowel." Nanobots — nano-sized pre-programmed robots — will be circulating through our body repairing ageing parts and regulating the genetic code. Aside from the skeleton, all that is left at this point are "skin, sex organs, sensory organs, mouth and upper oesophagus and brain" — in short, the organs of sensory and intellectual consciousness which require more sophisticated engineering before they can be satisfactorily replaced.

As well as manipulating proteins in what remains of the human body, nanobots will also be employed as "assemblers" manipulating carbon and other molecules to fabricate absolutely anything we need out of dirt cheap feedstock. The problem here is that so many of these tiny robots will be required (literally trillions) that they will have to be self-replicating — ie programmed to assemble carbon copies of themselves. In other words they are analogous to a life form, and it is here that the famous "gray goo" scenario, first postulated by Drexler, and popularized in Bill Joy's article, comes into play:

"'Plants' with 'leaves' no more efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous 'bacteria' could out-compete real bacteria. They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days."

Kurzweil, like most transhumanists, admits this is a threat and advocates that nanobots should only be programmed to replicate on feedstock not found in the natural environment — which presumably would add to their expense.

The final and most profound element in the triune 
convergence is artificial intelligence. AI has two main competitive advantages over human intelligence: it is potentially far more powerful; and it can be uploaded onto another machine. Whereas the average human being, wishing to learn Latin for example, has to spend hours if not years learning to conjugate regular and irregular verbs in past, present, future and subjunctive tenses, a computer can upload the whole of Kennedy's Latin Primer, the Aenead, Caesar's Gallic Wars and everything else ever written in the language in a matter of seconds. The brain has the edge over the computer only because it's three dimensional architecture allows it to work with many more connections, giving it intuitive skills which make it more effective at recognizing patterns, for example in facial character, speech or patterns.

The transhumanists' initial answer is to copy the structure of the brain by a process they call "reverse engineering". This involves scanning and mapping the structure of the brain by "sending billions of nanobots through its capillaries" and copying it into "synthetic neural equivalents" which "can be run on a computational substrate that is already far faster than neural circuitry." Once computers achieve a human level of intelligence, they will necessarily soar past it, because nonbiological knowledge can be shared so quickly and easily.

The biological body, however, no matter how successfully enhanced, can never be more than "a second-class robot" .The final solution is to upload the human brain and consciousness — personality, memory, history, neuroses and all — so as to:

"reinstantiate those details into a suitably powerful computational substrate . . . The reinstantiated mind will need a body, since so much of our thinking is directed toward physical needs and desires. By the time we have the tools to capture and re-create a human brain with all of its subtleties, we will have plenty of options for twenty-first century bodies for both non-biological humans and biological humans who avail themselves of extensions to our intelligence. The human body version 2.0 will include virtual bodies in completely realistic virtual environments, nanotechnology-based physical bodies, and more."

Or, as Hans Moravec puts it, "a person may sometimes exist without a physical body, but never without the illusion of having one." And Kurzweil again:
"There will be no distinction between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it's simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations."

Landscapes of the Future

As humanity progresses down the path leading to transcendent nano-consciousness, the world as we know it becomes increasingly irrelevant. Human activity is gradually transformed, in Moravec's words

"from grossly physical homesteading of raw nature, to minimum-energy quantum transaction of computation. The final frontier will be urbanized, ultimately into an arena where every bit of activity is a meaningful computation: the inhabited portion of the universe will be transformed into cyberspace." (2)

The cities of the transhumanist future will be built not on real estate but virtual estate. Struggles against corporate or state enclosure will no longer focus just on land, but be fought around the architecture of cyberspace, in defence of the so-called "creative commons". The landscapes of the future will not be where we engage with nature for our survival, but the backdrop to an unending sequence of multi-media computer games, a geek's paradise. With this barren end to human endeavour in view, it becomes easier to understand why Kaczynski is so worked up about "surrogate activities".

It also explains why transhumanists are not exercised about global warming. The energy needed to power such minute information transactions is negligible, the feedstock required no more complex than a pile of atoms. Solar cells, says Drexler, will be "as cheap as newspaper and as tough as tarmac." What matter if the Earth's biodiversity is reduced by global warming to a desert of hot bare rock as it was at the end of the Permian age? That is a perfect environment for nanobot assemblers. Besides, the more degraded our biological environment becomes, through climate change or other catastrophe, the less human resistance there will be to a concerted attempt to conquer the nano-frontier.

To most of us, this sounds like the collective suicide of our biological species (along with the demise of a good many others) and it fleshes out the paradox delineated by C S Lewis in 1944 in his essay The Abolition of Man:

"The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning and by an education and propaganda based on perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won . . . But who, precisely will have won it? . . ."
"We are always conquering Nature, because 'Nature' is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature . . . Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man." (3)

There are other more modern critics of various elements of the transhumanist agenda — Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben for example (4) — but Lewis still offers the most distilled explanation of the revulsion which many people feel towards scientists who want to sacrifice humanity in their bid to play at being God.

Science Fact or Fiction?

Should take all this seriously? We have seen it all before in innumerable futurist and cyberpunk novels, and to their fans it is old hat. Is the transhumanist agenda really just third rate science fiction, dressed up as future fact? The US military and Ivy League colleges can no doubt afford to pay geeks to publish their techno-fantasies for no other reason than to provoke frissons and chatter amongst the scientific establishment.

Still more incredible is the claim from the likes of Ray Kurzweil, Max More and Hans Moravec that our 
transubstantiation into virtual reality will be achieved around the middle of this century. Kurzweil predicts that the "profound and disruptive transformation in human capability" which he terms the "singularity" will occur in 2045. He argues, with the aid of dozens of graphs, that the development of technology follows an accelerating exponential curve. For example the number of bits of magnetic data that could be bought for a dollar has increased by an order of magnitude every five years or so since 1950. In 1990 a dollar would buy you a megabyte; in 1995 10 megabytes, in 2000 well over 100 megabytes, and in 2005 about 10,000 megabytes. If our capabilities increase at this logarithmic rate, Kurzweil argues, then within 40 years our universe will be "transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence."
These extrapolations are not entirely convincing. In reality anything can happen. The first unmanned spacecraft was Sputnik 1 in 1957. The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, blasted off only four years later in 1961. After another eight years, in 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Since then, 39 years have elapsed, and humans have trod no further. In this case, the exponential curve has been in the opposite direction.

Moreover when Kurzweil makes short term predictions, he is often wrong. In 2005 he wrote:

"by the end of this decade, computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, with displays built in our eyeglasses, and electronics woven in our cloth providing full-immersion visual virtual reality. Thus 'going to a website' will mean entering a virtual-reality environment — at least for the visual and auditory senses — where we can directly interact with products and people. Although the simulated people will not be up to human standards — at least not by 2009 — they will be quite satisfactory."

Well it's 2008 and we are still some way off from all of this. No doubt it will come one day, but Kurzweil is either carried away by his own enthusiasm, or else considers that the best way to sell futurology is to compress the time frame so that readers sense that they might be affected within their lifetime.
But just because Kurzweil and other enthusiasts like to exaggerate, that does not mean that the transformation which they foresee will not occur eventually. Technology over the last decades may not have advanced towards "the singularity" at the speed that some transhumanists have anticipated but it is still moving in that direction at a brisk pace. The mapping of the human genome was completed in 2000, several years ahead of schedule (in sharp contrast to football stadiums and the like), "because DNA scanning technology grew at a double exponential rate" and at a lower cost than estimated. In the following year the number of patent applications in the field of cloning and stem cell research increased 300 per cent. The list of recent GNR developments on page 17 shows that humanity is advancing steadily towards transhumanist goals. There are tens of thousands of research scientist around the world working on such projects. The majority of them at present are in the United States, but in another decade there will be many more in China and India. We may not be rushing headlong at the speed which some hope for, but we are not exactly dawdling.

"Democratic Transhumanism"

The other reason why the transhumanist project needs to be taken seriously is that a second wave of commentators is emerging who are making the transhumanist agenda more palatable to a dominant liberal agenda that shuns extremists. James Hughes, author of the book Citizen Cyborg is an example. Whereas Drexler, Moravec, Kurzweil and the like revel in their role of maverick visionaries, Hughes couches his arguments in the language of liberal academia. He advocates "democratic transhumanism" as a middle way between the excesses of libertarian capitalist extropians and the "left-wing bio-Luddites". He reassures us that:

"Transhuman technologies can radically improve our quality of life and we have a fundamental right to use them to control our bodies and our minds. But to ensure these benefits we need to democratically regulate these technologies and make them equally available in free societies."

Hughes relies heavily on a specious form of politically-correct moral blackmail also advanced by the animal rights theorist Peter Singer (not to mention Hollywood sci-fi). It runs like this: Scientists will soon have the power to create or breed cyborgs — new life forms which are imbued with a high level of consciousnesss. To destroy, eat, enslave or discriminate against such sentient beings, were they alive, would be "human racist" (Singer's word is "speciesist", but "human racist" sounds more reprehensible). Since it is racist to prevent ethnic groups reproducing, it is "human racist" to prevent cyborgs being created.

The reverse argument is that it is precisely for this reason that reproductive human genetic modification should be stopped. The ability to reproduce sexually draws a clear line between one species and another — one of the few clear lines in nature — and it defines unambiguously what is human. Once we blur or destroy that line, in a biological world which runs on species eating and exploiting each other, we deal ourselves an ethical dilemma that no human (least of all a scientist) is sufficiently wise, or impartial, or authoritative to resolve.

Hughes doesn't subscribe to the "singularity", and the tone of the book suggests that he is wary of the more madcap proposals of extreme transhumanists. But a careful reading shows that he anticipates most of the developments that Kurzweil advocates, on only a slightly longer time scale. Technological advances, he says will be "sudden and dramatic", and he expects uploading of the human brain onto computers to occur "somewhere between 2050 and 2100". In fact Hughes's book is more disturbing than Kurzweil's precisely because it is further removed from science fiction. Its tone of politically correct moderation is designed to soften up policy-makers into accepting as safe and normal, what would once have been regarded as wacky. Next to appear will be text-books on transhumanism for undergraduates, which will give a "balanced" appraisal of the pros and coms and encourage fudged "non-extreme" conclusions that lead us further down the slippery slope.

Meanwhile, those who stand to benefit from the advance of the transhumanist agenda, the Frankenstein scientists and the cowboy corporations, are pushing, pushing, pushing at the boundaries of public opinion and policy. Those boundaries haven't yet been reached in the nano and robotics fields yet, but they are steadily being breached on the human genetics front. As the Human Fertlilization and Embryology Bill winds its way through the UK parliament, one scientist after another has been wheeled out to state the case for stem cell research and animal/human embryos, while the only opposition comes from the right to life lobby, whose understanding of the long term social and indeed spiritual issues at stake is close to zero. No MP has come forward with a secular critique of the Bill's measures.

Those of us who believe that it is not the mission of humanity to conquer the universe, but to co-evolve with the other species who share with us this special and wonderful planet, ought to be taking more notice and kicking up more of a fuss. Every step that gives scientists more control over nature and reproduction is a step towards the dire new world that the prophets of transhumanism have mapped out for us. 

 

REFERENCES
1. FC, Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future, Jolly Roger Press 1995. Several versions are on the internet.
2. Hans Moravec, "Pigs in Cyberspace", Extropy, Winter/Spring 1993.
3 The Abolition of Man is available at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm
4. F. Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future, Profile 2002; Bill McKibben, Enough, Bloomsbury, 2003.  

 

Part 2 of this article, exploring why resistance to the transhumanist agenda from the green left has been restricted to GM crops, will be published in issue 6 of The Land. 

This article originally appeared as 'The Transhuman Agenda' in The Land Issue 5 Summer 2008 (Reprint)