By now you have probably heard the term “transhumanism.” If you haven’t, it is basically the overarching term to describe an intellectual movement concerned with improving humanity through progressive technology. It’s ultimate goal is to prolong human life, making humans near immortal by marrying technology with biology in a way that reduces human suffering and enhancing the human condition.
The intellectual movement itself is however still controversial — and not necessarily because it espouses wild theories or avant-garde scientific predictions. Rather, Transhumanism has become controversial because many transhumanists have begun to mix religious subtext into their argument. The main reason for this is because there are many different subsets of groups within the Transhumanist movement, and in Futurism in general.
While we all want the same outcome, we have different ways of encouraging people to adopt the values of radical openness and avante-garde scientific beliefs to better humanity. It is why as someone who has long been interested in technology and deep philosophical thought that I have taken it upon myself at times to posit why not all Transhumanists are arguing their principles in a manner that gets people to consider its scientific validity.
The other day I had dinner with two friends of mine who are highly adept computer scientists; one just completed a successful first round interview with Google. One of our conversations at dinner surrounded Google’s somewhat enigmatic director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil of course is most famous for his support and belief of technological Singularity (a subset of the Transhumanist movement). The Singularity is focused on the theory that artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will reach a point where the human can essentially become post-human by way of his biology merging with technology (a sort of cyborg if you will).
So what does my friend think of the Singularity? “I think the whole idea sounds kind of crazy,” he said. I asked him why. He went on to conclude that it seems like people within the movement are advocating their views more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific one. He further stated, while much of what Kurzweil states is scientifically plausible, he gets lost in the way “Moore’s Law” is used as a basis for the argument, saying this Law is coming to an end. I responded by asking about a “post-silicon” era. He said its possible, but that he doesn’t think many of these people are focusing on the fact Moore’s Law is ending, because they are so caught up in the prediction component of Futurism and that this will happen in their lifetime.
My friend makes several critical, reasonable points. And by the end of the night, I actually got him to admit that he supports Singularity, at least in part. How did I do that?
By advocating the principles of Singularity and Transhumanism through a pragmatic approach.
I asked my friend what he thought of artificial intelligence, and ever expanding technology. I asked him if he believed in these principles. He said yes. I asked him if he supports using technology to advance human condition and to expand life expectancy, possibly indefinitely. He said yes. So I asked him why he doesn’t support the tenets of Singularity. He finally conceded that the message itself seems “sketchy” and he thinks its unlikely to happen by 2045.
The problem with some in the Transhumanist movement is that the message is sometimes overlooked in its presentation. Now, I happen to support Kurzweil, and I do support research towards the principles of Singularitarianism. I also believe we will witness a technological Singularity. However, what I and others like my friend have taken issue with is the way his supporters preach that vision.
Today on Twitter, a Futurist and Transhumanist I happen to really like listening to espoused that through post-humanism, and the Singularity, we will become Gods. He is not alone in this vision. There are many Transhumanists that believe man is uniquely qualified as an intelligent being, more so than the rest of the animal kingdom, to solve nature’s problems. In a way, what these transhumanists are saying is that we will all become neo-creationists. This view is more common under the banner of Singularitarians because the Singularity is the component of Futurism and Transhumanism most associated with the idea of transcending biology.
And, again I don’t disagree with its predictions (maybe the timeline and some of the specifics) but its worth seriously listening to.
So how might advocates for Transhumanism, including Singularity, better advocate for the radical openness necessary to accept these scientific possibilities? Through Extropianism.
Extropianism is the Transhumanist philosophy that takes the most pragmatic approach to the ideals shared by all transhumanists. It takes its name from the opposite of the thermodynamic principle of entropy, or the measurement that reaches a finite limit or arrangement. Extropians believe in the principles of quantum physics, whereby nothing is impossible, only highly improbable to whatever degree.
So what do Extropians believe in specifically? They believe in the same things as Singularitarians (and are supporters of Singularity) without attaching a set timeline to abide by. E.g, Extropians do not subscribe to a certain 2045 timeline (they are not doubting it any more than they are certain of it). More specifically, Extropists, the modern philosophical movement of Extropianism is concerned not only with transhumanism, but pragmatic ways to overcome its problems in a timeline-neutral, non-religious manner.
Extropists are utilitarian in their visions. They believe that man should exist in his life, however definite to achieve maximum happiness. They believe technological progress can greatly achieve utilitarian outcomes by alleviating human suffering and promoting technology to overcome biological limitations like disease and even death. The only way they believe this can happen is by breaking down the political, social and economic barriers to do so and acknowledge how best to avoid new technologies being abused or solely used by a select few.
The Extropians concern themselves with near-future concerns, such as bioethics, open-source biotechnology, open-source genetics and freedom of information. They advise patents surrounding new-technologies related to medicine, life-improvement and human good be restricted in accordance with current law on medical patents. They are in favor of an open-source method regarding biotechnology to reduce bioethical concerns. In order to achieve maximum good, the Extropian wants to prevent technology being monopolized by a single corporation, a select few corporations, government(s) or rich and powerful individuals.
By working in an open-source scientific community where information flows freely and unrestricted, transhumanism will have the greatest, most equal outcome. The transhumanist movement needs to loose the religiosity in its argument, another key component of Extropist thought.
Ultimately, Extropists are basically Singularitarians without a timeline, and whose scientific advocacy heavily concerns issues like politics, economics and needed societal reform in the interim. You can convert a lot more people to the idea of Transhumanism when you stop focusing on the distant future cargument as a main focus and instead focus on Transhumanism in a manner that promotes over-all humanity by addressing the near future as well.
Moderates in and out of the scientific community will be more open to the wonders of technology, Singularity and radical openness of Transhumanism if you present its benefits while also acknowledging how we must overcome obstacles like societal reform in the near-future. Many Transhumanists have lost sight of the near future, are too overly optimistic, spending too much time 20 years from now instead of acknowledging what needs to be done today before then.
In conclusion, I believe more people will accept these visions as mainstream. While a Singularity may or may not occur within our lifetime, the benefit in supporting its visions outweigh any plausible argument against it. We have already begun to see amazing advances in medicine as a result of technology. It is only right to assume we will see even more. While not all Transhumanist messages are equally effective, I believe Extropianism is the most pragmatic. Most people ultimately agree ending human suffering and promoting longer, healthier lives (if not indefinite lives) is a good thing. And you can present that argument far easier by loosing any religious subtext, set time-line, and overly optimistic predictions that gloss over near-future philosophical and societal problems.
And I should also note that I don’ think ALL Singularitarians or Transhumanists have religious subtext, set-time line ideas or overly optomistic views of the future — just that many do, enough to make a difference. I should note that I consider myself both an Extropist and Singularitarian.
Ultimately, It’s fun to predict the future — hey that’s why we consider ourselves futurists. But we also need to remember that the only way we can do that is by working together. And to get more people together for the future we must learn to moderate and control the very important message today.