What is transhumanism?
TO BOSTROM SPACE
- Nick Bostrom
Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific method
London School of Economics
Over the past few years, a new paradigm for thinking about humankind's future has begun to take shape among some leading computer scientists, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists and researchers at the forefront of technological development. The new paradigm rejects a crucial assumption that is implicit in both traditional futurology and practically all of today's political thinking. This is the assumption that the "human condition" is at root a constant. Present-day processes can be fine-tuned; wealth can be increased and redistributed; tools can be developed and refined; culture can change, sometimes drastically; but human nature itself is not up for grabs.
This assumption no longer holds true. Arguably it has never been true. Such innovations as speech, written language, printing, engines, modern medicine and computers have had a profound impact not just on how people live their lives, but on who and what they are. Compared to what might happen in the next few decades, these changes may have been slow and even relatively tame. But note that even a single additional innovation as important as any of the above would be enough to invalidate orthodox projections of the future of our world.
"Transhumanism" has gained currency as the name for a new way of thinking that challenges the premiss that the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable. Clearing away that mental block allows one to see a dazzling landscape of radical possibilities, ranging from unlimited bliss to the extinction of intelligent life. In general, the future by present lights looks very weird - but perhaps very wonderful - indeed.
Some of the possibilities that you will no doubt hear discussed in the coming years are quite extreme and sound like science-fiction. Consider the following:
- Superintelligent machines. Superintelligence means any form of artificial intelligence, maybe based on "self-taught" neural networks, that is capable of outclassing the best human brains in practically every discipline, including scientific creativity, practical wisdom, and social skills. Several commentators have argued that both the hardware and the software required for superintelligence might be developed in the first few decades of the next century. (See Moravec  and Bostrom .)
- Lifelong emotional well-being through re-calibration of the pleasure-centers. Even today, mild variants of sustainable euphoria are possible for a minority of people who respond especially well to clinical mood-brighteners ("antidepressants"). Pharmaceuticals currently under development promise to give an increasing number of "normal" people the choice of drastically reducing the incidence of negative emotions in their lives. In some cases, the adverse side-effects of the new agents are negligible. Whereas street drugs typically wreak havoc on the brain's neurochemistry, producing a brief emotional "high" followed by a crash, modern clinical drugs may target with high specificity a given neurotransmitter or receptor subtype, thereby avoiding any negative effect on the subject's cognitive faculties - (s)he won't feel "drugged" - and enables a constant, indefinitely sustainable mood-elevation without being addictive. David Pearce  advocates and predicts a post-Darwinian era in which all aversive experience will be replaced by gradients of pleasure beyond the bounds of normal human experience. As cleaner and safer mood-brighteners and gene-therapies become available, paradise-engineering may become a practicable possibility.
- Personality pills. Drugs and gene therapy will yield far more than shallow one-dimensional pleasure. They can also modify personality. They can help overcome shyness, eliminate jealousy (Kramer ), increase creativity and enhance the capacity for empathy and emotional depth. Think of all the preaching, fasting and self-discipline that people have subjected themselves to throughout the ages in attempts to ennoble their character. Shortly it may become possible to achieve the same goals much more thoroughly by swallowing a daily cocktail pill.
- Space colonization. Today, space colonization is technologically feasible but prohibitively expensive. As costs decrease, it will become economically and politically possible to begin to colonize space. The thing to note is that once a single self-sustaining colony has been established, capable of sending out its own colonization probes, then an exponentially self-replicating process has been set in motion that is capable - without any further input from the planet Earth - of spreading out across the millions of stars in our galaxy and then to millions of other galaxies as well. Of course, this sequence of events will take an extremely long time on a human time-scale. But is interesting to notice how near we are to being able to initiate a chain of events that will have such momentous consequences as filling the observable universe with our descendants.
- Molecular nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the hypothetical design and manufacture of machines to atomic-scale precision, including general-purpose "assemblers", devices that can position atoms individually in order to build almost any chemically permitted matter-configuration for which we can give a detailed specification - including exact copies of themselves. An existence-proof of a limited form of nanotechnology is given by biology: the cell is a molecular self-replicator that can produce a broad range of proteins. But the part of design space that is accessible to present biological organisms is restricted by their evolutionary history, and is mostly confined to non-rigid carbon structures. Eric Drexler (, ) was the first person to analyze in detail the physical possibility of a practically universal molecular assembler. Once such a gadget exists, it would make possible dirt-cheap (but perfectly clean) production of almost any commodity, given a design-specification and the requisite input of energy and atoms. The bootstrap problem for nanotechnology - how to build this first assembler - is very hard to solve. Two approaches are currently pursued. One of them builds on what nature has achieved and seeks to use biochemistry to engineer new proteins that can serve as tools in further engineering efforts. The other attempts to build atomic structures from scratch, using proximal probes such as atomic-force microscopes to position atoms one-by-one on a surface. The two methods can potentially be used in conjunction. Much research is required before the physical possibility of Drexlerian nanotechnology can be turned into an actuality; it will certainly not happen in the next couple of years, but it might come about in the first few decades of the next century.
- Vastly extended life spans. It may prove feasible to use radical gene-therapy and other biological methods to block normal aging processes, and to stimulate rejuvenation and repair mechanisms indefinitely. It is also possible that nothing short of nanotechnology will do the trick. Meanwhile there are unproven and in some cases expensive hormone treatments that seem to have some effect on general vitality in elderly people, although as yet nothing has been shown to be more effective at life-extension than controlled caloric restriction.
- Extinction of intelligent life. The risks are as enormous as the potential benefits. In addition to dangers that are already recognized (though perhaps inadequately counteracted?), such as a major military, terrorist or accidental disaster involving nuclear, chemical, viral or bacteriological agents, the new technologies threaten dangers of a different order altogether. Nanotechnology, for example, could pose a terrible threat to our existence if obtained by some terrorist group before adequate defense systems have been developed. It is not even certain that adequate defense is possible. Perhaps in a nanotechnological world offense has a decisive intrinsic advantage over defense. Nor is it farfetched to assume that there are other risks that we haven't yet been able to imagine.
- The interconnected world. Even in its present form, the Internet has an immense impact on some people's lives. And its ramifications are just beginning to unfold. This is one area where radical change is quite widely perceived, and where media discussion has been extensive.
- Uploading of our consciousness into a virtual reality. If we could scan the synaptic matrix of a human brain and simulate it on a computer then it would be possible for us to migrate from our biological embodiments to a purely digital substrate (given certain philosophical assumptions about the nature of consciousness and personal identity). By making sure we always had back-up copies, we might then enjoy effectively unlimited life-spans. By directing the activation flow in the simulated neural networks, we could engineer totally new types of experience. Uploading, in this sense, would probably require mature nanotechnology. But there are less extreme ways of fusing the human mind with computers. Work is being done today on developing neuro/chip interfaces. The technology is still in its early stages; but it might one day enable us to build neuroprostheses whereby we could "plug in" to cyberspace. Even less speculative are various schemes for immersive virtual reality - for instance using head-mounted displays - that communicate with the brain via our natural sense organs.
- Reanimation of cryogenically-suspended patients. Persons frozen with today's procedure can probably not be brought back to life with anything less than mature nanotechnology. Even if we could be absolutely sure that mature nanotechnology will one day be developed, there would still be no guarantee that the cryonics customer's gamble would succeed - perhaps the beings of the future won't be interested in reanimating present-day humans. Still, even a 5% or 10% chance of success could make an Alcor contract a rational option for people who can afford it and who place a great value on their continued personal existence. If reanimated, they might look forward to aeons of subjective life time under conditions of their own choosing.
These prospects might seem remote. Yet transhumanists think there is reason to believe that they might not be so far off as is commonly supposed. The Technology Postulate denotes the hypothesis that several of the items listed, or other changes that are equally profound, will become feasible within, say, seventy years (possibly much sooner). This is the antithesis of the assumption that the human condition is a constant. The Technology Postulate is often presupposed in transhumanist discussion. But it is not an article of blind faith; it's a falsifiable hypothesis that is argued for on specific scientific and technological grounds.
If we come to believe that there are good grounds for believing that Technology Postulate is true, what consequences does that have for how we perceive the world and for how we spend our time? Once we start reflecting on the matter and become aware of its ramifications, the implications are profound.
From this awareness springs the transhumanist philosophy - and "movement". For transhumanism is more than just an abstract belief that we are about to transcend our biological limitations by means of technology; it is also an attempt to re-evaluate the entire human predicament as traditionally conceived. And it is a bid to take a far-sighted and constructive approach to our new situation. A primary task is to provoke the widest possible discussion of these topics and to promote a better public understanding. The set of skills and competencies that are needed to drive the transhumanist agenda extend far beyond those of computer scientists, neuroscientists, software-designers and other high-tech gurus. Transhumanism is not just for brains accustomed to hard-core futurism. It should be a concern for our whole society.
The Foresight Institute is an excellent source of information about nanotechnology-related issues. They organize annual conferences and have built up a substantial infrastructure of expertise in nanotechnology. The Extropy Institute has organized several international conferences on general transhumanist themes, and its president Max More has done much to get extropian memes out into the mass media. (Extropianism is a distinctive type transhumanism, defined by the Extropian Principles.) In 1997, the World Transhumanist Association was founded, with the aim of turning transhumanism into a mainstream academic discipline and also to facilitate networking between different transhumanist groups and local chapters and among individual transhumanists, both academic and non-academic. The WTA publishes the electronic Journal of Transhumanism, featuring leading-edge research papers by scholars working in transhumanist-related disciplines. The WTA web pages are one good starting place to find out more about transhumanism.
It is extremely hard to anticipate the long-term consequences of our present actions. But rather than sticking our heads in the sand, transhumanists reckon we should at least try to plan for them as best we can. In doing so, it becomes necessary to confront some of the notorious "big questions", such the so-called Fermi paradox ("Why haven't we seen any signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life?"). This problem requires delving into a number of different scientific disciplines. The Fermi paradox is not only intellectually stimulating, it is also potentially practically important since it could turn out to have consequences for whether we should expect to survive and colonize the universe (Hanson ). At the present, though, it appears that the state of evolutionary biology is insufficiently advanced to allow us to draw any firm conclusions about our own future from this type of consideration. Another purported indirect source of information about our own future is the highly controversial Carter-Leslie Doomsday argument. This attempts to prove from basic principles of probability theory together with some trivial empirical assumptions that human extinction in the next century is much more likely than has previously been thought. The argument, which uses a version of the Anthropic Principle, was first conceived by astrophysicist Brandon Carter and was later developed by philosopher John Leslie  and others. So far, nobody has been able to explain to general satisfaction what, if anything, is wrong with it (Bostrom ).
While the wider perspective and the bigger questions are essential to transhumanism, that does not mean that transhumanists do not take an intense interest in what goes in our world today. On the contrary! Recent topical themes that have been the subject of wide and lively debate in transhumanist forums include such diverse issues as cloning; proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction; neuro/chip interfaces; psychological tools such as critical thinking skills, NLP, and memetics; processor technology and Moore's law; gender roles and sexuality; neural networks and neuromorphic engineering; life-extension techniques such as caloric restriction; PET, MRI and other brain-scanning methods; evidence(?) for life on Mars; transhumanist fiction and films; quantum cryptography and "teleportation"; the Digital Citizen; atomic force microscopy as a possible enabling technology for nanotechnology; electronic commerce... Not all participants are equally at home in all of these fields, of course, but many like the experience of taking part in a joint exploration of unfamiliar ideas, facts and standpoints.
An important transhumanist goal is to improve the functioning of human society as an epistemic community. In addition to trying to figure out what is happening, we can try to figure out ways of making ourselves better at figuring out what is happening. We can create institutions that increase the efficiency of the academic- and other knowledge-communities. More and more people are gaining access to the Internet. Programmers, software designers, IT consultants and others are involved in projects that are constantly increasing the quality and quantity of advantages of being connected. Hypertext publishing and the collaborative information filtering paradigm (Chislenko ) have the potential to accelerate the propagation of valuable information and aid the demolition of what transpire to be misconceptions and crackpot claims. The people working in information technology are only the latest reinforcement to the body of educators, scientists, humanists, teachers and responsible journalists who have been striving throughout the ages to decrease ignorance and make humankind as a whole more rational.
One simple but brilliant idea, developed by Robin Hanson , is that we create a market of "idea futures". Basically, this means that it would be possible to place bets on all sorts of claims about controversial scientific and technological issues. One of the many benefits of such an institution is that it would provide policy-makers and others with consensus estimates of the probabilities of uncertain hypotheses about projected future events, such as when a certain technological breakthrough will occur. It would also offer a decentralized way of providing financial incentives for people to make an effort to be right in what they think. And it could promote intellectual sincerity in that persons making strong claims would be encouraged to put their money where their mouth is. At present, the idea is embodied in an experimental set-up, the Foresight Exchange, where people can stake "credibility points" on a variety of claims. But for its potential advantages to materialize, a market has to be created that deals in real money and is as integrated in the established economic structure as are current stock exchanges. (Present anti-gambling regulations are one impediment to this; in many countries betting on anything other than sport and horses is prohibited.)
The transhumanist outlook can appear cold and alien at first. Many people are frightened by the rapid changes they are witnessing and respond with denial or by calling for bans on new technologies. It's worth recalling how pain relief at childbirth through the use of anesthetics was once deplored as unnatural. More recently, the idea of "test-tube babies" has been viewed with abhorrence. Genetic engineering is widely seen as interfering with God's designs. Right now, the biggest moral panic is cloning. We have today a whole breed of well-meaning biofundamentalists, religious leaders and so-called ethical experts who see it as their duty to protect us from whatever "unnatural" possibilities that don't fit into their preconceived world-view. The transhumanist philosophy is a positive alternative to this ban-the-new approach to coping with a changing world. Instead of rejecting the unprecedented opportunities on offer, it invites us to embrace them as vigorously as we can. Transhumanists view technological progress as a joint human effort to invent new tools that we can use to reshape the human condition and overcome our biological limitations, making it possible for those who so want to become "post-humans". Whether the tools are "natural" or "unnatural" is entirely irrelevant.
Transhumanism is not a philosophy with a fixed set of dogmas. What distinguishes transhumanists, in addition to their broadly technophiliac values, is the sort of problems they explore. These include subject matter as far-reaching as the future of intelligent life, as well as much more narrow questions about present-day scientific, technological or social developments. In addressing these problems, transhumanists aim to take a fact-driven, scientific, problem-solving approach. They also make a point of challenging holy cows and questioning purported impossibilities. No principle is beyond doubt, not the necessity of death, not our confinement to the finite resources of planet Earth, not even transhumanism itself is held to be too good for constant critical reassessment. The ideology is meant to evolve and be reshaped as we move along, in response to new experiences and new challenges. Transhumanists are prepared to be shown wrong and to learn from their mistakes.
Transhumanism can also be very practical and down-to-earth. Many transhumanists find ways of applying their philosophy to their own lives, ranging from the use of diet and exercise to improve health and life-expectancy; to signing up for cryonic suspension; making money from investing in technology stocks; creating transhumanist art; using clinical drugs to adjust parameters of mood and personality; applying various psychological self-improvement techniques; and in general taking steps to live richer and more responsible lives. An empowering mind-set that is common among transhumanists is dynamic optimism: the attitude that desirable results can in general be accomplished, but only through hard effort and smart choices (More ).
Are you a transhumanist? If so, then you can look forward to increasingly seeing your own views reflected in the media and in society. For it is clear that transhumanism is an idea whose time has come.
- I am grateful to David Pearce and Anders Sandberg for comments on earlier versions of this text.
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Bostrom, N. 1997. "The Fermi Paradox". http://www.ndirect.co.uk/~transhumanism/Fermi.htm
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Foresight Institute http://www.foresight.org/
World Transhumanist Association http://www.transhumanism.com/