William Safire bid farewell to his column at the New York Times this week, but not because he's retiring. Instead, this Pulitzer Prize-winning, former presidential speech writer is moving on to lead an organization concerned with what some call transhumanism.
Transhumanism is the advocacy of using life-enhancing technology to improve the human condition. It is a forward-looking philosophy, and savvy proponents spend a good deal of time thinking about the ethics involved in areas such as stem-cell research, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neuropharmaceuticals, to name a few.
America, and indeed the world, is entering a new age where significant advances in bio and nanotechnology might allow humans to live better and longer lives. But they might also change who humans are. Imagine if it becomes possible, as in the film Johnny Mnemonic, to integrate silicon into the brain so that memory is greatly enhanced. The question of whether that person is still human, and whether that matters, will be of utmost import from both a legal and cultural point of view.
The time to discuss these questions is now, so it is good to see the issues moving from fringe to mainstream. As Mr. Safire rightly points out, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77 over the last century. Moore's law, that computer power doubles every two years, can be now combined with biotech. In the near future, we are all likely to be living much longer lives.
More than just discussing, we need to educate and raise awareness. The future of technological progress is not a track down which we move regardless of what people do - every inch must be worked for, paid for. If we all sit back and wait, expecting our lives to get longer, then we will simply wait until we die, the science left unaccomplished. While the nature of future technology that will lead to healthy life extension is fairly well understood at this time, directed research and funding into slowing, halting and reversing the aging process is lagging far behind. This must change.