The Inevitability of the Transhumanist Vision

The article I'll point out today opens by distinguishing capitalized Transhumanism from lower case transhumanism. These are visions of the future grown in that fertile square of ground whose corners are marked by contemporary science fiction, the cutting edge of engineering, the cutting edge of science, and the entrepreneurial community. The real entrepreneurial community, I mean, the people who quietly get things done, not the loud internet-focused groups that you tend to read about in the media. Transhumanism with a small t is a simple description of what we will achieve with technology: we will transform ourselves and surpass all present limits upon the human condition. We will eliminate pain and suffering from the world. We will become enormously powerful and knowledgeable. We will live in perfect health, if not forever, then certainly for a very, very long time. This is inevitable, a flowering that will continue a long-running exponential trend in technology, the limits of which are still far distant from where we stand today. Transhumanism with a capital T is a movement, initially to forge, discuss, and spread the concepts of transhumanism, but more the case nowadays to work on implementing the first of the necessary technologies. Being a movement, Transhumanism will fade as it succeeds. There are no such things as tableists when there is a table in every room, after all.

Still, you can't wander far in the biotechnology, space development, and artificial intelligence communities without bumping into a Transhumanist, and that is without even mentioning the fields of rejuvenation research or cryonics. Or, as is increasing likely today, you'll bump into someone who expects much the same future and makes much the same arguments about technology and its uses, but who wouldn't consider himself or herself a Transhumanist. That is what I mean when I say that the movement fades to the degree that it succeeds. The ideas hammered out by a small number of people in the 1980s and 1990s have now more or less become the mainstream of serious thought about the future. An important lesson here is that you might be absolutely and completely correct, but if you are saying something that differs from the current mainstream, it will still take twenty years for people to come around to your way of looking at the world. Another lesson is that you should pay attention to science fiction writers; they are usually at least as far ahead as the better scientists when it comes to interpreting science and exploring possible consequences, and typically considerably better at organizing their message.

As we enter the era in which rejuvenation biotechnology is slowly becoming a reality, it is worth recalling the debt we owe to the people who propagated and expanded the concepts of radical life extension before the turn of the century, around the time at which the Usenet transitioned to the early web. We should also not forget those who carried out early projects and fundraising as well, a number of whom are no longer with us. I gained my introduction to transhumanism around that time, and I think unlikely I'd be quite as sensibly focused on the long game of an end to aging without that exposure to the energetic idea factories of the Extropy Institute, cryonics advocates, and related Usenet communities of the time. Outside those groups, there was all too little ambition, all too little vision, and all too little science among those who talked about intervention in aging. It is no coincidence that of the people involved in those transhumanist communities, many have gone on to found or become in involved in transformative efforts in a variety of fields. This a process still underway, and the companies, non-profits, and technologies grown from the seeds sown twenty years ago are still young, still in the process of becoming. What we are doing today is supporting and reinforcing work that is increasing known and appreciated, a far different activity from founding an entire field with ideas alone, but just as vital. Twenty years from now, several types of rejuvenation therapy will be available in the clinic, and some of will have seen that process through, end to end, getting old over the course of it. It is a golden age we live in, but what is to come is far brighter and more valuable yet.

The author under discussion in the article here, like many journalists, is clumsy with the science, but more pertinently looks too hard for balance. Better medicine at a lower cost is better medicine at a lower cost. Less suffering and death is less suffering and death. There is no downside. Yet all too many otherwise sensible people strive to find things to be gloomy about. Would you rather live with the medicine of today or the medicine of sixty years ago, when the research community was still struggling to treat heart disease and many dangerous infections in an effective way? This isn't a hard question to answer, but why do people struggle so greatly when presented with the idea of a world in which everyone simply suffers to a much lesser degree than they do today? If you want to see someone run a mile, show them a better life, or at least that is how it seems to me some days.

Transhumanism Is Inevitable

"Transhumanism is becoming more respectable, and transhumanism, with a small t, is rapidly emerging through conventional mainstream avenues," Eve Herold reports in her astute new book, Beyond Human. While big-T Transhumanism is the activist movement that advocates the use of technology to expand human capacities, small-t transhumanism is the belief or theory that the human race will evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of deliberate technological interventions. "I began this book committed to exploring all the arguments, both for and against human enhancement. In the process I have found time and again that the bioconservative arguments are less than persuasive."

Herold opens with a tale of Victor Saurez, a man living a couple of centuries from now who at age 250 looks and feels like a 30-year-old. Back in dark ages of the 21st century, Victor was ideologically set against any newfangled technologies that would artificially extend his life. But after experiencing early onset heart failure, he agreed have a permanent artificial heart implanted because he wanted to know his grandchildren. Next, in order not to be a burden to his daughter, he decided to have vision chips installed in his eyes to correct blindness from macular degeneration. Eventually he agreed to smart guided nanoparticle treatments that reversed the aging process by correcting the relentlessly accumulating DNA errors that cause most physical and mental deterioration. Science fiction? For now.

The killer app of human enhancement is agelessness - halting and reversing the physical and mental debilities that befall us as we grow old. Herold focuses a great deal of attention on the development of nanobots that would patrol the body to repair and remove the damage caused as cellular machinery malfunctions over time. She believes that nanomedicine will first achieve success in the treatment of cancers and then move on to curing other diseases. "Then, if all goes well, we will enter the paradigm of maintaining health and youth for a very long time, possibly hundreds of years," she claims. Perhaps because research is moving so fast, Herold does not discuss how CRISPR genome-editing will enable future gerontologists to reprogram old cells into youthful ones. Herold effectively rebuts bioconservative arguments against the pursuit and adoption of human enhancement. One oft-heard concern is that longevity research will result in a nursing-home world where people live longer but increasingly debilitated lives. That's nonsense: The point of anti-aging research is not to let people be old longer, but to let them be young longer. Another argument holds that transhuman technologies will simply let the rich get richer. Herold notes that while the rich almost always get access to new technologies first, prices then come down quickly, making them available to nearly everyone eventually. She is confident that the same dynamic will apply to these therapies.

This Is What Immortality Looks Like

There's a day in the not-too-distant future when incorrigible smokers, having blackened their lungs beyond function, will have access to a shiny new artificial pair; when cancer patients will mobilize microscopic nanobots in their bloodstreams to eradicate disease; when diabetes will be nothing more than a bad memory on account of an effective blood-sugar management system. People who are alive today will be taking advantage of such medical developments. Meet Victor, the future of humanity. He's 250 years old but looks and feels 30. Having suffered from heart disease in his 50s and 60s, he now has an artificial heart that gives him the strength and vigor to run marathons. His type 2 diabetes was cured a century ago by the implantation of an artificial pancreas. He lost an arm in an accident, but no one would know that he has an artificial one that obeys his every thought and is far stronger than the original. He wears a contact lens that streams information about his body and the environment to his eye and can access the internet anytime he wants through voice commands. If it weren't for the computer chips that replaced the worn-out cells of his retina, he would have become blind countless years ago. Victor isn't just healthy and fit; he's much smarter than his forebears now that his brain has been enhanced through neural implants that expanded his memory, allow him to download knowledge, and even help him make decisions.

While 250 might seem like a ripe old age, Victor has little worry about dying because billions of tiny nanorobots patrol his entire body, repairing cells damaged by disease or aging, fixing DNA mistakes before they can cause any harm, and destroying cancer cells wherever they emerge. With all the advanced medical technologies Victor has been able to take advantage of, his life has not been a bed of roses. Many of his loved ones either didn't have access to or opted out of the life-extending technologies and have passed away. He has had several careers that successively became obsolete due to advancing technology and several marriages that ended in divorce after he and his partners drifted apart after 40 years or so. His first wife, Elaine, was the love of his life. When they met in college, both were part of a movement that rejected all "artificial" biomedical interventions and fought for the right of individuals to live, age, and die naturally. For several decades, they bonded over their mutual dedication to the cause of "natural" living and tried to raise their two children to have the same values.

Then, one day, Victor unexpectedly had a massive heart attack. Having a near-death experience shook him to the core. When Victor asked his cardiologist whether he would live to see his new grandchild born, the answer was, "Probably not." His cardiologist disapproved of his refusal to accept an artificial heart. Artificial hearts had completely replaced biological heart transplants because they could not be rejected by the body, were widely available, and were far more durable than biological hearts. Victor's life after the surgery was remarkable. He suddenly had more energy and mental clarity than he had enjoyed for 20 years. In fact, it was only then that he realized how terribly sick he had been. The fluid in his lungs and the swelling in his body completely disappeared, and he told Elaine that he felt like an entirely new man. His long-held ideology about aging and dying "naturally" suddenly seemed stubborn and irrational. He noticed that even though Elaine was relieved and grateful that he was still alive, she wasn't changing her mind about her own dedication to allowing the aging process to proceed without any drastic intervention. Elaine's death was the hardest thing Victor had ever had to face. She stuck by her decision to accept only palliative care, and within three months, she had passed away at home with their children and grandchildren around her. Her death was peaceful, but Victor was anything but at peace. His last days with Elaine were greatly complicated not only by grief but by an irreconcilable anger at her. He was unable to accept her decision to reject the nanotech cure that had already saved millions of lives.

Trying too hard, I feel. We already live bathed in the pathos of lost lives; deaths past, deaths to come, all crosses we must bear, and none of this by our choice. How, again, is less of that a bad thing? How is it so terrible for aging and death and health to in fact be choices, fully under our control?

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