November 7, 2007

What does transhumanism mean to you?

I like the going definition of transhumanism which proclaims that human beings can and should seek biological enhancement, whether it be physical or cognitive traits, and/or the advent of new capacities all together.

I find this definition inadequate, however, in that it does not hint at the developmental inevitability of human enhancement. This is where I and many other thinkers diverge -- and that's fine; it's a locus point for debate. For me, being a transhumanist is not so much about promoting an enhanced or post-biological existence -- it's about raising awareness and working to manage the process such that the outcomes will be both predictable and desirable.

So, what does transhumanism mean to you?

Please use the comments section to share your thoughts.

11 comments:

Drew said...

I like the idea that transhumanist technologies could be applied to offsetting the suffering caused by zero-sum situations, perhaps offering more beneficial alternatives, and thereby allowing for a society that more clearly reflects the ethical ideals of its participants.

Derek C. F. Pegritz said...

Transhumanist technologies represent for me the promise of finally escaping from this crippled, overly-limited body. I don't care out how it's done--upload me, wire my brain into a large robotic exoskeleton, it doesn't matter--but the second I'm ported to a more sturdy body, I'm getting the hell out of here and going to live on Charon, where no one will bother me.

George said...

Another thought: Ethics is another important driver. Transhumanism fits in nicely with my pre-existing Buddhist convictions which calls for a dramatic reduction in suffering.

Benjamin Rosenzweig said...

"Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and ameliorate what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as stupidity, suffering, disease, aging and involuntary death. Transhumanist thinkers study the possibilities and consequences of developing and using human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Possible dangers, as well as benefits, of powerful new technologies that might radically change the conditions of human life are also of concern to the transhumanist movement."

If we are discussing the accepted social meaning of the word then this wikipedia definition is adequate. For myself, the personal significance of transhumanism is first the possibility of adequately satisfying my neurologically and psychologically fundamental need for successful humanitarian effort. (It's unfortunate that so few people understand the connection between compassion, neuroplasticity, and activity within the left prefrontal cortex.) I hope that it will allow me to experience all that I consider magnificent, exhilarating, and sublime. I deeply enjoy working toward higher ideals, satisfying my human curiosity, feeling at peace within my own mind and body, expressing myself artistically, and being both loved and appreciated. But to put it simply I'm an overachiever that wishes to carry on without impediment. Vote Obama and/or Ron Paul for the primaries!

BrianR said...

Some of these ideas are fairly new to me, I must admit. I've read Kurzweil's book "The Singularity is Near", which was a mind-opener for me at least.

But, I guess I would say I very much like George's statement:

"...it's about raising awareness and working to manage the process such that the outcomes will be both predictable and desirable."

I think that viewpoint is a very important viewpoint to emphasize. It will be a process...it already is a process. Very interesting.

TJ said...

For me transhumanism is based on my understanding of traditional humanism. There are two basic ideas in this humanism:

1) This life is all that there will ever be and 2) I am fundamentally alone, with no God, and the nearest similar minds locked away in the skulls of other human beings. All that exists is based on a materialist understanding of the universe.

Transhumanism, for me, is an attempt to correct for these problems.

By more thoroughly understanding how our minds work we can more thoroughly empathise and communicate with other people.

By overcoming the frailties of our natural bodies we can live longer and make this life more rewarding.

My conception of transhumanism extends to any attempt to correct for problems in the human condition, including all synthetic technology, law, justice, ethics, (the idea of) liberty, the state, and morality.

None of these ideas exist naturally and have been created by human beings to correct for problems and difficulties we have all experienced.

This is a broader definition than most apply. I think it's worth pointing out that by this idea of what transhumanism is we are ALL transhuman.

We all strive towards self-improvement or happiness on a personal level, and as a species we have always been developing and changing.

We are all transitionally human, caught between the ape and the angel.

I know this definition of transhumanism (as essentially a description of the current state of slowly improving humanity) is too broad for some, but it is how I choose to see it personally.

Xuenay said...

The long response is my essay Happiness, Equality, Choice. The brief answer, with excerpts from the essay:

"What is transhumanism? It is often described as the philosophy that we should use technology to transcend our current physical and mental limitations, but it is more than just that. Transhumanists keep tab on emerging technologies and debate their risks and benefits; they promote public awareness of the topics and help divert funding to research; they work to make sure that humanity is better off from new technology. There exist transhumanist think-tanks like the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, transhumanist research groups devoted to bringing forth new technologies, like the Metusaleh Foundation, and transhumanist research groups devoted to the risks of new technologies, like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. I am a transhumanist - I believe that one of the major ways of making humanity better off is by developing new technology.

...

All [the mentioned technologies we should be developing] increase equality. People are not randomly condemned to be stupid. People are not condemned to be unhealthy simply because they're old. Like intelligence, some are naturally more talented at self-control than others: by increasing our control of our own brains, these inequalities diminish. Some people are not condemned to live in bodies they're unhappy with, while others get great ones. People are not condemned to be naturally less happy than others. People are not wiped out of existence when they'd still rather live. All of this increases people's happiness, and giving people control over these things gives them more choice. These are some of the core values that transhumanism's all about: Happiness, Equality and Choice.

Of course, transhumanism is not about embracing new technologies unthinkingly or without question. Every new technology carries with it new risks as well as new opportunities. Nanotechnology, one of transhumanists' favorite technologies, carries within it the potential to do vast damage in addition to vast good. Regulation will be undoubtably be needed - and transhumanists will be at the forefront of that as well, evaluating emerging technologies and bringing up the issues that might be involved.

Like all movements, transhumanism isn't something that just happens. It isn't obvious that technological progress will happen as fast as we like, that needless fears won't ruin it, or that the appropriate safeguards are taken. Transhumanism isn't a reason to go "cool, let's wait for these new toys". Transhumanism is a rallying cry for everyone who cares about humanity - to get up to date, to do something to help."

bw said...

Transhumanism is part of the ongoing trend to constantly improving methods to increase productivity and capabilities. A lot is biological but tighter interfaces with mechanical systems can achieve the same or better effects. How is less relavant to me than the resulting functional change.

3 million people in the USA use steroids. Heavy usage can increase muscles by about 15%. 4 in 5 only use for better appearance. 7 million world wide.

There is the 2005 initiation of myostatin inhibitor trials which could 4 times the effect of steroids without health risks. It is naturally in over 100 people. Probably not selected for in evolution because of increased vulnerability to starvation (not an issue now, especially if you can turn it on -bulk up and then turn it off, exercise and maintain
http://advancednano.blogspot.com/2007/11/myostatin-inhibitor-trials-on-humans.html
At the bottom of the article linked to above I also point to gene therapy and drug enhancement work by Darpa and others for more endurance, radiation resistance, cognitive enhancement etc...

Myostatin inhibitors will be used by millions with muscle diseases and the old with atrophying muscles and athletes and others. I predict it will 2-10 times more popular in the USA than steroids within 10 years. Also, worldwide usage will be up as China and India get richer and more middle class their can afford it.

There are also crude cognitive enhancers used by some estimates by 1 in 10 students use “smart pills” or pills to aid studying and test scores.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/10/AR2006061001181_pf.html

Plus if I a more readily accessible connection to correct human knowledge (google and wikipedia etc...) then my productivity is enhanced. AI is used for financial trading and medical diagnosis. The technology will improve and be used in more ways.

Exoskeletons count. (see Japan and US)
Mind machine interfaces count (new non-squid cheaper magnetic field scanner) some mind-machine interfaces for X box and PS3.

Transhuman tech is here in beta. There will be more coming. Transhuman 3.0 should get pretty interesting. But there will be X plus 1 point O.

Jeff Patterson said...

I agree with most of what has been said here. But if I were to pin down a "universal truth" that drives my support of transhumanism, it is this: unless a being or culture has purposeful movement towards the future and makes a conscious decision to strive for true advancement, they become part of the problem. Every culture that has made the preservation of traditions the only priority has ended up destroying itself or others.

Nato said...

I don't generally think of myself as a transhumanist because I think transhumanism basically consists in welcoming more of the same in terms of human self-definition and extension. I encountered the term "transhumanist" long after I had developed the expectation that as time passed human engineering would continue to displace evolution's algorithmic design, moving inward toward our brains as well as outward toward the world. Perhaps the world reifies that way of thinking, or signals to follow travelers that I share their expectations - to some extent that's the function of every word. I don't know.

On the other hand, it wasn't until I got into upper-division economics that I realized that two fundamental expectations required to create a stably-efficient market economy were unachievable without indefinite lifespans. They are: 1) I high bequeathment value (so that the old optimize economic activity past their own expected deaths) and 2) a low discount on the future (so that people view anticipated future gains - and pains - as being close to as value as current gains/pains. Only those who will always live arbitrarily longer than they already have can be expected to behave responsibly over the long term, because they will always expect to be around for the consequences. Even if they don't learn that lesson in the first couple hundred years, in the fullness of time it's about guaranteed.

This relates to the overall ethical element George mentions - when people live indefinitely long lives, the returns on being 'good' approach infinity. I can't even begin to imagine the level of compassion we can learn.

Lynn said...

I've read only a little about transhumanism and "the singularity" but, to be honest, it all sounds like a cult religion to me. And another source of disappointment if I ever let myself believe in it.

I'm nearly 50 years old. I've always been excited about progress and I've seen a lot but the most exciting things that people predict never happen or if they do happen at all it's in some lesser form, nothing like what the progress prophets predicted.

We have a lot of cool gadgets these days but nothing really basic has changed. People are living longer, healthier lives but not all that much longer. The drug companies can make more money selling pills to guys who can't get it up than they could actually curing anything. Living forever or even having a good, healthy 150 years seems as far away as it's ever been.

And when it comes to doing anything that might be perceived to be "changing what it means to be human", there will always be ten times the number of people who are determined to put on the brakes as there are people who want to move forward.