For several centuries, political movements have emanated from nationalist or religious convictions, socio-political and economic theories or even environmental concerns. However, issues of science and technology have rarely driven mainstream socio-political discourse as scientists have hardly ever indulged in propounding societal constructs for the future.
However, a technology-oriented intellectual movement may soon become the focus of political debate as 21st century science stands at the brink of reshaping human identity itself.
By the turn of the millennium, Transhumanism rose as a futurist social movement, led by some of the leading researchers and heads of global tech corporations (mostly based in the super-rich Silicon Valley), but has only recently gained greater media coverage and popularity apart from inspiring the plotlines for many Hollywood films.
In simple terms, Transhumanism wants technology to be allowed to enhance human abilities, which often “conservative or poorly informed” electorates and politicians end up denying it.
Claiming to represent the scientific community as a whole, transhumanists seek to pursue controversial technologies related to genetic editing, artificial intelligence, etc. which are often subjected to regulations as they are deemed to violate certain ethical or religious sensibilities.
In the words of Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist leader who ran for President of the United States in the 2016 elections, “Scientists and technologists are often times not the most vocal when it comes to politics and yet if you do not pass certain types of regulations you cannot practice the science. I mean we have an endless amount of debate about the crisper genetic editing technology, about whether we should regulate the field of artificial intelligence, but most scientists are not stepping up to voice their opinions or sending lobbyists to Washington so that is what .. the transhumanist party is trying to do.”
Transhumanism supports technologies that promise human longevity and augmented capabilities by hybridizing human body with robotsDr. Adil Rasheed
Long life and super-intelligence
As the influence and benefits of bio-technology, nano-technology, robotics etc increase at an exponential rate, transhumanists advocate putting more money and resources into developing new technologies that promise human longevity and augmented capabilities by hybridizing human body with artificially intelligent robots and the Internet, thereby creating a new breed of superior humans called ‘Transhumans’.
Thus, the three avowed goals of transhumanism are ‘super-longevity’, ‘super-intelligence’ and ‘super wellbeing’ — although smartphone pioneer David Wood has recently added ‘super-democracy’ to this list.
Although there is nothing new about using technological substitutes for human body parts, the current debate against transhumanism is on the issue of allowing implants that would augment human sensory perceptions and boost cognitive perceptions by connecting human bodies directly to computers through chip implants.
Microchipping and the ‘neural lace’
The prospective use of microchip implants is viewed by many civil liberty groups as violation of individual privacy and personal freedom and the ultimate means for monitoring, if not controlling human behavior by government and corporate entities.
However, transhumanist scientists propose a lot of medical and life-enhancing benefits by implementing such measures. They point out that thousands of Swedes have already voluntarily inserted microchips into themselves.
Transhumanist boffins also advocate the development and use of microscopic drone-like machines (or nanomedibots), for medical purposes which in the near future would enter human body to wipe out cancerous cells, reverse ageing and may also augment human intelligence.
Celebrated transhumanist and director of engineering at Google, Raymond Kurtzweil says: “Twenty years from now, we will have nanobots … they will go into our brain through the capillaries and connect our neocortex (part of the brain involved with thinking, talking, moving, creating) to a synthetic neocortex in the Cloud (on-demand delivery through the Internet) providing an extension to our neocortex … So in the 2030s, if you need some extra neocortex, you will be able to connect to that in the Cloud directly to your brain.”
In 27 March 2017, The Washington Post reported that Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has launched a new company Neuralink Corp. to connect the human brain to computers. Musk is said to be developing a “neural lace” technology which would implant tiny electrodes into the brain to add memory and artificial intelligence.
This belief in ‘brain uploading’ is often described as one of the key tenets of transhumanism by its detractors, as the ideology extols the creation of a collective consciousness of humanity through the Internet.
Transhumanists believe humanity could survive the occurrence of ‘technological singularity” — a supposedly “inevitable event” in coming decades when Artificial Intelligence (AI) exceeds human intelligence and becomes a “completely self generating, unstoppable if not uncontrollable” force.
In fact, the computer scientist and mathematics professor Vernor Vinge who coined the term in his paper ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive the Post-Human Era’ in 1992 had predicted that singularity would be achieved by the year 2030 and many transhumanist scientists believe his prediction still stands valid.
The prospect of ‘Global Brain’ or ‘Brain Net’ to replace the Internet in the not-so-distant future, wherein human brains could be linked to each other and to super-intelligent machines, is considered a disconcerting proposition by some pundits, whose implications need to be ironed out by governments and the public now than when the technology is already in place.
Thus, the window for that debate is said to be closing fast. According to a report in the New Scientist, physicist Stephen Hawking had a chip implanted and he could use his laptop computer simply by thinking out the instructions.
Science or cult
The well-intentioned call for life enhancement and technological development notwithstanding, transhumanism is often criticized by its detractors for its supposed cult-like belief in an impending “post-human era” in the coming decades.
Many scientists also believe that socio-political campaigns should not be launched by scientists as that could sully their scientific and technological credentials, particularly when they propose a panacea for any imminent scientific breakthrough that may or may not come about.
Many critics also object to the transhumanist obsession with creating ‘superhero’ human-computer hybrids, micro-chipping and gene alteration in their insatiable quest for finding the fountain of youth or for the creation of a more genetically enhanced or robotically evolved humanity.
The deadlines set for “singularity” are also seen by some as an attempt to scare and coerce governments into implementing the movement’s social and technological “agenda”. However, when the names of major tech corporations of the world like Google, Nokia and Tesla are associated with the transhumanist ideology, it is difficult to dismiss the premise and prospects of this new revolutionary socio-technological movement.
Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).