Tell your friends, family or co-workers you’re a transhumanist. Explain what it means. You might try telling them you’ve arranged to be cryogenically preserved after death (or expect to live for hundreds or thousands of years). You might explain that your idea of an existential threat is not of rogue nations, loose nukes or pandemics, but rather that posed by a super-intelligent AI. Or, you might discuss the theoretical promise of molecular nanotechnology that could lead to a post-scarcity economy within our (natural) lifetimes.
At best, they will think you’re eccentric. At worst, they’ll think you’re crazy.
And really, who can blame them? After all, outside of a relatively small community of thinkers, philosophers, scientists and technology enthusiasts, these concepts have not been widely acknowledged, let alone discussed, among laypeople or in the mass media. This is understandable, as the the promises for many of these technologies exist only as hypotheses, theories or even more ethereal ideas sprouting from the brains of futurists and science fiction authors.
However, the acceptance and acknowledgement of these ideas is blossoming among non-transhumanists. More than ever, media are covering concepts like radical longevity and the Singularity and treating them with a cautious respect.
Much of this coverage is due in part to the hard work of organizations like Humanity+ and the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the latter receiving feature coverage of their 2010 Singularity Summit in publications as diverse as GQ and Playboy. Media have also featured transhumanist luminaries including Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Dr. Ray Kurzweil as authoritative voices on topics of anti-aging and a diverse array of radical technologies, respectively.
Kruzweil, in particular, has become something of a media juggernaut. Whether you think of him as a rare visionary or fault him for misguided predictions, Kurzweil has arguably done more than any single individual to promote awareness of transhumanist ideas, particularly when it comes to the Singularity, artificial intelligence and longevity. As the subject of two films released this year, a Time Magazine cover story, and profiles in countless news outlets, Kurzweil has emerged as a credible, articulate and – dare I say – mainstream voice for transhumanism.
Discussion of theoretical technologies can only influence public perception so far, however. In order to truly win over the average person, these technologies must be created and shown off. Take, for example, the demonstration of IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, on the game show Jeopardy!. Millions watched the machine put its limited-AI to use by utterly defeating human opponents Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the most successful humans to ever play the trivia game.
In the wake of Watson’s victory, super-intelligent AI no longer felt like science fiction. Instead, it felt real, exciting and a bit scary – a feeling Jennings acknowledged at the end of the final day of the challenge, when he wrote “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” as part of his “Final Jeopardy” answer. Although it was a play for laughs, his reaction to Watson’s performance summarized the feelings of many who watched (and paid tribute to “The Simpsons,” which inspired the quote).
Although the Jeopardy! “Watson Challenge” was in large part a gimmick designed by IBM to show off its creation, the technology behind Watson is far more than a parlor trick. In fact, the next step for “Watson” will be to help physicians to analyze data, diagnose illness and suggest appropriate treatment options for patients.
Watson, of course, is only one compelling example of how technology is enabling humans to improve their condition or enhance their capabilities. Other examples are all around us, and new ones emerge each day – first-of-a-kind surgeries, powered exoskeletons, robots serving in combat zones, private spaceflight, affordable 3D printing – technologies long confined to “the future” in the minds of many are here, impacting our lives now.
Of course transhumanism is far more than the sum of existing, albeit cutting-edge, technologies. For non-transhumanists, however, these new technology breakthroughs can serve to open their minds to what is not only possible, but what is likely to happen. For instance, if we can develop weak AI that can beat humans on a quiz show, given the advances in computing, it’s not so weird to be worried about the implications of strong AI at some point in the near future. If we can print physical objects in our offices, why wouldn’t it be possible to scale it down to the molecular level?
While these individuals may not go out and join transhumanist organizations or begin championing the right to direct their own evolutionary path, they may begin to at least understand the motivations of those that do.