This Year, Transhumanism Will Stop Sounding Crazy

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.

14 Comments

  1. 99% of the public have never heard of the guy. The term “transhumanism” is off-putting.

  2. The only transhumanism is spiritual, ( and political and economical )

    All other transhumanism is countreproductive and dangerous

    • I’d argue that to be a very narrowminded viewpoint.

      I don’t consider my views on transhumanism to be spiritual in any way, they are more a natural logic outcome of my life experiences and what I have seen happen and wish to happen in the future.

      Also I’m not sure exactly what other forms you mention would be counterproductive and dangerous as you say.

  3. I suspect that the actual term “transhumanism” is never going to be mainstream, and any time in casual conversation that you mention it, you’ll always get the same eye-roll response as you would get mentioning any other “-ism.” But what really matters is acceptance of the concepts it represents, and that will happen long before the tech actually arrives, based on things like popular sci-fi movies. For example, I think no one in the modern world really doubts that strong AI will eventually be achieved. Ever since Kubrick showed us HAL 40 years ago, that has been a staple of everyone’s vision of the future. Other transhumanist ideas like ubiquitous nanotech just need a few more compelling movies to feature them – which will happen naturally in the due course of time.

  4. When will “trans-humanism” not sound crazy? Depends on what you call trans-humanism, and what “crazy” means. Both can be considered matters of degrees of social acceptance. How many people have to take it seriously for it not to be crazy? Here’s two candidate- criteria:
    1. When enabling technologies are unequivocally demonstrated that show abilities definitely beyond current normal human potential. I nominate two:
    A. affordable, practical (non-invasive?) brain-computer interfaces that cutting-edge consumers consider replacements for smart phones, and…
    B. undeniable demonstration of anti-aging therapies that are affordable: say, a couple of 100+ year-old people who live beyond every verifiable longevity record (125? 130?), and look and perform better (medically) than they did at, say 105.
    Why these? Because these demonstrate abilities practically anyone can see themselves wanting or using, and which are necessary to personally access every other imaginable ability or benefit discussed, in a personally empowering way.
    Another indicator, possibly closer to happening: when two mainstream politicians debate funding a research project with obvious trans-humanist attributes… and neither side (nor the journalists covering it) doubt its ability to be achieved, only how the consequences of its success will be dealt with. And that part of the debate will probably sound predictable within current political parameters. First, the libertarian allowance of such research; then the neoliberal/ social democratic arguments over funding its deployment, and guaranteeing equitable access to its benefits.
    I’m betting the heart of the First Big Debate will be: will it be cheaper to rejuvenate retirees and pensioners to get them off the pensions and back into the job-pool (at initial careers productive enough to fund the rest of their rejuvenation and de-retirement), rather than today’s simple extension of medical and retirement benefits to maximum natural longevity for decades of retirement and increasingly expensive last-minute medical exercises?
    The Second Big Debate may be: if AGI and enhanced humans can produce most of our current demands with substantially reduced human labor, will one of the most basic assumptions of modern economics (human demands are fundamentally open-ended — we can always imagine something better, once we get to our current imaginable goals) turn out to be not only true, but true quick enough to guarantee “employment” (socially reputable means of support or investment, with reasonably good chances for socially positive outcomes)?

  5. 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.

    And, of course, when Kurzweil dies pretty much according to schedule (the actuarial tables), people will write him off as another futurist crank and kook who predicted his own “immortality,” like FM-2030, Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson.

    • As someone who trusts the idea of quantum immortality enough that I would be willing to submit to a “reverse” Schrödinger’s Cat test, I think transhumanism is something everyone will end up having to accept whether they like it or not.

  6. Framing makes all the difference:

    “You might try telling them you’ve arranged to be cryogenically preserved after death (or expect to live for hundreds or thousands of years).”

    Your framing assumes assumes that you’ve already died. People currently interpret death as a permanent condition, so your well intentioned effort to communicate the cryonics idea will fail.

    You might try telling them that you’ve arranged for your cryonic transport to stop your death, stabilize your condition and give you the advantage of a second opinion from the advanced trauma medicine of the future.

  7. Because transhumanist philosophy comprises a set of beliefs, it’s understandable that certain transhumanist goals and technologies will achieve mainstream acceptance and approval before others.

    That said, aspects like super-longevity and the Singularity are being taken seriously by mainstream folks these days. For example, this weekend, I was at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and was greeted by an exhibit about the work of Aubrey de Grey and ending aging!

    Transhumanists will probably always be pushing the envelope – that’s just in our nature. But I do believe it will be good for all of humanity to learn more about and accept new technologies that have the potential to radically change (and enhance) all of our lives.

  8. It would be very important for transhumanists to make their ideas widely accepted and even adopted throughout societies. If some of our transhumanist fellows loathe losing their purely imaginary “early bird” bonus, or their “nieche-appeal”, they are being idiots.

    The more people embrace transhumanism the better for us. But I’m by no means really optimistic, that it will truly become mainstream anytime soon though. A lot of people are conservative and place emphasis on tradition and safety, and they will probably react viceral to any such upheaval of the social and economic order.

    I predict major conflict between traditionalists and transitionalists.

    • I think acceptance will come MUUUCH faster than anyone thinks. Two factors, returning vets and boomers who really refuse to “age gracefully” – Not that they should. I just see a lot of rather wealthy people willing to try and explore technology and “whatever” works in their own recovery from injury, illness and degeneration. So many were willing to take fairly extreme measures to expand their consciousness when they were younger… as a generation they are exploratory and boundary breaking.

      But yes…the world is bifurcating between the fundamentalists of all sorts and those willing or interested in pursuing beyond boundaries others wish to set.

      I have mixed feelings – sometimes less tech and more reflection is in order. Sometimes engineers are not the most deeply developed people… Present company excluded of course. For better or worse….most of it is inevitable. Interesting times.

      Acceptance of transhumanism by “the traditionalists” is not going to happen. States are overturning Scopes as we speak. For a large chunck of humanity science education is being actively denied or undermined.

  9. I wonder at what point in time transhumanism will be ‘mainstream’, just like space exploration, personal computers, and what not became accepted by the general public.

    I’m pretty sure some (by no means a mayority) transhumanists would hate to see the walls fall down and losing their on the edge, hip, out there, ghetto status.
    Where will they go from there?

    • Me being a transhumanist is not to be hip, but to live forever, that is the ultimate goal.

Leave a Reply