Both the ideology behind transhumanism and the concept of a singularity have been hijacked by fans of Ray Kurzweil and similar technology advocates. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ray, he is a really smart guy, a true modern day Thomas Edison, but he has inadvertently brought about a huge influx of immortality fanboys. One might even refer to them as a cult following, people who just mindlessly preach that we will all be immortal at 7am on the 1st of july in 2045. Since Kurzweil’s popularization of his views on mankind’s future, many “fake” singularitarians have joined the transhuman movement. I call them “fake” because they join for all the wrong reasons. Many of these rabid life extension enthusiasts actually have no idea what transhumanism is about and are often not even aware that this deeper philosophy exists although it is the underlying root on which real singularitarianism is built.
The people I refer to as “fake singularitarians” don’t really know much about either transhumanism or real singularitarianism. For example, they often don’t even know that alternative singularities have been proposed that are quite different from the one Kurzweil describes. Kurzweil carries the torch for accelerating change but Vernor Vinge describes a singularity in terms of an event horizon that makes prediction of what lies beyond impossible, including the rate of change.
Personally I am fan of the singularity concept as it was defined by I.J. Good, who talks about an intelligence explosion. It unfortunately doesn’t come with an ETA but this scenario is in my opinion the most likely and, I would argue, ongoing.
Since the brain is a finite physical system that does not require magic for its operation, I can’t see why we wouldn’t, given enough time, be able to understand it and replicate its functions. Besides, we already have narrow but sophisticated and very capable A.I., we have robot scientists like ADAM who are doing their own experiments and making new discoveries, we have Watson who can scan vast amounts of data and extract the important bits, we even have software that recognizes cat pictures! These A.I. systems will continue to get better and allow us to speed up our rate of discovery and generally just increase efficiency overall. In other words; one could argue that the intelligence explosion is well underway and that we are already augmenting human intelligence with machine intelligence.
All our current miracle technologies; be it biotech, nanotechnology, robotics or information technologies will push on and lead us to an era that was characterized perfectly by Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Here too, one could argue that we are already there because hardly anyone knows how something like a television, microwave or computer woks.
While singularitarians put most of their money on advances in computer and information science enabling digital immortality by 2045, transhumanists, those that do not identify as singularitarians, are not so sure. There is no scientific evidence that one could put forward that backs up such a strong claim. There is no absolute truth in science, only degrees of certainty. Although a couple of graphs extrapolating current trends indefinitely into the future can be used as evidence to support the likelihood of such an event taking place, such “proof” is still at best an estimate and doesn’t really justify the fervent belief, the lack of doubt and the certainty with which fake singularitarians proclaim to know that immortality lies in their near term future.
The interaction between culture and technology is chaotic. You won’t hear me disagreeing on how it’s likely that man will one day, perhaps even in the near future, be able to boost his lifespan so much that it almost makes sense to talk about immortality, but you can’t specify the exact moment death itself will cease to be. Not just because of uncertainties but also because I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of death entirely. In the end entropy is likely to outlive us all anyway.
That being said, if a jellyfish can achieve biological immortality, naked mole rats can beat cancer and so many organisms can live up to 1000s of years, it’s obvious that there is a lot of room for improvement. Extending lifespan is not against nature, its laws won’t stop us. In fact they help us by providing study materials that can show us how it’s done. If there are biological clocks ticking down inside of us, we just have to find them and rewind them, if there aren’t any and death is caused by nothing but wear and tear, that just means we’ll have to go in for maintenance now and then. Some people look at death as a natural part of life and maybe it is (entropy), but why not live longer? There is no supernatural hand of god striking you down when he thinks your time has come. As long as you keep fixing the stuff that breaks, you will keep on working, running, and living. Unlike singularitarians, I am not willing to pin down a date and am far from convinced that I will live to see this future.
This is what sets transhumanism apart from singularitarianism which is a much narrower ideology and only one of many subsets within the larger transhuman movement.
In a way you of course can’t blame people for not wanting to die, just as you can’t really blame Kurzweil for trying to bring these hard to grasp technologically enabled concepts to the foreground but there is more to transhumanism than technology, immortality and singularity. It’s a bit of a shame that these dominate the foreground however, creating so much singularity noise that it’s becoming hard to find the transhuman signal. Kurzweil has almost single-handedly planted the idea of a singularity in the zeitgeist of our times and for that we should be thankful because this media attention is putting transhumanism on the map as well.
But at the same time we should be afraid that as our base grows, many newcomers will be fake singularitarians who might at best be only dimly aware of the roots in transhumanism. It will distort the signal even further and add ever more noise. Fake singularitarians, as opposed to the real ones, are shallow materialists looking for a quick fix to eternal life. Transhumanists and real singularitarians are, or at least should be imaginative dreamers, idealists looking for adventure who go boldly where no man has gone before. People who carry the torch of reason, science and technology forward and in doing so hope to create a better tomorrow.
Transhumanism is at heart altruistic. You are not working for your own account. It’s not about salivating upon hearing of a new technological consumer gadget or even trying to achieve personal immortality. You work for all, for a future with more options, more freedom, more safety, less hunger, less poverty, less death. Ultimately it’s about creating a world with more good and less bad in it.
Just as our ancestors have created our “modern” world, our generation and the ones that follow will construct the road that leads to a transhuman future. Transhumanists think about the future and how to create the best possible one so that our descendants may not just live, but if possible, live a life even better than we ever could. Sometimes you hear people talk about how they want to leave the world a better place for their kids. This is to be applauded but it’s a shame that they first need to have kids to arrive at such a mindset. An even bigger shame is that many people without kids tend to not care about the future at all. I have news for them and everyone else. We are all family in a literal sense, we are all related. Genetically, we are almost identical and there is a good reason for that… We all share a common ancestor… Think about what that means. All of us, every single person on this planet, has the same great-great-great … great-great-grandmother. Even if you don’t spawn some childlings yourself, the people of the future will be somewhat related to you through your common ancestor. It’s also interesting to note that, if you go back far enough, about 4 billion years, we share a great grandmother with every single living thing on this planet from dinosaurs to amoebas and Christmas trees. It’s not because we are shooting for the stars, that we have to forget about our roots, heritage and history.
While the core mission of transhumanism is to create a better world through the application of technologies, what exactly it stands for is difficult to say as it is such a vast ideology with so many different currents (singularitarianism, extropianism, abolitionism, postgenderism,…) that it can’t be abstracted very easily. All these branches are not about technologies per se, although those will be required for realizing our dreams, it’s about how people and technology can co-exist in the best possible way and how to improve upon that relationship. Transhumanism is about wanting to set yourself free from both bottom-up biologically and top-down culturally imposed limitations, about breaking down the societal pressure and the predefined expectations it wants to make you fit and getting rid of the enforcement of rigid roles from which you aren’t allowed to stray if you value living a life among people. It’s about creating a society with more choice, more diversity and where being different is encouraged instead of frowned upon. It’s about learning to let go of an ideal form of being human/sentient and realizing that demanding everyone to look the same is a form of fascism.
This all comes down to the core idea that mankind is not the pinnacle of existence and that since the speed at which biological evolution acts on us pales in comparison to our socio-cultural-techno-economic evolution, we should use our gifts of self awareness, reflection and our power to plan ahead and weigh possible consequences, to decide for ourselves, individually and together, where to go next. If we ever want to make it off this rock and survive the harsh conditions of space and other planets, we will have to adapt. If you stop evolving, stop changing, you are dooming your future. If we rust in our traditions and hold on to dogma we will perish. We have to secure our future and take control of our evolution instead of having it dictated to us by blind forces beyond our control who do not care whether we live or die. This usually tends to be the part where most people get a nazi eugenics flashbacks but this is the opposite of what transhumanism wants to achieve. Each and every individual should be free in his choice of form and function.
Those who would want to turn their bodies into a canvas to increase their ability to express themselves should be allowed to do so. Unleashing your artistry on yourself to maximize the impact of expression, to increase the range of expressions available by inventing new ones, is practiced in very primitive form today Why not opt for a dynamic representation of your self that changes with your mood? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a liquid-glass polymorph with the ability to change shape at will? Why not choose your sex or gender? Switch things up by changing them now and then? Perhaps even create a new sex and/or gender? In such a society sex and gender could become a form of expression instead of a rigid part of your identity. The far future could be very strange indeed. Morphological freedom is but a small part of the puzzle, cognitive freedom is a far more interesting and tricky subject to talk about.
I understand that at this point genuine singularitarians might be feeling a bit upset for being left out or worry over how all this reflects upon their school of thought as I never clearly defined what they are all about. I’d like to stress that although many singularitarians, the ones I refer to as fakers, are just pushing for immortality and nothing else, simply for their own gains, it’s important to note that there are more than a few singularitarians who are a genuine transhumanists and do in fact know all about transhumanism and its various branches. These real singularitarians share much of the thoughts that go into transhumanism and do have creating a better world as a main objective. The real singularitarians who are in the know and have at the very least an understanding of Kurzweil’s idea of accelerating change.
Not because they want to become immortal as fast as possible, but because they believe we underestimate how fast the technological snowball is rolling and that this growing snowball will soon become an unstoppable avalanche. The real singularitarians are trying to make sure that we don’t destroy the world in the next 30 years while at the same time hoping to bring about a “positive singularity”. A noble objective that has little if not nothing to do with the aims of fake singularitarians who obsess over nothing but immortality.
We could really use another figurehead of the same stature as Kurzweil who would instead focus on transhumanism itself. It probably shouldn’t be a technologist for they would likely replicate Kurzweil’s message minus the singularity angle but perhaps philosophers like Nick Bostrom or Max More would be a good fit? Perhaps ideally it would be someone who doesn’t even think the singularity is likely to ever occur, someone more interested in people, in the evolution of culture and possible futures of politics, law and society itself. Bostrom and More are not household names the way Kurzweil is but they should be!
It doesn’t help that all sides use poetic language to express the wonders the future might bring. Personally I like emotionally charged language over bland usage but so does the media and they just love to play it up when they hear someone talk about the ghost in the machine or building gods. We all know that there are no real gods at play here.
Even the fake singularitarians don’t literally worship Kurzweil, nor do many believe in gods of any sort. There are of course, remarkably enough, a number of god worshiping transhumanists, including mormons and christians. However most transhumanists reject talking about supernatural miracles like people did in the past, and feel that we should now spread the word of real wonders. Wonder can be found in every nook and cranny of nature. Be it sea pigs, atoms leaving visible traces in a cloud chamber, alien looking fungi such as the puffball, sprites and halos exploding into existence high up in our atmosphere, the moving art our culture produces or the science fiction inspired buildings we plant into the ground. From a set of pendulums creating wave patterns, to slugs having insanely beautiful sex, from something as simple yet imposing as a storm cloud to the earth-moving dance conducted by plate tectonics… There are more wonders out there than there are days in your life.
Although I do not believe I will personally live to see biological or digital immortality, I am not saying it can’t or won’t ever happen. I would of course love to be proven wrong and experience our vast future myself, but let’s just say I doubt that I will make it. And even though you or I possibly won’t live to see the future we are fighting for, it should not affect our will and perseverance to create it for our descendants. This will to make a difference in the world, to create a better world through the application of science and technology, is what will ultimately turn the future we dream about into a reality. We do it for the ones who follow in our footsteps, and helping those people get there is, or at least should be, the core idea that drives every modern day transhumanist forward to action.
Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus.