Ben Goertzel interviews Natasha Vita-More
I first encountered Natasha Vita-More’s thinking in the 1990s via her work as President of the Extropy Institute — the first serious transhumanist organization, which has played a large role in setting the tone for transhumanism and modern futurist thinking. Extropy made a strategic decision to close its doors in 2006, but Natasha has not slowed down her work toward extropic goals at all; in fact she has expanded the scope of her transhumanist work in a variety of directions. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her for several years now in the context of the transhumanist advocacy organization Humanity+, which publishes this magazine, and of which she’s currently Chair and I’m Vice Chair.
Much of Natasha’s work is is focused on human enhancement and radical life extension — or what she has sometimes called “life expansion.” She brings a combination of artistic and design sensibility with conceptual and academic sophistication to her endeavors, such as her pioneering future human design “Primo Posthuman.” Primo Posthuman proposes what she calls a “platform diverse body” and “substrate autonomous identity.” The ideas underlying Primo Posthuman are plausible and fascinating, and are drawn from the scientific and speculative literature. What Primo Posthuman accomplishes is to wrap these ideas up in a visually appealing and conceptually simple package, getting the idea of an advanced enhanced human across viscerally to seasoned transhumanists and newbies alike. The design is ever-evolving and Natasha is now preparing its 2013 version.
Natasha’s written and graphical work has appeared in numerous magazines; her multi-media creations have been widely exhibited around the world; and she has appeared in over twenty-four televised documentaries on the future and culture. In addition to her role as Chair of Humanity+, she is fellow at IEET and the Hybrid Reality Institute, a visiting scholar at 21st Century Medicine, and a
track advisor at Singularity University. She holds a PhD from the Planetary Collegium at the University of Plymouth, an MSc in human enhancement technologies and an MPhil on the theoretical concerns of human enhancement, and is a certified personal trainer and sports nutritionist. She is currently a Professor at the University of Advancing Technology.
It was my pleasure to interview Natasha on her work and thinking, with a focus on her Primo Posthuman design and its successors, and the concepts underlying these designs.
Ben: Natasha, you’ve stated that “in most instances the cyborg lacks social consciousness of the transhuman and suggests a grim and dire nature by impersonalizing humanity.”
What do you think are the reasons for this? Why did the early notion of a cyborg develop in this way?
Natasha: Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline developed the concept of the cyborg (1960), it was intended as an augmented human body that could perform in zero G for space exploration. It was not a particular entity with agency, as later suggested by Kevin Warwick or Steve Mann. It was not a metaphor for a feminist agenda, as later suggested by Donna Haraway. While Warwick, Mann and Haraway all added interesting physical and metaphorical interpretations to the concept of cyborg, in actuality the cyborg was and continues to be an appendage to human body. The cyborg originated out of cybernetics and space exploration and was not considered primarily a means for the human species to go off planet to generate new types of intelligences. The idea of space exploration had a more practical mission: mining asteroids, competing in the Western world’s quest for space dominance, etc. From this understanding, the cyborg is something we do to the human body as an end result–making it suitable for space living in a zero G environment. This idea contrasts the self-directed evolution of the human in becoming something other, such as a transhuman, posthuman or upload (SIMS).
Ben: Hmmm… and what about the future? As we progress further toward actually realizing advanced cyborg technology, do you think the general vision of cyborgs in the media and mass consciousness is becoming MORE socially and transhumanistically savvy? Or less so? Or, no real change?
Natasha: Until recently, the term “cyborg” has had more historical currency in the mainstream than the term “transhuman”. And while the cyborg is more physically frightening to look at than a transhuman, it has become a familiar concept and people often accept the familiar, no matter how daunting it is, in preference to the unknown. After all, the cyborg is associated with Hollywood filmmakers, actors and highly acclaimed science fiction authors. But this is changing. Over the past five years the notion of the transhuman has more pragmatic currency due, in large part, to the established domain of life extension. The popularity of life extension has affected the awareness of alternative human futures because, specifically, one of the underlying aims of the transhumanist community is life extension. And transhumanism also has contact with two other subfields that have huge attention in the public and private sectors: evolutionary biology and cognitive science, which gain attention through diverse debates on ethics and human futures.
Ben: There is a very rich and deep interplay between the human body and the human mind and self, as you know. I very much enjoyed your conceptual and graphical “Primo Posthuman” design for a functionally and aesthetically upgraded cyborg body. Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that we were able to port a human mind from a legacy human body into a body with a diverse physical substrate, such as your original Primo Posthuman, or any newer version of the concept. How do you think this would affect the self-system of that mind, and its ways of thinking? Do you think it could effect a radical personality transformation, so much that it would hardly be the same “psychological person” after as before? Or would the changes be more subtle? Or do you reckon it would depend strongly on the individual?
Natasha: Exploring new environments affects our sense of self and either adds to our level of confidence or breaks it down, the latter due largely to unintended circumstances and stresses that cause reticence and confusion. Nevertheless, we continue to explore and challenge our sense of self. If we port a human mind into a platform diverse body like Primo Posthuman, we have to also transport other aspects of the brain, which include the central nervous system and an array of sensorial experiences. These memories provide some sense of familiarity to our personhood. Without these aspects, we could become mentally discombobulated and split off into varied personas that could experience types of uneasiness or in some cases, psychosis. All in all, continuity of identity, or a diachronic self, is crucial for a future human mind encapsulated in a new body. My view is that we can change who we are by changing our focus, environment, skill set, attitude, etc. and transforming our personality with a proactive strategy. It is not easy and it takes work, but it is doable.
But let’s take the scenario of a mind transfer into a nonbiological platform: In order to do this, the engineering of identity transfer needs to be far more advanced. Not only this, it must be more transdisciplinary– it is not just an advance in technology but also an advance in our consciousness – our awareness of this field and how it affects us. So, in short, the bandwidth of information about mind transfer/identity transfer would have to build a broader arena for discussions for understanding and encourage corresponding fields such as experience design to be on board. For example, experience design would become a major player in providing an “experience” of what it might be like to be in a different body. Experience design would team up with multi-media technologies such as gaming, immersivity, smart architecture, etc. Through new experience we can changes what we think about our future and go through processes (preparation, coaching and tutoring) of what it might be like to be an upload. Gaming and HCI interaction could be used as a means to help us to take baby steps in getting an “experience” of what it might be like. This example takes the field of mind transfer and identity into a broader spectrum of approaches.
Ben: Yeah, I think I get it…. We could create video games, virtual reality experiences and so forth, which were specifically intended to help people get used to their new bodies, before they start actually wearing the new bodies. This would make it much less of a shock and encourage “continuity of self”, which is critical.
It would also be great, I suppose, if you could try on the new body for a brief period, and then go back to the old one. In that way there could be a gradual transition psychologically, even to a radically different sort of body…
One other thing that strikes me on reading about your concept of platform diverse bodies and whole body prosthetics (such as Primo Posthuman) is that, with all the advanced technologies it assumes, there’s really no reason for it to assume such a humanlike form, right? I suppose the assumption is that many humans will prefer to retain a humanlike physical form even when that’s not strictly necessary in terms of the technology underlying their (engineered) bodies. But I wonder the extent to which this is actually true. I don’t think I’d personally have much desire to retain a humanoid form, if it weren’t really necessary — I guess I’d end up some kind of shape-shifter if possible. So I wonder if you’ve thought about nonhumanoid designs conceptually similar to Primo Posthuman — maybe a bird-man, a dolphin-man or some sort of space amoeba?
Natasha: I intentionally selected a human life form rather than mechanized structure. My strategy was that since most of the future human concepts were overtly metal and machine, that there was a gap in the visual aesthetics of what a future human might look like. Since “metal” and “machine” suggest a cold, hard, non-feeling aesthetic, I wanted to introduce a humane characteristic that symbolizes our human strength, perceptibility, intelligence, and sensuality. Within these strata, I incorporated the element of mutability. By this I mean that even though the original concept of Primo Posthuman looks human-like, it encompasses a real-time aesthetic that provides a “Metabrain” appendage for uploading. In other words, the physical form is a real-time functional machine that incorporates the humanness we humans are fond of and offers a means to travel in non-real time settings.
I am not excited about having fish fins or bird wings, although I have enjoyed many of these styles in Second Life. My aim is to design a body that is sustainable and streamlined. After that, it certainly could have all sorts of appendages (like Laura Beloff’s “Tail”) or a simulated exoskeleton for exploring diverse environments. But for the purpose of a transhuman evolution and the fact that we exist now in real time as biological beings, we need to be practical first, and then see where that takes us. In SL or other simulations, we can use an array of designs (like Elif Ayiter’s avatars).
Ben: OK, so about being practical…. Maybe this is a stupid question but: If given the chance to upgrade your physical body step by step into a Primo Posthuman type condition, would you do it? What do you think the process would feel like? How would you react to it psychologically, do you reckon?
Natasha: I have been upgrading my physical body by following health protocols for longevity that directly affect my body, brain and mind. Specific upgrades include artificial lens on both right and left eyes, hormone replacement therapy, and varied interventions for dealing with cancers, etc. As far as a posthuman body concept, I don’t have any of the specifications that I write about, but it’s not an option today to exchange a seemingly healthy bio body part for an upgrade part.
Until then, I have a series of bio-basics for upgrading. I am a certified personal trainer and sports nutritionist, spent years at the Yoga College of India, and am trained in TM (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). Combining this knowledge, I focus on aerobic and anaerobic exercise routines, Yoga, and meditation. Brain plasticity is imperative, so I work at learning new skills as way of life, both intellectual and physical. I also think that sensuality has a lot to do with attitude, appearance and bodily wellness — so sex gets a high rating. Laughter is equally as consequential, so I have my favorite comedians I watch and TV shows that are mental ticklers. But let’s take a look at a scenario where I would need a new limb or cognitive add-on.
To replace a worn out bio limb with an upgraded AI-driven robotic smart part would be extremely exciting – like driving a Maserati luxury sports car with unmatched style and performance instead of a Ford Escort with roll down windows. Big difference. The Primo Posthuman body would drive smooth, flexible, durable, with extreme usability. So, what would it feel like? A little tricky at first and I’d have to acclimate. After a trial run, it would be amazing.
Ben: Your work and your thinking on these topics is, obviously, extremely interdisciplinary. That’s one of the things I enjoy about your work. Could you reflect a little on the importance of keeping people with a design and arts mindset involved in creating advanced technologies, such as cyborgs? And on the value of having cross disciplinary education and culture, so that there’s not a rigid divide between the scientists/engineers on the one hand, and the designers/artists on the other. How critical do you think this is for the creation of an exciting, desirable, productive future for humanity and our transhumance descendants?
Natasha: The old art vs. science issue was handled very nicely by C.P. Snow (i.e., The Two Cultures) back in the mid-1960s. But I give a lot of credence to Susan Sontag’s assessment of how certain constructs try to make intelligence more meaningful than aesthetics. She didn’t pontificate about cultures, and in her book Against Interpretation and Other Essays she tackles the issue quite nicely by suggesting that our interpretation of the world around us is often coated with biases of universal truths that, in essence, are not truths at all. She pointedly argued for erotics of art over hermeneutics. But the overall scope of creating is about innovation and those who innovate are solving a need and filling a gap, which is not sequestered to one discipline. John Brockman was wise in crafting the concept of a “third culture” because he recognized the enormous crossover between science and creative thinking. Nevertheless, why people keep trying to make an issue out of art versus science is interesting. I suppose it offers a distinction between what we think is an intellectual and practical activity to try to understand the world around us, and what we think is not. The aim of art, as I see it, is to understand the world around us and reinterpret it through varied approaches – gaming, filmmaking, fiction, painting, sculpture, bioart, virtuality, music, etc. The central difference is that science tries to do this objectively and art tries to do it subjectively. However, there is a tremendous gray area between what is objective and what is subjective and they often cross over. A scientist could say her work is an objective search for knowledge through but is deeply influenced by her ideology or religious beliefs. Likewise, an artist could say his work is subjective, but he has an objective aim in mind – a goal and is driven by this. Design is a different matter. Design is all about problem solving and doing it with an extreme level of elegance and excellence, much like mathematics – it is closely related to art, but not the same
So, if we look at the divide as a non-issue and realize that the last decade has been the spawning ground for a stronger, broader confluence of fields and that the old world academic narrative of separating fields and disciplines has evolved into a type of hypermodern world of cross-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity, trans-disciplinarity, openness, and collaboration — then I think we can handle any schism with grace and a warm handshake.
Ben: In terms of practical R&D work going on today, what excites you the most in the context of progress toward platform diverse bodies and substrate autonomous persons? What gives you the greatest feeling of real practical progress toward the goal of realizing Primo Posthuman or something like it….
Natasha: The fact that the maximum human lifespan is limited to a little more than a single century, most of which is spent resisting disease, is the main thing that compelled me to conceptualize a future body prototype. As a teenager I volunteered at The Home for Incurables, a facility where people were so malformed that they were not allowed to go out in public. At St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, I volunteered and observed children with incurable cancers awaiting their ultimate and untimely death. These and other experiences over the years are a vital part of my awareness that I cannot ignore. I have an unfaltering interest in future possibilities of improving, protecting and sustaining life. Because of advances in methods to intervene with the damage caused by cellular mutations and aging and to repair the body, there is reason to be more enthused than ever to explore how these emerging and speculative technologies fit into creative explorations in the arts and sciences. Biodesign is making headway and its cousin, bioart, has become a substantial field with the arts. DIY bio is more involved with HCI, but it does bring in a wide spectrum of ideas for creative explorations (not always safe or smart, but interesting nonetheless). I prefer the combined efforts of biodesign and bioart because they cover two aspects of creative innovations: artistic pursuits that are uniquely imaginative and design-based pursuits that are focused on problem-solving.
The most basic practical purpose of a future body prototype like Primo Posthuman or my other platform diverse bodies is to give people a body that is more sustainable than their pre-programmed time-limited bio body. This aim matches my initiative to design and build a body for humans who suffer from physical disease and need a new or alternative healthy body and, specifically, to resolve the issue of repair and revival of cryonics patients. Ultimately, many neuro-suspension candidates at Alcor and other cryonics facilities will need a new body if and when we are revived. My prototype is designed with this in mind.
Ben: How have the Primo Posthuman design and idea, and its successors, been received? Has there been a difference in the sort of reception this line of research has gotten from scientists versus arts people? Have you been deluged with people asking where they can buy one?
Natasha: Amazingly. I’ll answer this with a question: How many times in our lives do we have an idea and build on it and then someone sees it or reads about it and it goes off like fireworks around the planet? Well, that is what happened with “Primo Posthuman”. It has been on the cover of dozens of international magazines, featured in numerous newspapers and televised documentaries and continues to spark media attention. It is surprising because for years I had to deal with negative press on issues related to radical life extension – due to peoples’ fears about overpopulation, a psychology of selfishness, a lack of care about the environment, or only the rich obtaining the technology, etc. Contrary to people’s lack of knowledge, the field of life extension has a profusion of research that cover all sides of the issues. Fortunately, “Primo Posthuman” (and its multiple versions and revisions) has directly influenced how people think about human enhancement and human futures. The on-going enthusiastic reception of my work has been even more rewarding because I have been able to make a dent in the rigidity of fearful thinking and have offered a possibility – a glimpse of what could happen to the human body and mind. And since prosthetics are more and more seamlessly interfacing with robotics and AI, and prosthetics has resurfaced as a stylized addition to the body rather than just a way of replacing a damaged part, it looks like it could take off and engage concepts such my idea of a whole body prosthetic.
Ben: What are you working on these days? Anything that dramatically enlarges or drastically revises the basic Primo Posthuman vision you laid out previously? How has the Primo Posthuman related concept developed since its early days?
Natasha: The most recent rendition of my original work has surfaced as a type of platform diverse body and a substrate autonomous person. I focus on personhood rather than mind because of issues of continuity of self. The platform diverse body is a confluence of organic and computational systems and is a primary means for life expansion. If medical science can reverse aging and help to keep the bio body functioning indefinitely, that is great but it does not resolve the problem of unexpected death. It might be wise to continually backup our personhood (brain functions and especially memory and identity) and also have a second body just in case.
Since my design includes mind transfer (uploading) as an option within the Metabrain, the design serves as a both transport vehicle in real time and a transport devise for persons (consciousness) to exist in simulated environments. I am working on new designs that expressly emphasize this duo-purpose.
I’m also working on some other exciting media-related works not so directly related to Primo Posthuman. For instance, one amazing project I’m working on is a scientific research project of C.elegans in association with mind and memory. This is slated to take place at a leading research facility. The outcome would be available for museum exhibition, including filmed documentation. But this is under wraps for the moment and it’s probably best not to talk about it before it happens.
A favored project is my H+TV series which draws from my cable TV show in LA and Telluride in the 1980s/1990s and which seeks to fill a gap in knowledge about science, technology and design and radical life extension. You can see the tease here: http://vimeo.com/49258226 I hope to continue to work with teleXLR8 as a venue for it, but also with several universities to bring in students to participate in the discussions and debates.
I’m excited about a book coming out this year The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology and Philosophy of the Future Human (Wiley). I co-edited with Max More and we both are contributing authors of its collection of 40 high-profile authors and seminal ideas that helped to form the scope of transhumanism. I’ll be spending time promoting the book.
Ben: All fantastic stuff indeed! …
Now… this question is a bit different from the others, but I’m wondering, what do you see as the relation between postmodern philosophy and transhumanism? I feel like I see a few shades of postmodern thinking in your work — and of course, contemporary design and arts have been greatly influenced by postmodernism. And yet, postmodernism in art and philosophy often tends to go along with a certain directionlessness, almost a sort of nihilism — whereas your view of the transhuman is largely about extropy and purposeful, rational, goal-oriented growth.
Natasha: While I value Ihab Hassan and admire his contributions to knowledge from the postmodernist perspective, in general, I think postmodernism is a cliché. Its narrative fights against universals, scientism, etc. and offers little resolve. It is often more of a reaction than an action. The benefits off the postmodern agenda that I recognize are its deconstruction of universals and ardent efforts to encourage a feminist agenda and gay and lesbian awareness, and transcend the ivory tower of scientism, for example. But it offers nothing really tangible outside of smashing other philosophical worldviews. It wants us to disengage from our past – to toss everything out without discerning what has been beneficial to human knowledge and what has been harmful. For example, humanism has some bad points, to be sure, but it also has come important concepts. Why be antihumanist? That seems a bit reactionary and not taking into consideration the overall period within history. I do not support humanism, mainly because it is more focused on “man” than “human” and it lacks a sophisticated understanding of human evolution (although that is changing I hear). But why bother to attack it? Overall, I think postmodernism is a pain in the rear-end, not to mention the postmodernist writing style. I hope there are no traces of postmodernism in my work, and I certainly have not encouraged any. Rather, I have sought to be free of “isms” I my work and create from my own life experience.
Postmodernists have tried to create the posthuman and posthumanism as their sword against the future and I think have failed. There is a lack of visionary thinking. but let me say that the postmodernist scholars of posthumanism are highly influential and highly accomplished in their own works, when they attempt to sort out the posthuman they become confused and biased. I think the book H+/H-: Transhumanism and its Critics evidence this in large part, although the final comments were allotted to the postmodernists and not the transhumanists. But at least we had an opportunity to intellectually wrestle with them.
Where transhumanism and posthumanism part ways is in their respective approaches: posthumanism is deeply intertwined with the postmodernist agenda and rhetoric while transhumanism is deeply intertwined in human evolution, human enhancement and life extension. This difference brings into the discussion how or in what ways have posthumanist thinkers offered concrete concepts for which to deal with the human future? Where is there a posthumanist view that has developed a strategy for dealing with the issues that surround human futures? Where is the posthumanist struggle that seeks knowledge and practice outside theorizing that can make a difference? Alternatively, what frames of reference might best form methods by which to project possible futures?
The relation I see between postmodern philosophy and transhumanism is the desire to move beyond universals and to encourage more diversity amongst humans. We need to ask ourselves if we accept the dystopic postmodern view of progress or if we move forward in our evolution in becoming diversified agency with new types of bodies with a sense of responsibility and efficacy? I select the latter. We need to liberate ourselves from some of the inevitable limitations people and society accepts within the postmodernist stance. Transhumanism reaches far beyond the postmodernist agenda and has left it in the dust.
I’m not sure how contemporary design has been influenced by postmodernism, outside of architecture. postmodernism did embellish ornamentation, symbolism and a type of visual wit, but ludics has been around far longer than postmodernism. Benefits of postmodernism in architecture can be seen in a more organic design, rather than modernists’ geometric flavor. In fashion, postmodernism allowed for gender-mixed style. In sculpture and product design, an allowance of humor, and the ridiculous is valuable but even here form does follow some type of function. Every art genre borrows from other genres’ and makes its mark by critiquing and disavowing its predecessor. That is what makes a new art period, movement or genre novel.
But regarding the wider scope of the postmodernist agenda outside design, in the humanities and philosophy it has ignited a strong fear and negativity within the arts and humanities and persists today.
Ben: Very interesting and passionate response, thanks!
I myself take a somewhat less dim view of postmodernism than many transhumanists – I’ve learned a lot about time from Deleuze; and a lot about the relation between mind, society, economy and reality from Baudrillard; and a lot about the subtle psycho-social underpinnings of history from Foucault, etc. I suppose the commonality I felt between your work and postmodernism is well captured by your statement that “The relation … between postmodern philosophy and transhumanism is the desire to move beyond universals…,”
Natasha: I was looking more at the general nature of postmodernism and not specifically at a few uniquely creative minds. Deleuze, Baudrillard, Lacan and Foucault offer substance to philosophy and the arts. But their writings became, in large part, an institutionalized version of themselves for the benefit of an academic postmodernist scope. So, it is not necessarily that their works that were problematic, but often the interpretation and overuse of their works became concretized as “truth” and an end-point rather than their works being an inspiration for furthering knowledge-gathering. Deleuze offers insights into “difference” and the “other”. This is important for the transhumanist scope of identity and the mere fact that the transhuman has become the “other”, but Deleuze does not reach far enough to concern us with the continuity of identity. He says static with differences, even if in a series of differences. It seems that difference as “diversity”. But nevertheless, he spent considerable time arguing against modernity to a point that could have limited his looking forward to transmodernity or hypermodernity. Likewise Baudrillard, for all his insights, negates history by suggesting we have lost contact with the “real”. But what about the new real? Anyway, there have been marvelous philosophical minds over the centuries. I prefer Nietzsche and Spinoza.
Ben: Yeah … whenever discussing philosophy, I always end up coming back to Nietzsche, it seems. The postmodernists pointed out very well that there is no absolute reality and no absolute values… But Nietzsche, commonly cited as precursor to postmodernism, recognized the lack of absolute values, and then posited that a primary function of the superior mind is to create its own values. In this sense we could say that transhumanism is creating its own values, centered around notions of progress and expansion…. Postmodernism certainly allows for the possibility of creating subjective meaning in this way, but chooses not to focus on this…. And in the end, what one chooses to focus on is perhaps more important than what one acknowledges as possible. I love where transhumanism focuses its attention – on creating better and better futures – but I think postmodernism also provides a service via focusing attention on the groundlessness of it all, on the psycho-social construction of assumptive realities.
Natasha: Well, transhumanism certainly has a great sense of ludics and irony and is also grounded in its philosophical tenets. The great parties, artistic projects, science fiction stories, critical assessment of knowledge, heady debates, etc. are all endemic to transhumanism. I cannot see anything baseless about it, and certainly not about the current lack of plurality of death. But there are different flavors of transhumanism, so can see why someone might find a bit of a bad flavor among some people who self-define themselves as transhumanist, as well as amongst those who self-define themselves as postmodernist. Not everyone is ethical or values life equally.
And I suppose this is one of the great benefits of the arts – architecture, fiction, design, filmmaking, gaming, etc. – that these modes of reality offer a multiplicity of experience (“no absolute values”, as you say) So, it could very well be that an experiential cognition rather than just a reflexive cognition allows for the varied, unbounded existences for all to explore.
Ben:Well, we could certainly continue to discuss these points for a long time, but I think you answered my question very well. Philosophical discussions do tend to keep going around and around and around, whereas the nice thing about transhumanism and allied technologies is that they keep moving forward – at least they turn the circling-around of philosophy into an amazing variety of helices and so forth!
Like you, I’m definitely looking forward to an expanding and increasing multiplicity of experience in future – hopefully a very long future for both of us!