Utopia is an interesting word –coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516 –it is simultaneously a good place and no place. It represents humanity’s constant search for a better life as the tantalising perfect world we all wish we lived in. Yet as it is nowhere it is constantly out of reach. Transhumanism and progressivism are arguably both utopian in the sense that they both desire to improve the human condition –to create a better world or society. They are also both joined in a desire for progress, a forward-looking approach, and a support for the work of science.
We are in the midst of one of the greatest technological revolutions our species has undergone. Transhumanists believe that through this technology, humanity can transcend its limitations and perhaps achieve our utopia.
Are the dreams of a transhuman utopia really just around the corner? Can Transhumanism and progressivism be married?
What is Transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a broad intellectual movement that argues for the use of technology –particularly robotics, computer science, genetics and bio-engineering –to not only improve our lives but also improve our bodies and our minds. Transhumanists thus want to take control of our evolution and augment ourselves beyond the limitations imposed on us by our biology. The end goal being a life form referred to as a Transhuman or Post-Human, a being as far beyond humans as we are beyond other animals. Most transhumanists are staunch individualists believing in an individual’s right to alter or augment (or not) their body as they see fit.
Transhumanists are an extremely diverse group, and exactly what qualities they seek to enhance or augment through technology vary considerably.
A common interest is in enhancing human longevity through the reversal or counter-acting of aging processes and biological senescence with the long term goal of eliminating aging and death (or at least the certainty of it). Exactly how this is thought to be achieved varies from biotechnology repairing the genetic damage that causes aging through to the replacement of organs or the entire body with more durable synthetic versions.
Another common interest or current in transhumanism is that of the technological singularity. Singularitarianism is the belief that in the near-future humans will create an artificial super-intelligence –that is an artificial general intelligence (AGI) with intelligence vastly superior to human beings across all fields –and that if guided properly it will be beneficial to human beings and will lead to runaway human technological advancement disrupting and transforming human civilisation beyond recognition. The technological singularity is controversial among transhumanists but still popular.
As I’m not a scientist, I won’t attempt to fully assess the scientific validity of transhumanism and the technologies they advocate. I will however attest that even though many of these human enhancement technologies are the staples of science-fiction of the past thirty years, there have been tremendous explosions in computing and biotechnology that have put many of them within reach. When it comes to things like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cyborgs, we are only talking decades and not centuries. Indeed, many of these things exist in prototype form already.
There is a tendency with transhumanism for people to indulge in idealistic utopian fantasies as though transhumanism will lead to a rapture to utopia and end all our problems. This is dangerous as it leaves transhumanism open to criticism not just for idealism but for seeming to ignore the dangers in the future they advocate. The technological advances advocated by transhumanists have great potential for misuse –particularly artificial intelligence and genetic engineering –and it would be foolish to ignore this.
Some reject transhumanism on the grounds that they don’t believe in ‘playing god’. I would reject this since humans have been ‘playing god’ for a very long time, pretty much since we learned to make fire. As progressives, we must embrace technology not reject it. However, there are other more rational and ethical considerations to make.
The Gamble of Artificial Intelligence:
Artificial intelligence, specifically AGIs like those hypothesized by singularitarians, pose a serious existential threat to humanity. Compared to such an entity even our greatest minds are but insects, we would have no control of what decisions it makes once it is in existence, and should it make plans that are harmful to our interests, we would be as helpless as the orangutan whose rainforest homes we destroy for their wood. In short, we will only get one chance to create an AGI and it must be right the first time.
An AGI that is actively hostile to humanity is unlikely since it would have to have been engineered that way. What is more likely and just as dangerous is an AGI that is indifferent to us or has a limited understanding of us and thus makes decisions for our own good that are actually undesirable. An indifferent AGI would not exterminate us but could still destroy us as side-effects of its projects, just as we have driven countless species to extinction not through extermination but through our larger impact on the Earth’s climate.
Even an AI that wants to help us would need to have a very deep understanding of what it is humans want or value. It is not enough to make an AGI that wants to make everyone happy because that can easily be achieved just by lobotomising everyone so they can only feel happy. What we need is an AGI that understands us, our values, our morality, and wants to help us and that is much harder though not impossible to achieve.
The rewards of artificial intelligence are immense, but like all-powerful technology, so are the dangers. This is why many scientists interested in this field have emphasized the need both for caution and for working on problems in regulating AI behaviour, psychology, and morality, now rather than later. It is imperative that this technology be developed by those who understand it and not greedy executives, blinkered generals, or corrupt politicians.
Genetics has enormous potential to revolutionise our health and living standards. Countless diseases and conditions that have blighted our species for millennia could finally be defeated. However, transhumanism doesn’t just advocate the use of genetics to treat diseases, but also to ‘improve’ the human body’s capabilities in all areas. The mantra for transhumanism is ‘better not well’, that is, we should use technology not just to treat the sick but to improve the lives of the healthy as well.
Whilst such improvements could be beneficial, this idea poses a number of ethical dilemmas that we as a society need to consider. The biggest problem is that humans have, as a group, proven themselves tremendously bad at determining what traits are desirable. Take China as an illustration of this. It is suffering a colossal demographic crisis due to the one-child policy and Chinese culture’s preference for having male children. Millions of Chinese families, only able to have one child, have deliberately aborted female fetuses to ensure that they have a boy. The result is that today China suffers from an enormous shortage of women which has serious consequences for they country’s future.
With the power of genetics we will be able to determine and alter potentially any trait a child may possess. This could lead to the elimination of traits that are deemed undesirable even if they are actually beneficial or neutral. The result could be a general decline in human diversity as future generations all conform to our biases and prejudices about what traits a ‘perfect’ human should have. This would threaten to eliminate some demographic groups entirely, for example homosexuals, as who would choose to have their child born homosexual given the stigma attached to it?
Furthermore, we know that genetic diversity is key to the flourishing of a species. Homogeneity would leave our species extremely vulnerable to disease epidemics and may prevent our species from adapting and evolving new or beneficial traits.
I do not advocate for a ban on genetic engineering on humans. The potential benefits of this technology are too great to ignore. I also generally agree that increasing the abilities of the human species can be a good thing. However such technology must be regulated and should never be left solely in the whims of individuals alone because we know that people often make poor short-termist decisions based more on their prejudices than facts.
Transhumanism by definition is pro-science and the creation of government policy based on the best scientific principles. It is also by definition pro-technology and the use of technology for solving problems. For instance, many transhumanists favour technological solutions to climate change and the environment such as green energy or climate engineering. In this way, transhumanism could be regarded as progressive as it is generally forward-looking.
On other political issues transhumanists are as varied as any other group in society. There are however two common threads in transhumanist’s political discourse –what you might call a left and a right wing.
Libertarian transhumanists like their mainstream counterparts believe in unrestrained and unregulated market capitalism, privatisation of most or all industries and fields, small or non-existent government and extensive personal freedom. These traits are particularly common among transhumanists in the United States but can be found elsewhere. In my view, they would be the ‘right wing’ of the transhumanist movement since in essence the society they envision is not that removed from our own.
This position is influenced by the strong belief in individual liberty that is inherent in transhumanism, but also in the fact that many of the most prominent gadgets and tech in wide use by the public today has been developed by private corporations like Microsoft or Apple. As you might imagine, many transhumanists are very interested in tech and computing and thus admire figures such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They thus may develop the common misperception that capitalism equates innovation or progress.
Deciding whether libertarianism is progressive or not is beyond the scope of this article, however, there are a number of problems specific to libertarian transhumanism as a progressive movement. Perhaps the biggest is the enormous existential danger posed by an unregulated capitalism that wields the powers granted by the advanced computing and biotechnologies that transhumanists advocate. We’ve already seen businesses and multinational corporations in multiple industries violate standards of safety and morality in pursuit of ever greater profits. These excesses range from the murder of union activists in the developing world through to the dumping of toxic chemicals into the environment, which are the most prevalent in under-regulated economies like those advocated by libertarians. Can we really imagine these same people, driven by profit motives, can be trusted to use wisely the power we are dealing with when we speak of transhumanist technologies?
Another problem with libertarian transhumanism is that it generally ignores the societal disruption that advanced technologies will undoubtedly cause. The societal problem with the advanced computing technologies, particularly artificial intelligences, is that they eliminate more jobs than they create –one team of programmers can eliminate thousands of jobs with the program they create. Machines can already do many jobs faster and more efficiently than any human and the story of being laid off because your job is being automated has been a common narrative for the modern working class. As machines get smarter, we can only expect this trend to continue.
Not only will this generate legions of unemployed workers with no way of living except off the state, something despised by libertarians, but it will also undermine the basic structure of our consumerist society by reducing the number of people who can afford the products of capitalist industries –polarising our society more and more between rich and poor. How can free market capitalism in the form espoused by libertarians survive? Except as an obscenely elitist society that condemns 90% of the population to live (or die) in total poverty whilst the rich enjoy themselves on the backs of a largely automated economy.
Transhumanism and Progressivism:
Transhumanism doesn’t have to be this way however, and there are plenty of transhumanists who synthesise transhumanism with more progressive or leftist ideologies such as social democracy, liberalism, democratic socialism, Marxism or even anarchism.
Transhumanism and progressivism have much in common; both seek a better world, both are forward-looking, and both have an appreciation for science, technology and rationalism. They both place humans and human welfare at the heart of ethics and politics.
If made freely available to all, transhumanist technologies have the potential to emancipate all humanity from the ills of poverty, disease and inequality. If turned in service to progressive ideals of equality, liberty, democracy and social justice they could revolutionise our world.
To take an example, brain-computer interface technology could one day transform how individuals communicate and interact with society and the state. The dream of a truly democratic society where all are considered and participate could be possible through this technology allowing anyone anywhere to vote on issues that are important to them without taking the enormous resources it would take to achieve this today.
The Internet has already revolutionized how connected we are to each other. We can now connect and learn about the lives and issues of peoples living all over the world in a manner simply not possible forty or even thirty years ago. We can, and do already, form friendships and work relationships with people who live on the opposite ends of the globe. Smartphones already put this technology at our fingertips, the next obvious step is integrating this technology at an even more fundamental level via some kind of brain interface. How much more integrated and globalised can our world become with that level of technology.
Another example could be in biotechnology. If made freely available, biotechnology and genetics could transform the lives of billions, all could live longer, happier and healthier lives in pursuit of their goals. How much more could our civilization achieve unconfined by disease, old age or disability.
Implementing progressive values into transhumanism could also help us eliminate some of the ethical and social difficulties these technologies might create. For example, greater democracy and democratic oversight could help to regulate and prevent abuses of certain technologies like biotechnology. By giving minorities a voice in how genetics is used we can potentially avoid a society where such minorities are mindlessly eliminated by popular fashion.
Democratic and state oversight in the development of artificial intelligences could help us guard against the threat of greedy corporations pursuing lines of research without consideration for the consequences. It could also ensure healthy public debate about the kind of AI we want to create and what values it should hold rather than leaving such decisions to tiny elite groups.
As I indicated above, free market capitalism as it exists today is unlikely to survive the pace of technological advancement, and in my view, transhumanism is inherently incompatible with the survival of modern capitalism as we understand it.
Just as feudalism made way for capitalism, so must market capitalism give way to something else. What form this post-capitalist economic system takes remains unclear. However, it doesn’t have to be the grotesquely unequal and elitist vision that is the (unintended) end product of libertarian transhumanism. A progressive transhumanism could see a society where the burdens and benefits of technology and growing automation could be shared amongst all and not just a tiny capitalist elite.
If the state grows to fill the void created by automation by providing everyone with a basic income and security, and develops a new consensus on the role of the state as provider for its people, then what emerges from capitalism could be a new era of true economic equality. We could build a new world where people are valued for being people and not because they can (or can’t) produce capital.
All this sounds very Utopian and idealistic, I know. Building a progressive and transhumanist world will not be easy. But like utopia itself, it is an ideal to work towards and in doing so make the world a better place even if you never reach it. A perfect world may never be possible but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. It is the struggle that all human progress is built upon.
Certainly nothing vaguely utopian can exist until our society is ready for it. A utopia cannot precede the existence of the utopian. Just as our globalized modern society could not exist with pre-industrial technology, no lofty techno-utopia can exist until the necessary advancements have been made in science and technology. Utopia will only exist once we can engineer it.
Transhumanism can be utopian in its goals and ideals, this cannot be denied, however, like utopia, the Transhuman or Post-Human is a goal to strive towards in the hopes of making a better, healthier, and happier human specie. Even if it is not reachable in the way transhumanists wish it we can still improve ourselves just by striving for it.