Bengaluru: Zoltan Istvan, leader of the Transhumanist Party, will run for US presidency in this year’s elections. With the motto “Upgrading America”, Zoltan’s intention is to use science and technology to elevate humankind to its sublime intellectual and physical self.
Transhumanism is a fundamental belief that humans can transcend physical and mental limitations through science and technology, more specifically, augmentations.
Any objects, extensions, or technologies that enhance human capabilities can be classified as augmentations. A wooden leg that helps you walk, armour that protects a warrior in battle, lances in cavalry, are all examples of augmentations.
Humans have used augmentations like spectacles and footwear to overcome physical disabilities and challenges. These have now evolved to smart glasses with heads-up displays and fitness bands that track our heart rates.
Vaccinations are augmentations too, since they improve immunity and prevent diseases that were fatal just a century ago. In a country like India, vaccines have been administered for over 50 years and yet a lot needs to be done.
Public health is a feature that can benefit significantly from augmentations. Humanity is improving its existing lifespan while advances in medical science and genetic sciences have revealed the possibility of radical life extension.
An August 2018 report by research and advisory firm Gartner noted that “over the next decade, humanity will begin its ‘transhuman’ era: Biology can then be hacked, depending on lifestyle, interests and health needs”.
Transhumanism vs technological advancements
Zoltan is one of many transhumanists who have emerged in recent years. American entrepreneur Peter Thiel, British philosopher David Pearce, American inventor Ray Kurzweil, and other technologists are some of the driving forces behind Transhumanism.
Transhumanist technologies are in their nascent stages, and it’s easy to dismiss fears surrounding them as futuristic paranoia. But the ability to solve tomorrow’s problems will become imperative amid societal upheavals.
Augmentations like pacemakers, intrauterine devices, deep-brain stimulators have long been used to treat medical conditions. But what sets transhumanism apart is that the technologies that were once in the realm of medical sciences have expanded to commercial uses.
The world’s first cyborgs are already here, and they’re likely to increase in number given the improvements in cybernetic devices and communication technologies.
Artificial intelligence has already made inroads into our lives through the process of machine learning. Our decisions, purchases, commute, employment, health, entertainment, and daily tasks are based on complex analytics, no longer on instinct or simply understanding. This is a preliminary step in the human-machine interaction. Armbands, smartwatches, and internet-of-things will blur the landscape further. Add to that smart mechanical augmentations and things get interesting.
In 2017, a “biohacker”in Sydney became popular for installing his Opal card — a public transportation pass — in his hand. He said it would help him commute even if his wallet and phone were lost. The Opal card is a near-field communication device (NFC) widely used in payments and identification.
Of late, Swedish citizens have been adopting the trend of inserting microchips under the top layer of their skin. The chip enables a more efficient daily life and works to integrate with daily everyday tech, such as opening doors to homes and cars, and easy payment at grocery stores. The person only needs to swipe their hand in front of a scanner.
Neil Harbisson, a British-born cyborg artist, is famous for his antenna, which is implanted in his skull and allows him to “hear” colours, opening up a new perception itself. There are many such examples, like an individual with a USB stick on his finger, or robotic arms that help a man play drums.
In a May 2018 piece in The Guardian, Andy Miah, a bioethicist at Salford University, described transhumanism “as valuable”.
It is “…interesting philosophically because it gets us to think differently about the range of things that humans might be able to do — but also because it gets us to think critically about some of those limitations that we think are there but can in fact be overcome. We are talking about the future of our species, after all”.
Transhumanism will require political and ethical schools of thought that extend beyond the modern day. But are our political systems capable of handling this new wave of enhanced human beings?
Individuals with cybernetic implants may become mandatory to work with robotic counterparts. Similarly, a physically augmented army might easily overpower soldiers of mere flesh and blood.
Enhanced capabilities will give transhumans definitive advantages over other non-enhanced humans. Physically demanding professions may become more accessible. Cybernetic cognitive enhancements, artificial organs, new and improved senses, and enhanced physical power could open up new frontiers.
Specialised niches may develop that would only involve augmented individuals. This could engender class divides and structural inequalities.
Zoltan Istvan envisions a future where technology advances so rapidly that governments and policymakers are unable to respond to challenges. This is when cyborg technologies would become widespread, extending beyond medical needs.
When transhumans become a widespread community, there may come a time where a rights-based movements will arise out of displaced transhumans, or from regular humans left behind in the augmentation race.
Some transhumanists liken augmentation to the smartphone — at one point in time, the smartphone was affordable only for the rich, but their commercialisation and widespread use has now raised an entire industry and modified professions around it. A person can still choose to not get a smartphone, but it will be at the risk of not being able to access a whole host of services, interactions, and creative media.
In case of augmentations, the choice might not be so easy. There are many triggers for human enhancement — inhospitable conditions from climate change, space exploration, and so on. Delhi, for example, is in the throes of extreme pollution. People use pocket oxygen originally used by asthmatics to inhale a swig of clean air. A time may come where the air becomes so inhospitable that we may need to install air filters within our body.
Genetic engineering could help build resistance to many diseases, becoming a replacement for vaccination. And if humanity is to plan long-term space missions, there may be a need to genetically enhance astronauts who can sustain long flights in cryo to carry out potential interstellar missions.
Eventually, the ones who miss the augmentation train will inevitably become “disabled”.
We will need to decide whether humanity evolves as a whole, or we are able to evolve a political system that accounts for this drastic difference in our own species.
The position was summed up by Professor Blay Whitby, the author of Artificial Intelligence: A Beginner’s Guide, in the aforementioned Guardian article. “History is littered with the evil consequences of one group of humans believing they are superior to another group of humans,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the case of enhanced humans they will be genuinely superior. We need to think about the implications before it is too late.”
Evolution has spanned billions of years. And yet the formation of societies, and political, ethical, and intellectual revolutions have occurred over a period that is a negligible blip in the timeline. Transhumans will accelerate this change, giving rise to challenges that extend well beyond the present-day. It’s time we start thinking about the future of humanity.
This requires us to evolve our economic and political paradigms so that we can survive the future together.
Ganesh Chakravarthi is editor and programme manager at Bengaluru-based thinktank Takshashila Institution.