Transhumanism – On the merger of minds and machines
Wednesday, 21 Nov 2018
Author of ‘To Be a Machine’
In his book “Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence”, Professor Hans Moravec, a specialist in cognitive robotics, argues that we are approaching a time when we will achieve human equivalence in machines, not only in their capacity to reason but also in their ability to perceive, interact with, and change their complex environment.
Transhumanists believe we can – and should – use technology to push the boundaries of the human condition: to upgrade our minds and bodies using implants, upload our individual consciousness to machines, and merge with artificial super-intelligence to become immortal beings of near infinite intelligence and power. They see human limitations as something to be transcended rather than grappled with, and envision the future of our species culminating in a mass desertion of our biological bodies – the obsolete hardware on which our brain software runs – once our essence has been scanned, uploaded and transferred to humanoid robot.
Transhumanism is blooming in Silicon Valley
While this worldview may be dismissed as eccentric and unsettling, the transhumanist movement has taken root very firmly in the soil of Silicon Valley, amid powerful and influential people such as Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and his erstwhile colleague, Elon Musk, both of whom are committed to bringing about some version of the transhumanist future. In a recent interview, Musk described the goal of his latest brain-computer interface venture, Neuralink, as “providing superhuman cognition to anyone who wants it”. Perhaps more realistically, that should be “to anyone who can afford it”. What kind of world would that be in which the super-rich transcend humanity and leave the rest of us to founder in biological impoverishment?
Is the body obsolete?
Transhumanism presents a nightmarish intensification of the way things already are in this world, and the central article of faith among its proponents is the uploading of the mind to AI supercomputers in a final liberation from our physical flesh. While many of us console ourselves about our mortality with the poet Philip Larkin’s sentiment “what will survive of us is love”, transhumanism offers something less abstract: “what will survive of us is data”. But is the mind truly reducible to zeros and ones that can be rendered as computational code and adapted to run on super-computers? While the majority of neuroscientists see this as a very, very remote prospect, transhumanists perceive the body to be a “dead format” left over from the Neolithic era that is simply not up to the demands of contemporary life.
Meanwhile, the Singularity, often referred to as the “rapture of the nerds” paints a picture of the future in which technology continues to become smaller and more powerful until such time as its accelerating evolution becomes the primary agent of our own evolution as a species. We’ll no longer carry computers with us, but rather take them into our bodies, brains and bloodstreams, changing the nature of human experience. This will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots.
What does technology tell us about humans?
This fetishisation of technology all seems so alien, yet we can’t entirely dismiss it as science fiction. So where does this shadow of fear and uncertainty originate from? Perhaps the looming tide of automation rushing towards us. It’s hard to overstate the scale of the social and economic upheavals that AI could bring. A great many jobs, indeed whole sectors of the economy, may well become obsolete as more areas of human skill and expertise are progressively synthesised by machines. We already live in a world governed by systems we struggle to understand, as the stock markets fluctuate in response to unknowable whims of algorithms, and Amazon stock-pickers have no notion of the logic that underpins the seemingly counterintuitive warehouse layout where pots and pans are optimally shelved next to books.
Perhaps it’s reassuring to consider that apocalyptic visions – whether that of the transhumanists or the Book of Revelations – tell us more about the time in which they were written than they do about the future. Are we already living in the Singularity? Maybe it’s nothing more or less than a myth about the present, an elaborate story that illuminates how things already are, and have always been. To talk about a merger of humans with technology is simply to talk about being human: perhaps the Singularity began when the first Neolithic human picked up a rock and bashed it against another rock to make fire. Maybe your existence as a cyborg is affirmed every time you’re compelled to reach for your phone as it vibrates in your pocket with a notification, or you navigate to your next meeting by GPS. Perhaps a scenario in which your brain is scanned and uploaded to machines is just a wild allegory for what’s already happened and is always happening, and the Singularity is already here.
Mark O'Connell is a writer based in Dublin. His book "To Be a Machine" won the Wellcome Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Royal Society Science Book Prize. Mark was keynote speaker at Basware Connect London in October 2018.