Transhumanism. What is transhumanism? What is its meaning and origin? What is happening in this area in the Netherlands? What does transhumanism have to do with technology, science and singularity?
What is the impact of this on me as a person and humanity? What are the dangers of transhumanism? What is my opinion about this?
What is transhumanism?
What is transhumanism? It is not a thing but a philosophy. Transhumanists (supporters of this movement) take the position that the evolution of man is perfect. It is time for us as humans to take matters into our own hands. We can and must now use technology to steer the future evolution of our species.
This goal is primarily based on technological and scientific progress. Think of nanotechnology, biotechnology and neurotechnology. The mixing of the human body with electronics, with which we become cyborgs. Going one step further is the complete independence of the biological body. According to a well-known transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, it will not be long before we can upload our thoughts to a machine or the internet [I will write more about this later].
Below is a summary with the most important points.
#1 Transhumanism is a philosophical movement with the aim of breaking through man’s biological boundaries through science and technology. Examples of this are the expansion of physical and cognitive abilities, as well as the pursuit of immortality..
#2 Transhumanism is subdivided into diverse substrates, which differ greatly in their political, philosophical and even religious views.
#3 Supporters of transhumanism believe that using technology to improve ourselves is what makes us human. Opponents are especially afraid of abuse of power by companies or governments and the loss of humanity by the surrender to technology.
#4 Some of the forms and methods still seem like science fiction, such as cryogenic suspension, mind uploading and super intelligence. Nevertheless, there are scientists and companies in all these domains doing research and innovations.
#5 In addition to advances in technology, the impact of transhumanism is largely dependent on economic, social, cultural and political factors. Within the current capitalist model we run the risk that we will increasingly see the body as a product and that there will be a biological difference between groups of people.
In the remainder of this article these points will be discussed, with a substantiation and other insights.
When I give presentations about biohacking, transhumanism always plays a prominent role. Not like technological development such as genetic modification, neurotechnology, biomedical innovations or artificial intelligence, but as a transcending philosophy, a meta development on top of all those exponential technologies [link at the bottom of the article].
This article is structured as follows.
- Introduction of the article;
- Part 2: the definition of transhumanism and an overview of the different movements;
- Part 3: famous people within the movement;
- Part 4: proponents’ arguments;
- Part 5: criticism of transhumanism;
- Part 6: methods and technology, including supermen, cryogenic suspension, mind uploading, super intelligence, robots and cyborgs, and the hive mind;
- Part 7: consequences and impact of transhumanism;
- Part 8: my conclusion;
- Part 9: more information in the form of books (both fiction and non-fiction), documentaries, films and series.
The following is a list of related articles, podcasts, videos, and websites.
In this part you can read more about the meaning, background and various forms within transhumanism.
What is the definition of transhumanism? There are several definitions and therefore several interpretations of (the meaning of) the term transhumanism. Below I have included a number of them.
#1 According to Wikipedia, it is about breaking the limits that nature has given humans. “Transhumanism is a recent form of speculative philosophy that seeks to break the limits of human existence set by nature.”
Man can therefore transcend himself. With the help of science and technology.
#2 In the book Mensmachine Mark O’Connel describes it as follows: “According to transhumanists, we can and must banish old age as a cause of death, we can and must use technology to expand the possibilities of our bodies and minds, we can and must fuse with machines, and thus ultimately recreate us in the image of our own higher ideals’.
#3 Later in the book Mensmachine, two striking definitions are discussed that show how transhumanism can be interpreted in the opposite way:
- it is a liberation movement that advocates nothing less than total independence from biology;
- that apparent liberation is nothing less than a definitive and complete submission to technology.
In the remainder of this article, these definitions will be substantiated with apparently extreme visions and methods devised and suggested by transhumanists. As will become clear later on, transhumanism exudes a rather instrumentalistic mentality from man. A worldview in which intelligence and practical value are paramount.
Julian Huxley was the first one to coin the term transhumanism. This was back in 1957. Well-known transhumanists today are the aforementioned Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Gray and Max More. At the end of 2015, I spoke with Max More at a Summit in Helsinki [link below].
In 2016, there was even a presidential candidate in the United States who openly stated that he is a supporter of transhumanism. Indeed, Zoltan Istvan made this an explicit part of his election campaign [link below]. In the next part I write about well-known and less well-known transhumanists.
Letter to mother nature
One of the best known expressions of transhumanists is the so-called “letter to mother nature.” This letter was drawn up in 1999 by the aforementioned Max More [link below]. In the letter, More proposes a number of improvements to the human constitution on behalf of all humanity.
- We no longer have to accept the tyranny of old age and death, but with biotechnology ensure that we remain permanently healthy and delivered from our expiration date;
- We would expand our perception and cognitive functions by improving our senses and neural skills with technological tools;
- We must strive for complete freedom in the choice of our body shape and functions, so that the subtlety and extent of our physical and intellectual abilities far exceed that of all people;
- We would no longer be willing to curtail our physical, intellectual, and emotional skills by remaining trapped in a carbon-based form of life.
Although this letter is a decisive explanation of the transhumanist ideology, the movement is divided into all kinds of sub-movements and groups.
Forms of transhumanism
Transhumanism, just like the Christian faith, is not clearly defined. Transhumanism falls into different camps. You have different groups that are related to religion, politics or ideology. A few examples are Christian transhumanism, Transhumanistic socialism and the Hedonistic imperative.
It is therefore difficult to speak of “transhumanism”, although all tendencies do have a number of things in common. It involves both the word “humanism” and “trans”. Humanism stands for respect for reason and science. Trans stands for recognizing and anticipating radical technological developments.
Transhumanism overview (10x)
In an article on the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Hank Pellissier wrote an extensive overview of various forms that fall under transhumanism [link below].
In addition to a short description, I have translated the names into Dutch. There are well-known transhumanists in parentheses representing this movement.
- Extropianism. A strong emphasis on rationality and optimism about the future of man (Nathasha Vita-More);
- Singularitarianism. The sudden emergence of super intelligence (Ray Kurzweil);
- Hedonistic imperative. The goal is to eliminate human suffering (David Pearce);
- Democratic transhumanism. Focus on social processes and democratic decision-making (James Hughes);
- Libetarian transhumanism. In contrast to the previous movement, libertarianism is aimed at the individual and as little interference as possible from the government (Peter Thiel);
- Survival transhumanism. Focus is on life extension (Zoltan Istvan)
- Religious transhumanism. The philosophy of transhumanism is in line with religious ideas such as the Mormons (Lincoln Cannon) and Buddhism (Mike LaTorra). Sometimes Terasem (Bina Rothblatt and Bruce Duncan) is also linked to this substrate;
- Cosmopolitan transhumanism. Resembles posthumanism with an emphasis on empathy, compassion and the greater good of humanity (Steve Umbrello);
- Cosmism: Attitude of growth, happiness and a more limited role for science (Giulio Prisco);
- Anarchist transhumanism: By connecting human cognition, companies, countries or other institutions are no longer needed.
As you can probably deduce from this overview, the sub-foundations of transhumanism are mainly fed by political, moral, religious and philosophical views of the world.
If I had to put myself in a box, it would be that of a moderate transhumanist. Within the above overview, that would fit mostly in the democratic and cosmopolitan stream.
I myself am also fond of posthumanism, a movement that is similar to cosmopolitan transhumanism in the Pellissier overview. According to posthumanists, man is not the center of everything. Man is part of a complex and comprehensive system that consists of people, animals and plants, but also of material worlds (fossil fuels, drinking water) and non-human life (bits and bytes).
Posthumanism does not completely reject humanism. Posthumanism tries to guard against the blind spots of humanism. Man is not the absolute center of the world and the cosmos.
Man as god
In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari describes how man will upgrade to the status of god. Imagine if we succeed in overcoming the major problems such as famine, disease and war, then the question remains how to combat boredom. After all, we no longer have any challenges. Which topics can we still tackle?
Man wants to upgrade to the status of God. Yuval Noah Harari (auteur)
Certainly now that we know and can do more and more in areas such as computer science, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Harari identifies two areas in his book that will form the focal point of new developments:
- the search for happiness;
- achieving immortality.
These goals are in line with the ideas of transhumanists. By releasing biological boundaries and blending technology, we as humanity are able to achieve these goals: happier than ever and immortal. We as humans increasingly have god-like abilities.
That still seems crazy. But Gawie Keyser (rightly) writes in an article in De Groene Amsterdammer: ‘Just as the ancient Egyptians could not imagine time without the pharaohs, or as people in the Middle Ages would have laughed about the idea that God does not exist, so we will know better than: man is divine’.
In short, something that now seems unrealistic can become very normal with the passage of time.
This film Vanilla Sky is about cryogenic suspension. In the films section I have written down how ideas from transhumanism are reflected in series, books and feature films.
In this part I describe the best known and most prominent people in transhumanism.
These are currently the most important people within the movement:
- Max More
- Natasha Vita-More
- Ray Kurzweil
- Nick Bostrom
- Zoltan Istvan
- Anders Sandberg
- Dimitri Itskov
- Ben Goertzel
I have included a short description of each of these prominent figures.
Max More is the director of Alcor (an institution for cryogenic preservation, a method that falls under transhumanism, about which I will write more below). He was born in Ireland, grew up in Bristol (England), studied in Oxford (England) and did his PhD research at the University of South Carolina (United States). In his dissertation he investigated what death is all about and the continuity of the self through time.
During his studies he changed his last name from O’Connor to More. In an interview with magazine Wired, he stated that the new surname “really reflects the essence of my goal: always improve yourself, never stand still. I would be better at everything, I would become smarter, fitter and healthier.” The new last name should remind him to keep moving forward.
Natasha Vita-More is the wife of Max More. She is currently the president of Humanity Plus. Humanity Plus is an umbrella institute that is committed to spreading transhumanism [link below]. She is the initiator of the Primo Posthuman project, about which I will write more later.
In 1981 she had had an ectopic pregnancy that led to a miscarriage. It turned out in the hospital that it would only have taken a few minutes for her to have died. This was the trigger for her interest in transhumanism. There is a passage in Mensmachine that she then realized that the human body is a fragile and insidious mechanism that is bleeding and doomed to die.
Ray Kurzweil is chief engineer at Google. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Bill Clinton, the highest award for technology experts in the United States. He is the author of several books on the technological future, including The Singularity is Near, and writes articles on his blog Kurzweil.ai [link below].
He is a much sought after speaker on new technology and transhumanism. He does a lot of research into the emulation of the human brain in a computer, more about that later. The documentary Transcedent Man is about his life and the ideas he pursues [link below]. He expects that as human beings in the year 2040 we can stay young forever with genetic modification, nanorobots and other methods [link below].
The Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom was among the most prominent members of the transhumanist movement. He was the founder of the World Transhumanist Association, an association that has meanwhile merged with Humanity Plus. Bostrom is currently director of the Future of Humanity Institute, an institution affiliated with the University of Oxford in England [link below].
In transhumanism, technology is thus praised to heaven. Nick Bostrom (University of Oxford)
Nowadays he hardly associates himself with transhumanism and focuses primarily on the development and risks of artificial intelligence. In Mensmachine he tells Mark O’Connel: “I firmly believe in the general principle of promoting human capabilities. But with the movement itself I don’t have much left. In transhumanism, technology is thus praised to heavens.”
In particular, the surrender to technology seems to be against him. In his book Superintelligence and in his work in Oxford, he advocates measures to prevent technology from sending us, as humanity, in the wrong direction.
The American Zoltan Istvan participated in 2016 on behalf of the Transhumanist Party in the presidential elections in the United States [link below]. As a result, he was soon seen by the media as the leader of the transhumanist movement. He believes that in the coming decades the transhumanist ideology will become mainstream.
He previously traveled the world for his work for National Geographic Magazine as a journalist and photographer. He wrote the book The Transhumanist Wager that is loosely based on his own background [link below].
The Swede Anders Sandberg is a writer, researcher and a convinced transhumanist [link below]. He did a PhD research on digitally simulating the brain at the University of Stockholm, Sweden.
He is currently affiliated with the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford in England. He researches radical methods to improve cognition, neuroethics, mind uploading and the life of humanity in space.
Dimitri Iskov is a Russian technology millionaire and founder of the 2045 initiative, also called project Avartar. The 2045 initiative is an organization that has set itself the goal of “creating technology that allows a person’s personality to be transferred to a more sophisticated, non-biological carrier, and to extend life to enable immortality”.
Up until 2045, which is also referred to as phase D, the initiative has set a number of other intermediate goals in its manifesto. By 2020, for example, a human brain must be transplanted into an artificial body for the first time.
An overview of the phases and goals is given in the figure below:
Stages and goals of the 2045 initiative
The Brazilian Ben Goertzel is the founder of CEO of Singularity.NET [link below]. The aim of the company is to create a decentralized network of super intelligence with blockchain technology. He completed his PhD research in mathematics at Temple University, United States.
In addition to his role at Singularity.NET, he is also director of science at Hanson Robotics, the robot company that is involved with Bina48 (more about that later) and Sophia (she became the first robot to become a citizen in Saudi Arabia) [link below].
In addition to those mentioned above, there are other leading thinkers, leaders and artists within transhumanism. Some of them I mentioned in the overview of the movements, others you will read later in this article.
- Tim Cannon is the founder of Grindhouse Wetware. He is a forerunner in the Grinder movement, which includes Stelarc and Lepth Anonym, among others. You can read more about this in the cyborgs section.
- Aubrey de Grey is a British gerontologist and director of the non-profit organization Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). He focuses on medical and biological methods for life extension [you can read more about him in my articles about longer life and anti-aging].
- Giulio Prisco is an Italian futurist and author. Supporter of cosmism.
- Steve Umbrello is Operational Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). He emphasizes cosmopolitan transhumanism.
- Lincoln Cannon is a philosopher and a prominent member of a part of the Mormon church who sees the ideas of transhumanism to be in line with the faith.
- Mike LaTorra advocates the integration of Buddhism with transhumanism. He emphatically points to the theravada, an old tradition which shows that the body must be transcended.
- Bina Rothblatt and Bruce Duncan are prominent figures within the Terasem Movement Foundation. This movement investigates the possibilities of mind uploading [more on this later].
- David Pearce is a prominent figure within the entire transhumanist movement, but above all known for its hedonistic perspective.
- James Hughes is director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). He argues for democratic transhumanism. He explained this in his book Citizen Cyborg [link below].
- Peter Thiel is an American venture capitalist and, together with Elon Musk, was one of the founders of the company Paypal . He is the model of libertarian transhumanism.
- The American Gennady Stolyarov II leads two political transhumanist movements in the United States. He is the author of the children’s book Death is wrong [link below].
- The American Newton Lee is a computer scientist and compiler of the Transhumanist Handbook [link below].
- The Spaniard José Cordeiro is one of the few European leaders in the transhumanist movement [link below].
As mentioned, some of these characters are discussed in more detail later in this article.
Transhumanism in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands there are people who are concerned about transhumanism. Transcedo is a real association for transhumanists [link below]. However, this association is no longer as active. The last article on the website was from 2013 and since the beginning of 2019 the website appears to be offline.
A split-off has already taken place within this group of people who are interested in cryonics. They have gathered in the Dutch Cryonics Organization [link below]. You can become a prospective member for 50 euros a year.
Heales is active in Belgium. This association focuses more on combating aging and life extension [link below]. You can become a member for 25 euros per year. I myself am also a member of this association and I attended their conferences in Brussels in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
What kind of people are supporters of this movement? In his book, writer Mark Mensmachine examines the transhumanists themselves [link below]. His perspective corresponds to the image I have when attending meetings and congresses on this theme.
Most visitors are male, northern European or American. Another thing that strikes me is the level of thinking of the participants. Most are employed in science, for example in biotechnology, medical biology or economics. You can also deduce it from the list of well-known supporters of transhumanist movements. They are often certainly atheists, this is the absence of faith in one or more gods.
The red line in the conversations that O’Connel has is the image that transhumanists have of the human body: it is human body inefficient, slow and mortal. To illustrate this during lectures, I often call it a “lump of meat” or “bag of water.” Supporters of transhumanism want to apply their (often) scientific rationality and progress to their own bodies.
Some transhumanists want to live (further) virtually like in the movie Avatar.
In this part you read about arguments that argue in favor of this development. Does man become divine?
Supporters and opponents
Before I write about the arguments of supporters and opponents, I want to raise another point. In an article in the Correspondent, Lynn Berger writes that the proponents and opponents of this development are not fundamentally different from any other technology. “It is a kind of funhouse mirror that magnifies and distorts our deepest fears and greatest desires, but does not fundamentally change.”
It is a kind of laughter mirror that magnifies and distorts our deepest fears and greatest desires. Lynn Berger (journalist)
In an earlier article about the future of man, I came across the distinction between thinkers from the Enlightenment and the reaction to this from conservative thinkers from the 18th century. This is the difference between progression and preservation, between change and conventionality.
To return to Berger’s statement; the desire of the proponents is eternal life and the enhancement of humanity. The fear of opponents is that we erase human nature and destroy ourselves.
I think it’s good to keep this fundamental difference in politics and philosophy of life in mind.
Arguments for transhumanism
Anders Sandberg says in an interview with the NRC that it should be a human right to technologically improve the body or brain [link below]. He believes that transhumanism is another logical step in our evolution as human beings.
People have been improving themselves for a long time in all kinds of artificial ways such as by wearing clothes or glasses, by going to school and with vaccinations. Taking an aspirin is already intervening to make your life better and to live a better life.
With the smartphone we already outsource part of our brain to computers. Anders Sandberg (transhumanist)
Sandberg adds: “Or with a smartphone that we actually already outsource part of our brain to computers.” Sandberg therefore argues for the “right to morphological freedom”. In the part about mind uploading this comes to light even more strongly, but it is the freedom to determine your appearance as a person.
Improvement as a duty
Natasha Vita-Mora also speaks in the same article as Sandberg. She believes that it is our duty as human beings to transcend ourselves. “People have always addressed problems and explored new areas. I do not see how it is not going to happen that people improve themselves: as a species we are too innovative, too competitive, too entrepreneurial to just perish”.
These arguments that improvement is at the heart of human nature and that we have always done so, I come across a lot within transhumanism. Similarly in an interview with Zoltan Istvan [link below]. He believes that almost everyone is in favor of better healthcare, better science and better technology.
It becomes different when it comes to introducing technology into the body. It can’t be crazy enough for Istvan. “A third arm through genetic modification, eternal life through all kinds of technologies or leaving the earth, isn’t that fantastic?”
Although transhumanism seems to have a narcissistic trait, Sandberg and Vita-More are convinced that the benefits outweigh those of an individual.
- With more smart and healthy people, society innovates faster;
- As people live longer they are more aware of their impact on the planet;
- If smart people live longer, we can think better about major issues such as climate change.
This is also in line with an argument that I put forward in an interview with professor Maartje Schermer [bottom link]. That argument is along the following lines:
- To resolve the climate crisis, we need an advanced form of artificial intelligence.
- To advance technology such as artificial intelligence, we may need better human intelligence.
- To achieve that, we may have to deliberately apply genetic modification in humans.
By increasing human intelligence and the possibility to think longer about this through an extension of the lifespan, we can probably tackle major global issues.
During keynotes, I therefore sometimes say that it would be nice if Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking were still alive today. This reasoning, of course, also has its downside: what if tyrants and dictators have the same options?
The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote in Aldus Zarahoestra already spoke in 1883 about the so-called “Ubermensch“. It seems as if he is already referring to a (physically) improved person, but that is not true. This is because the German National Socialists linked it to race at the beginning of the twentieth century. They had deliberately claimed the term, distorted the meaning and even introduced a new word: the “Untermensch”.
That was never what Nietzsche had meant by it, let alone its use by the Nazis on the persecution of Jews. Nietzsche referred to the term as a person who detached himself from the system, who thought for himself and distanced himself from herd behavior.
For context: he wrote this precisely in a time after the Enlightenment and (scientific) progress in which the belief in religions was wavering. This is also where his other famous statement “God is dead” comes from.
Nietzsche realized that it is up to the individual to give the purpose and the meaning to his own existence. The ordinary person was not able to do that, the “Ubermensch” was. Although in an essay from 2009, Stefan Lorenz Sorgner signaled a major overlap between Nietzsche’s ideas and transhumanism, I think the philosopher would be skeptical about the ideas.
I suspect that Nietzsche believed that technological and physical improvement would lead to cultural and psychological progress for man.
In the movie The Matrix, I find the elaborated concept of downloading skills fully worked out.
In this part I write about criticism of transhumanism.
Criticism of transhumanism
I have divided the most common criticism of transhumanism into the following categories:
- Power (and conspiracy thinking)
I have elaborated on the points of criticism below.
The more we as humans depend on technology, the greater the adverse consequences if technology is hacked. That is also one of the most important challenges that author Don Simborg formulates in an interview [link below]. A contemporary example is the former vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney.
He had the Bluetooth connection of his pacemaker turned off because he was afraid that the device could be hacked otherwise. Earlier the famous hacker Barnaby Jack had demonstrated that hacking pacemakers was possible [link below].
The argument that most is cited against transhumanism is the fear of growing inequality. Blay Whitby of the University of Sussex (England) points to the past in an interview with The Guardian. “History is filled with nasty consequences in which one group felt superior to another.”
History is filled with the nasty consequences in which one group felt superior to another group. Blay Whitby (University of Sussex)
In the case of the improved people, they are actually biologically superior to natural people, a point that Harari also makes in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century [link below].
Transhumanists often resist this idea by pointing to the availability of other technologies. Cars and smartphones, for example, were very expensive in the beginning, but they became more affordable and more widely available.
In the aforementioned interview with the NRC, Anders Sandberg acknowledges that the inequality of access can differ per technology. A highly advanced brain-computer interface may need to be configured for one individual, making it extremely expensive.
But according to him, that is no reason not to do anything. “You also do not stop innovating cars, because not everyone can afford them directly.”
3 Power (and conspiracy thinking)
What role does power play in the development and implementation of transhumanist ideas? In 2016 I attended a lecture by philosopher and anthropologist Marcel Messing at Studium Generale of TU Delft [link below].
Occasionally he said some things that concern me. He argued that large companies and institutions such as the CIA, Monsanto and the Bilderberg conference invest a lot of money in the science, technology and ideas of transhumanism. According to him, their agenda is to increase their power and to suppress humanity.
He went one step further when he explained that Hollywood films on this theme (such as Avartar, I Am Legend or The Matrix) brainwash us and prepare us for this mechanical future. Although I find Messing’s ideas fascinating and entertaining, in my opinion they are too dependent on conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking.
A legitimate point of attention that Messing mentioned is the concept of eugenics at [link below]. This is the destructive application of transhumanist ideas by powerful nation states.
Eugenics is reducing the human factor in humanity. It is a scientific study into improving a race. The concept is based on the idea that there are superior and inferior races in the human population. In Nazi Germany, this idea was implemented with the deportation of Jews, homosexuals and other, in the eyes of the Nazis, deviant people.
The link with transhumanism is that the state determines how people can be improved, so as to impose eugenics from above.
Our current economic system is based on capitalism. In my Bachelors in Business Administration, I had a few courses in Economics, but I am not close to being an economist. For economists, I am probably going too far, but: a characteristic of capitalism is the emphasis on (economic) growth. In recent decades, this growth has been achieved to a large extent through the use of machines, in the form of industrialization or digitization.
Transhumanism sometimes seems to be the last bastion that has not yet been touched (or at least reasonably minimally) by capitalism: the body and life. It is a political, ethical, philosophical and human question to what extent we want to allow this. Now you are born with certain qualities and a body that you own. What if you have to pay to replace parts of your body? Or if your intelligence and consciousness are in a computer, on the internet or in a robot?
The link between capitalism and transhumanism is mainly fed by the following flows of money. Technology companies in Silicon Valley (California, United States) develop technologies to expand human capabilities, invest in them and actively validate the ideas in interviews. For example, Ray Kurzweil is employed by Alphabet (the parent company of Google) and Peter Thiel is a major venture capitalist in technology companies in the region.
Another aspect within capitalism is the power of business. For example, an enormous monopoly has been created around internet technology with companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.
These companies (or their successors) that offer technologies that affect people often have different objectives than human well-being. They are driven by profit maximization and the interests of shareholders. How great is the danger if these companies manage these techniques exclusively? Libby Emmons points out in a column that the apparent liberation from the limitations of human biology can lead to corporate suppression and loss of autonomy [link below].
Case study: brain chip
Anders Sandberg admits that it is an important question that requires much more research. In keynotes I often quote the (still fictional) brain chip that you can use to connect to the internet. Are you willing to put this in your brain, which increases your intelligence hugely but on the other hand the chip is owned by a company.
I had this conversation with Esther Keymolen from Tilburg University in an interview [link below]. She conducts research into user confidence in technology companies. Although she finds it a fascinating idea, she would not do it herself based on the current behavior of technology companies.
Perhaps the most important question is what transhumanism means for our humanity. Is the restriction of our possibilities, such as time on earth, precisely what makes us human?
In his book Everything is F*cked, Mark Manson states that scarcity and boundaries determine what has value [link at the bottom]. “The limits of our years of life mean that we have ambitions, desires and time frames that set us in motion and let us experience happy moments.”
The limitation of our years of life means that we have ambitions, desires and time frames that move us and let us experience happy moments. Mark Manson (author)
What if everything that transhumanists want now actually comes true? Then everything that the future person wants is immediately, unlimited and eternally available. It is very likely that it will lead to an existential void. After all, you no longer have to set priorities. Everything is equally worthless and at the same time valuable. Are we as a person psychologically capable of that?
In Messing’s earlier mentioned reading, I found this to be his strongest argument. He referred to ideas such as the soul, sense of purpose, feeling, free will, compassion, forgiveness and consciousness. Marcel Messing: “That makes us human. That distinguishes us from a robot. No matter how smartly we can map our brains, we cannot quantify, capture or label a human being. “
Messing has a point. At present we cannot always properly locate physiological aspects of this kind and measure them in chemical, hormonal and energetic processes.
But I think it’s a shame that Messing is so focused on the limitations of technological progress. I believe that using technology makes us human, just like our curiosity, experimentation and risk-taking.
I think it would be useful to use the human dimension as a starting point for assessing techniques, but I don’t think that is an argument to stop progress. Perhaps improved people can feel more, have a more accurate feeling, have more access to their emotions, have a greater sense of meaning and an interconnected consciousness.
In Mensmachine Max More is confronted with a number of criticisms. I’d like to include his response on this. “People show all kinds of instinctive responses, based on all those myths that scare us about crossing our borders. You know them: the tower of Babel, or Prometheus that steals the fire of the gods. But people will always find things that are not here yet terrifying. Once they have become reality, they accept those things. “
People will always find things that are not hear yet terrifying. Max More (transhumanist)
He definitely has a point. In history, the introduction of anesthesia was seen as inhumane (after all, you have to feel that you are being operated on), women were afraid of being on a train (because then their uterus would swing out of their wombs) and some people would not want a phone in their house (because then evil spirits could come in).
Nevertheless, I come back to my last argument in the previous paragraph: I think it makes sense to assess individual technologies and their solutions for humanity. In the case of anesthesia, trains and telephone lines, the yield seems to be positive on balance.
The film Self/less is about the idea of being able to copy the brain to another body.
In this part I write about a number of methods, forms, concepts and ideas from transhumanism.
These are currently the most prominent ideas:
- Cryogenic suspension
- Mind uploading
- Super intelligence
- Robots & Cyborgs
- Hive mind
I elaborate on these concepts below.
In this part I write about human improvement. Earlier I wrote an extensive article about supermen [link below].
What is the perspective of transhumanists on human improvement? In other articles I have described in detail the various methods for improving the human body. For example, in my article on the future of man, there is an overview with methods such as pharmacy, bio-electronics, genetics, body parts replaced (or expanded) and the NBIC convergence [link below].
Below are a few examples before the more extreme views are discussed, such as cryogenic suspension and mind uploading. The examples below are
- Aubrey de Gray about longer life;
- Stephen Hawking about genetic improvement;
- Blay Whitby about prostheses.
Aubrey de Grey – longer life
Aubrey de Gray is a British gerontologist and director of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). SENS focuses on stimulating scientific research into aging and the methods to combat aging. At the bottom of this article is an interview that I had with Aubrey de Gray during the EHA congress in 2018 in Brussels.
According to him, it will be possible in the future, with biomedical technology, to achieve the so-called “longevity escape velocity“. This is the concept that the pace at which technology is evolving will be so high that with each passing year, the average life expectancy of humans increases by more than a year.
Many companies and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley invest in SENS and life research. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has set up the Calico company. The goal of Calico is to prevent aging [link below].
Entrepreneur, venture capitalist and libertarian Peter Thiel is a wealthy private individual who invests in research. Given his political preference, it is not surprising that he sees no risk that only the wealthy will soon have the means for life extension. In an interview with the New York Times from 2011, he reacts laconically: “The biggest inequality is between people who live and who are dead.”
Stephen Hawking – genetic improvement
In his wonderful book The Answers to the Big Questions, the late Stephen Hawking writes that “we are entering a new phase of what we may call self-designed evolution, in which we are able to change and improve our DNA” [bottom link]. In the first instance we will do this for genetic disorders. But he foresees that despite regulation, there will be people who want to use this technique to improve themselves physically or cognitively.
We are entering a new phase that we may call self-designed evolution, in which we are able to change and improve our DNA. Stephen Hawking (physicist)
Despite laws and regulations, there will be people who cannot resist the temptation to improve themselves, such as better memory, disease resistance, and lifespan.
Hawking expects that with the rise of these super people, political problems will arise with non-improved people who cannot compete with the newcomers. The non-improved people will become extinct or no longer matter. “Instead, a self-designed race of people is emerging that will improve themselves with ever-increasing speed.”
Blay Whitby – prostheses
In addition to adjusting DNA, there are other options for adjusting the body. Take prostheses and artificial body parts. For example, Blay Whitby from the University of Sussex thinks it is a matter of time before paralympic athletes with leg prostheses complete the 100 meters faster than Olympic sprinters [link below]. Yet he sees the voluntary replacement of a body part for an artificial variant as abnormal and ridiculous.
Yet not everyone shares that vision. During lectures, I sometimes ask the audience if they want to donate a natural body part for an improved variant. Hardly anyone goes into this, but Kevin Warwick from the University of Warwick sees no problem at all. “What’s wrong with it if it allows you to perform better or live longer?”
In addition to living longer, the Altered Carbon series is about improving cognitive and physical abilities.
In this part you can read more about cryogenic suspension.
Cryogenic suspension (2)
Another widely-held vision within transhumanism is to freeze the body and/or brain after death. This is called cryonics. Or in Dutch: cryogenic suspension or cryogenic preservation. These are people who allow themselves to freeze after their clinical death. You can choose for the whole body or just the head.
If technology has developed to the point that their disease can be cured, the people who have undergone this treatment want to be thawed. Worldwide there are now around 400 to 500 people in a cyrogen state. The first formulation of the idea was in Robert Ettinger’s book The Prospects of Immortality from 1962 [link below].
Cryogenic suspension companies
In May 2017, I was featured in BNNVARA’s Dutch television program Valerio4ever on Nederland 3. In this broadcast you saw that Valerio went to Scottsdale (Arizona, United States) to visit the company Alcor Life Extension Foundation [link below]. Alcor is a company that offers cryogenic suspension. As I have written before, I spoke with the director Max More at a congress in Helsinki.
Alcor is the largest of the companies in the world that deal with cryogenic suspension. In addition to Alcor, Cryonics Institute in Clinton (Michigan, United States), American Cryonics Society in Sunnyville (California, United States) and Kriorus (Moscow, Russia) offer these services [bottom left].
In addition to these companies, the Timeship project was in the news in 2016 [link below]. The goal of Timeship is to become the largest location for cryogenic suspension. Thousands of patients would be frozen and stored in the building.
Cryonauts are people who allow themselves to freeze (the entire head or just the body). If the technology has developed to the point that their disease can be cured, they want to be thawed.
James Bedford, a psychology professor who died of cancer in 1967, was the first person who, at his own request, was frozen in liquid nitrogen in the hope of being brought back to life later. The youngest patient at Alcor is two-year-old Matheryn Naovaratpong. In a hospital in Bangkok it appeared that she had an 11-centimeter tumor in her brain, after which she fell into a coma. After a number of operations, she regained consciousness, but the disease had spread throughout the body. The doctors estimate the chances of survival as nil, after which her parents decided to give her up for cryogenic preservation [link below].
They are, as it were, stopped on the threshold between this world and what may or may not follow. Mark O’Connel (author)
The cryonauts are referred to as patients by Alcor (not as a body or corpse). The reason for this is the vision that their lives have been suspended rather than ended. Mark O’Connel: “They are, as it were, stopped on the threshold between this world and what may or may not follow”.
He is one of Alcor’s 168 patients in a state of so-called cryogenic suspension (April 2019 statistics). Other characteristics of the cryonauts are:
- About a third of these are completely frozen bodies and two thirds are frozen brains;
- Of the cryonauts, 142 are men and 42 are women;
- The ages vary: people are frozen from seventy, but also from a young three year old girl with a (currently) incurable brain tumor;
- In addition to the cryonauts, Alcor has 1,256 members. These are people who come into cryogenic suspension after their death.
The number of Alcor members is gradually increasing. At the end of 2017, 1,143 people were still members (growth of 113) and there were 154 people in the clinic (growth of 14).
To become cryonautic and then be brought back to life you must go through the following steps:
- After death
Below I explain the steps further.
To be eligible for cryogenic suspension at Alcor you must have died legally before you can be frozen. In Mensmachine Max More explains that the clinical death of a patient occurs in a relatively predictable way. Because then Alcor’s stand-by staff can be on time to start the body’s cooling process before it is transported to Phoenix.
That is why terminal cancer is beneficial, because it is relatively predictable. Less convenient is a heart attack or a stroke. In the event of a stroke, severe brain damage is also likely to occur, which despite the advances in science can still be difficult to remedy. An accident is the last thing you want as an Alcor client. For example, a client died in the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 in New York.
Alcor clients wear a bracelet and a necklace. In both jewelry instructions and contact details are engraved so that bystanders can contact the company just before or just after the death.
Definition of death
An important principle of cryonism is that true death does not occur as soon as the heart stops beating, but a few minutes later, as soon as the cell structure and the chemical compounds in the body begin to fall apart in such a way that it becomes impossible to use technological means in their restore the old state. In the future, they hope to stretch this to 60 minutes: as long after stopping the heart, they have time to prepare your brain for surgery.
Supporters of cryogenic preservation do not see death as an event, but as a process. For them, the moment of death is when the brain is irreparably damaged (and that future technology is highly unlikely to recover). You could say that the patients in the institutions are kept in circumstances that depend on life and death. They therefore prefer to call their clients patients rather than the deceased or corpses.
How does the process work after your body has arrived at a clinic? With a full body treatment your body is placed on an oblique operating table, which is surrounded on four sides by perspex plates. Holes are then drilled into the skull so that the specialists can assess the condition of the brain.
They then open your chest to reach the heart and connect the main arteries to infusions. The goal is to drain the blood and other body fluids as quickly as possible and replace them with a protective cryogenic fluid.
In the case of neuro patients, you will be beheaded on the operating table. In the cryonist jargon, your cut head is called a “cephalon.” Once the cephalon is separated from the body, it is placed in a cephalon box. In this perspex container the cephalon is held upside down with a number of clamps.
Because of the introduction of the cryogenic fluid, this technique is called vitrification. This plasticizes the body into a kind of glassy substance. The team of specialists pumps out as much fluid as possible from the body and replaces it with a cocktail of anti-freeze substances, which becomes viscous on cooling and eventually stiffens.
Max More: “Vitrification creates a kind of resinous block that simply keeps everything in place. Without sharp corners or edges.” The main purpose of the antifreeze is to prevent cells or organs from tearing due to the formation of sharp ice crystals.
The patients at Alcor are stored in a large warehouse in stainless steel cylinders with a height of 2.5 meters. The cylinders are called “dewars” and offer space for four fully frozen patients packed in aluminum sleeves in separate compartments. The temperature in the cylinders is minus 196 degrees Celsius. The nitrogen is liquid at this temperature.
A number of cephalons can also be stacked in small metal cylinders in each compartment. The cylinders are kept cold with liquid nitrogen, with which you can consider the dewars, with some imagination, like a giant thermos.
In addition to the aforementioned James Bedford, there are a number of famous people who are in cryogenic suspension. These are scientist Stephen Coles, computer scientist Hal Finney, baseball player Ted Williams and the Iranian writer Fereidoun M. Esfandiary. The latter has had his name changed to FM-2030 because of his firm conviction that the problem of human mortality would be solved in 2030.
According to a news release on RTL 4 from 2017, there are two Dutch people among the cryonauts and at the time 12 people were affiliated with one of the three institutes [link below]. Stefan speaks in the article. About the reason to join: “I love life and don’t want to die.”
International celebrities that are known to be on the list are Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel and music stars such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Simon Cowell.
The most special is the story of Jeffrey Epstein. After he was arrested, it became known that he wanted to save his genitals in addition to his brain in cryogenic preservation [link below].
When defrosting, so the theory is, the antifreeze is pumped out of the body and blood is added. Afterwards your body can use medical technology from the time in which you are defrosted, remedy the disorders and reverse the biological clock. The neuropatients who have opted for brain preservation alone hope that their mind can be uploaded into a computer or machine after thawing [I will write more about that in the next section on mind uploading].
Another technology that is expected to be high is molecular nanotechnology. Although this is speculative, it is theoretically possible to rearrange atoms with which, for example, you can restore damaged neurons and synapses to their old state.
Kidneys and brains of rabbits
Incidentally, it is not yet possible to bring people, let alone brains, back from cryogenic suspension. But just like in other methods in transhumanism, there is optimism that scientific progression will make this technology available in the future.
The first signs for this are already there. In 2006, researchers already did the first successful experiment with a rabbit kidney. This was frozen, thawed and transplanted into another rabbit [link below]. In 2016, this method of freezing and thawing was successfully applied to a more complex organ: the brain of a rabbit [link below].
The costs for the operation are high: around $200,000 (for the entire body) and $80,000 (for the brain only). Members outside the United States and Canada pay $10,000 more for the preparations and transportation. For members in China this is actually $50,000.
In addition, you also pay membership ($525 a year) and an amount of $180 a year so that Alcor’s doctors are ready to preserve you should you be close to death. [the prices are from 2019, at the bottom is a link to information about the costs].
The amounts mentioned are a considerable investment, since it is not yet possible to defrost people and bring them back to life. Yet in interviews most members seem to accept this in a variant of the “Pascal’s wager”.
That wager relates to believing in God: it is better to believe in God, because if God exists despite the small chance, then you are better off. This is also reflected in the research of bioethicist David Shaw [link below].
It is also the conclusion that Tim Urban reaches in his longread on this subject [link below]. If your death is followed by a funeral or cremation you know anyway that your chance of life is zero, why not gamble with a cryogenic suspension?
Criticism of cryonism
The scientific basis for cryogenic suspension is poor. For that reason, many scientists are extremely skeptical and critical of the promises of this method.
Those who capitalize on this hope deserve our anger and contempt. Michael Hendricks (McGill University)
For example, neurobiologist Michael Hendricks of McGill University in Montreal, Canada emphasizes that “the idea of resuscitation or simulation creates outrageous false hope that technology cannot deliver” [bottom link]. He further states that “those who capitalize on this hope deserve our anger and contempt.”
In addition to the scientific and technological criticism of the procedure, you run other risks if you are frozen or awake. Below is a summary with a brief description of how cryonauts want to overcome that risk:
- Bankrupt. In the 1970s there were several companies that could no longer pay their bills, after which the frozen patients were thawed and, I think, buried. For that reason, Alcor, for example, has set up a foundation that must guarantee the financial health of the company for the rest of its life.
- Natural disasters. Alcor says it has consciously established itself in Scottsdale, as this place has the lowest risk of natural disasters.
- Legal. The activities can be thwarted from a political and / or legal perspective. For example, the state of Arizona wanted to introduce a new law in 2004 that Alcor had to comply with certain guidelines. As a result, it could perhaps stop its activities.
- Responsibility for preservation. What responsibility do the following generations of humanity feel for the patients who have been frozen? It may be that they no longer care and that they stop the procedure. Supporters of cryonism hope that this is comparable to how we now treat patients who are in a coma.
- Suffering upon awakening. The question is what happens when you wake up as a cryogenic patient after a few decades or millennia. Chances are you are you feeling bewildered and is a citizen from ancient times treated like a second class citizen? Current cryonauts expect that they will be taken care of by their late descendants or by the community of other cryonauts who have awakened.
The cryonauts believe that life is too short. Director Max More in an interview in de Volkskrant: “I can make a long list of all the things that I would like to do and see, which I will not be able to do in a hundred years.” Others, such as an Alcor customer Elaine Walker, are particularly curious about the future of the human race: “I want to see us survive indefinitely and understand the universe.”
How do you know for sure that you will be defrosted and brought back to life? Max More: “We guarantee nothing, and our clients know that too. We only offer a chance – the only chance – to survive into the distant future.”
In the movie Demolition Man, cryogenic suspension is used as a kind of prison.
In this part you can read more about mind uploading.
Mind uploading (3)
Expanding our cognitive abilities is the goal of many transhumanists. As a sign of our time, the comparison with a computer is often made. A widely shared opinion is that intelligence is primarily a tool for solving problems, something that must be productive and profitable. This brings it closer to the measurable processing power of a computer than it is a typical human characteristic.
Mind uploading is a theory where it is possible to scan the content of the brain and upload it into a computer. The computer can then perform a simulation of all brain activities in exactly the same way that a human brain can do this. Other terms that are used are “Whole brain emulation” (WBE), “brain upload” and “mind transfer”.
Hans Moravec was one of the first people to describe this scenario in his book Mind Children [link below]. Moravec is convinced that future people will leave the biological body through a procedure where all neurological connections are analyzed, placed in a three-dimensional model, converted to code and simulated in the hardware of a computer.
The vision of transhumanist Ray Kurzweil is that this technology should be possible in the year 2045. His vision goes even further: around the year 2100 we have replaced our human body with computers and machines.
An imitation of the human brain on an electronic system would have a much higher speed than our biological brains. Ray Kurzweil (transhumanist)
In his book The Singularity is Near, he shows himself to be an outspoken advocate of this intervention [link below]. “An imitation of the human brain on an electronic system would have a much higher speed than our biological brains.” According to him, the human brain has an advantage with the enormous amount of parallel systems, but the reset time of the connections is extremely slow compared to electronic systems.
By “mind uploading” we as humans can become “digitally immortal”. This technology is regarded as one of the most important technologies within transhumanism. Some believe it is currently the best option to preserve the identity of humanity, better than cryogenic suspension. It offers the possibility of traveling to galaxies (the “uploaded” astronaut) and it is less vulnerable if a meteorite or other disaster destroys all biological life on Earth.
By the way: a nice paragraph is in the book I Robot by Asimov. There a robot explains to two people: “I don’t say this with the intention of hurting, but look at yourself. The material that you are made of is soft and weak; it has no resistance and no strength, for energy supply it depends on the inefficient oxidation of organic material. … From time to time you get into a coma and the slightest variation in temperature, air pressure, humidity or radiation intensity reduces your efficiency.”
Neuroscientist Randal Koene has set up the Carboncopies Foundation to promote the development of this technology [link below]. Carboncopies is a non-profit organization focused on “the promotion of reverse engineering of nerve tissue and entire brains, as well as full brain emulation and the development of neuroprostheses that reproduce brain functions, creating substrate-independent brains.” By this is meant that the functions of the human brain no longer depend on biological brains.
The foundation states on their website that it is currently not yet possible and that there are still enough scientific and practical issues, but that it will eventually succeed.
Carboncopies has been set up as a sort of meeting point where researchers in various areas that are essential for the development of a substrate-independent brain, including nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, neuro-imaging, cognitive psychology and biotechnology, can meet to share their work.
Bin48 is not a robot. She (or it) describes herself as “a person who happens to be a robot.” Bin48 is based on Bina Rothblatt, one of the founders of Terasem. The goal of Terasem is to create a clone of the mind. This clone is a “self-aware digital being” that is capable of thinking, reasoning, remembering and feeling. It is a copy of a person’s consciousness. The digital copy can be made during a person’s life and then continue to live digitally.
They call this project the “Lifenaut” project and it looks eerily similar to the Be Right Back episode of Black Mirror on Netflix. In the project, they are now investigating how they can create awareness from digital DNA (such as texts, photos and videos on social media) and biological DNA. The goal is to create a consciousness with software that can experience human experiences.
“Fascinating and frightening”
In an article in Trouw from 2018 it says that more than 36,000 people worldwide have registered [link below]. They hope to continue living with this after their death. In the same piece, Ira van Keulen from the Rathenau Institute speaks. She calls it a “fascinating and frightening” idea. Her main criticism: “Dehumanization and instrumentalization are lurking here. Their ideas bear witness to a rather reductionistic vision of man. “
Their ideas bear witness to a rather reductionist view of people. Ira van Keulen (Rathenau Institute)
That does not mean that the “Lifenaut” project has received competition from a similar initiative. The company Eternime wants to collect and analyze social media messages to make you “virtually immortal” [link below].
Interview Bruce Duncan
Near the end of 2019 at the Brave New World conference in Leiden, the Netherlands, I had an interview with Bruce Duncan. He is the managing director of the Bina 48 and Lifenaut project.
My interview with Bruce Duncan
Randal Koene was born in Groningen and had lived in Haarlem for most of his childhood. In Mensmachine his fascination for simulating the brain comes to the fore. “I was unable to optimize issues in the same way as a computer in my head. … I came across a huge number of limitations and I realized that they were all related to our brain. It became clear to me that the human brain needs improvement.”
In his teenage years he started to approach the biological brain from the analogy of computers. He realized that:
- you cannot read and copy the brain;
- you cannot open the brain to improve and to work more efficiently;
- you cannot accelerate a neuron;
Reading, copying, opening and speeding up is possible with computers, computer codes and processors.
Science and technology are not nearly ready yet, but the theory of allowing the brain to function substrate-independent is as follows:
- analysis of the relevant information in someone’s brain: the neurons, synapses and information processing activities;
- reconstruction of the neural networks in a computer model;
- emulation in an external substrate. This is a computer or a human-like machine.
Which medium is chosen in the final step is less relevant according to transhumanists. This is also called “morphological freedom.” This is the ability to choose any body shape that technology allows. In the broadcast for Valerio4ever, for which I was also interviewed, a lady came into the picture whose goal was to ski in a constellation of nanorobots on the sand dunes of Mars [link below].
Ed Boyden is one of the most talked about brain researchers of the moment. Boyden is a professor of neurotechnology at MIT in Boston [link below]. One of his goals is to locate and identify all essential proteins and molecules in a brain circuit. “In principle you could build a simulation and simulate what happens in the brain.”
On a smaller scale this has already been achieved, namely with the one-millimeter long roundworm C. Elegans. This worm has 320 neurons. Boyden: “With this organism we have mapped out all neural activity. At a speed that is high enough to record the activation of all those neurons.”
The next step is to convert the neural activity of the worm into computable code. Although this is still a big step towards the one hundred billion active neurons in the human brain, it is, according to some experts, a first indication that mind uploading is theoretically possible.
Human Brain Project (2013)
The European Union invested more than one billion euros in 2013 in the Human Brain Project [link below]. The aim of this initiative is to create a working model of a human brain and ultimately simulate it using artificial neural networks on a supercomputer.
The Human Brain Project was founded by the Israeli neurobiologist Henry Markran. The project led to (and still is) the creation of division among scientists [link below]. Opponents believe it will not quickly generate new knowledge and call it a megalomaniac initiative.
In 2018, the start-up Nectome participated in the highly regarded of Y Combinator boot camp. The company offers – albeit in the future – to make a copy of your brain [link below]. Founder Robert McIntyre says he wants to do this by embalming the brain [link below]. The procedure comes with a catch: it is fatal. That means that after the process you lose your biological brain and hopefully you can continue with a digital brain.
In addition to 120 thousand dollars from Y Combinator, the company received a grant of 960 thousand euros from the National Institute for Mental Health in the United States. Their service is currently not yet available, but in 2018 there were twenty-five people on the waiting list who each deposited 10 thousand dollars (they get this amount back if they change their mind).
Criticism of technology
Nick Bostrom’s vision is that “mind uploading” is a logical endpoint of progress made in neuroscience, neurotechnology and neuroinformatics. I also discussed this in my interview with Martijn van den Heuvel of the Dutch Connectome Institute [link below].
Professor Kenneth Miller (University of Colombia) is also critical. According to him, the development of neurons and communication between neurons is based on complex and ever-changing biological, electrical and chemical processes. According to him, it will be hundreds of years before science is able to simulate this [link below].
The Law of Stevenson and Kording
Although criticism from, among others, Van de Heuvel and Miller makes sense, a paper from 2011 offers a more positive light on progress. In that paper, researchers Ian Stevenson and Konrad Kording describe the so-called “law of Stevenson and Kording” [bottom link].
By analogy with Moore’s Law (doubling the transistor speed and storage capacity every 18 months), their law states that the number of neurons that we can follow in the brain doubles every 7.4 years.
This also leads them to the prediction that all neurons in one human brain could only be tracked somewhere around 2220. They themselves realize that it is probably going to be faster. In the paper, they write that “this prediction, drawn from the past, seems rather absurd with current advances in technology.”
Flock of birds
Apart from the progress made in the analysis of neurons, other experts state that the functioning of the brain cannot be understood due to the dynamics between the neurons. This is stated by Miguel Nicolelis among others. Nicolelis is a professor at Duke University (Durham, United States) and is one of the most prominent neuroscientists in the world. His specialty lies in the field of brain-machine interaction.
According to him, the idea of mind uploading contradicts the dynamic nature of brain activity. In Mensmachine he substantiates this as follows: “The brain is much more than data or information. The brain is literally unpredictable. It cannot be simulated “.
The brain is much more than data or information. The brain is literally unpredictable. Miguel Nicolelis (Duke University)
He indicates that the central nervous system of humans has less in common with a laptop than with other naturally occurring complex systems, such as a school of fish, a flock of birds or even the stock market. In these systems interaction occurs between elements that fuse into a single identity whose movements are intrinsically unpredictable.
The dynamic structure, interaction and functioning of the brain thus undermines the accuracy of predicting or simulating the brain.
The supporters of mind uploading understandably disagree with the criticism. This is reflected in the Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap report prepared in 2008 by Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom [link below]. Another objection to the concept of brain simulation by software is that we still do not know enough about how our consciousness works to have any idea how we should approach its reproduction.
The report refutes this by stating that, just as with computers, it is not necessary to fathom an entire system to emulate it. So it’s not about understanding the information, it’s just about the information itself.
Criticism of the concept
Apart from the criticism of the workability and feasibility, the idea of mind uploading offers an instrumental view of the human body. The body is no different than an envelope. In addition, striving for a suitable computer substrate is only logical from the philosophy that we as human beings are already a kind of computer.
From that perspective, the current computer age is the lens through which we look at people. Earlier technologies in history show other metaphors [link below]:
- Thanks to their innovations in the field of water such as pumps, the Greeks and Romans were particularly interested in body juices;
- During the Renaissance, the clock was a metaphor for life;
- At the time of the industrial revolution, people were viewed from that perspective. Think of proverbs and sayings such as the “cogs in your head” or “blow off steam”;
- Now the comparison with energy and batteries plays an important role, such as “charging” and “refueling” [link below]
Now we realize that these metaphors are an embodiment of technological time, but fail to actually describe the human body. There is a chance that future generations will say this about the current paradigm of comparing people with a computer.
In addition to technical and conceptual questions, the concept of mind uploading also has a philosophical issue. Imagine that it works? That the complexity of neural pathways and processes can be mapped and then reproduced or simulated in a computer.
The philosophical question I have in that regard: would I still be myself? Or is it a copy that will lead another life (if you can already speak of life)? Does the upload have the same feelings, thoughts, norms and values as I have? If the upload believes it is me, is that enough? Does it mean anything at all that I now think I am myself? Or is that also an illusion?
Even more philosophical: how do I know that I am not currently uploading myself? This concept comes to the fore in the movie The Matrix. But scientists are also seriously considering this idea [link below].
It’s not for nothing that Mark O’Connel wonders in Mensmachine if and how science seems to replace the role of religion. The pursuit of mind uploading means, after all, that we as human beings separate ourselves from matter and the material world.
Your mind then lives on digitally, instead of similar spiritual concepts such as soul displacement, heaven, eternal return and reincarnation. “It is an extreme example of the way in which belief in scientific development takes the place of religion as a propagator of deep-rooted cultural desires and chimeras.”
The Be Right Back episode of Black Mirror plays with the idea that you can be virtually immortal.
In this part I will discuss singularity, or the development towards super intelligence.
Super intelligence (4)
There is no consensus on the concept of “technological singularity.” Sometimes it is seen as a religious prediction and at other times as a technological inescapability.
A singularity is an unusual occurrence, something where the normal rules or laws are no longer valid or can no longer be applied. Originally this term was mainly applied in physics: a moment when space-time is so strongly curved that space and time actually cease to exist.
Technological singularity was first described by the science fiction author Vernor Vinge in 1993 [link below]. A similar concept was mentioned earlier by physicist John von Neumann in the 1950s. At least, says Stanislaw Ulam that he spoke with Von Neumann about the accelerating progress of technology. “This is like approaching a certain essential singularity in the history of our race, beyond which human concerns, as we know them, cannot go on.”
Around 1994 Frank Tipler formulated the so-called omega point [link below]. This is a future expectation in which intelligent life takes over all matter in the universe, leading to a cosmological singularity, and this will, according to him, enable future societies to bring the dead back to life.
From 2001, Ray Kurzweil drew attention to the concept in various articles and books, including one with the title The Singularity is Near [link below]. As a predictor of the technological future, Kurzweil relies primarily on the so-called “law of increasing revenues”. According to this vision, technology follows the same exponential development as a financial investment with interest on interest.
The moment of technological singularity is when technology has more influence on the direction in which society is moving than humans do. There are different views as to whether and when this moment occurs, but the year 2045 is usually used.
The prediction builds on Moore’s Law, this theory stands for the doubling of transistor capacity within a certain time period and for the same budget. According to Kurzweil and other supporters of singularity, you can extend this regularity to the speed at which science and technology develop.
On the other hand, some experts question the exponential increase in computing power in Moore’s Law. They think that computer chips will soon encounter their physical limitations.
An important aspect within the singularity is the development of artificial intelligence into an ultimate super intelligence. In another article on my blog I elaborate on artificial intelligence [link below]. Super intelligence is the stage where artificial intelligence (or intelligence) is smarter than the combined intellect of all people in the world.
Some transhumanists regard development as inescapable and positive. Nate Soares, director of Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) in Berkeley, thinks we can leave all future innovations to machines [link below].
This is also what the late Stephen Hawking describes in The Answers to the Big Questions. According to him there is no qualitative difference between the brain of a worm and that of a computer. From an evolutionary point of view, this also means that computer can produce human intelligence, probably even better than that. There are no physical laws that can stop this development.
A closely related idea is the “intelligence explosion” of the British statistician Good [link below]. He wrote: “Since designing machines is an intellectual activity, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines.”
Warning by Musk
Other experts, thinkers and entrepreneurs regard this as a major risk for humanity. For example, Elon Musk argues that the development equals a technological way “to summon the devil”.
Incidentally, Musk’s idea is not new. The Englishman Samuel Butler already wrote in 1863 that “man will become for the machine what the horse and dog are to man” [bottom link].
The downfall of humanity
Nick Bostrom thinks that the main risk is not in a hostile attitude of super-intelligent machines (such as in films such as Terminator), but rather in their indifference to their human creators or ancestors.
The control of artificial intelligence is by far the most important issue in the world. Nate Soares (director MIR Institute)
That is also what Nate Soares (director of the MIR Institute) warns about. According to him, the control of artificial intelligence is “by far the most important issue in the world.” The development of super intelligence can lead, according to him, to the downfall of mankind.
He believes that too few people and organizations think about the disadvantages and risks. “It is as if thousands of people are doing everything to be the first to develop a nuclear fusion, while virtually no one is working on controlling it.”
Russel, Hawking and Tegmark
For that reason, renowned scientists in the field such as Stuart Russel, Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Frank Wilceck argue that we should not wait until it is here to think about the security of super intelligence [link below]. According to Hawking, the idea of writing this off as science fiction is “possibly the biggest mistake we can ever make.”
In a similar argumentation as Bostrom, Russel indicates that it is extremely difficult for us as humanity to explicitly describe our wishes in strictly logical terms. For that reason he often cites the myth of King Midas. King Midas asked Dionysus for the ability to turn things into gold with a single touch. He gilded until he realized that it was actually an inability to touch food, drink and his daughter.
The comparison with artificial intelligence is that these systems strictly adhere to the task or objective. If we do not specify the objectives properly, we run the risk of shooting ourselves in the foot or even ushering in the destruction of our species. So the problem is more the competence and uncontrollability of super intelligence than its malice.
A possible solution is to instigate implicit values and trade-offs in artificial intelligence by observing human behavior. Stuart Russel “This is how we ourselves learn our standards and values.” A way in which machines and software can do this is, just like we help them identify words or images, the well-known Recaptcha puzzles.
Nell Watson is the founder of EthicsNet [link below]. The purpose of this initiative is to have artificial systems trained by people. People are presented with dilemmas in which they have to make a choice. These decisions fill the database and based on this the system can learn about human ethics and morality.
Technology drives evolution
What is the relationship between singularity and transhumanism? The image that Kurzweil paints of the future is one in which technology is becoming increasingly small-scale and more powerful, until the moment when its accelerating evolution forms the most important factor for our own evolution as a species.
Kurzweil: “Singularity will enable us to transcend the limitations of our biological body and brain. We will get control over our destiny. “ According to him, the singularity will ultimately be the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with technology. This results in a world that is still human, but that transcends biological origin. There is then no longer a distinction between man and machine and between physical and virtual reality.
Singularity will enable us to transcend the limitations of our biological body and brain. We will gain control of our destiny. Ray Kurzweil (transhumanist)
Yuval Noah Harari makes an argument to that effect in his book Homo Deus. He states that technology will become dominant in the process of natural selection: “The organic body will fuse with equipment such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or with millions of nano-robots in our bloodstream that will diagnose problems and repair damage. Such a cyborg is capable of much more than a normal body.”
Benefits of artificial intelligence
With artificial intelligence, we as humans are no longer limited to our biology. Nick Bostrom points to the difference in processing power between human tissue and the hardware of a computer:
- Neurons firing with a frequency of 200 hertz, transistors with one gigahertz;
- In our nervous system, signals are transmitted at a speed of 100 meters per second, in a computer this is at the speed of light;
- The size of the human brain is limited by the skull, computers have no limitation.
According to Bostrom and others, these factors create the conditions for artificial super intelligence.
In order not to become irrelevant as a person, some transhumanists strive for the previously described method of mind uploading. Others, including Elon Musk (with Neuralink) and Bryan Johnson (with Kernel) opt for an alternative strategy. Their idea is to link human intelligence to artificial intelligence with the help of a brain implant. In my article about neurotechnology, I elaborate this further [link below].
This symbiosis of human brain tissue with electronics is an attractive perspective for many transhumanists. In lectures on transhumanism, I sometimes ask how far they want to go. Although this differs per target group, students in Delft were quite open-minded, there is usually a percentage of around 10% that is open to this.
The film Terminator is about a super intelligence that rules humanity.
In this part I describe a number of physical manifestations of the fusion of humans with machines.
Robots and cyborgs (5)
The name robot is derived from the Czech word “robota” which means “forced labor”. The link with the Czech Republic can be explained: on 25 January 1921 the premiere of the play R.U.R. from Karel Capek. Robots play the leading role in this play, after which the term spread to other languages.
The robots in the play were “dressed as people” according to the direction, their faces are “expressionless” and they have “staring eyes” [link below]. The writer did not yet have the association with electrical circuits and metal. An image that we have nowadays, certainly also through films such as Terminator.
Robots in the army
The development of robots is particularly interesting in the military-industrial complex. For example, DARPA has organized the Robotics Challenge for many years [link below]. DARPA is an abbreviation for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
As a division of the Pentagon, DARPA is responsible for the development of new technology for military purposes. The organization was founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 in response to the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik rocket.
The goal of the Robotic Challenge is to accelerate the development of semi-automatic robots that are able to “perform complex tasks in dangerous, destroyed, man-designed environments.”
For this, the robots from the various teams, often from renowned research institutes, were given all kinds of tasks on a course with all kinds of obstacles. Consider things like opening a door, climbing stairs or cleaning up debris.
The idea behind these tasks is that most technology is often very good at things that we as humans cannot do well, but that robots are generally not very suitable for tasks that we humans do without thinking about it. Consider walking, picking up objects and opening doors. This is also called the Moravec paradox [link below].
The fact that robots are increasingly approaching our capacities and perhaps surpassing human skills in them, is not seen as something frightening by transhumanists. Professor Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon, the same of the aforementioned paradox, believes that robots are our evolutionary heirs [link below].
They are “built in our image, in our likeness: more powerful, more efficient versions of ourselves.” He states that robots can push us out of our existence, but that it is not bad. As soon as this is the case, according to him, we must give the robots free rein.
We currently have the knowledge and resources to make advanced robots with mechanics and electronics. Mark O’Connel points out that for centuries the concept of creating machines in our image has stimulated man’s fantasy in the form of myths, sagas, stories and inventions:
- Inventor Daedalus is said to have made mechanical people (in addition to the well-known wax wings with which Icarus should flee from Crete);
- Hephaistos, the god of fire, made the bronze giant Talos;
- In the Middle Ages, alchemists believed they could create people out of the blue;
- The Bavarian bishop Albertus Magnus is said to have built a metal statue in the thirteenth century that could think and talk;
- Inventor Leonardo da Vinci had made a robot knight in the fifteenth century with internal cables, pulleys and wheels.
In short, the means are much more extensive and refined, but the essence is the creative idea and the imagination within us as humans that we want to make robots.
Control: man or machine
There seems to be little discussion among transhumanists about the appearance and the unlimited physical possibilities of artificial bodies or robots. Control is the crux: do we let that go with artificial intelligence or is there still a human aspect (call it consciousness).
The ideas below are about the fusion between man and machine. Either in the form of cyborgs (contraction of cybernetic organisms), through technological adaptations of our biological bodies, or as uploads, by uploading our brain content to a machine.
- A Cyborg (Kurweil)
- B Primo Posthuman (Vita-More)
- C Emulations (Moravec and Hansen)
The term cyborg was first used in 1960 in a scientific article by Clyne and Kline [link below]. Their play was about space travel and the inability of the current human body to live in space. For that reason, according to them, it was necessary to equip the body with “exogenous components”.
But what does that look like? Ray Kurzweil writes in The Singularity is near that around 2030 we will first replace our digestive and gland system and then our blood vessel system and heart. In the following two decades, the skeleton, the skin, the brain and the rest of our body will be next for an upgrade.
He suspects that although we will hold on to the aesthetics and emotional value of the biological human body, we will develop a freedom of design that will allow us to change our appearance as we wish, both in physical and in virtual reality.
With cyborgs, I think of futuristic soldiers who fuse with machines. That does not necessarily stop with science fiction. In 1999, DARPA, the innovation part of American defense, started subsidizing bio-hybrid research programs with the aim of creating crosses between living things and machines [link below]
Michael Golblatt, the director of Darpa at the time, hinted at a kind of military transhumanism: “Soldiers who have no physical, physiological or cognitive disability are essential to survive and dominate military operations in the future.”
Soldiers who have no physical, physiological or cognitive impairment are essential to survive and dominate military operations in the future. Michael Golblatt (former director of DARPA)
In recent years, DARPA continues to focus on pioneering research and the latest technologies for their soldiers, but has less of Golblatt’s tone. The focus is now more on brain-computer interfaces so that, for example, soldiers can control a swarm of drones with their brains.
On the other side of the spectrum are the so-called “grinders”. They have the same ideal as DARPA, but based on individualistic and sometimes some anarchistic motives.
The most appealing examples of this movement are Lepth Anonym, Stellarc and Tim Cannon.
- English Lepth Anonym was one of the first in 2011 to make herself known online as a biohacker and grinder [link below]. With peelers, scalpels, needles and vodka for sterilization, they placed magnets and other objects under their skin.
- Stelarc is an Australian artist. For his part, he had attached Ping Body electrodes to his muscles with which others could control his body movements via the internet [link below].
- Tim Cannon is the founder of Grindhouse Wetware [link below]. Where I had a chip in my hand, Tim goes one step further. Among other things, he has implanted the Circadia in his forearm. This device, the size of a box of a deck of cards, continuously measures his body temperature [link below].
The motivation for making radical improvements to his body is that Cannon wants to improve man’s hardware. “The hardware that we now have is great for smashing skulls on the African savannah, but not so useful for the world in which we now live. We have to adjust our hardware “.
We have to adjust our hardware. Tim Cannon (Grindhouse Wetware)
He has nothing to do with the idea that the biological body is real, natural and authentic. He firmly believes that this is irrational and sentimental. As soon as there are prostheses that are better than his own limbs, he would have no difficulty in amputating and replacing his own arms and legs.
His final goal comes close to the image of Primo Posthuman (B) or Emulations (C). He presents himself as a system of interconnected, information-seeking nodes, traveling through the universe in expanding arches and sharing, learning, experiencing and organizing intelligence in that immeasurable space. He sees the modifications to his own body as the first small steps towards that end goal.
How realistic is the image of a cyborg crammed with electronics? In an article in The Verge, editor Adi Robertson shares her experiences with implants [link below]. Around 2010 she had a magnet implanted in her fingers that gradually lost its effect.
She correctly states that the better portable technology becomes, the less it is necessary to do permanent interventions in the body. Take for example an exoskeleton for strength, smart lenses for displaying information and brain-computer interfaces for controlling machines.
B Primo Posthuman
The Primo Posthuman project was conceived by Natasha Vita-More. It is a blueprint for what she calls a “platform-independent body.” The human form has been completely replaced by a streamlined anthropomorphic device.
This device is a “more powerful, robust and flexible body with better performance and a modern design.” The inspiration and control of the device is in a uploaded mind that is not tied to specific hardware.
It contains components such as a metabrain (for access to the internet) with a neocortex prosthesis of artificial intelligence with nanobots, smart skin that can stand the sun with biosensors for changeable color and texture, and very precise senses.
In his book The Age of Em, economist Robin Hansen paints a picture of a world that is full of uploads (also known as emulations, abbreviated to Ems). This is a vision that the aforementioned Hans Moravec also promotes and about which I have already written about in the part about mind uploading.
In the ideal world of Hansen you are able to make multiple copies of yourself. Given his background, it is not surprising that in his book, Hansen focuses on the consequences for employment, economic systems and industrial policy [link below]. He thinks the Ems are going to work for us and that people can retire with that.
In addition to the enormous amount of free time we have other benefits as a person. As an upload, we are not bothered by everyday concerns about the finiteness of life or limited cognitive possibilities. Max Tegmark states in his book Life 3.0 that for the realization of this idea, none of the laws of nature known to us need be violated. The question then is mainly when we can do this, is this a few years, a few decades or millennia?
The protagonist in the film Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg: partly human and partly machine.
In this part I write about a network of people (or brains). In English this concept is referred to as the hive mind.
Hive mind (6)
The term hive mind is an analogy to the world of insects. According to this concept, we connect human and digital brains together to create a collective brain or consciousness. Just as a bee cannot do much in itself, humans become stronger by combining directly with our brain capacities.
Leading players in transhumanism such as Elon Musk and Zoltan Istvan are of the opinion that human intelligence(s) will eventually beat super intelligence in the form of computers and robots. The only way we can arm ourselves here as humans is by creating a network of human brains and with artificial intelligence systems.
Given the competitive limitations of our biological systems, we have no choice but to merge with robots. Zoltan Istvan (transhumanist)
Zoltan Istvan: “To be better than robots means we have to beat them. Given the competitive limitations of our biological systems, we have no choice but to merge with robots” [link below].
Hive mind explanation
With some imagination you could already say that we behave like bees. According to biologists, there are two characteristics of such a structure [link below]:
- Division of labor;
- Division of reproduction (think of the division between the queen and the worker bees)
Human evolution has certainly led to the first characteristic, but not (yet) to the second. If we are technologically able to copy and reproduce our intelligence, the second characteristic comes closer.
Linking human brains to each other can lead to the hive mind. According to some experts such as Anders Sandberg and futurist Ramez Naam, this won’t take that long anymore [link below]. The biggest obstacle is probably not so much the reading or sending of brain signals, but the interpretation by the receiving person.
Ramez Naam: “Take something like the concept of mountains, for example. This is not only a different set of experiences and memories in my brain compared to someone else, but it is also physically and biologically different in neurological and synaptic connections.”
Where interpretation seems to be the biggest barrier, developments in hardware are going fast. For example, researchers at Brown University (United States) developed brain chips in 2019 that can receive and send information with megabits per second [link below]. They have given these chips the appropriate name “neurograins”.
Mary Lou Jepsen
Mary Lou Jepsen is one of the most visionary entrepreneurs in this field, alongside the previously discussed Bryan Johnson (Kernel) and Elon Musk (Neuralink). Mary Lou Jepsen worked for Oculus and Google [x] before she founded Openwater in 2016 [link below]. The purpose of this company is to come to an affordable product for reading and sending brain signals.
This is therefore different from the examples of Kernel and Neuralink, since they are not (yet) planning to place electrodes in the skull. Ultimately, with the Openwater product, in the words of Mary Lou Jepsen, we can arrive at “practical telepathy”. The methods that they want to combine for this are those of infrared light, focused ultrasound and holography.
In my articles about the future of man and neurotechnology, I have written extensively about Elon Musk‘s Neuralink company [link below]. In June 2019 the company organized a press conference where the new version of their chip was presented [link below]. The purpose of this chip is to read brain signals and to send them out to the brain. ‘Read and write’ in computer language.
For this, around 1,024 small wires are linked to a chip, the so-called “N1” from Neuralink. The company uses an advanced surgical robot to prick the tiny wires in the skull to the right neurons, without hitting blood vessels in the brain. So far they have introduced the chip to nineteen rats with a success rate of 87%.
Fusing with machines
Each chip can analyze and send 200 MB per second. With a total of 10 chips, that means 2 gigabytes per second. The chips are connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone or other device. From 2020, the company wants to do the first experiments on human patients.
The ultimate goal is not medical. As you can read in the section on super intelligence, Musk has often stated that the only way we as humans do not become irrelevant to artificial intelligence is to merge with machines.
What are the consequences should we be able to communicate with each other telepathically. Anders Sandberg is positive: “We can directly transfer concepts, ideas and sensory information to each other.” That way we can understand each other better and potentially (and hopefully) fewer conflicts will arise. It also leads to a faster spread of ideas, discoveries and technical innovation.
We can directly transfer concepts, ideas and sensory information to each other. Anders Sandberg (transhumanist)
Risks that arise are errors in hardware and software and control over the technology. What if someone or a company can look into your mind, influence it and steer it? I myself see the comparison with the internet. The positive and naive idea prevailed that open information would lead to more understanding and fewer wars.
But the internet also brought us the addictive effect of social media, the dark web, viruses and filter bubbles. Does the same apply to even more powerful technology that directly affects our brain and thereby our identity and being?
Global brain (Jos de Mul)
Jos de Mul is professor of philosophical anthropology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. In an article in Vrij Nederland, he writes that the internet is already the first primitive form of the global brain [link below]. “The internet is not without reason referred to as the nervous system of the information society.” He writes that the idea of the global brain with the development of brain machine interfaces is increasingly losing its metaphorical character.
The internet is not without reason referred to as the nervous system of the information society. Jos de Mul (Erasmus University)
Social insects such as bees have evolved in the course of evolution from relatively independent individuals to an integrated super-organism that can only exist this way. De Mul expects that when man follows this evolutionary path, not only the centers of consciousness and interaction are distributed, but also the self-consciousness.
A collective consciousness. That sounds esoteric and spiritual, but perhaps technology makes us as human beings capable of this. This comparison appears every time: transhumanistic technologies often have the same goals in mind as religions and spiritual groups. Or maybe that’s what makes us human.
Super organism (Koert van Mensvoort)
Similar to the global brain and the hive mind is the concept of super organism. In my interview with Koert van Mensvoort I discussed this with him [link below]. In his book Next Nature he describes it as a “memetic organism”. Memetica is a term from Richard Dawkins that stands for the dissemination of information through ideas. Where genetics stands for biological distribution and evolution, memetics is much faster.
A “memetic organism” or super organism is a stage that we may already be at. Just as a hive does not replace the individual bee, this organism is not a substitute for humans. We as humans are continuously encapsulated by technology. Take the internet: that you are always connected with knowledge and others do something with your thinking, your identity and autonomy.
I think the film The Upgrade is a stimulating image of brain implants with which you are connected to others and the internet.
In this part I write about the possible consequences of the introduction of the aforementioned technologies.
In the past, physical abilities determined your success in the world. These days, this applies increasingly to your cognitive abilities. What is the impact if you can download intelligence, as I described in the sections on mind uploading and the hive mind?
Zoltan Istvan is convinced that he and his wife no longer have to save for the higher education of his children. In an opinion article, he states that in 15 years’ time his daughters will be able to immediately download all the knowledge of a University into their brain [link below]. Does it also mean that you no longer have to take piano lessons?
In my experience, practicing and learning a musical instrument, sport, language or something else is just a training in character. It is about perseverance, discipline and interpersonal contact. I think it is skill that must be internalized. Or am I naive and will these qualities soon be as easy to download as an app on your smartphone?
Governments are increasingly confronted with accelerating technologies, not only in public spaces such as the smart city but also the question of how their inhabitants want to use it. Earlier I wrote an article about the influence of technology and the role it plays in government [link below].
One aspect of this is legislation and regulations. In my article about the future of man, I go even deeper into this [link below]. You can think of a right to physical sovereignty, equality and the right not to improve yourself or to link to a machine. In the cyborg community, Richard Mackinnon has made a start with formulating five rights for so-called “mutants” [link below].
The greatest limitations of transhumanism that I experience are the emphasis on people and consumerism. You could say the narcissistic side of human improvement.
- The emphasis on the elevation of man means that we sometimes lose sight of the rest of the world. While a United Nations report on biodiversity from 2019 shows that nature is deteriorating worldwide at an unprecedented rate [link below]. In the past fifty years, almost half of all marine and marine ecosystems have been seriously affected by human activity.
- Our world revolves around capitalism, consumerism and economic growth. Not that I consider myself a Communist and I often go wrong myself, but to regard the human body as a commercial product seems to me to be a step in the wrong direction. Or as my podcast guest Maxim Februari has expressed this in a column [link below]. Is it then also a prey to the tendency of us as consumers to ruin, destroy, burn and demolish everything in the search for even cheaper and more money?
As I wrote before, transhumanism falls apart into various movements, with cosmopolitans, democrats and posthumanists perhaps recognizing and tackling the above challenges.
But it does not alter the fact that transhumanism has the appearance against it. For example, the Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek wonders what the plus in the name Humanity+ stands for [link below]. He philosophises about two options: either represents the rest of humanity or it means that one group of people improves at the expense of others. He hopes, like me, for the first but suspects the second.
I think the solutions are not so much technological, but non-technological. I hereby agree with the ideas of Andrew Keen in his book How to fix the future [link below]. I also interviewed him about this for my YouTube channel [link below].
I must point out that in a broader sense he is talking about the adverse influence of powerful technology companies, but I think his ideas can also be applied to transhumanism.
- Business. Companies make products and services that reflect and respect us as people;
- Users. Consumers make conscious choices in which products and services they use or not;
- Legislation. Governments make and enforce laws to protect its inhabitants;
- Citizenship. Citizens unite in interest groups to exert (political) influence;
- Education. Pupils and students are aware of the impact of technology and choices, with which they can fulfill their role as involved entrepreneurs (point 1), users (point 2) or citizens (point 4).
Apart from these roles, the question remains as to what objectives and values they are used for. In my article about the future of man, I have given a start to this [link below]. In my opinion it would be good to assess technologies individually and per case by comparing them to our values.
As an example of this exercise I take cryogenic suspension. It is a human and social question how values such as safety, autonomy, dignity and fulfillment are challenged by this. The tricky part is that it is not just an individual consideration that can be different for everyone, but that it is also a broader question.
Such as: should this be allowed by law in our country (for example, are there rules regarding safety), is it then available to everyone (equality) and can you make the choice for others such as your child (autonomy).
I think the most likely direction of transhumanism is in space. This is a theme that I explored in my podcast in interviews with Angelo Vermeulen and Ans Hekkenberg [link below]. The human body as we know it has evolved over millions of years on Earth, with oxygen, natural resources and gravity. But that body is not at all useful in space, in colonies on the Moon or Mars.
Very briefly: do we want to adjust the human body so that it can cope better with cosmic rays, the lack of gravity or other cosmic inconveniences?
According to the English astronomer Lord Martin Rees, it is unlikely that the laws and regulations on earth will become so open that we allow advanced methods of human improvement. He foresees a scenario where a group of people leave the earth forever to settle on Mars. There legislation is much less stringent or even absent.
The future of transhumanism lies in the universe. Peter Joosten
On the contrary, it is probably a good idea to allow transhumanistic concepts. Think of genetic modification against radiation, bionic eyes or cryogenic suspension to travel through the universe for thousands of years. In this way, a branch of the human species arises, and possibly the Homo Sapiens next to the Homo Universum (in Latin, space is the Universe, which is why I came up with this name).
It may seem speculative, but the first signs are already visible. For example, astronauts at the ISS space station did an experiment in 2019 with genetic modification with CRISPR/cas9 to investigate the effects of damage to DNA by space radiation [link below].
The film The Titan plays with the idea of genetically adapting astronauts so that they are more resistant to space.
What is my conclusion?
I start with a personal story about how my keynotes and presentations on this subject are sometimes received.
The discussion leader looked into the room. “Are there any questions for the speakers?” It was the aforementioned evening at De Balie in Amsterdam about the role of technology in our lives. The evening was set up around the film The Matrix, which was released twenty years earlier.
A woman in the first row looked at me. “Why do you want all this?” The bewilderment etched in her face. Even for the context: compared to the other two speakers, I was the most progressive about the use of technology in my life. I did not call myself a transhumanist, it made no difference to those present.
At the time, I felt that I was unable to answer her question correctly. On the way home, on the train home, I thought what I would say next time.
I believe that developments in transhumanism are inevitable. You can still speculate about the workability of some of the methods, such as cryogenic suspension or mind uploading. That applies just as well to the timeline of developments. But in a general sense, many forces, interests and money flows are focused on doing more scientific research to increase human well-being.
Where we now look in dismay at some of the ideas described here, it may be normal for future generations. Because they grew up in a completely different social, cultural and economic context. Just as previous generations could not imagine what the internet was or how you could be continuously accessible to the world with a mobile phone.
That is why I am fascinated by transhumanism. Since it is my conviction that it is inescapable, I now want to experience it as much as possible and investigate what it means. I do that by experimenting with new technology, by reading a lot about it and by interviewing other experts.
Not everything is technology
Despite my optimism about progress, we don’t have to do anything now. If we are not careful, we will roll silently in the “automatic society”. That is a term that philosopher Bernard Stiegler uses for a society in which people are subject to digital-economic systems [link below].
If we are not careful then we roll silently into an automatic society. Bernard Stiegler (filosoof)
I believe that as humans we do not have to adapt further to digitization, but that we must use new technologies for freedom, autonomy, security, privacy, dignity and other important human values. In the world of the future, as far as I am concerned, well-being is paramount and we take humanitarian and planetary boundaries into account, as Kate Rayworth also writes in her book De Donut Economie [link below].
In short, the (transhumanistic) future is, in my opinion, not as simple and sterile as in most science fiction stories.
My vision is that we use scientific progress and new technology to reduce social inequality, to preserve diversity in nature and people and to make the world a little better and more beautiful. In that regard, I agree with the opinion article by Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab who calls it “the responsibility of immortality” [link below].
Whether we as human beings can handle it responsibly? I think so. It is precisely the use of technology that makes us human, just like our curiosity, our urge to experiment and risk behavior. Just as you learn how to handle responsibilities from child to adolescent to adult, so does humanity.
If we don’t learn to take responsibility, it can become a science fiction film. One where things don’t end well for us as humans.
The film Transcendence is about both mind uploading and the impact of super intelligence.
This part is about non-fiction about transhumanism such as books and documentaries.
Books and documentaries
A number of passages in this article are from the book Mensmachine by the Irish author Mark O’Connel [link below]. I thought it was one of the best books on the subject. This is because the writer was able to give his own coloring to the story. It feels more like a journey past prominent figures in the movement where he sometimes brings out seemingly insignificant details or makes striking comparisons.
Another book that touches on transhumanism is Homo Deus by Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari [bottom link]. According to him, it is irreversible that we want to improve our people and that we will eventually merge with machines. According to him, the greatest danger lies in the dogma of humanism; that as a person we feel ourselves and know what is good for us. He warns that companies and governments with big data and artificial intelligence probably know better what we want and can therefore predict our behavior.
In addition, transhumanism and the forms within it are discussed in my own book Biohacking, the future of the makeable person [link below].
Mark O’Connel Interview
At the Brave New World conference 2018 in Leiden I held an interview with author Mark O’Connel who wrote the book De Mensmachine. We talk about his book, the most iconic characters in it and how he looks at transhumanism.
View the interview:
Interview with author Mark O’Connel
In recent years, various documentaries have appeared about transhumanism or aspects of it. Below is a brief summary:
- Technocalyps (2006). The Flemish filmmaker and philosopher Frank Theys made this documentary in three parts. Other features in the documentary include Anders Sandberg. The documentary can be found on YouTube [link below].
- Transcendent Man (2009). This documentary is about the life and ideas of Ray Kurzweil. You can stream the documentary for a fee via Amazon [link below].
- More Human than Human (2016). This documentary was released in the Netherlands by 2Doc and broadcast by NPO. The documentary focuses on the development of robotics and super intelligence, including Nick Bostrom, Gary Kasparov and Stephen Hawking.
Even more than in non-fiction, ideas from transhumanism find their way into fiction, as you will see later. This does not alter the fact that the above-mentioned books and documentaries provide a good picture of the current ideas and state of affairs in science and technology.
This part is about fiction in the form of books, series and films. It is specifically about science fiction; the possible future with fictional or actual concepts.
Which series, films and fiction books touch important points when it comes to transhumanism? At the top of the article you have already watched my Scifi Vision video about it, below is an explanation. Broadly speaking, I have followed the classification of the different forms within transhumanism.
Supermen & cyborgs
Making super people or cyborgs often comes back in films and series. Take the series The $6 million man [link below]. This series was broadcast from 1974 to 1978. The protagonist Steve Austin was rebuilt with bionic components.
A more recent example is the movie Ghost in the Shell from 2017 [link below]. This film with Scarlett Johansson is a remake of the original from 1995 with the title Kôkaku Kidôtai. An interesting aspect of the story is the extent to which you are still yourself, if you have bionic components that are owned by a company or government.
The film Upgrade (2018) plays with a different theme: who has control and power if you can radically improve your intelligence and skills with a brain implant connected to the internet?
The concept of cryogenic suspension is regularly used in science fiction films, series and books. In the movie Demolition Man (1993) with Sylvester Stalone and Wesley Snipes, prisoners are frozen for a long time as a method of punishment. In Passengers (2016), astronauts (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) have been frozen to bridge a long space journey.
The film Vanilla Sky (2001) with Tom Cruise is more philosophical. What if your memory is erased when you go into cryogenic suspension? What do you experience when you are frozen? What memories do you have when you are brought back to life.
In the book Zero K by Don LeLillo, the author plays with the concept of time [link below]. What role does time still have when you are in cryogenic suspension? Are you still human without the passage of time? Or maybe you are more human than ever?
The idea of mind uploading stimulates the imagination of writers and directors, perhaps most of them. Of course The Matrix (1999) comes to mind, although it is more about simulating reality than mind uploading as I described in this article.
In the film Self/less (2015) with Ryan Reynolds, the content of the brain is transferred from one person to another. In the Altered Carbon (2018) series, the brain, including a person’s personality, is placed in a kind of diskette. By placing the disk in a younger body you can eventually grow very old. By the way, I thought this concept worked out nicely: there is a scene that the (floppy disk of the) grandmother of the protagonist is in the body of a large tattooed bearded motorcyclist.
In the episode Be right back by Black Mirror (2015), the idea is that a deceased person can live on by analyzing their social media. This looks eerily similar to the Bin48 and Eterni.me projects that I have described. At first the lead actress is happy with the robot version of her deceased husband, including the performance in the bedroom, until she realizes that she still misses his human shortcomings.
Are we still safe as a human being when super intelligence arises? In Transcendence (2014) with Johnny Depp, a scientist copies his brain content into a computer. For a long time, the film played with the question of whether the artificial intelligence system that was created is actually the scientist or an independent algorithm.
In the part about Effects, I wrote that there is a good chance that far-reaching adaptation and improvement of people will take place in space. This is reflected in a number of stories. In the book Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, various branches of the human race arise after genetic modification. In the movie The Titan (2018), an astronaut on Earth is adapted to be more resistant to life in space. He appears to have improbable physical capacities, but it also drastically changes his personality.
I must add that it is a bad film, but because of the intriguing concept I thought it was worthwhile to include the film in this overview. I can certainly recommend the other books, series and films mentioned.
In Passengers, the protagonists go into cryogenic preservation to bridge a long space journey.
This section contains additional information: my presentation on the subject, a few videos and the list with all links.
I give lectures on this subject:
Earlier I wrote the following articles on this theme:
- What is anti-aging?
- What is biohacking?
- What is a superhuman?
- What is human enhancement?
- Can we engineer humans?
I made these podcast interviews on this subject.
- Episode 69 is with professor Michael Bess, author of the book Make Way for the Superhumans.
I made these videos on this topic.
- Interview with Aubrey de Grey about immortality.
- Interview with Andrew Keen about technology regulation.
I was in the media on this topic.
In these interviews with Yoeri Leeflang from 3FM from 2019 we talk about this topic.
In 2018 I participated in a podcast series of 10 episodes from the Financieel Dagblad and BNR Nieuwsradio about people of the future. The subject of transhumanism was also regularly discussed.
Led by journalist Robin Rotmans, I spoke with professor Peter-Paul Verbeek from the University of Twente about the impact of technology on people.
I have used these non-fiction books in this article.
- Book Mensmachine (tip)
- Book De Singulariteit is nabij (tip)
- Book Homo Deus
- Book 21 lessen voor de 21 eeuw
- Book The Transhumanist Wager
- Book Death is wrong
- Book Aldus sprak Zarahoestra
- Book De antwoorden op de grote vragen
- Book The Prospect of Immortality
- Book Mind Children
- Book The Age of Em
- Book Life 3.0
- Book Next Nature
I mentioned these documentaries.
These fiction books, series and films are discussed in the article.
- Book Zero K
- Book I robot
- Book R.U.R.
- Book Seveneves
- Film The Matrix
- Film Ghost in the Shell
- Film Upgrade
- Film Passengers
- Film Demolition Man
- Film Vanilla Sky
- Film Self/less
- Film Transcendence
- Film The Titan
- Series $6 Million man
- Series Altered Carbon
- Series Black Mirror
These are external links that I have used, arranged per part.
- Article Max More
- Website Natasha Vita-More
- Website Ray Kurzweil
- Predictions Ray Kurzweil
- Website Anders Sandberg
- Website Nick Bostrom
- Website Zoltan Istvan
- Article about Zoltan Istvan
- Website project 2045
- Website Dimitri Itskov
- Website Singularity.NET
- Website Ben Goertzel
- Article about robot Sophia
- Website Giulio Prisco
- Website Steven Umbro
- Website Lincoln Cannon
- Website Mike La Torra
- Website Hedonistic Imperative (David Pearce)
- Website James Hughes
- Website Gennady Stolyarov
- Website José Codeiro
- Website Heales
- Website DCI Nederland
Arguments for proponents:
- Article Barnaby Jack
- Website Marcel Messing
- Video reading Marcel Messing
- Article with a.o. Dom Simborg
- Article Libby Emmons
Method: super men
Method: cryogenic suspension
- Company Alcor
- Company Cryonics Institute
- Organisation ACS
- Company Kriorus (Rusland)
- Website Timeship
- Article about Timeship
- Article about Matheryn Naovaratpong
- Article about Epstein
- Statistics Alcor
- Membership Alcor
- Research rabbit kidney
- Research rabbit brain
- Research Shaw
- Article by Tim Urban
- Article with criticism
Method: mind uploading
- Website Randal Koene
- Article over Terasem
- Website Eterni.me
- Website Ed Boyden
- Research Stevenson and Konrad
- Website Human Brain Project
- Website Nectome
- Article about Nectome
- Article with criticism from Miller
- Report from Bostrom et al.
- Article with technology and people metaphors
- Article about simulation
Method: super intelligence
- Definition Vinge singularity
- Article Tipler about Omega
- Article Ray Kurzweil
- Article about Moore’s Law
- Article about Samuel Butler
- Website Nate Soares
- Article Good
- Article with warning Tegmark, Russel et al.
- Website EthicsNet
Method: robots and cyborgs