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The Great Byte Hope

Transhumanists envision a radical future in which man and machine are one and death is a relic of the past. Should we prepare to enter the post-human state, transcending the limits of our natural bodies, or should we let evolution run its own course?


BY Andre Mayer
Illustration by Liam Thurston

Los Angeles, 2019. Man has created robots, known as “replicants,” in his own image. Designed by the enigmatic Tyrell Corporation, they have a limited lifespan and an even more limited function: to carry out dangerous construction work on other planets. Replicants have never before posed a threat to their human counterparts; that is, until several androids turn on their flesh-and-blood superiors and travel back to Earth with murderous intent. Fearing the intransigent robots will terrorize the human population, Tyrell hires a mortal bounty hunter, Deckard, to kill them.

Fans of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner inevitably sympathize with Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), seeing the film as a rebuke of man’s technological audacity. But George Dvorsky felt emotionally drawn to the plight of the automatons.

“The replicants are hunted down like slaves, treated like slaves. They’re shot in cold blood,” he says. “They’re denied personhood on the basis that they are manufactured entities.”

The reason Dvorsky identifies so strongly with the replicants is that he has, on more than one occasion, envisioned life as an android being. Since he first saw the film in the 1980s, Dvorsky has become increasingly fascinated with technology, and the ways it might be harnessed to improve our lives. A tall, wiry fellow with spectacles and a polished pate, Dvorsky is a man in flux: he defines himself as a “transitory human,” or transhuman, and believes that with the increased melding of man and machine he will evolve to a “post-human state” and transcend the limitations of his natural body.

As president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association, Dvorsky has met with derision from critics and naysayers who feel that his advocacy is far-fetched, blasphemous or downright dangerous, which is why he sees the discussion of replicants in Blade Runner as a metaphor for his own struggle. “The way the film deals with this prejudice we have against anything that’s not human ties in very much with the fears about transhumanism,” says Dvorsky.

Like most of humanity, transhumanists want to stave off death. The difference is, transhumanists are prepared to explore every conceivable avenue, no matter how hokey or implausible. Some transhumanists avoid cars and airplanes for fear of a premature end. Others believe they can slow the aging process by restricting their caloric intake to the threshold of starvation. (The science underlying this practice is that when the body is denied sustenance it goes into self-preservation mode.) They delight in the potential of artificial organs, of treating bodily contagions with microscopic robots (a realm known as nanotechnology) and manipulating or deleting harmful genes in our DNA.

According to Bruce Klein, founder and chair of the Birmingham, Alabama-based Immortality Institute, “we must take concrete actions and stop the genocide of aging and death.” Klein believes that dying will eventually be made obsolete by a combination of genetic engineering, stem-cell technology and nanomedicine.

“The most important shaper of the human condition, in the long term, is going to be technological development, in particular the use of technology to extend our current biological capacities,” says Nick Bostrom, a British Academy Research Fellow at Oxford University and the founder of the World Transhumanist Association, who feels that we as humans “are all living within a tiny small corner of the total space of possibilities.”

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The transhumanists might be an inconsequential fringe group if it weren’t for their critics, who fear that their feverish pro-technology doctrine could exacerbate class divisions inherent in society by pitting biologically superior humans against their lower-grade counterparts.

What also gets people’s backs up is that transhumanists portend such a radical future, and believe that even the most sweeping innovations will take shape within only a couple of generations. Most of us dream of the day science cures cancer; transhumanists envision the day science cures death. Whether it ever happens, the mere suggestion changes the meaning of humanity. In a life without end, there would be no reason to hurry, to fear, to plan. In a life without end, all the ways we anticipate and prepare for death—life insurance, RRSP contributions, prayer—would be pointless. An infinite existence would profoundly alter the way we live day-to-day. This future world holds little room for divinity. After all, if humans can achieve a state of perfection, who needs God? Technology is the higher power.

The movement’s enthusiastic support of technology taps into our collective wish for longer, more robust lives, but too often their frothy discourse seems like a cover for techno-worship. There’s no better example than Betterhumans.com, the website Dvorsky co-founded with fellow traveller Simon Smith in 2002.

Although the site features thoughtful reportage on issues such as possible gene doping in the 2008 Olympics and the use of bee venom in fighting arthritis, many of the stories border on sci-fi. In an article bemoaning the lack of objective journalism during the Iraq war, Philip Shropshire suggested that what news organizations need are their own fleet of unmanned air vehicles that could “motor down streets, rappel down buildings and walk through wreckage to get stories too dangerous for human reporters.” (No explanation is given as to how the machines would actually gather the stories.) Last year, Dvorsky penned a brief on the potential of prostheses. Under the headline “And The Disabled Shall Inherit the Earth,” he recalled an encounter he had with a man with an artificial arm. “It was robotic, sleek and very high tech,” Dvorsky gushed. “In fact, I think I was jealous.”

If anyone embodies transhumanism’s enthusiastic embrace of progress, it’s Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in the UK. In 1998, in the first stage of what was later dubbed “Project Cyborg,” Warwick had a silicon chip implanted in his left arm; with the help of sensors installed around his office environment he was able to open and close doors and manipulate lights. In 2002, he had a more sophisticated 100-electrode chip set in the nerves below the elbow in his left arm; this enabled him to control, through a computer interface, an external, artificial hand. The ultimate goal of Warwick’s surgical modifications is to create a kinship between man and machine that will eventually enable him to upload his thoughts to the internet. With the aid of technology, he believes humans will advance to a point where they will no longer need their physical bodies; their consciousness will live online. It’s The Matrix come to life, and the dream of many in the movement.

Although there are varying definitions of the philosophy, transhumanists look forward to the day when man and machine become one. This wishful thinking reflects a frustration with the slow pace of nature. Humans need “to take control of evolution, to guide evolution,” Dvorsky avers, “rather than let the blind forces of natural selection do this work in terms of molding us.”

It’s a dreamy scenario, one that some observers worry may have unforeseen repercussions. “We’ve been in the process of prolonging life for a long time, and I don’t have a problem with that,” says Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. “In itself, prolonging life is a good thing. But I think some of the means we might use to do it are unethical and questionable.”

One example Somerville cites is age retardation, in which scientists go into a human embryo and alter the genes for aging. The desired effect is to delay the milestones of aging, so that the individual wouldn’t reach puberty until 30 and middle age until 80 or 90. It’s a whimsical idea, the most obvious benefit of which would be a 60-year-old with the youthful vigour of a contemporary man of 30. But could delaying milestones not pose other problems? If at age 10 you still couldn’t talk, what are the implications for childhood and learning? If at age 30 you were still a capricious, squeaky-voiced pubescent, at what point would you be considered autonomous, able to make your own decisions?

The idea of exploiting technology to achieve physical, intellectual and emotional perfection is odious to so-called “bioconservatives” such as American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. He’s the author of The End of History And The Last Man, a book that holds up capitalist liberal democracy as the apex of human achievement. An otherwise humourless man, Fukuyama once griped that “transhumanists are just about the last group that I’d like to see live forever.” Social theorist Leon Kass goes even further. Coming at the debate from an unabashedly religious angle, Kass suggests that death “is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.” He and Fukuyama, who both serve on the Presidential Bioethics Council in the US, see technological advances such as genetic manipulation as an affront to human dignity.

The best-known anti-aging crusader—and arguably transhumanism’s greatest hope—is British biogerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who has devised a checklist of seven problems that need to be cracked in order to “cure” death. The list includes biological dilemmas like “cell senescence” (when aged cells stop dividing or start secreting harmful molecules) and “nuclear mutations” (unforeseen changes to the DNA sequence of our chromosomes). The hubristic de Grey told one interviewer that “we should be able to implement all seven [fixes] in mice within a decade,” implying that a human treatment is soon to follow.

Although de Grey isn’t a card-carrying transhumanist, he shares the movement’s unshakeable faith in technology to deliver, and soon.

“One of the really important aspects of transhumanism is to let people know that this is going to happen in relatively short order,” says Dvorsky. “We will have the means to become transhumanists and embark upon the road to post-humanism in the next 30 to 50 years.”

The notion of a “post-human future” has a sexy ring to it, but how desirable is it? Sure, bionic limbs and “neural interfaces” (which could allow us to manipulate objects using only thought) appeal to our inner computer geek, but would they really improve the human condition? And do we really want to expunge those characteristics that make us fallible, and thus human?

A lot of technological advances are impressive not because they’re practical, but simply because they’re possible. Transhumanist discourse is serious-minded and thoughtful, but much of it seems like brazen fearmongering. Warwick has said that people who don’t upgrade themselves risk becoming lower life forms, which sounds a little too much like the electronics salesman who tries to guilt you into buying a fancier model of stereo.

Somerville has discerned similarities between transhumanists and fundamentalist religions. Both groups of people have trouble living with uncertainty and both want to exercise control at all costs. “One group seeks that control through absolute science, and one group seeks that control through absolute religion,” she says.

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In the fall, the editors of Foreign Policy asked 10 leading policy wonks “What idea, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” Fukuyama designated transhumanism. One of his abiding concerns is that gene tampering will challenge human equality by creating a breed of genetic supermen.

Although nettled by such accusations, most transhumanists comfort themselves with the idea that progress has always been deemed heretical at first. Wasn’t Copernicus persecuted, they say. Didn’t Galileo get the bum’s rush? While the number of people who identify themselves as transhumanists is relatively few—Dvorsky says there are only about 40 in Canada and approximately 150,000 worldwide—their significance should not be underestimated. An erudite and prolific bunch, they produce reams of literature; the internet has been an invaluable aid in disseminating their ideas. (Although not strictly written for transhumanists, Betterhumans.com has a readership of 150,000 people per month.) The fact that they’ve been able to infuriate esteemed thinkers like Fukuyama and Kass is a considerable achievement.

That said, the demographics of the movement suggest it may be a while before it reaches mainstream acceptance. Ninety percent of transhumanists are highly educated white men under 45 from Western democracies, mainly the US. Betterhumans.com columnist Russell Blackford addressed the movement’s lopsided membership in a recent article, speaking of transhumanism’s “unmistakable nerdy aura.” He openly lamented the fact that the movement can’t seem to attract women.

Another factor that has hampered transhumanism’s credibility is that its most visible proponents, the Raelians, are a loopy cult perhaps best known for their efforts to clone a human. The Raelians also believe we are descended from aliens, a core conviction that doesn’t wash with most transhumans (or humans, for that matter).

Transhumanists, like any social movement, would love to be proven right. Whether or not that happens, at this point in time, they’d simply like to engage their critics in debate. They are for the most part empathetic people who are as opposed to inequality as some of their most zealous opponents. “We need to make sure that the benefits of new technological opportunities are made available to everyone and not restricted to the privileged few,” says Bostrom. “Rather than just hope that this will happen automatically, we need to work to make it happen.”

Dvorsky cites a prediction that humans could achieve an indefinite lifespan at the turn of the next century. It’s a bracing notion, but for Dvorsky there’s an obvious caveat: he may not live long enough to see the advances.

“We could be that cut-off generation,” he says, cowed by the irony, “that truly last mortal, tragic generation.”

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