What is Trashumanism?
The symbol of the philosophical movement
What is it?
Transhuman, posthuman, uploaded minds, technological singularity. The ideas behind them have been part of the public consciousness for some time in one form or another. Elements of the concepts could be found in comic books like “Captain America” or movies like Blade Runner. Some even point to Gilgamesh's search for immortality and the quest for the fountain of youth as ancient cultural antecedents of the concept. So, what is transhumanism? The short answer is that it's a philosophical movement that explores the concept of humanity controlling its own evolution. Proponents of the movement consider it a means to free humanity from the frailties we have been prey to throughout history. Detractors view the concepts as Frankenstenian meddling in things better left alone. Since it's a philosophical movement the ethics of many transhumanist proposals are freely and occasionally hotly debated. Many of the technologies to bring transhumanist ideas into reality are already on the drawing board. Some already exist.
The face of the future?
Making tools part of ourselves
Since our first ancestors picked up a club humans have been artificially augmenting themselves. We use tools to increase the power of our muscles, extend our reach and heighten our senses. Today many people carry devices capable of accessing vast stores of knowledge from almost anywhere in their pockets. Devices are available that can even put all that information constantly in front of a user. On the drawing board are contact lenses that can accomplish the same purpose. Many advocates of transhumanism ask, “Why not just implant an internet enabled device into a person.” And they don't stop there. Cybernetic augmentation of all sorts, genetic modification, anything that expands human capability is considered fair game in transhumanism. The difference from what many transhuman proponents advocate and how humans have done things in the past is that instead of putting new tools in our hands they want to put them in us. However, contrary to what critics might say, this isn't the first time it's been suggested. A vaccine is, after all, a tool to prevent disease that only works once its been injected into someones bloodstream.
The critics are absolutely right about one thing. Many of the changes proposed by transhumanists are different than anything done before. If an implanted computer can put images into the users field of vision as part of it's interface, can it also be used to prevent the user seeing what's actually there? The anime series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” examined that question (among others) from several angles. Cost reduction in special effects technology already makes it hard to trust video evidence when you don't know the source. Imagine not being able to trust your own eyes. Those who don't get implanted computers can avoid such deception by removing their wearable devices but what of changes people make in their genetics? True gene therapy to make a person smarter won't leave them vulnerable to having there perception hacked but what might it do to their personality? How many changes can be made in a person before they are no longer the same person?
The natural pro-transhumanist counterargument is that people change throughout their lives. We learn and grow and change as we accumulate experience. The only time we stop changing is once we're long dead and completely decomposed. Some transhuman proponents would like to change even that. They propose to make humans immortal either by medical advancements or through digitally copying a human mind as an artificial intelligence. While extending life through regular medical methods isn't controversial the so called uploading of a mind can be. Is such a copied mind the same person as the one who was copied? Those who suggest it as a means of immortality think so, but if you have an original person and a copy of their mind isn't the original clearly the person while the copy is someone (or something) else? If the original has a cybernetic link to the copy that allows them to synchronize memories, then a case might be made for the two being one person. If the original dies or stops synchronizing for any reason, is the copy still part of the original person? If the copy isn't the same person then what is it? An echo? A digital child? If it becomes possible to create a true artificial intelligence, let alone upload a human mind, our society is going to have to decide how to treat them.
Is this where we're going?
Mention of artificial intelligence brings up another popular topic in the discussion of transhumanism. Either through increases in computer processing power or through distributed computing electronic minds have the potential to think far faster than our organic minds do. Imagine the advancements that minds that think hundreds, millions or even billions of times faster than ours might make. Many call this the technological singularity. A point where technology advances so quickly it becomes impossible to predict what the future might look like. Some look forward to the singularity with hope that utopia lies on the other side. Others look to it with trepidation fearing that the A.I.'s and uploaded minds will become so advanced as to view the rest of us like ants. That they will be godlike posthuman (a term used to describe the final stage of transhuman evolution) beings with no need for us.
The world of tomorrow
More than anything else, transumanism is about the future. Whether you are for or against what the philosophy's proponents advocate the technology they debate about is coming. Cybernetic and genetic technologies have immense potential but like all technology, it is a double edged sword. In the hands of a totalitarian regime it might be used to keep the population docile or turn soldiers in to mind controlled killing machines. In a free society it could be used to extend life and increase knowledge. However it is used the technology is coming. The more you learn about it the more you can be part of the debate, and the more educated voices taking part the better.