Transhumanism as a Possibility, Not a Promise

Photo credit: Smashn Time / Foter / CC BY-NC-SAThe caption by the artist is, "They are one weird bunch, essentially a brain in a box."
I have a soft spot for the transhumanists, and as I’ve said, if they were a little less sure of themselves and their goals, and if they were just a little less, well, religious in their faith about what technology and artificial intelligence will bring, I could see to donning the label myself.

Zoltan Istvan, the movement’s (and party’s) presidential candidate is the embodiment of this faith. A huge, strong fellow who has led a life that resembles Indiana Jones-meets-extreme sports, he has put himself at mortal risk countless times, only to undergo a kind of revelation about just how fragile and short life – even his – can be. Now he’s a kind of missionary for immortality, using his presidential campaign (such as it is) to get us talking and thinking more seriously about making life-extending technologies a prime priority for society.

After reading a fascinating “campaign trail” report by Dylan Matthews at Vox on Istvan, and watching Istvan’s 2014 TEDx presentation, I think I see something that distinguishes Istvan from what I normally think of when considering transhumanism.

To me, transhumanism is advocacy of the utilization of technology to radically improve, augment, and transform human life. Its “faith” is that machines and humans will merge in one form or another, and very soon, so that there will be no distinguishing between flesh and robotics, computer and brain, software and mind. And this is supposed to happen in the next few decades, in what’s called the Singularity. The person most associated with this line of thinking is of course futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, now a lead engineer at Google. He is the transhumanists’ equivalent of a prophet, and he is himself obsessed with keeping himself alive as long as possible in order to experience this Singularity himself.

If I were to paint in the broadest of strokes, I’d say that the Kurzweilian transhumanists are very much jazzed about the gee-wiz of technology, the wow-factor of look-what-we-can-do. Having a brain uploaded to a super-internet, enhanced by unfathomably powerful computers, is a kind of Rapture, a removal from existence as we know it. Maybe this isn’t a fair characterization, but it’s how it seems from my vantage point.

Zoltan Istvan is, I now think, a little different from this. If you take him at his word, he is after not advancement for advancement’s sake, but for “beauty.” As he says in his TEDx talk, “Unless you are alive, it is impossible to experience beauty.”

And it seems to all stem from this. The idea that death is a ridiculous waste, and that life offers so much beauty and enrichment, the likes of which we as mere homo sapiens have barely scratched the surface. In order to truly know what he calls “new concepts” and “new arenas” of beauty, we have to, first, not be dead (obviously), and second, invest in the kinds of technologies that will allow for this kind of life extension and experiential enhancement.

As someone who is on the record (severally) as one who fears death like nobody’s business, I am deeply sympathetic to this…what is it, aspiration? Wish? I wholeheartedly share Istvan’s view that death is something to be avoided and ultimately conquered, because as far as we silly meat-robots are concerned, there is literally nothing beyond our experience of this one short life. If we are a way for the universe to know itself, as Carl Sagan put it, I really do feel like the universe should get more of a chance to do so by not letting its intelligent, sentient creatures die.

And there was one more thing that surprised me about Istvan, and this from his profile by Dylan Matthews, who was joined on the Immortality Bus by fellow journalist Jamie Bartlett:

On many matters, Zoltan openly concedes that he just doesn’t know what to do. … To Jamie, who in addition to writing for the Telegraph is working on a book about “political revolutionaries” for Random House, this is striking. The other chapters in Jamie’s book profile movements characterized by unwavering faith in an inviolable set of principles. He’s writing about ISIS, about neo-Nazis, about radical Islamists in Canada. These are people willing to take extreme measures precisely because they know they’re right. That raises the question: Zoltan has a beautiful home, with two beautiful daughters. His wife makes a healthy living for the family, and he can get by as a futurist on the speaker circuit too. He could be in his bed with his wife, knowing that his kids are safe in the next room…

But instead, he’s sleeping on the side of the road in a decrepit 37-year-old RV without running water. Why, Jamie asks, if you’re not sure your ideas are correct, are you willing to go through all this? Zoltan shrugs. He’s not sure. Nobody’s ever sure. But he thinks his beliefs have better odds of being true than the alternatives. Otherwise, he wouldn’t believe them.

He’s not sure. And he can say so. It makes me feel a little better that what Istvan is selling is not a promise, but a possibility. This is probably why he refers to it as “the transhumanist wager” and not “the transhumanist guarantee.” He’s betting on this path to a better future, because why not? Why not invest heavily in technologies that will improve our lives, enhance our abilities, and perhaps one day eradicate death itself? Of course a comparable investment in ethics will be required for such a path, but there are positive dividends to be gained from that as well.

I suppose the “why not” could be the dangers of explosively advancing artificial superintelligence, a danger that folks from Nick Bostrom to Elon Musk are warning us against. In this line of thinking, the superintelligent machines (or machine) won’t give two figs about human lifespans or our experience of beauty, and rather pose a kind of threat in which our extinction is a small event.

So despite the enthusiasm of Istvan, or Kurzweil or any transhumanist for that matter, I can’t get too pollyanna about this. Set aside the actual feasibility of the transhumanist wager being won, I don’t feel like I can even spare the emotional investment in such a future. Can there be more of a crippling, depressing letdown than to believe that death will be conquered, only to discover that it won’t? “The human being is not a coffin,” Istvan says, but for now, it is, eventually.

Perhaps this makes me a lazy transhumanist, or a spectator transhumanist. I’m not yet willing to go there with them, but it isn’t to say that I don’t want them to keep going there. I think what I also want from them, then, is to do a little more of what I glimpse Istvan doing: admitting that they might be wrong.


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