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A Transhuman Primer

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AUGUST 11, 2014

By the end of my lifetime, I want to be part machine.

Transhumanism is the ideal of bettering the human condition by joining our bodies with our technology. We have been moving toward it since a proto-human in sub-Saharan Africa discovered that sharp rocks were better than fingernails for gutting prey. Progress has accelerated exponentially since then: It took a million or two years after the creation of stone tools to control fire, hundreds of thousands of years after that to develop written language and a few thousand more to put men on the moon. Less than 50 years later, we had instantaneous global communication. Some species survive by being durable or quick or dangerous. We survive by having big, insanely complex brains that let us alter our environment, essentially precluding the need for evolution in the classical sense. If we consider our minds to be what makes us human, our bodies become just as much of an environment as the sub-Saharan plains. Both are places inhabited and adapted by humans.

This sort of modification is already appearing in small ways. A journalist has a couple of cyborg implants in her hand. Google Glass counts if you expand the definition of “integration” to include a silly plastic headband. A real-life robotic suit allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup. These are the foundations on which true transhumanism will be built. We may soon have nanobots in our bloodstream, unclogging arteries, preventing infections and breaking down cancer cells as they form. Organs that are 3-D printed, replaceable on demand, will shunt organ failure and degradation permanently into the past. Artificial wombs will allow for perfect prenatal nutrition and security, not to mention eliminate the second most common killer of women of maternal age. These are all years or decades in the future, but they all have the potential to drastically improve our longevity and health.

Of course, when faced with possibilities like these, we have to ask, “Who will benefit?” Many seemingly wonderful technologies, such as cars, are destructive in the long term, or harmful to more people than they help, such as smartphones. Transhuman advances could feasibly pass both tests. Like any new technology, it’s likely that they’ll be very expensive at first. But like any developing technology, they’ll get cheaper as resources are funneled to their inventors. None will require extensive labor to produce, and nanobots can theoretically be built by other nanobots — meaning they require no human labor at all once the assemblers exist.

The issue gets more complex when we look at potential long-term harm. With any advance in medical technology, we must face the sadly necessary question of how it will affect overpopulation. Our numbers are already careening toward the 10 billion mark, and the resources currently available to us simply can’t sustain so many people. But this technology has the potential to increase efficiency as well as lifespan. A complete food replacement already exists in the form of Soylent. What if our bodies could produce it naturally, eliminating the need even to ship the substance? What if we could photosynthesize, letting us rely partially on the sun for our energy? What if all our water waste from sweat, urine and breath were recycled back into our bodies? All of these things could be our reality in a few short decades. And all of them would help us live more sustainably.

Another common concern about this level of technological integration is one of privacy. If our bodies were filled with little robots, who says they won’t turn hostile? Maybe they’ll be recording our every move, tracking us for nefarious alphabet-soup-named agencies. There’s good news and bad news on that front. The good is that those things are, at least for now, impossible: the smallest GPS chip that currently exists is 4.7 square millimeters. Compare that to the literally molecule-sized nanobots that already exist today, and it becomes clear that the NSA has about as much chance of infiltrating your body as it does of regaining the trust of the American people. The bad news is that we’re already just about as tracked as is physically possible. Every device you carry around with you serves as a direct link to any number of people who mean you far more harm than do the creators of miraculous medical wonders.

There is, it’s true, a sinister side to transhumanism. The novel “Feed” predicts a world where everyone has computers in their heads, ads are a constant presence and information can be beamed in or out instantly. The book portrays a society of vapid consumers, blithely streaming videos to their corneas in domed cities while cockroaches overrun the barren world outside. And given the trends we see with smartphones and laptops students on Facebook in lecture, conversations broken by incessant buzzing notifications that reality may not be far from the truth. But any development has the potential to be used selfishly. It’s up to us to make sure this one is used for good.


Contact Jacob Straus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacob_straus.

AUGUST 11, 2014