Three Faces of Transhumanism

Transhumanism is, broadly speaking, a philosophical and technological program that advances the position that technology should be used to enhance human mental and physical capabilities, both on an individual and species-wide basis. This is a contentious position. Critics of transhumanism have argued that it violates the divine order of the universe, degrades the human spirit, introduces unprecedented technological risks, reinforces class inequality, is insufficiently diverse, is ignorant of cultural values and its own past, represents an unjust colonization of future generations, and is scientifically untenable.

As a transhumanist fellow traveler, I will say that these critiques have some merit. It is only fair that a movement with aims somewhere between an industrial revolution and the creation of a new (and hopefully superior) sapient species take a lot of flak. But my problem with many of these critiques, as embodied by a recent scholarly book on transhumanism, is that they use a strawman version of transhumanism. Transhumanism isn’t just an ideology developed in a . Now, through the groundbreaking research practice of reading what transhumanists have to say about themselves and going to their conferences, I’ve developed a basic taxonomy of the major factions of transhumanist, Immortalists, Cryonicists, and Uploaders. I’d like to examine the program and philosophy of these factions individually.

Immortalists believe that the oldest and most important human problem is death, that death is caused by cellular aging—damage to the body on a molecular and chemical level—and that therefore reversing aging through cellular rejuvenation should be a primary research goal. Immortalists are most closely affiliated with Aubrey de Grey and the SENS Foundation.  From a philosophical and science policy perspective, I greatly admire the Immortalists. They’ve taken the basic morality of modern medicine, that death should be prevented by any means necessary, and extrapolated it to its logical conclusions. If death is not evil, but simply the final stage to life, then more resources should be invested in answering the question “What is a good death, and how do we attain it?” rather than squandered in a fragmentary struggle against individual diseases. The Immortalists do not have answers to questions like “Would an immortal species be more just or wise than mortals?” or “How will necessary change occur when the powerful never leave their positions?” or “If immortality is a limited resource, how should it be distributed?” Conversely, to argue for the necessity of death is an much more untenable position.

Cryonicists note the contemporary inadequacy of technology for undertaking the transhuman program, and focus on the cryopreservation of nearly-dead people in the present, assuming that they will be resurrected using future technology. Cryonics, most noteably associated with Max More and Alcor, are the most programmatically advanced faction. While no organism has yet been successfully unfrozen, you can sign up for Alcor’s preservation services today. Cryonicists trouble our notions of life and death, moving from heart cessation, to brain death, to information-theoretic death. A successful revival (particularly from LN2) will problem require Drexlerian nanotechnology to repair cellular damage, and it is an open question if future beings will want to have a bunch of future-shocked primitives walking around. In the present, cyronics has caused conflicts in families, and while the costs associated with preservation are not astronomical, they are high enough that it is reasonable to question if that investment would be better made in your descendents or charitable donations.

Uploaders take the position that what is significant about humans is our capacity for thought, and that the main problem with human cognition is that the brain is a crappy computer that stops working aft. By moving cognition from a neural substrate to a semi-conductor substrate, human can achieve immortality through cognitive backups, intelligence amplification via Moore’s Law, and direct experience of a whole digital universe.  Uploaders are most strongly affiliated with Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity Institute.  Uploaders have what is both the most mainstream version of transhumanism (robots and digital minds are a commonplace scifi trope), and what is also the most radical.  The Uploader program is based on several assumptions about the philosophy of mind and computer science that seem optimistic and partial at best. The first is that the best definition of identity is computation, rather than being based on any kind of physical or process continuity. Uploaders would need to prove that the mind running in silico is the same as the biological original to the satisfaction of skeptics in a way that is more demanding than the burdens placed on Immortalists and Cryonics. And for a movement heavily based in computer programming, Uploaders seem very optimistic that attempts to simulate the mind will not run afoul of limits in both computational complexity and mathematical incompleteness, and the long term viability of obsolescing computer hardware and data formats.

Compared to mainstream conceptions of humanity, all these transhumanist factions have more commonalities than differences, but the differences are very real, and should not be ignored or glossed over. In a future post, I plan to examine transhumanism more holistically as a movement and ideology, but first, I believe it import to clear up some of the political distinctions between three very different visions of the future.


Stephen Hawking and Networks in Disability Research

(photo via Wired, NASA, Flickr)
Stephen Hawking’s birthday was yesterday, January 8th.  Hawking is certainly the most famous scientist with disabilities alive today, and arguably the most celebrated person  with disabilities in history. With his motorized wheelchair and electronic voicebox, he is an iconic figure.
Wired has a fascinating article on Dr. Hawking, how he does his work, and what his life can tell us about both ‘ordinary’ scientists and people with disabilities. The full thing is worth reading, but I want to pull out some paragraphs which express what I am trying to see in my research more elegantly than I can put it myself.
In one version of Hawking’s eulogistic story, we praise the smartest person in the world, the brilliant physicist, one of the greatest cosmologists of our time. He fits perfectly well with our conception of how science and its heroes work: To be a genius all one needs is a powerful – a “beautiful” – mind. And indeed, because of his disability, Hawking embodies the mythical figure capable of grasping the ultimate laws of the universe with nothing but the sheer strength of his reasoning: He can’t move his body, so everything must be in his mind. What else would a theoretical physicist need?
But in another version of Hawking’s story, we notice that he is more “incorporated” than any other scientist, let alone human being. He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking’s “genius,” far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature… What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies.
Hawking’s persona, his disability, and his embodied network thus becomes a window on our machines, the nature of work, and even our representation of scientific heroes. Popular media shows us that Hawking is a pure, isolated, once-in-a-lifetime genius; ethnographic analysis shows us that Hawking is not that different from other scientists even though he has a disability. In fact, it’s precisely because of his disability that we get to see how all scientists work … and how the entire world will work one day.
Because, surrounded as we are by our world of technology and digital information, aren’t we all disabled? We, like Hawking… are unable to think and complete the results of our thoughts without being attached to a network of people, instruments, machines – and the living laboratories through which it is all distributed