Transhuman

There’s a new term that I expect will soon become a regular topic of conversation – transhuman. It sounds like a new gender category, but it isn’t. It’s far from it.

Transhuman is the integration of technology into humans. It’s similar to genetic and cell technologies like CRISPR or stem cell therapies but much more invasive. A transhuman refers to someone who has integrated technology into their body in a way that substantially augments either their mental or physical capabilities, or in many cases both. Perhaps you’re more familiar with the term cyborg, the mix of man and machine, although becoming transhuman doesn’t necessarily require embedding a machine in one’s body.

While it sounds like an amazing thing to happen, and in some ways it can be, it’s also quite scary. Here are some of the benefits that could result from being transhuman and why I also thing it could be a cause for alarm.

The benefits

The biggest benefit of transhuman technologies, specifically those focused on the brain and mental cognition, is the ability to treat neurological disorders. The more we can understand how the brain functions, the more effective treatments and therapies we can develop. It may be possible to address neurological disorders as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD, and autism. We may be able to help people overcome learning disorders and mental disabilities. We may be able to enable those who are blind or deaf to see or hear again. We may unlock methods that allow us to better control our immune systems through brain function to fight diseases and infection.

Beyond the medical uses, there are opportunities for us to enhance existing physical and mental capabilities. We could use our brain to achieve enhanced levels of athletic performance. We could enhance our intelligence and use it to solve more complex problems faster and more efficiently, improving our overall productivity. These enhancements would build on themselves allowing us to become orders of magnitude more capable in a rapid time frame. Imagine being able to become a black belt in karate, a scratch golfer, a concert pianist, multi-lingual, proficient in multiple computer languages over a few days, or hours, simply by downloading an image or program into your brain. Sound crazy? Sure does, but it could be possible in the future.

The risks

All the talk these days is about superintelligence and Runaway AI, but transhuman technologies scare me more. Elon Musk proposes it as the way we can prevent a runaway AI from overpowering the human race, and he may be right. The cost, however, is the separation of humans into a distinct class of have and have-nots.

Transhuman technology brings with it the capability to significantly alter a human’s mental and physical capabilities. I’m not talking about people who are incrementally smarter or stronger than their peers. I’m talking about people who are orders of magnitude smarter and stronger. People who have enhanced themselves with technology will be clearly superior to those who have not.

The risk is that the cost and availability of the technology will limit its access. Those who have money and power will be the ones who will reap its rewards. It will create a class of super humans who will be vastly superior to those who are not enhanced. It will raise the question of how these enhanced humans will tolerate their inferior counterparts. Will they embrace them and allow them access to the technology? Will they tolerate them by allowing them to do the menial tasks they are not longer interested in? Will they enslave them to do their bidding? Or, will they see them a resource to be optimized, potentially optimizing them out of existence?

In a nutshell, my fear is that once a superior class is created, what will keep them from eventually purging those they deem a drain of our limited, precious resources? As with all things, it will start slow and harmless, and then accelerate as the transhumans grow larger in population and farther apart from their non-enhanced human counterparts. It sounds like a dystopian future, but only if you are on the losing end.

Cyber-immortality?

One of the eventual outcomes of neural technologies is scanning the brain and uploading it to a computer, effectively making a digital copy of someone. It questions whether or not people could achieve immortality in the cyber-world. Will the digital “you” have a conscience and be cognizant? How will the “real” you perceive your digital copy, and how will “it” perceive you? What if you decide to make multiple copies of your self, or what if your digital copy decides to copy itself? Will you even be allowed to make copies, and how would it be prevented? It’s a mind-bending discussion of what is real and what isn’t. It resembles the discussions of quantum theory and multiverses, or the science fiction realms of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the movie The Matrix. I don’t even know where to begin or how to wrap my mind around it, and quite honestly, I hope I never have to. I can’t even begin to comprehend the moral, legal, and ethical ramifications surrounding mind uploading and “cyber-immortality.”

Current developments

Lest you think I’ve been spending too much time with my head in the clouds reading far-off science fiction, which I do enjoy, the technology is coming. Elon Musk has created a company, Neuralink, which, according to their website, is developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Elon Musk’s track record of building an electric car company, sending people to space, and boring underground tunnels makes me think he will succeed in this endeavor as well.

Then there’s Kernel, which is emerging from stealth mode. They are working on brain mapping technology with the goal of improving mental cognition and performance. They’ve already demonstrated the capability to interpret brain activity to identify what songs people are listening to. While it sounds basic and childish, it’s a building block towards developing a deeper understanding of brain activity and how to manage and manipulate it.

In addition to these companies, I’m certain there are other on-going commercial projects, as well as university research projects. The question in my mind isn’t if it will happen. The question to ask is when it will be commercially available.

My take on the future

It would appear that I’m fearful and want to stop these developments. I’m neither.

For starters, it’s too late to stop the developments. That train has left the station. Some form of transhuman technology will happen during my generation whether I like it or not. There are too many smart people and too much money chasing the technology for it not to happen. It’s time to move past fear. It’s time to move on to acceptance and figuring out what we’re going to do when it becomes our reality.

We need to start thinking about how we are going to deal with the technology. Are we going to uniformly distribute it to those who want it, or will it be an exclusive luxury solely available to those who can afford it? Given the disconnect between the rapid acceleration of technology and the glacial pace of policy development, we need to start considering the ramifications now. So instead of being fearful, the proper stance is being aware and cognizant of what’s coming. If not, it will be impossible to contain the technology once it’s out of the box.

Think about it, 25 years ago, information was obtained through encyclopedias, books, and CDs. We went to the library to do research. If someone told you then that 20 years later you would carry around with you, in your pocket, a device that would connect you to all the information in the world and have more computational power than the most powerful mainframe computers of that time, you would have scoffed at them. Those were things that only existed in comics, science fiction, and Star Trek episodes.

Today, 25 years later, everything is accessible through the internet. It has accelerated technological change enabling faster and more efficient collaboration. 20-25 years from now, we may look back on this age and see ourselves as primitive beings who used keyboard, mice, and slabs of plastic to access information and connect to others. What will we do with our physical bodies then? Will we still use them, or will they simple be shells to provide a connection to the digital realm, The Matrix?

I don’t know the answer. But what I do know is that you better be careful and not blink. The future will be here before you know it, whether you like it or not.


Further reading

In addition to the links above, here are a few articles worth reading that inspired my post: