The 21st-century tech revolution is transforming human lives across the globe
The aims of the transhumanist movement are summed up by Mark Oâ€™Connell in his bookÂ To Be a Machine,Â which last week won the Wellcome Book prize. â€śIt is their belief that we can and should eradicate ageing as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.â€ť
The idea of technologically enhancing our bodies is not new. But the extent to which transhumanists take the concept is. In the past, we made devices such as wooden legs, hearing aids, spectacles and false teeth. In future, we might useimplants to augment our senses so we can detect infrared or ultraviolet radiation directly or boost our cognitive processes by connecting ourselves to memory chips. Ultimately, by merging man and machine, science will produce humans who have vastly increased intelligence, strength, and lifespans; a near embodiment of gods.
Is that a desirable goal? Advocates of transhumanism believe there are spectacular rewards to be reaped from going beyond the natural barriers and limitations that constitute an ordinary human being. But to do so would raise a host of ethical problems and dilemmas. As Oâ€™Connellâ€™s book indicates, the ambitions of transhumanism are now rising up our intellectual agenda. But this is a debate that is only just beginning.
There is no doubt that human enhancement is becoming more and more sophisticated â€“ as will be demonstrated at the exhibitionÂ The Future Starts HereÂ which opens at the V&A museum in London this week. Items on display will include â€śpowered clothingâ€ť made by the US companyÂ Seismic. Worn under regular clothes, these suits mimic the biomechanics of the human body and give users â€“ typically older people â€“ discrete strength when getting out of a chair or climbing stairs, or standing for long periods.
In many cases these technological or medical advances are made to help the injured, sick or elderly but are then adopted by the healthy or young to boost their lifestyle or performance. The drug erythropoietin (EPO) increases red blood cell production in patients with severe anaemia but has also been taken up as an illicit performance booster by some athletes to improve their bloodstreamâ€™s ability to carry oxygen to their muscles.
And that is just the start, say experts. â€śWe are now approaching the time when, for some kinds of track sports such as the 100-metre sprint, athletes who run on carbon-fibre blades will be able outperform those who run on natural legs,â€ť says Blay Whitby, an artificial intelligence expert at Sussex University.
The question is: when the technology reaches this level, will it be ethical to allow surgeons to replace someoneâ€™s limbs with carbon-fibre blades just so they can win gold medals? Whitby is sure many athletes will seek such surgery. â€śHowever, if such an operation came before any ethics committee that I was involved with, I would have none of it. It is a repulsive idea â€“ to remove a healthy limb for transient gain.â€ť
Not everyone in the field agrees with this view, however. Cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick, of Coventry University, sees no problem in approving the removal of natural limbs and their replacement with artificial blades. â€śWhat is wrong with replacing imperfect bits of your body with artificial parts that will allow you to perform better â€“ or which might allow you to live longer?â€ť he says.
Warwick is a cybernetics enthusiast who, over the years, has had several different electronic devices implanted into his body. â€śOne allowed me to experience ultrasonic inputs. It gave me a bat sense, as it were. I also interfaced my nervous system with my computer so that I could control a robot hand and experience what it was touching. I did that when I was in New York, but the hand was in a lab in England.â€ť
Such interventions enhance the human condition, Warwick insists, and indicate the kind of future humans might have when technology augments performance and the senses. Some might consider this unethical. But even doubters such as Whitby acknowledge the issues are complex. â€śIs it ethical to take two girls under the age of five and train them to play tennis every day of their lives until they have the musculature and skeletons of world champions?â€ť he asks. From this perspective the use of implants or drugs to achieve the same goal does not look so deplorable.
This last point is a particular issue for those concerned with the transhumanist movement. They believe that modern technology ultimately offers humans the chance to live for aeons, unshackled â€“ as they would be â€“ from the frailties of the human body. Failing organs would be replaced by longer-lasting high-tech versions just as carbon-fibre blades could replace the flesh, blood and bone of natural limbs. Thus we would end humanityâ€™s reliance on â€śour frail version 1.0 human bodies into a far more durable and capable 2.0 counterpart,â€ť as one group has put it.
However, the technology needed to achieve these goals relies on as yet unrealised developments in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and many other sciences and may take many decades to reach fruition. As a result, many advocates â€“ such as the US inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler and PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel have backed the idea of having their bodies stored in liquid nitrogen and cryogenically preserved until medical science has reached the stage when they can be revived and their resurrected bodies augmented and enhanced.
Four such cryogenic facilities have now been constructed: three in the US and one in Russia. The largest is theÂ Alcor Life Extension FoundationÂ in Arizona whose refrigerators store more than 100 bodies (nevertheless referred to as â€śpatientsâ€ť by staff) in the hope of their subsequent thawing and physiological resurrection. It is â€śa place built to house the corpses of optimistsâ€ť, as Oâ€™Connell says inÂ To Be a Machine.
Not everyone is convinced about the feasibility of such technology or about its desirability. â€śI was once interviewed by a group of cryonic enthusiasts â€“ based in California â€“ called the society for the abolition of involuntary death,â€ť recalls the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. â€śI told them Iâ€™d rather end my days in an English churchyard than a Californian refrigerator. They derided me as a deathist â€“ really old-fashioned.â€ť
For his part, Rees believes that those who choose to freeze themselves in the hope of being eventually thawed out would be burdening future generations expected to care for these newly defrosted individuals. â€śIt is not clear how much consideration they would deserve,â€ť Rees adds.
Ultimately, adherents of transhumanism envisage a day when humans will free themselves of all corporeal restraints. Kurzweil and his followers believe this turning point will be reached around the year 2030, when biotechnology will enable a union between humans and genuinely intelligent computers and AI systems. The resulting human-machine mind will become free to roam a universe of its own creation, uploading itself at will on to a â€śsuitably powerful computational substrateâ€ť. We will become gods, or more likely â€śstar childrenâ€ť similar to the one at the end ofÂ 2001: A Space Odyssey.
These are remote and, for many people, very fanciful goals. And the fact that much of the impetus for establishing such extreme forms of transhuman technology comes from California and Silicon Valley is not lost on critics. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who wants to send the human race to Mars, also believes that to avoid becoming redundant in the face of the development of artificial intelligence, humans must merge with machines to enhance our own intellect.
This is a part of the world where the culture of youth is followed with fanatical intensity and where ageing is feared more acutely than anywhere else on the planet. Hence the overpowering urge to try to use technology to overcome its effects.
It is also one of the worldâ€™s richest regions, and many of those who question the values of the transhuman movement warn it risks creating technologies that will only create deeper gulfs in an already divided society where only some people will be able to afford to become enhanced while many other lose out.
The position is summed up by Whitby. â€śHistory is littered with the evil consequences of one group of humans believing they are superior to another group of humans,â€ť he said. â€śUnfortunately in the case of enhanced humans they will be genuinely superior. We need to think about the implications before it is too late.â€ť
For their part, transhumanists argue that the costs of enhancement will inevitably plummet and point to the example of the mobile phone, which was once so expensive only the very richest could afford one, but which today is a universal gadget owned by virtually every member of society. Such ubiquity will become a feature of technologies for augmenting men and women, advocates insist.
Many of these issues seem remote, but experts warn that the implications involved need to be debated as a matter of urgency. An example is provided by the artificial hand being developed by Newcastle University. Current prosthetic limbs are limited by their speed of response. But project leader Kianoush Nazarpour believes it will soon be possible to create bionic hands that can assess an object and instantly decide what kind of grip it should adopt.
â€śIt will be of enormous benefit, but its use raises all sorts of issues. Who will own it: the wearer or the NHS? And if it is used to carry a crime, who ultimately will be responsible for its control? We are not thinking about these concerns and that is a worry.â€ť
The position is summed up by bioethicist professor Andy Miah of Salford University.
â€śTranshumanism is valuable and interesting philosophically because it gets us to think differently about the range of things that humans might be able to do â€“ but also because it gets us to think critically about some of those limitations that we think are there but can in fact be overcome,â€ť he says. â€śWe are talking about the future of our species, after all.â€ť
The artificial limbs of Luke Skywalker and the Six Million Dollar ManÂ are works of fiction. In reality, bionic limbs have suffered from multiple problems: becoming rigid mid-action, for example. But new generations of sensors are now making it possible for artificial legs and arms to behave in much more complex, human-like ways.
The light that is visible to humans excludes both infrared and ultra-violet radiation. However, researchers are working on ways of extending the wavelengths of radiation that we can detect, allowing us to see more of the world – and in a different light. Ideas like these are particularly popular with military researchers trying to create cyborg soldiers.
Powered suits or exoskeletons are wearable mobile machines that allow people to move their limbs with increased strength and endurance. Several versions are being developed by the US army, while medical researchers are working on easy-to-wear versions that would be able to help people with severe medical conditions or who have lost limbs to move about naturally.
Transhumanists envisage the day when memory chips and neural pathways are actually embedded into peopleâ€™s brains, thus bypassing the need to use external devices such as computers in order to access data and to make complicated calculations. The line between humanity and machines will become increasingly blurred.