Dream of augmented humans endures, despite sceptics

Despite ethical questions, transhumanists see no reason why they cannot experiment with what is already technically possible, su
Despite ethical questions, transhumanists see no reason why they cannot experiment with what is already technically possible, such as technology seen here for use with retinal implants to see on the infra-red spectrum

Brain implants, longer lives, genetically modified humans: for the prophets of transhumanism—the scientifically assisted evolution of humans beyond our current limitations—it is just a matter of time.

But many scientists insist that some problems are not so easily solved.

Sooner or later, they argue, the movement that crystalised in the can-do culture of 1980s California will hit the brick wall of the scientifically impossible.

The most recent controversy was in November, when Chinese scientist He Jianjui claimed to have created the world's first genetically edited babies, who he said were HIV-resistant.

The backlash from the scientific community led to his work being suspended, as questions were raised not just about the quality of the science, but the ethics of the research.

But the transhumanist dream is nothing new, says Marc Roux, president of the French Transhumanist Association (AFT).

"It appeared when we realised that we could make considered choices to use techniques to intervene in our biological evolution," he said.

Investing in the future

Some of today's giants of technology appear to take a similar view.

Google recruited computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, a leading light in the transhumanist movement. And it is backing Calico, a research company devoted to using technology to help people live longer and healthier lives.

And Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, has set up Neuralink in San Francisco to develop "implantable brain-machine interfaces to connect humans to computers".

Blay Whitby, who studies the ethical implications of transhumanist research at the University of Sussex, England, is sceptical.

"Some transhumanists sign their emails to me with slogans like 'Death is now optional' or 'The first person to live to 500 has already been born'," he remarks.

Some companies are researching the development of implantable "brain-machine" interfaces to connect humans to computer
Some companies are researching the development of implantable "brain-machine" interfaces to connect humans to computers instead of external ones as seen here

"They are clearly more optimistic than me."

The right to experiment

Sceptics point to the mountains science still has to climb.

A whole series of clinical trials has so far failed to find a cure for the neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer's, which blights many people's final years.

Life expectancy has actually fallen in some countries, such as the United States.

And a number of studies have concluded that there is a limit to how old humans can realistically expect to be able to live.

And there are limits, says Nathanael Jarrasse of the Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics (ISIR) in Paris.

"We only talk about time and money, denying the possibility that we might never manage to understand certain things—denying the scientifically impossible."

Roux, in the transhumanist camp, regrets that the movement is too often reduced to the views of its most extreme advocates.

"Already today, a great number of things are possible," he argues.

He acknowledges the ethical issues raised by advancing technology. But the transhumanist position is that modifying future generations to impact heredity is not in itself abominable.

"Why would that necessarily be a bad thing?" he asks. "There is no longer any debate on these questions. We are condemned on principle but people have forgotten why."

Transhumanists see no reason why they cannot experiment with things that are already technically possible: retinal implants so you can see on the infra-red spectrum; cochlear implants so you can pick ultrasonic sounds.

In a recent controversy in November, Chinese scientist He Jianjui claimed to have created the world's first genetically edited b
In a recent controversy in November, Chinese scientist He Jianjui claimed to have created the world's first genetically edited babies, who he said were HIV-resistant

That does not sit well with Edouard Kleinpeter, a research engineer at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

"Transhumanist theories rest on very materialist concepts of the body, of consciousness...," he says. "For them, there's no difference between a brain and a microprocessor."

More than human: for a price

Jarrasse, over at ISIR, raises another problem.

The people preaching for the technology that is going to save humanity are sometimes the same ones selling it.

For them, the human body is a new market.

"Political, strategic or economic decisions must not be taken on the basis of ... the economic interest of companies promising a science fiction future, start-ups talking up incredible products," says Jarasse.

That might push research away from where it is really needed, he warns.

Transhumanism says more about who we are today than who we will be, argues Kleinpeter at the CNRS. Its dreams of technologically acquired powers ignores our basic fragility.

The only consensus appears to be on the need to think carefully about the future that we want, on what role to give the technology being developed.

"What worries me is that the world is already spectacularly unequal and getting more so," says Whitby at the University of Sussex.

"This technology is part of the privilege of a tiny group of very rich people. I worry that they will use it to make themselves even richer. Do we want this sort of future?"

Explore further

Thousands of Swedes are inserting microchips into themselves – here's why

© 2018 AFP

Citation: Dream of augmented humans endures, despite sceptics (2018, December 18) retrieved 22 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-12-augmented-humans-sceptics.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 18, 2018
transhumanism, along with all the other dreams of personal immortality, including the outliers such as cloning or artificial intelligence?
All run into the reality of the frailty of the humans involved. & Not only the physical frailty. But also the randomness of our genetic heritage & our own personality quirks.

The real issue for each immortal is stopping the passage of Time. At some perfect point they could choose & having the power to force their choice on everybody else. That we could not interfere with their ideal of perfection.

You, me & everybody else exist, as ourselves, by the decisions of our unknown ancestors. Who did what they needed to do, to survive long enough to reproduce. Or none of us would be here!

All of us are a product of millions of generations of monkeys. Who left deeply embedded in our psyches that reproduction is survival. Change is survival. Once perfection is achieved? All that is left is an eternal repetition of unchanging existence.

Dec 18, 2018
Death is necessary for the evolution of sexually reproducing multicellular organisms. Unfortunately, with the advent of intelligence and thumbs, evolution is not occurring in any coherent direction any longer.

Dec 19, 2018
The intelligence part is questionable, as can be construed simply by absorbing the latest news. Humans held so much promise, but have become bogged down with inanities and immoralities such as transgenderism and other isms that have removed all doubt as to the damning effects of unhealthy lifestyles and unhealthy thought processes.
It was a wise choice to not allow humans the gift of immortality, else the Earth would be filled with a sinning populace that never die.

Dec 19, 2018
Speaking of thumbs - why do you place a question mark at the middle of a sentence instead of a comma when your obvious intention is to continue the sentence to its completion with a period?
Just wondering if you have a nervous habit.

Dec 19, 2018
Intelligent enough to not want for basic needs, food or shelter, for the most part.

Dec 19, 2018
There was a time when blood transfusions were invented, and people believed that transfusions of youthful blood would restore youth. Humans often fool themselves believing that what is possible is also what is sufficient.

Transhumanists are probably still far too early for their prediction to come true.

Here is why:
Suppose there exists an immortal mutant in any given species, that mutation would be immensely useful to that individual and its progeny, but would catastrophically slow or jam the evolution of the species, for obvious reasons.

Because of this tension, any species where immortality was easy would have died out; in other words, evolution has made it very, very hard.

Dec 19, 2018
We have some limited transhuman stuff already
- implanted insulin pumps
- implanted mechanical hearts/pacemakers/defibrillators
- implanted chips for security access exist

When talking about the materialistic view we should probably look to the military for early adoption of things that are beyond the healthcare sector (retina interface for pilots, augmented senses for soldiers). This is something that will be part and parcel with the job contract and I don't see how this can be stopped (the military - or the intelligence community - notoriously doesn't give a flying f* about ethics)

Dec 19, 2018
Transhumanists are preaching life extension and intelligence expansion, not so much practical cyborgs.

Dec 19, 2018
Yes segue, I deliberately placed that question mark in the middle of that sentence.
Cause it amuses me too trigger one of your all-to-predictable OCD rants!
Gotta take my pleasures where I can.

As for your infantile tantrum against genetic disruption?

Whenever one of you bigots whine about other peoples public gender choices?

You are confirming for me your sub-conscious craving that you, yourself had the courage to publicly admit your true sexual obsessions.

While simultaneously wanting to force such roles into hiding.
As it is so much more exciting for you to add to the risks of discovery & public shaming.
It spices up the thrill for you when you engage in such furtive behavior.

Dec 20, 2018
Can we not have "fighting words" in comments. It is one thing that is clearly censorable and not protected by the first amendment. What's more, in some jurisdictions, it could rise to the level of chargeable disorderly conduct using electronic device, even without any direct threats of violence.

Dec 21, 2018
Jax, I've read your comments. Your attempts to suppress dissenting ideas.
With the pathetically childish excuse that the language I use?
Is too mature for your congenitaly delicate pusillanimous adolescent attitude?

There, there boy... Them thar words any better on your nerves?

Yeah? See this look of disdain in my face? Go weep to your skypilot. Cause I would bet your mother finds you as irrelevant as I do.

"This Is Sparta!"
No wait! uhhh "This Is The English Language!"

To quote: When an Englishman "Damns you to Hell"? You can feel the flames licking at your toes!

You don't enjoy the discomfort of being called a fool? Stop agitpropping for foolish delusions!

Now most of the woocultists that regularly comment here are masochist submissives. Playing the "Bad Girl" routine to get a spanking from me as "Big Daddy". I expect less whining & more EU/aether/denialist/theosophist/spiritualist/flatearth/creationist/AI-ID babbling, if you want to join my stable!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more