We need to talk about transhumanism

10 October 2021

12:59 PM

10 October 2021

12:59 PM

This weekend, hundreds of people from across the globe will gather in Madrid to discuss how to turn themselves into a new species.

The occasion is TransVision, the worlds biggest annual meet-up of transhumanists — and probably the most important intellectual summit you’ve never heard of. This year, anti-ageing specialist Aubrey de Grey will explain why he thinks most people alive today have a 50/50chance of living to a thousand years old. The CEO of the Alcor Life ExtensionFoundation, Max More, will discuss cryogenics, the process by which the newly deceased are frozen in giant, stainless steel vats and preserved forresurrection down the line. And Google’s Ray Kurzweil will talk about the ‘singularity’: the moment in our not-too-distant future — he reckons around 2045 — when artificial intelligence finally outstrips the collective brainpower of mankind and absorbs us into its plans.

Until recently, I — like most people, I suspect — believed this stuff to be pure science fiction. But then browsing aimlessly one night in March, I stumbled upon a passing reference to a transhumanist political party that had apparently put up a candidate for election in 2015. My immediate assumption was that it was a prank. But looking at their website, they seemed pretty serious — and surprisingly active.

I went straight to my emails and clicked ‘compose new message’ — setting in motion a series of events that not only transported me into the strange parallel universe of transhumanism.

There’s something fitting about meeting a transhumanist on Zoom. The disembodied, two-dimensional head of pixels on my laptop screen belongs to David Wood, the co-founder and current leader of Transhumanist UK.

An austere, middle-aged Scotsman, with fading straw-coloured hair and thick fiery eyebrows, Wood comes across more Presbyterian minister than Cyberpunk. His manner is calm and matter-of-fact, as though merely filling in the details about something we already basically know to be true: the process by which tin and copper become bronze, say, rather than the process by which man and machine become cyborg.


Our conversation begins unremarkably, with a brief chat about, of all things, Universal Basic Income. UBI is, Wood says, one of his party’s key policies — though he envisions it providing basic resources as well as cash. By the middle of the century, he says, we’ll have achieved ‘sustainable superabundance’: enough renewable energy, thanks to nuclear fusion, and enough food, thanks to lab-grown meat, to make both essentially free. We’ll also have artificial intelligence providing education and healthcare for all — and gigantic virtual adventures, ‘a bit like Westworld.

And that’s just for starters. Wood says he’s a huge advocate of life extension — and thinks Aubrey de Grey’sprediction that we’ll soon be living well into four figures is correct. Over the next decade or so, he says, we’ll develop nanotechnology that goes inside the body and not only halts ageing, but reverses it by making cells ‘biologically younger’ — essentially eliminating all natural causes of death.Wood is also ‘very much in favour’ of creating Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) — robots smarter than humans — and believes they’ll likely arrive sometime around the middle of the century, though possibly as soon as 2030.

And uploading the mind? Wood says he, like most transhumanists, believes humans are ultimately material beings, and that we will, therefore, one day be able to decant our minds into replica silicon brains. But he hasn’t yet made up his own grey matter whether he wants to do it himself. ‘I’m not sure whether it would really be me,’ he says.

Wood is keen to stress transhumanism’s emphasis on ‘morphological freedom’ — the right of every individual to choose exactly how, and how far, to augment themselves. Want to wire your neurons up to a supercomputer? Great! Just want a few more ‘normal’ years tacked onto the end of your lifespan? That fine too. Transhumanism isn’t, he says, for all the sci-fi stereotypes, really about specific goals at all: ‘it’s not an end destination we’ve got in mind — it’s the next phase of the journey’.

What that next phase consists of depends on who you ask. Some transhumanists want exoskeletons to allow them to run faster— others, like Kurzweil, want to transform every atom in the universe into a giant conscious supercomputer. But all transhumanists agree, Wood says, on a trio of broad pursuits — superlongevity, superintelligence, and super happiness.To which he, a self-professed ‘technoprogressive’, adds a fourth: fairness, or ‘transhumanism for all, rather than transhumanism for the one per cent’.

Wood acknowledges that some sort of world government would probably be necessary, though he stresses he still think decisions should be made at as local a level as possible. When I ask if AGIwill be able to vote, or whether there’ll be a difference between the rights of ‘enhanced’ and ‘un-enhanced’ humans, he says he doesn’t have the answers — these are questions that will have to be figured out when we get there. This seems to me a handy get-out clause for transhumanists: any currently intractable problems can simply be left to be solved by the smarter, enhanced people of the future.

When I mention the u-word —’utopia’ — Woodbristles. ‘It’s a word transhumanists don’t really like’, he says, telling me that four of the eight clauses in the 1998 Transhumanist Declaration — ‘the nearest thing there is to a canonical document’ — highlight the risks as well as advantages of technological innovation.

Wood admits that his party — in common with the surprising number of other transhumanist parties around the world, including Somos Miel in Spain, the AFT in France, and The Innovation in Poland — is unlikely to come to power anytime soon. Their main goal is, ‘like the Greens’,to raise awareness and influence mainstream politicians.

Are they having any success? Finally, Wood beams. Yes. He gives two examples: an Obama-era white paper that discussed the singularity, and a speech given by Boris Johnson at the UN in 2019, which was, he says, dripping with transhumanist ideas.


Both were startling news to me. But both, it turned out, were relatively small fry. After Wood and I wrapped up our conversation, I spent the evening following up a few of the other things he’d mentioned — and this time the safe passage back to normality sealed behind me once and for all.

There was the outgoing U.S. Director of national Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, claiming that China was conducting ‘human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army with the aim of creating soldiers with ‘biologically enhanced capabilities’. There was the EU report on ‘converging technologies discussing the prospect of using nanotechnology to reengineer the brain.

Elsewhere, Elon Musk is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Neuralink, an ‘implantable brain-machine’ interface that will eventually allow humans to compete with superintelligent robots.PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have each ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-ageing research. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov is aimingto allow us to transplant our minds into immortal holographic bodies by the middle of the century. The founder of MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, has talked about ‘ingesting’ information by swallowing tiny pills that then make their way through the bloodstream and deposit knowledge in the brain. As he put it in a recent TED talk, ‘You’re going to swallow a pill and know English. You’re going to swallow a pill and know Shakespeare.’ Some of their claims might well be a little overblown, but these aren’t just nerds fiddling with soldering irons in their parents’ basements.

Clearly then, the question isn’t whether this technology is going to come. The question now is how we stop ourselves using it to destroy each other.

It’s April 2019. Chris Anderson, the head of TED, and Nick Bostrom — one of the founders, back in 1997, of the WorldTranshumanist Association — are on stage in conversation in Vancouver. Bostrom, bespectacled and bookish, is now an academic philosopher at the University of Oxford and something of a big name public intellectual.

Anderson and Bostrom are discussing the technocalypse. Bostrom, while he still thinks radical human enhancement is a fundamentally good idea, has become noticeably more pessimistic in recent years about the chances of our using transformative technology responsibly — and thinks it’s quite plausible we’ll simply end up using it to wipe each other out. So what, Anderson asks, can we do?

Bostrom presents four options. The first, simply banning or restricting scientific research, he says is neither desirable nor realistic. The second, killing or incarcerating those most likely to commit atrocities, is unlikely to be 100 per cent foolproof. Our best shot at survival, he says, is to combine options three and four: world government and individual,micro-level surveillance: quite literally, all of us being watched, all of the time, by the superintelligent monitoring devices.

Julian Savulescu, a bioethicist and colleague of Bostrom’s at Oxford, is somewhat less gloomy. While he readily admits that humans are, to quote the title of one of his books, ‘unfit for the future, he has a far more ambitious solution: to bioengineer us to be not just stronger and smarter, but more ethical beings, thanks to ‘moral enhancement’ pills.

Savulescu gives two examples of ways we already know chemicals can change our behaviour: the hormone oxytocin, which is known to boost empathy, and the drug Ritalin, which every day helps millions of ADHD sufferers to manage impulse control. Both are obviously, as they stand, blunt tools — but it follows, Savulescu argues, that as our understanding of neurochemistry improves, we ought to be able to design ever-more precise pills, perhaps even tailored to the shortcomings of each individual.

But surely no matter how refined we market these drugs, they’d only really be addressing our surface behaviour, not improving our underlying morality itself? A supercharged version of Ritalinmight give us the patience of a Buddhist monk, but it couldn’t help us to answer a question like ‘is it morally legitimate to edit the genes of a human embryo to make it superintelligent?’. Nor could super-empathy pills tell us how to treat a cyborg with an IQ of a million.

Let’s imagine for a moment, though, that the thing we call our moral code — our ethical beliefs and values — really is just the result of chemicals sloshing around in our brains. And let’s imagine, that it really will be possible, therefore, one day to pop a pill that erases our entire belief system and replaces it with a ‘better’ one.

Even granted allthat, to design such pills, you’d still need a clear idea of what moral code you wanted to promote. From what I can tell, transhumanists don’t. Nor, more critically, do they seem to have any secure philosophical basis for saying what a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ moral code would even look like.

It isn’t that Transhumanists don’t talk in terms of good and bad. They do — a lot.Transhumanism, they argue, would allow us to ‘flourish’ make our lives vastly ‘more worthwhile’, unleash our ‘cosmic potential’. But whenever you try to track their philosophical steps and find out where they thought these words got their meaning from, the intellectual footprints just seemed to disappear.

A paper by Nick Bostrom called ‘Transhumanist Values’, for instance, promised to explain where transhumanist values came from, only to end up going round in circles. The title of one section, for example, is: ‘The core transhumanist value: exploring the posthuman realm’. In other words, a transhumanist’s core value is… being a transhumanist.

But then Transhumanists can’t, I finally realised, tell us where morality comes from, because by the logic of their own philosophical convictions, morality shouldn’t exist.

Central to transhumanism, after all, is the idea that humans are purely material beings — that, as Max More puts it in The Philosophy of Transhumanism, ‘our thinking, feeling selves are essentially physical processes. This is, of course, why transhumanists are so confident that we can upgrade ourselves. But such cold materialism can’t give any good explanation for why we ought to do so. If we really are wholly material, ethics become disposable.

Transhumanists don’t seem troubled or even aware of this glaring intellectual problem. Most people, after all, in modern society share transhumanism’s materialist assumptions about reality. Most people, therefore, struggle to explain where their sense of rightand wrong comes from. But because our lives are, in historical terms, relatively comfortable, we simply look the other way and pretend none of us has noticed. It’s what the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg calls ‘nice nihilism’ — life is ultimately meaningless, but, since it’s more pleasant for us, we can nonetheless agree just to behave as if it weren’t.

In that sense, transhumanism captures the philosophical mood of our age perfectly. But the question is whether such ‘nice’ moral role-play can last, especially when technology starts radically changing our abilities and powers. We live in an anomalous moment in history: we think we’ve moved beyond the superstitions of our past, but we’re still really subsisting on the residual moral instincts of traditions we’ve otherwise done away with.

And if anything’s going to shake us from our zombie state and challenge us with questions that can’t just be answered by being ‘nice’, it’s transhumanism.

Even if we ‘nice nihilists’ aren’t willing to follow through the logical implications of our materialism, a superintelligent AGI, being more intellectually consistent than us, surely would. And there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t simply dispense altogether with the foolish moralities of the humans that invented it.

Hugo de Garis, a former AI expert turned author, was the most fascinating character I came across in the movement — a Nietzschean tragedy of a man, willing to stare unflinchingly at the potential horror of what he was doing and seemingly paying for it with his sanity.

His most famous book, The Artilect Wars, centres on a single, bleak prediction: that the second half of this century will see a global war between ‘Cosmists’ who want to create superintelligent, godlike machines he calls ‘artilects’, and ‘Terrans’ who want to stop theorists at all costs. ‘The Cosmists will want to build artilects,’ de Gariswrites, ‘because to them it will be a religion, a scientist’s religion that is compatible with modern scientific knowledge. Not to do so would be a tragedy on a cosmic scale to them.’ The Terrans, meanwhile, will argue — quite correctly, he says — that artilects will almost certainly wipe out the humans that created them.

Terrans will decide, therefore, that the only solution is to exterminate Cosmists before they get their way. Terrans will see Cosmists as man-killers, and Cosmists will see Terrans as god-killers. The result will be a catastrophe costing billions of lives — what de Garis calls a ‘gigadeath’.

All this made de Garis, to use his word, ‘schizophrenic’. ‘Since ultimately, I am a Cosmist,’ he writes, ‘I do not want to stop my work. I think it would be a cosmic tragedy if humanity freezes evolution at the puny human level, when we could build artilects with godlike powers. However, I am not a 100 per cent Cosmist. I shudder at the prospect of gigadeath…. I lie awake at night trying to find a realistic scenario that could avoid ‘gigadeath.’ I have not succeeded, which makes me feel most pessimistic.’

De Garis’s book really hammered something home. Even if you try your utmost to live according to the logic of materialism— even if you believe at a rational level that morality is nothing but an illusory social construct — no one can extract from their experience of reality the fundamental sense that things matter. De Garis, who sees traditional religion as a hopeless superstition, thinks building artilects matters profoundly — perhaps even more than the survival of mankind. ‘The prospect of building godlike creatures,” he writes, “fills me with a sense of religious awe that goes to the very depth of my soul and motivates me powerfully to continue, despite the possible horrible negative consequences.’ And he’s not alone. Wood thinks “human flourishing” matters. Savulescu thinks ‘becoming better’ matters. Bostrom thinks ‘valuable experiences’ matter.

Morality is, in this sense, as irrefutable a dimension of experience as space or time we might disagree over specific cases of right and wrong, but none of us can shake the underlying intuition that reality contains a moral dimension in which we orientate ourselves.

But then smuggled into transhumanism are, when you think about it, all sorts of claims that can’t be reconciled with its underlying materialism.

Take, for instance, its rather remarkable faith in the power of human reason. If the human brain really is just the freak result of some cells stumbling, by chance, on ways of combining, surviving, and reproducing, then it would be bizarre to think it would have got anywhere close to perceiving the deepest truths of the universe — and odder still to think it would be capable of devising a superintelligence that really could crack the code of reality once and for all.

In the few weeks I spent writing up this article, Elon Musk released a video of a monkey playing Pong with just its brain. Chinese and American scientists announced the creation of the first mixed human-monkey embryo. This stuff is coming rapidly and we need to be prepared.

So do we try to direct the course of this technology — or do we ban it, like those calling for a treaty to protect the endangered human being? Do we trust that decent, well-intentioned men like Wood will be able to keep their hands on the controls, or do we conclude, like the AI pioneer Bill Joy, that someknowledge will always be too dangerous for humans?

Hurry up and decide. We don’t have long.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments