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The Crux Project Archives: Science


Transhumanists are working on their own cyber-immortalized Tower of Babel

by Leslie Sillars

Life on earth has gone through two major evolutionary stages, according to Christopher Dewdney, a Toronto author and poet. The first was the origin of life itself, the linking together of molecules into self-reproducing units. The second transformation was the development of human consciousness. But now, writes Dewdney in his new book Last Flesh, "we are on the verge of the next stage in life's evolution, the stage where, by human agency, life takes control of itself and guides its own destiny."

Dewdney adheres to a sprawling, hyper-evolutionary philosophy called "transhumanism" which is slowly moving into the mainstream. The transhumanist vision takes many forms, but most disciples believe that within a few centuries or even decades, advances in artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and robotics will allow men to transcend their fleshly limitations.

Transhumanists speculate freely about becoming immortal by "uploading" their consciousness into computer brains with robotic bodies. They talk seriously about colonizing the stars, manipulating matter molecule by molecule, running time backwards, and creating computer entities that evolve into "gods."

Most realize that they are building a silicon Tower of Babel, but, having rejected God as an irrational myth, they do not care. "No one will punish us for opening Pandora's box, for equipping ourselves with wings of post-human intelligence and agelessness," writes Max More, founder of the Extropian Society, an especially optimistic branch of transhumanism. Says transhumanist writer Alexander Chislenko: "You can consider all this as building God out of the universe ourselves."

It would be easy to dismiss these notions as techno-utopian fantasies for adolescent geeks. However, its proponents include researchers from places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the London School of Economics.

"Most of us are already transhuman to some degree," writes Dewdney. "Our immune systems have been altered by decoy viruses injected via vaccines. We consume genetically altered food. We use mood-altering psychopharmaceuticals, from fermented grape juice to Prozac. More recently, our bodies have become sites for more than 250 types of artificial implants," including artificial hearts, knees, and eye lenses.

Transhumanist ideas have gained in currency with the startling advances in artificial intelligence in the last decade. Dewdney points to Deep Blue, the computer that defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. "Chess was one area of human experience thought safely beyond machine capabilities," he writes. "That is no longer the case." Kasparov had always detected a mechanical predictability in other machines he had defeated. But in losing to Deep Blue, a frustrated Kasparov saw signs of an "alien intelligence."

Deep Blue relied on brute processing power and specialized programming. But scientists are also developing pattern-recognition programs and brain-mimicking neural-network hardware that can learn from experience. "Strategy, foresight, and psychology, hitherto believed to be intrinsically human attributes, can be duplicated and even exceeded by a computer program," asserts Dewdney. After all, humans themselves rely on the brute power and programming of brain cells.

Researchers at MIT are working on a robot that is "learning" to catch a ball, reports Anne Foerst, a post-doctoral fellow at the school. Foerst holds a doctorate in theology; she is the project's theological advisor. The robot, nicknamed "Cog" (short for Cognition), has no central processing unit. Its torso, arms (it has no legs), "eyes" and "ears" are all controlled by independent computers which work together to perform simple tasks.

In the first ever issue of the new Journal of Transhumanism, Hans Moravec notes that computer capacity doubles every 12 months. By the year 2040, according to Moravec, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, computers will have the power to mimic the human mind.

Moravec is famous for predicting that the first generation of super-intelligent robots will create even smarter mechanical progeny, eventually evolving into godlike creatures. These gods, he told Wired magazine this year, will replace humans as dominant life forms, but they will probably take a historical, even affectionate, interest in man. With complete mastery of the physical universe, these beings will be able to simulate it down to the last atom, perhaps many times over. In fact, Moravec considers the chances that our present reality is the original one to be "essentially negligible."

In Last Flesh, Dewdney describes other facets of the transhumanist vision. Nano-technology, the wedding of biotechnology and microengineering, proposes cell-sized machines that will replicate themselves and be able to construct anything, one atom at a time. He describes how neural implants will be surgically inserted into human brains to enhance mental capacity, gradually transferring mental processes into a silicon framework.

"It is [possible] that the unique, individual human being is a transitional evolutionary stage," writes Dewdney, "an ultimately expendable aberration that is now poised at the brink of a precipitous slide into collective consciousness." Eventually, says Chislenko, a post-doctoral computer researcher at MIT, consciousness will be "liberated from material and structural dependence."

All this pivots on the transhumanist view of the nature of consciousness and the nature of man, notes Dewdney. Self-consciousness, he believes, is merely a byproduct of the complex manipulation of information. There is nothing magical or spiritual about human thought, he writes, and so the really sophisticated computers will be conscious, capable of emotion and creativity. Because people cannot operate the "machinery" of their neurons any more than a computer does, he argues, "how cognition gets done is irrelevant."

Transhumanists reject the notion of a human soul, but Foerst (who is not really a transhumanist but wrote her dissertation on "A Nonjudgmental Dialogue Between Artificial Intelligence and Theology") thinks that robots might someday have them. Foerst argues that to have a soul means to have a relationship with God. Sentient robots will obviously be capable of relationships and, therefore, will have souls.

For most transhumanists, the highest value is progress. "We have only one direction to go and anything that stops that is bad," says Dewdney. Others, such as Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at the London School of Economics, are satisfied with an ethical system that is "tolerant" and balances competing interests.

Cliff Joslyn, a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is one of the authors of the Principia Cybernetica Web, a site devoted to developing transhumanist philosophy. He believes that the decline of traditional religions offers a chance for "cybernetic immortality" to "take the place of metaphysical immortality to provide the ultimate goals and values for the emerging global civilization."

When asked what those goals might be, he replies, "The only ultimate good that we can talk about is survival." Morality is built into human biology by evolutionary processes, he asserts, according to whether they helped or hindered the chances for human survival. Accordingly, human morality will vary with human biology.

Most transhumanists concede that the gap between the elite transhumans and those who reject these technologies will generate serious political instability, perhaps even chaos. But it is considered a necessary risk—and, anyway, progress is inevitable. Marvin Minsky, an MIT media researcher and well-known transhumanist, noted with alarm in a 1994 Scientific American article that many people reject transhumanist ideals and are "resigned to die. Might not such people be dangerous, who feel that they do not have much to lose?"

Ironically, Dewdney suggests that a transhuman society may need to adopt an "arbitrary moral framework" to prevent a slide into anarchy. "What if, oddly enough, Christianity turned out to be such a system?" he asks. He says he considered mentioning this possibility in his book, but did not because the idea is just "so speculative and so wild."

Transhumanism has its critics, not least because it proposes the end of humanity. Arthur Kroker, a transhumanist observer and political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal, says that Extropians in particular "have this profound contempt for flesh and blood." Moreover, he gloomily assesses western culture to be not ascending to techno-utopia but rather descending "towards the brilliant illumination of final burnout."

Others object that computers will never be more than mere manipulators of information. Donald DeMarco, a philosophy professor at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, Ontario, says that a machine might be able to "see" an object and use the data, but a conscious being knows that it is seeing the object: "It's the self-awareness, this spirituality, that gives us the power to transcend matter and reflect on our own activities."

Transhumanists would breathe immortality into their creations, continues DeMarco, but humans already create life by bearing children. "It is through the humility of the body that we breathe life into protoplasm," he says. "To accept the limitations of our bodies is to paradoxically open up the world of the infinite."

C.S. Lewis identified the essentials and the implications of transhumanist thought back in the 1940s, when such ideas were just emerging among science fiction writers. In his novel That Hideous Strength, he tells the story of a young philosophy professor, Mark Studdock, who gets caught up in a diabolical scheme to take over the world. The ostensible leader of the clique is the severed head of a criminal genius, kept alive by tubes and wires, whose brain is being enhanced by drugs. "Don't you see," says one character, inviting Mark into the fellowship, "that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty?"

Later it is explained to Mark that society's intellectual elite "is to become, by gradual stages, the human race itself." The masses, which previously supplied physical necessities for the ruling class, would be eliminated. "The body is to become all head. The human race is to become all Technocracy."

The reader gradually learns that the villains are pawns of alien, non-material entities called "microbes." With nothing too incredible to be believed and nothing too obscene to accept (morals being merely subjective byproducts of biology), fallen Man is poised to "shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy had imposed upon him as a protection from the full results of his fall. If this succeeded, hell would be at last incarnate." •

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