Beyond our “monkey brain meat bags”: can transhumanism save our species? | Australian books
Ato be cured. Death vanquished. The works are finished. The human brain reverse-engineered by AI. Babies born outside the womb. Virtual children, non-human partners. The future of humanity could be virtually unrecognizable by the end of the 21st century, according to Elise Bohan – and that’s if we make the transition successful. If we are wrong, fine.
“The future is terribly scary,” says the young philosopher-macrohistorian-futurist with a smile. “I can’t lie to you about it. In ten years everything will be quite different, and in ten years that’s a total event horizon for me… I think it’s entirely plausible at this point that the game has changed in a very fundamental way , whether for good or ill. ”
Bohan, 31, speaks from a sunny apartment in Mosman, where she keeps house and takes care of the plants. It’s a long way from the Hawkesbury River on the outskirts of Sydney where she grew up. a place with pretty corners but where it was hard to be a smart kid. And it’s halfway around the world from Oxford University where she’s part of the Future of Humanity Institute.
She’s in Sydney to see her family and promote her new book Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-or-Break Century. The subtitle is not a gambit. “I believe that,” she said. “We are in the century that defines the future of humanity like no other.”
Transhumanism is a movement that aims to address – or end – what Bohan calls the “tragedies of reality”: aging, disease and involuntary death. It is, she writes, “a philosophy and a project that aims to make us more than human”.
Whether we recognize it or understand it, this project has already begun, she says, and it will transform our world – and our minds and bodies – in our lifetime. Not only is this happening, she says, but this transition is necessary if humanity is to survive in perpetuity.
For Bohan, it’s no good rushing to imagine a baby born in 2030 being able to have their entire genome mapped at birth, data uploaded to a central health record and cross-checked at any medical appointments throughout throughout his life. It is no exaggeration to think that AI will become the most powerful intellectual force of the century. This human consciousness could be transferred from our “meat bags” (bodies) into a technological sphere. That the rise of AI and automation could make large swaths of human labor redundant, and that perhaps – if we get it right – it could leave more time for leisure, big thinking, meditation, connection.
Experiments are already underway in the field of artificial wombs, and Bohan is sure that, when possible, women will “ask” to be freed from the chains of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
The book, she writes, is a “love letter to humanity”, but hers is a “tough love”. A love that sees a future for humanity, but not necessarily for human beings as we know them.
“We love, we lose, we die”
When Bohan first encountered transhumanism, around the age of 21, his first reaction was, “This is crazy. It’s science fiction. It’s so far. How weird,” she said. “But also – how interesting.”
His brother had run down the stairs and insisted that they watch the documentary Transcendent Man, about the godfather of transhumanism. Ray Kurzweil. He thought they’d find it hilarious – “what we did” – but it led Bohan to the idea of a rapidly accelerating growth in computer technology, technological singularity (the theoretical point at which the force of technological change becomes beyond human control and can shape human civilization), and the idea that there was a future for humanity beyond what she calls our “monkey brain meat bags” .
At the time, she was a student of English literature, obsessed with poetry and writing.
“It was a point of sadness for me as a youngster, recognizing that there were so many wonderful things that had already been written – forgetting all the things that would be written in the future – that I would never live long enough to meet, to explore and to put all these things together,” she says.
Fiction began to bore him as his interest in transhumanism increased. If fiction was about exploring human experience, it became clear that there was tragic repetition. “We work, we learn, we love, we lose, we die,” she wrote. Transhumanism offered something better.
By the age of 28, she had written the world’s first book on the history of transhumanism for her doctorate. It’s ironic, she says, to have bought into that – she’s always had an aversion to ‘isms’. They have a “cult-like fascination ring” for them.
“We build God, you know? »
Transhumanism is perhaps best known for its concern with achieving human immortality. A life without death, however, is a confronting concept. As scarcity determines value, doesn’t the fact that our time on earth is over give that time its value? What exactly is tragic in death?
“To me, it’s the loss of everything that matters. It’s a loss of all things of value,” she says.
On the contrary, she says, “if humans could continue in a robust state of health, could continue to learn, you would have this cumulative effect where our experiences and knowledge would accumulate much more quickly. The things our species could do with it! The mysteries of the universe that we could unlock. The problems we could solve. And the depths of each other’s souls that we could explore.
Souls, she admits, is a loaded word. But without an alternative vocabulary for what constitutes consciousness, she is not opposed to the use of spiritual language.
“Does transhumanism encroach on areas that religion traditionally holds? I think so.”
When Bohan was a doctoral student, she presented her first major paper at a conference. Afterwards, a biologist approached her and congratulated her on her work.
“Then he looked me in the eye and whispered, ‘We’re building God, you know,'” she laughs. “I looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, I know. “”
They knew they didn’t mean it as a religion, she said. “But a lot of what’s been talked about in religion – omniscience, omnipotence, hopefully omni-benevolence – we’re at least getting closer to what all-seeing, all-knowing, all-exploring [force].”
Who controls this force or these forces is, of course, a crucial question. The rapid growth of technology in the early 21st century saw power and wealth accumulate and concentrate among a small number of predominantly white men. A criticism leveled at transhumanists is that they never stopped clinging to the science fiction that fascinated them as young boys.
“There’s a degree to which a lot of them are probably still little boy fantasies,” Bohan says. “But they happen to be very, very smart little boy fantasy people who also have engineering degrees and are very capable of building reusable rockets and so on. I don’t think we can reject the real concrete species promotion projects that they are actually leading.
Regulating technology during this transhuman transition, Bohan argues, is not a good idea.
“All things being equal, would I prefer a cluster politician or politicians leading the nuclear powers of nation states, or would I prefer someone with a PhD from MIT who is really, really smart and understands the technological systems of the better than a human being can?” she asks. “I’d rather it be the tech geek.”
“But that said, I’d rather it wasn’t a human at all.” A technological solution to regulation would free decision-making from human bias, short-termism and tribalism — if done right, she says. “It may not be like that.”
Best case, worst case
At worst, she imagines sounds from the pages of sci-fi dystopias. A future where the ruling AI does not share the values of human beings, nor does it value human beings at all.
The best scenario for the end of the century? Bohan expects to still be alive (she would be 110 years old). “My honest answer is that I think the best-case scenario is that by the end of the century… humans are finished. But humanity isn’t finished, is it? So intelligence keep going,” she said.
“There is a utopia associated with this ideal of being incredibly intelligent, of being able to see further than any intelligent human being has ever seen, to know more, to experience more, to feel more, to discover more.
But that imagination, she has come to believe, is beyond the capacity of most mortals. For them, there are the Cliff’s Notes.
“I think the comfortable version is this: we have really good health care and everyone is rich. And there is a lot of equality,” she laughs.
“But, 2100 – I don’t think that’s where we’re going to be. I think we are going to be much further along in the game.