Image: Daniel Rehn/Flickr
Transhumanists want to use technology and science to become more than human. Naturally, in this process, certain elements of our humanness will be replaced and likely lost. Many people have conflicting feelings about this.
Part of the problem with people’s perceptions of losing their humanness is not their fear of becoming something else, but their inability to empathize with their future selves. I want people to know their future transhuman self is almost certainly going to be more amazing, beautiful, and unique than their current self.
To understand why one’s future self could be markedly improved over one’s current self, consider how we perceive reality for a moment. Human beings have five basic senses that send signals to our brain, telling us what’s out there in the world. These senses understand only tiny bits of the universe around us. For example, our eyes can only see about 1 percent of the light spectrum. Our ears aren’t much better: they are unable to register many noises that other animals like dogs, dolphins, and bats can hear. Our sense of touch basically only works if we’re actually touching something.
Despite all these obvious physical inabilities, humans insist what we experience is “reality.” However, reality to someone with built-in microscopic or telephoto vision and hyper-sensitive hearing is potentially many times more complex and profound than anything a natural human being might experience.
Around us are many things we never notice, like energy patterns that have traversed the universe over thousands of light years, or sounds waves from whales across the ocean, or vibrations that started from the core of the Earth. But we humans are oblivious, unless, of course, we are in a laboratory somewhere and happen to be studying this phenomena with specialized scientific machinery.
Nothing is wrong with 10 bodily changes at once—or 50 for that matter
In the near future, however, these abilities to pick up on the greater essence and profundities of the universe will be standard equipment for cyborgs. Already, robotic eyes in blind patients offer telescopic possibilities that no human eye can match. Some Cochlear implants for the deaf also can pick up normally inaudible noises to the natural human ear. And touching, smelling, and tasting can all be improved using a variety of different types of advanced tech sensors.
When we individually replace or augment a human body part—such as giving someone an artificial hip—most people don’t see that as becoming a cyborg. Additionally, it really doesn’t matter if the part replaced or improved is a heart with a robotic pump, or a knee with a titanium joint, or a penis with a built-in balloon for help stiffening—all technologies which already exist. We usually think of such transformation as needed medical treatment, or even elective vanity surgery in some cases.
However, if someone was to get 10 transhumanists upgrades for their body all at once, then the flavor of what a person has become gets downright dystopian in many people’s minds. Many in the public would now say that person is something not quite human anymore. They’d also surely think that person is a weirdo.
But of course, nothing is wrong with 10 bodily changes at once—or 50 for that matter. That installed robotic heart allows you to have much better sex. And that artificial knee will allow you to get your tennis game back. And that part-synthetic sexual organ might be the beginning of many new adventures.
This fine line between transhumanist upgrades and what makes us uncomfortable about too much technology in our bodies is a bizarre psychological conundrum. It’s so challenging that I believe the next great civil rights debate around the world will be about how much humans should embrace radical technologies in their bodies—and when they should just say “no” to upgrades.
The good news is I think most people would agree that even replacing most every inner organ in your body is not becoming a cyborg or something machine-like.
But mess too much with the outer body, and everything changes quickly. When we propose electively replacing limbs, for example, most people feel something has fundamentally changed in the human being. A line has been crossed that cannot easily be undone. We may still have a mind of flesh, but our eyes tell us we are now partially a machine and something very different than before. And that freaks people out.
Transhumanists want their metal fingertips to know the exact temperature of their coffee
It really shouldn’t, though. The benefits are obvious for artificial limbs, such as indefinite durability, ease of upgrades, and immunity to skin cancer or even snake bites (which kill 45,000 people in India alone every year).
What’s not so obvious is how humans can become psychologically comfortable with their growing cyborg identity. Unfortunately, the whole process is going to be an uphill battle. Hollywood seems intent on insisting that humans must fight and win against machines, not join with them. Formal Abrahamic religion insists we should not strive to be gods and that dying is good since that’s the way to meet God in heaven.
To better adjust to our coming transhuman form and our merging with synthetic parts, we need new, positive messages that the cyborg era is not the end of the human age, but the expansion of it. The same can be said of machines, which we also will one day become.
The reality is that many transhumanists want to change themselves dramatically. They want to replace limbs with mechanical endoskeleton parts so they can throw a football further than a mile. They want to bench press over a ton of weight. They want their metal fingertips to know the exact temperature of their coffee. In fact, they even want to warm or cool down their coffee with a finger tip, which will likely have a heating and cooling function embedded in it.
Biology is simply not the best system out there for our species’ evolution. It’s frail, terminal, and needs to be upgraded. In fact, even machines may be upgraded in the future too, and rendered as junk as our intelligences figure out ways to become beings of pure organized energy. “Onward” is the classic transhumanist mantra.
No matter what happens, to move forward in the transhumanist age, we need to let go of our egos and our shallow sense of identity; in short, we need to get over ourselves. The permanence of our species lies in our ability to reason, think, and remember who we are and where we’ve been. The rest is just an impermanent shell that changes—and it has already been changing for tens of millions of years in the form of sentient evolution.
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and founder of and presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.