Daily Archives: December 2nd, 2009

The Hundred Paths of Transhumanism

What is Transhumanism?

The term itself has many definitions, depending on who you ask.

The stock meaning is that transhumanism is a step toward being ‘posthuman’, and that term is subject to many iterations also.

One definition of  being transhuman is using advanced technology to increase or preserve the quality of life of an individual. And that is the interpretation I use for myself , of which I have mentioned many times on this blog (I’ve made no secret of my heart condition).

That is just one interpretation however. According to Michael Garfield, transhumanism has many meanings:

Mention the word “transhumanism” to most of my friends, and they will assume you mean uploading people into a computer. Transcendence typically connotes an escape from the trappings of this world — from the frailty of our bodies, the evolutionary wiring of our primate psychologies, and our necessary adherence to physical law.

However, the more I learn about the creative flux of our universe, the more the evolutionary process appears to be not about withdrawal, but engagement — not escape, but embrace — not arriving at a final solution, but opening the scope of our questions. Any valid map of history is fractal — ever more complex, always shifting to expose unexplored terrain.

This is why I find it is laughable when we try to arrive at a common vision of the future. For the most part, we still operate on “either/or” software, but we live in a “both/and” universe that seems willing to try anything at least once. “Transhuman” and “posthuman” are less specific classifications than catch-alls for whatever we deem beyond what we are now … and that is a lot.

So when I am in the mood for some armchair futurism, I like to remember the old Chinese adage: “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” Why do we think it will be one way or the other? The future arrives by many roads. Courtesy of some of science fiction’s finest speculative minds, here are a few of my favorites:

By Elective Surgery & Genetic Engineering
In Greg Egan’s novel Distress, a journalist surveying the gray areas of bioethics interviews an elective autistic — a man who opted to have regions of his brain removed in order to tune out of the emotional spectrum and into the deep synesthetic-associative brilliance of savants. Certainly, most people consider choice a core trait of humanity… but when a person chooses to remove that which many consider indispensable human hardware, is he now more “pre-” than “post-?” Even today, we augment ourselves with artificial limbs and organs (while hastily amputating entire regions of a complex and poorly-understood bio-electric system); and extend our senses and memories with distributed electronic networks (thus increasing our dependence on external infrastructure for what many scientists argue are universal, if mysterious, capacities of “wild-type” Homo sapiens). It all raises the question: are our modifications rendering us more or less than human? Or will this distinction lose its meaning, in a world that challenges our ability to define what “human” even means?

Just a few pages later in Distress, the billionaire owner of a global biotech firm replaces all of his nucleotides with synthetic base pairs as a defense against all known pathogens. Looks human, smells human…but he has spliced himself out of the Kingdom Animalia entirely, forming an unprecedented genetic lineage.

In both cases, we seem bound to shuffle sideways — six of one, half a dozen of the other.

By Involutionary Implosion
In the 1980s, Greg Bear explored an early version of “computronium” — matter optimized for information-processing — in Blood Music, the story of a biologist who hacks individual human lymphocytes to compute as fast as an entire brain. When he becomes contaminated by the experiment, his own body transforms into a city of sentient beings, each as smart as himself. Eventually, they download his whole self into one of their own — paradoxically running a copy of the entire organism on one of its constituent parts. From there things only get stranger, as the lymphocytes turn to investigate levels of reality too small for macro-humans to observe.

Scenarios such as this are natural extrapolations of Moore’s Law, that now-famous bit about computers regularly halving in size and price. And Moore’s Law is just one example of a larger evolutionary trend: for example, functions once distributed between every member of primitive tribes (the regulatory processes of the social ego, or the formation of a moral code) are now typically internalized and processed by every adult in the modern city. Just as we now recognize the Greek Gods as embodied archetypes correlated with neural subroutines, the redistributive gathering of intelligence from environment to “individual” seems likely to transform the body into a much smarter three cubic feet of flesh than the one we are accustomed to.

Greg Egan is the consumate trans/posthuman author and I have been a reader and fan of his for ten years. He is stunningly accurate and it amazes me how fertile his imagination must be.

Could he be getting quantum information from the future?

And I think I’ve read almost all of Greg Bear’s work over the past twenty years, including his Foundation works. His nanotech fiction is astonishingly prescient. Is he tapping into the quantum information highway too?

Like the author of this post speculates, maybe it’s just a few of the hundred flowers of the future.

Let A Hundred Futures Bloom: A “Both/And” Survey Of Transhumanist Speculation