The best way to understand the present is to read science fiction. Only sci-fi writers are dreaming far enough into the future to tell us where we are in the present.
This week, the news read like science fiction. In South Korea, a company called RNL Bio received the first-ever commercial order for cloning. An American woman paid the company $50,000 to clone her dead pit-bull terrier, Booger.
Meanwhile, in the US, the world’s greatest scientists and futurists met to decide how science could best help the human race over the next 20 years. One of them, the scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, declared that in the next fifteen years, humanity itself was going to go through an upgrade, thanks to the emerging science of nanotechnology.
“We’ll have intelligent nanobots go into our brains through the capillaries and interact directly with our biological neurons,” Kurzweil told BBC News. The nanobots, he said, would “make us smarter, remember things better and automatically go into full emergent virtual reality environments through the nervous system”.
Kurzweil is talking about something called transhumanism. Never mind communism, fascism, or any of those other 20th century –isms. The –ism that’s going to cause all the debate this century is transhumanism.
The phrase ‘transhumanism’ was first coined in the 1950s by Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, who defined it as “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for human nature”.
The term was developed in the 1960s and 70s by thinkers like FM-2030 – an Iranian called F.M Esfandiary who changed his name to FM-2030 because he put himself into cyrogenic freezing until that date, when he hopes to celebrate his 100th birthday. FM-2030 celebrated the powers of new technology to alter humanity itself, and enable us to speed up evolution and become post-humans.
FM-2030 was a sci-fi writer as well as futurist thinker (the two terms are fairly interchangeable) and other sci-fi writers, such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, helped develop the dream of transhumanism in novels of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) or Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995), which introduced the public to ideas of artificial intelligence, cyberspace and nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology, or engineering at the molecular level, gets transhumanists particularly excited. Nanotech scientists like Eric Drexler claim that we are at the brink of a new technological breakthrough, similar in scope and significance to man’s breakthrough to the industrial age.
Where that age enabled us to construct bridges, railway lines, even airplanes and rockets, the diamond age will enable us to construct machines at the molecular level, with far less waste and pollution, so that we can command matter to do exactly what we want it to do.
We’ll soon be able to use nanotechnology, Drexler believes, to get all the energy we need from solar power; to make 99% of illnesses easily cured by specially-designed nanobot anti-bodies that will hunt down specific viruses in our blood and kill them; to augment our reflexes, our concentration, even our intelligence, with nano-implants in our bodies and brains.
The US government has already become excited about the possibilities this raises for their military, with nanotech assemblers making weapons much more easily, and cyber-soldiers running on the latest upgrades to make them quicker and more resilient in the field of battle. And if the robogrunts lose a limb, as so many soldiers have in Iraq, well, nanotechnology and biotechnology can manufacture new ones, even better and stronger than the originals.
And couldn’t nanobots be the ultimate weapon, an invisible intelligence designed to infiltrate and destroy your enemy’s information systems, including their brains? Thus, in the sci-fi book The Diamond Age, the cities of the future are all defended by nano-barriers, which search out and destroy any alien nanobots found trying to enter the city’s biosphere.
But the transhumanists are far more ambitious in their dreams than simply making better soldiers or weapons. They dream of rising above our natural limits, enabling out evolution into higher beings, becoming supermen. They dream even of immortality, attained either by learning how to replace all broken down organs with artificial ones, or even by downloading human personality into cyberspace, becoming pure consciousness, separated finally from the tyranny of matter.
All sounds pretty groovy, hey? Well, there are a few sceptics. Francis Fukuyama, for example, thinks transhumanism is “the most dangerous idea facing humanity”. Why so? He believes that new technology is in danger of destroying the idea of our common humanity, the idea that we are all human and therefore all worthy of the same dignity and respect.
In the future, Fukuyama worries, some of us might become more than human, might become post-human. The new technology will inevitably be more available to rich individuals or rich societies, so might create a “genetic overclass”.
At the moment, the rich have some obvious advantages over the poor, but there is still the “genetic lottery” of nature, whereby a kid born in the ghettos might be favoured with genius by nature, while the son of a millionaire might be a complete dufus. But the transhuman age would cancel out such a lottery, because the children of the rich would be genetically designed, and their personalities would be augmented by nano-implants, by chemical performance-enhancers, by biorobotic surgery.
The poor would argue this was giving the rich an unfair advantage – posthumanity should be the right of every human. The rich would argue that it is their right to give their children every advantage they can. And so the argument over transhumanity would assume roughly the contours of the contemporary debate over public schools – let’s not forget that one of the earliest visions of transhumanity, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is set at Eton College.
But Etonians, while they might feel it is their right to rule the world, are often bumbling buffoons – think of Boris Johnson, hardly a superman. But what if the rich elite really were qualitatively smarter, faster, healthier, what if they became a different species altogether?
This is the freaky scenario imagined by William Gibson in his cyberpunk novel, Count Zero, where the heroine meets the richest man in the world, a man whose body lies in a chemical vat while his consciousness exists as a multiple hologram, controlling a sprawling corporate empire: “she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human”.
If we no longer share a common humanity, then society, as Fukuyama pointed out, would likely become “far more hierarchical”, with the working class, or microserfs, either imported from less technologically developed countries, or specially engineered to be hard-working yet docile.
In fact, would there still be a shared society anymore? Or would society break up into discrete tribes, ruled by their own moral codes, and their own technical abilities? This is the future foreseen by Neal Stephenson in his book The Diamond Age, where the ruling tribe are the Neo-Victorians, who recreate the starch Puritanism and the engineering prowess of our 19th century ancestors.
But all this seems a long way away. Or does it? You begin to see it played out in culture and politics already. The adverts for the new Puma football boots showing on TV at the moment show the football of the future, where athletes have become robotically enhanced and superhumanly skilled. But at the same time, the UK press is demonizing Dwain Chambers, the second-fastest ever Brit, for having used performance-enhancing steroids.
The truth is, we are all transhuman already. I wear contact lenses, and have a metal pole in my leg where I broke it five years ago. I take omega tablets to enhance my brain power. I am considering getting laser corrective eye surgery. I tutor a boy whose mother gives him Ritalin to enhance his powers of attentiveness. Plastic surgery has become a normal part of our civilization, as has neuropharmacology such as Prozac or Lithium, or biotechnologically-manufactured drugs like the anti-cancer drug Herseptin.
One worries that an age where we can construct humanity will leave us without any dreams of man’s connection to a spirit world or divinity. We will be little more than computers, easily replicable, easily disposable. The dream of the ghost in the machine will fade, and we will be left in what Goethe called “a dismal atheist half-darkness, in which the earth with all her shapes, the heaven with all its celestial bodies disappeared”.
But don’t worry. Our dreams of magic and spirits will come with us, they will mutate and adapt to the transhuman age. In fact, what you see in a lot of contemporary sci-fi is a fusion of futuristic technology with animist ideas of spirits, gods and invisible powers from the pre-modern world. Think of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or The Matrix, or the anime film Ghost In The Shell. Even in the future, we are still likely to be “haunted by the ghosts of dead religion” as Max Weber put it. Call it techno-animism.