If the human species is re-engineered it will not be the result of humanity assuming godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man’s fate.
…….– John Gray, The Straw Dogs
Last night I was watching one of Kurzweil’s YouTube.com video talks – Immortality by 2045, on longevity, nanotech, 3-D printers, cloning, biotech etc. where a young girl whose esophagus was collapsing, and they developed a method of computer designing an esophagus from internal photos of her throat, then transferring this to a 3-D printer, producing a copy that was used much like bronze casting in which it served as a mold upon which stem-cells were allowed to grow and produce a synthetic and biologically DNA duplicate of her esophagus which was transplanted and now she is whole and has lived for two years without incident… he speaks of growing other organs too. With his notion of the law of accelerating returns, much like Moore’s law he believes will be able to program our body with nano-computers within 30 years or less… the notion of treating the body as a software platform, and the bio-machines as programs that go bad and need reprogramming, etc.
The Business of Immortality: Cryonics Inc.
Of course Kurzweil isn’t alone in such thinking, it seems these days that hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested into various projects surrounding transhumanism, Human 2.0, and human enhancement, along with various ventures in pharmaceutical companies among others. Cryonics is big business and Alcor is its mainstay. “It’s an insurance policy,” American Idol and The X Factor kingpin Simon Cowell told GQ in 2011. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does work, I’ll be happy. If it’s possible, and I think it will be, why not have a second crack? I have a feeling that if I don’t do it now,” he said of the procedure, “I could regret this in 300 years’ time.”
Others like Aubrey de Grey who is one of the world’s loudest advocates for “defeating aging,” as he likes to call it believe we can beat death. A 50-year-old Brit whose appearance is positively Methuselan — he has a horse’s tail of graying hair and a matching beard that he could easily tuck into his pants — de Grey likes to say that the world is in a “pro-aging” trance and that, once science finally wakes up to the reality that aging can be thought of as a curable disease, we can focus some of our global brainpower into creating life-spans that run for hundreds if not thousands of years. “Why cure aging?” he asked, at the beginning of a TED talk. “Because it kills people!”
Neuroscientist Ken Hayworth is a specialist in the emerging field of connectomics, esteemed for his work in extremely high-resolution microscopy of the human brain. Work that could, one day, provide the first-ever map of the brain at the neuron level — a map that many cryonicists think is the critical link in being able to “see” our personality, to locate the software and access it, to maybe, possibly, one-day upload our consciousness and truly live forever. MIT’s Sebastian Seung (a computational neuroscientist and author of last year’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are) believes connectomics research is a first step toward uploading minds into machines or AI systems. “I embrace the idea that human mind is a machine and our mind is the software.”
Ian Pearson, head of the futurology unit at BT believes we’re on tract as well. ‘If you draw the timelines, realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it’s not a major career problem,’ Pearson told The Observer. ‘If you’re rich enough then by 2050 it’s feasible. If you’re poor you’ll probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it’s routine. We are very serious about it. That’s how fast this technology is moving: 45 years is a hell of a long time in IT.’
Pearson identifies the next phase of progress as ‘ambient intelligence’: chips with everything. He explained: ‘For example, if you have a pollen count sensor in your car you take some antihistamine before you get out. Chips will come small enough that you can start impregnating them into the skin. We’re talking about video tattoos as very, very thin sheets of polymer that you just literally stick on to the skin and they stay there for several days. You could even build in cellphones and connect it to the network, use it as a video phone and download videos or receive emails.’
Pearson’s third age is ‘virtual worlds’ in around 2020. ‘We will spend a lot of time in virtual space, using high quality, 3D, immersive, computer generated environments to socialise and do business in. When technology gives you a life-size 3D image and the links to your nervous system allow you to shake hands, it’s like being in the other person’s office. It’s impossible to believe that won’t be the normal way of communicating.
Someone asked what Bill Gates thinks about immortality research, like what’s being done at Calico, Google’s new company that’s trying to extend life and cure death. Here’s Gates’ response:
It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer. It would be nice to live longer though I admit.
John Gray reminds us that such notions of attaining immortality here on earthy were not just part of the West, but East too:
Commissar of Enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and Leonid Krasin, a disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Federov, who believed the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin, who became Soviet minister of trade, was a key figure in the decisions that were made about preserving Lenin’s remains by what came to be known as the Immortalization Commission.1
Adam Leith Gollner has just written “The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief and Magic Behind Living Forever” and yesterday, Gollner wrote a piece for BookBeast detailing his findings on the bigshots who are determined to stretch their fame and live forever.
Take Larry Ellison for example. Ellison, CEO of Oracle and the fifth-richest person in the world with a net worth of $43 billion, hates death. The idea, he says in the book, that someone can “be there and just vanish, just not be there” doesn’t resonate with him. So instead, he created The Ellison Foundation, dedicated to ending mortality, which gives out more than $40 million a year to fund research. Gollner notes that Ellison’s biographer Mark Wilson believes Ellison sees death as “just another kind of corporate opponent he can outfox.” (see Tech Billionaires)
John Holston, one of the directors of the Genome Project, has asked himself: “How many components of a non-biological origin can we implant into a human body and continue to call it human? […] Perhaps a slightly expanded memory? Some additional processing capacity? Why not? If this is true, then perhaps some kind of immortality is potentially round the corner.2
Heroics and the Denial of Death Syndrome
Norman O. Brown once surmised that “animals let death be a part of life, and use the death instinct to die: man aggressively builds immortal cultures and makes history in order to fight death”.3 Ernest Becker in his classic The Denial of Death once stated that the main task of human life for thousands of years was the religious notion that we should enter into a heroic pact and transcend death, and that every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.4 He would also show how the core motif of all fascisms was this struggle to attain immortality:
Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles— my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst. We want to clean up the world, make it perfect, keep it safe for democracy or communism, purify it of the enemies of god, eliminate evil, establish an alabaster city undimmed by human tears, or a thousand year Reich. (ibid., Foreward)
This sense of heroics, cleanliness, purification, and utopian societies were also at the core of both eugenics and genetics. Francis Galton, Father of eugenics movement once pondered: “Could not the race of men be similarly improved?” Galton wondered. “Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?” Could not man actually take charge of his own evolution?5
Eugenics and Genetics: Transhumanism as Darth Vader’s Last Stand?
The term “eugenics” was coined in 1883 by an Englishman named Frances Galton, who defined it as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” The movement Galton started found its way across the Atlantic, where it received substantial financial support from leading citizens, including the Harriman, Carnegie, and Rockefeller families. By 1931, after the U.S. Supreme Court had endorsed eugenic sterilization in the case Buck v. Bell, twenty-eight states had enacted laws permitting criminals and the mentally unfit to be involuntary sterilized so that their “inferior” genes would not be passed on to future generations. Approximately 3,000 of these operations were reported to have been performed each year prior to World War II, and many more took place that were not reported.6
Taking charge of evolution, of humans taking over where natural selection left off, of entering into a Faustian pact to modify, and improve the human species while editing, modifying, and deleting unwanted traits and profiles. In our time this goes by the name of Transhumanism or Human ++ etc. In a speech in 2007 to the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Benedict XVI decried “the interest in more refined biotechnological research [which] is growing in the more developed countries in order to establish subtle and extensive eugenic methods, even to obsessive research for the ‘perfect child.’ (Mehlman, p. 6).
Eugenics is now said to be a thing of the past. “Once favored by both the left and the right,” transhumanist Nick Bostrom assures us, “the last century’s government-sponsored coercive eugenics programs… have been thoroughly discredited.” According to the authors of the philosophical text From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, the eugenics movement “is largely remembered for its shoddy science, the blatant race and class biases of many of its leading advocates, and its cruel program of segregation and, later, sterilization of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who were judged to have substandard genes.” It therefore might seem unthinkable that the U.S. government would embark on another eugenics effort in which it sought to dictate parental decisions about how to genetically engineer their children. “Because people are likely to differ profoundly in their attitudes towards human enhancement technologies,” says Bostrom, “it is crucial that no one solution be imposed on everyone from above but that individuals get to consult their own consciences as to what is right for themselves and their families.” (Mehlman, p. 122).
The eugenic impulse arises whenever the humanitarian desire for happiness and social improvement combines with an emphasis on heredity as the essence of human nature. It is the dream of control, of engineering ourselves, of not leaving our future up to cruel fate. This impulse is noble in spirit but, unleavened by an equal impulse to improve the conditions of life, it is deceptive and ultimately impoverishing. Human happiness is overdetermined— more than one set of causes can provide a complete account of it. Even a full molecular explanation of health or intelligence or personality would not preclude an equally complete explanation in terms of upbringing and training. Heredity trumps environment by collective decision, not natural necessity. We choose to explain human nature in terms of heredity because it offers technological solutions that, challenging and expensive as they may be, are ultimately easier and sexier than social solutions. The greatest risk of hereditary determinism may be not the results it produces but the alternatives to which it blinds us. It obscures the power of diversity, the beauty of chance, and the virtues of tolerance, by creating an illusion of perfectibility.7
Margaret Sanger would advocate sterilization as the path to perfectibility. Many modern-day feminists would be chagrined to learn that Margaret Sanger, a leader in the fight for birth-control programs, was a true believer in the biological superiority and inferiority of different groups. In some of the strongest words ever to come out of the eugenics movement, Sanger remarked that, “It is a curious but neglected fact that the very types which in all kindness should be obliterated from the human stock, have been permitted to reproduce themselves and to perpetuate their group, succored by the policy of indiscriminate charity of warm hearts uncontrolled by cool heads.” Sanger had her own ideas about how to rid society of the problem of human biological contamination and promote better breeding. She wrote, “There is only one reply to a request for a higher birth rate among the intelligent and that is to ask the government to first take the burden of the insane and the feeble-minded from your back… Sterilisation is the solution.”8
Several themes are common to transhumanist discourse: the view of evolving human nature, the focus on biotechnological enhancement that will exceed ordinary human physical and cognitive traits, a preoccupation with human happiness that can be perpetuated indefinitely, a deep concern for longevity and radical life extension, and a technoutopia of human-machine fusion that constitutes practical immortality.9
The most radical aspect of transhumanism is the scenario that humans will be able to transport the content of their brains, their minds, to a nonbiological entity and thereby achieve immortality. Kurzweil and other transhumanist visionaries imagine a “brain-porting scenario” that will involve “scanning a human brain capturing all of the salient details.” This will entail reinstantiating the brain’s state in a different—most likely much more powerful—computational substrate. According to Kurzweil this will be a feasible procedure and will happen most likely around the late 2030s. In this scenario “we will continue to have human bodies, but they will become morphable projections of our intelligence. Such “software-based humans,” he predicts, “will be vastly extended beyond the severe limitations of humans as we know them today. They will live out on the Web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality, holographically projected bodies, foglet-projected bodies, and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms and other forms of nanotechnology.” For Kurzweil, this is a form of immortality, although he concedes that the data and information do not last forever; the longevity of information depends on its relevance, utility, and accessibility. (Hansell, p. 42)
Zoltan Istvan tells us the conflict over transhumanism is straightforward. Futurists, technologists, and scientists touted transhuman fields like cryonics, cloning, artificial intelligence, bionics, stem cell therapy, robotics, and genetic engineering as their moral and evolutionary right— and as crucial future drivers of the new economy and an advancing cultural mindset in America. Opponents said transhumanism and its immortality mantra were anti-theistic, immoral, not humanitarian, and steeped in blasphemous egoism. They insisted that significantly altering the human condition and people’s bodies via science and technology was the devil’s work, regardless of how lucrative it might be for the economy. Many opponents said transhumanism was proof the end times was coming. Others labeled it “the world’s most dangerous idea.”10
Douglas Rushkoff recently stated in an interview his feelings about Ray Kurzweil and the capitalist culture he represents:
It’s quite probable that our economic models are now more powerful than the human will to perpetuate our civilization. That’s why guys like Ray Kurzweil are now running Google: the world’s biggest corporations are run by people who envision a world without human beings. Where the corporate computers are our evolutionary successors.
That’s a quite probable prognosis, and I don’t like it. I don’t think computers experience love or even consciousness. I know it’s terribly judgmental, but I favor human life and consciousness to AI and machine life. As a human, I can’t help but feel something is special about us. So I’m still going to fight for a role for human beings in the future. I am on Team Human, and believe we should dare to tinker with capitalism in order to preserve a place for us and the rest of biology on our planet.
Here is a short one by Kurzweil on his Immortality Bid for the Rich:
Technoimmortalism and the Evil of Denialism
In the end one will need to make up one’s own mind if living longer is worth it or not. The science seems to be gaining a foothold and billions are being poured into it. Others will need to ask the ethical questions: Who is this for? The rich? Obviously all this costs money and from what I’ve read it seems to be out of reach for most of humanity cost wise, so I’m assuming this is another of those long lines of utopian immortality projects that as John Gray says:
Techno-immortalism comes in many varieties. Not all involve cryonic suspension, a process that involves damage to the body and brain. Calorie-restricted diets have also been advocated, on the ground that they could enable people to live and remain healthy until technology develops to the point where ageing can be reversed and death postponed indefinitely. This point may some day be reached. Yet all technical fixes for mortality suffer from a common limitation. They assume that the societies in which they are developed will survive intact, along with the planetary environment. Advocates of cryonic suspension who believe they will be resuscitated after centuries of technical progress imagine that the society into which they will be resurrected will be much as it was when they were frozen. But no modern society has enjoyed anything like that degree of stability. All have endured armed conflicts, economic depression and regime change, many suffering more than one of these upsets several times in a single century.
The trouble with the idea that science can deliver immortality is that human institutions are unalterably mortal. Those who expect a technical fix for death assume that scientific progress will continue along with something like the present pattern of life. A more likely scenario is that science will advance against a background of war and revolution. That is what happened in the twentieth century, when larger numbers died at the hands of other humans than at any time in history. (Gray, pp. 209-210)
- Gray, John (2011-03-29). The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (p. 3). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
- Vaj, Stefano (2014-04-25). Biopolitics: A Transhumanist Paradigm (Kindle Locations 3262-3264). La Carmelina Edizioni. Kindle Edition.
- Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (p. 101). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Becker, Ernest (2007-11-01). The Denial of Death . Free Press. Kindle Edition.
- Kevles, Daniel J. (2013-05-08). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Kindle Locations 95-97). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Mehlman, Maxwell J. (2012-08-10). Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering (p. 6). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Comfort, Nathaniel (2012-09-25). The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine (Kindle Locations 4367-4375). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Vaj, Stefano (2014-04-25). Biopolitics: A Transhumanist Paradigm (Kindle Locations 2186-2193). La Carmelina Edizioni. Kindle Edition.
- Hansell, Gregory R.; Grassie, William (2011-02-25). H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics (p. 29). Xlibris. Kindle Edition.
- Istvan, Zoltan (2013-01-02). The Transhumanist Wager (pp. 7-8). Futurity Imagine Media LLC. Kindle Edition.