Human genetic modification might sound like a science fiction fantasy, but it’s increasingly becoming part of our reality. The topic was touched upon in more ways than one in the recent film Transcendence. While it proved a disappointment at the box office and attracted many negative reviews for its ropey characters, dialogue and structure, the thought-provoking themes in the film exceeded its narrative grasp and may well have dealt with reality much more than we realise.
The movie, released in 2014, tells the story of a dying scientist called Will (played by Johnny Depp) whose drive for artificial intelligence takes on dangerous implications when his consciousness is uploaded into a quantum computer. When Will’s ‘soul’ survives his body’s death, he asks to be connected to the Internet so he can grow in capability and knowledge.
His thirst for power soon takes a sinister turn in the film however, as he begins to release nanoparticles into the atmosphere, which enable him to remotely connect to and control people’s minds.
It may sound far-fetched and little more than science fiction fluff. But there is actually a growing army of people worldwide who not only believe a scenario like this may one day be a possibility, but that it is the only way to progress and save the human race.
They are called Transhumanists and their predictions would outrage most religious or spiritual people; namely because they call upon us all to question what exactly it is to be human.
Followers of the Transhumanist movement think we can, and should, improve the human condition through the use of advanced technologies like cloning, nanotech and genetic engineering. They believe not only that eternal life may be possible this way, but that we can boost our intellectual, physical and psychological abilities far beyond what we’re naturally capable of. Transhumanist thinkers look at the potential benefits of emerging technologies and how they might help us overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as the ethics of developing and using them.
The most common idea they present is that people may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities they will be deemed ‘posthuman’.
It sounds like a thrilling prospect. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to perform like a genius at work, run like Superman, never have to suffer from any illness or disease – and all just by putting a computer chip in their brain or uploading their mind online? Who wouldn’t want to live in a technological utopia where everyone is perfect, without physical or psychological flaws? Want to search for something on Google? Never mind using a tablet, use a brain implant instead that pops the answer straight into your head. It may sound extreme but this is just where we seem to be
Radical science and technology are already changing the way we live. We have everything from virtual reality games that create alternative worlds (some played with mind-reading helmets), to Cryonic capsules that freeze bodies so they can be brought back to life in the future.
Cyborgs are no longer the robotic machines we see in science fiction films – they are already walking among us as humans with cochlear implants to help them hear, pacemakers to keep their hearts beating, artificial hips and limbs to keep them mobile. And this trend will continue in to the future; many cyborg upgrades which will become available over the next two decades, like artificial bones, muscles and organs, are already in progress.
In America experts are working on an ‘Iron Man’ style armour suit for soldiers and the electronics company Panasonic will soon be releasing an exoskeleton suit. At Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, scientists are connecting robotic limbs to the human nervous systems of amputees. The first arm surgeries are scheduled to happen anytime now.
While nobody would argue that advancements like this don’t bring us huge medical benefits, when it comes to technological progress, how far is going too far? And what do we sacrifice in the process?
Would we still be considered ‘human’, for example, if part of our brain was replaced with a micro-chip or 70 per cent of our body comprised of artificial material? As we move closer and closer towards a perfect technological world, do we move further away from a human one? And what happens when we finally craft a computer with greater-than-human intelligence – a technological singularity that effectively becomes a computerised ‘God’ – do we ‘outsmart’ ourselves to the point where we lose control of our own evolutionary destiny?
Transhumanists believe high-tech growth will make us a happier and more peaceful species in the long run. But will it? If we look at what technology has created so far, there are some clues.
The arrival of the internet in 1969 changed the world forever. Fourteen years on, 16 million people were online, and email was beginning to transform the global economy and societies. The first really usable web browser wasn’t launched until 1993, but by 1995 there was Amazon, by 1998 Google, and by 2001, Wikipedia, at which point there were 513 million people online. Today the figure is over 2 billion. Almost every financial transaction, business meeting, personal and social interaction can now be conducted via the tap of a keyboard.
The internet has become such an integral part of our everyday lives that we access it at home, on the move, on our smartphones and on TV. It’s helped make communication between people easier. But are we really still properly ‘communicating’?
While increasing our access to information, internet and mobile technology also seem to be gradually destroying the meaningfulness of the interactions we have with one another. Human communication is as much to do with body language, smell and sensation as it is to do with sound and sight. For this reason, instead of feeling closer to the person we are emailing, Skyping, or text messaging, we are beginning to feel more and more disconnected from them and the world around us. We only have to look at the rising levels of depression and anxiety-related disorders in Western civilisations to see evidence of this.
We are becoming increasingly isolated from loved ones too. Instead of spending time in person with friends or relatives, we text or instant message them. It may seem simpler, but it means we end up seeing them in person much less. And face-to-face interactions make all the difference to our comfort, well-being and sense of security. Psychological studies have proved this. Like most living creatures on the planet, human beings are stronger both physically and emotionally when they operate in a pack. That’s why we created marriage and communities.
Go back to the age of Neanderthal man and we – like every other animal in existence – also survived solely on what the planet had to offer us. We ate what we could grow or kill, kept warm by using sticks and stones to create fire. Our existence depended as much on each other as it did on the laws of nature. In short, we were very much a part of the earth we inhabited. It is this we have lost sight of in the modern age.
Among native North American Indians, animals were respected as having equal rights to humans. Yes they were hunted, but only for food, and the hunter first asked permission of the animal’s spirit. Among the hunter-gatherers the land was owned in common and there was no concept of private property and the idea that it could be bought and sold was repugnant. Nowadays we live in a ‘debt’ society in which our welfare depends on how much money we can acquire. Basically, paper that has been given a value which determines whether we eat enough or have sufficient warmth. And for that we destroy trees, the very things that enable us to breathe.
Unlike us the Indians appreciated the beauty of nature and saw the earth as something to nurture and protect. To them the way we live now – putting more and more demand on the earth’s natural resources to develop industry, create wealth upon wealth, build more things, and further enhance the digital age – would have been horrifying. They would have questioned why we seem hell-bent on destroying the land that gives us life and the entire natural order of things by felling forests and killing animals for pleasure not necessity. The Indians were not an alien race of impossibly amazing people though. They were human just like the rest of us.
Some conspiracy theorists believe we are already in the early stages of creating a transhuman future. In his documentary film ‘What in the World are They Spraying?’ Michael J. Murphy claims that long lasting contrails in the sky are actually the result of secret government spray operations. He proposes that the trails are part of a geoengineering project involving injecting large amounts of aluminum into the atmosphere to block the sun’s rays and control climate change. According to neuro-surgeon Russell L. Blaylock, the nanosized aluminum particles found in chem-trails are contributing heavily to degenerative disease today. Effectively, these theorists believe politicians and scientists are already ‘playing God’. Eventually, this could backfire and destroy the balance of nature forever, therefore destroying us.
But it is never too late to change; we can become the engineers of our own evolution. We can turn our backs on the quest for eternal life and accept that everything in nature has a life span. We can accept that we are not, nor were we ever meant to be, robots. We can refuse to allow our private and unique minds to be downloaded onto memory sticks and welcome the natural slowing down that comes with old age.
Our culture has so effectively squashed the idea that we feel real anger, hurt, fear, and hope inside that we are afraid to feel these things any longer. But we can choose to embrace them instead, simply as part of being human. We can love our fragility and turn away from the cultural numbness that makes it easy for us to build giant organisations that trample on anything weak or vulnerable within us.
We can choose to focus our efforts on creating more love and compassion in the world. We can give back to nature a little by growing our own plants and vegetables, give back to each other by meeting in person instead of online, share how we feel and ask for support when we need it from our neighbours and friends and also give it back – all the while strengthening and expanding our minds not by implanting technological devices into our brains but by reading books and sharing our thoughts and opinions with one another.
We can save the human race another way. By remembering that we are, above all else, sentient, imperfect beings. And that’s what makes us beautiful.
Do you believe the transhumanists have the right approach?