Part human, part machine: understanding transhumanism

By March 30, 2017

Augmenting Man’s capacities through technology in order to liberate him from the yoke of an over-fragile body: this is the mission of Didier Coeurnelle, Vice-President of AFT, the French Transhumanist Association, whom L’Atelier met up with recently.

What person has never dreamed of living through decades, centuries and millennia with no fear of either death or disease? What person has never wished to armour him/herself against our basic weakness? The ‘transhumanist’ dream foresees a world where Man, free of illness, would be capable of living close to two hundred years. Today bio- and nano-technologies, together with artificial intelligence (AI) and technological advances in the medical field, are re-shaping our relationship with our own existence, with our beginning, middle and end.

The hopes which stem from these advances feed into transhumanist projects. In the early 1990s, Max More was one of the first people to theorise about transhumanism. He defines the transhumanist movement as “promoting the improvement of the human condition through life-enhancing technologies which aim to eliminate ageing and increase intellectual, physical and psychological ability.‟ This leads on to the study of “the benefits, dangers and ethics of the development and implementation of these technologies.‟  The transhumanist thinkers’ idea is not to turn Man into a creature with a sanitised body, an artificially perfected human that will in the end have become inhuman. It is on the contrary about enabling Man to become more human, for example by developing new forms of intelligence and creativity, and widening the field of possibilities by eliminating or at least alleviating the obstacles which our species faces – first and foremost disease and death. But although this aim is broadly shared by all transhumanist thinkers, the various different ‘schools’ differ as to the means of attaining it.

The extropianism point of view

Max More is from the Extropianist school, which he defines in his Principles of Extropy as: “Transhumanists extend humanism by testing human limits by means of science and technology, combined with critical and creative thought. We dispute the inevitability of ageing and death, we try to continuously improve our intellectual and physical capability, and to develop ourselves emotionally. We see humanity as a transitional phase in the evolutionary development of intelligence. We support the use of science to speed up our passage from the human condition to a transhuman, or post-human condition. As the physicist Freeman Dyson said: “Humanity seems to me to be a magnificent starting point, but not the last word.‟

Max More has set out seven principles as part of the Extropian doctrine. The first principle is Perpetual Progress. This means eternally seeking the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to continuing development, perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and potential as individuals, as organisations, and as a species. It means, in his terms, “Growing in healthy directions without bounds.”Then there is Self-Transformation, which means promoting continual ethical, intellectual, and physical self-improvement through critical and creative thinking, You also need to seek “physiological and neurological augmentation along with emotional and psychological refinement,‟ he argues.

The next principle is Practical Optimism, which recommends basing reasoning on action rather than on blind faith, adopting a rational, action-based optimistic, almost utopian view of reality. Extropianism also adheres to the principle of Intelligent Technology, i.e. “designing and managing technologies not as ends in themselves but as effective means for improving life, applying science and technology creatively and courageously to transcend ‘natural’ but harmful, confining qualities derived from our biological heritage, culture, and environment.‟ Extropianism claims to draw inspiration from ultra-liberalism and promotes an open society which supports freedom of communication, freedom of action and experimentation, and is thus fundamentally opposed to authoritarian social control, favouring the rule of law and decentralisation of power and responsibility. However, another, more social, transhumanism can be envisaged. This is the version put forward by, among others, Didier Coeurnelle and the AFT.


Progressive transhumanism with social reach

The French Transhumanist Association (AFT), of which Belgian national Didier Coeurnelle is Vice President, supports a more socially-oriented version of transhumanism by “trying to promote equality and social solidarity at all levels, in particular by benefiting from useful technological advances which enable us to live better, longer lives and exchange ever-increasing amounts of knowledge.‟ He defines himself as ‘technoprogressive’, and sees technology as a concentration of the potential to be developed in order to transform our relationship with the world in a positive way. Working since 1989 as a lawyer with the Belgian Federal Social Security department and serving as a works representative with the CGSP, a Belgian Trades Union that represents public sector employees, he is pushing for the kind of ‘social transhumanism’ that would harness technology in the service of everyone, including for example combating social inequality. He also manifests his commitment to this cause via the ‘Collectif Solidarité contre l’exclusion', a not-for-profit organisation which brings together players from all sectors to combat social exclusion and fight for a fairer, more inclusive society, supporting among other things the right of all citizens to unemployment pay and social security allocations. He is also the author of the ‘Universal commitment to a decent living’ charter, in which he writes: “Everyone has a right to a standard of living which suffices to ensure that s/he can maintain his/her health, well-being and that of his/her family, inter alia with regard to food, clothing, accommodation and medical care.‟ With this in mind, he seeks to promote the development of technologies as a guarantee of human dignity, enabling people to develop their talents, and the potential to build a society in which there is room for everyone.

In conversation with L’Atelier, Coeurnelle revealed that he is close to Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, author of a work called ‘Superintelligence’, who is a strong proponent of ethics in this field and takes a critical approach to technological progress, especially advances linked to what he calls ‘super-intelligent agents’. Bostrom argues that although such agents clearly enable the improvement of living standards, they also create an ‘existential risk’ for humanity. The two men are signatories to the AI Principles, the aim being to draw up ethical principles that will form a framework for Artificial Intelligence development. If technology is truly to be harnessed in the service of human beings, with social justice being part of the aim, then technological progress needs to be gradual and ethics-based regulation to limit the risks arising from these activities must be put in place, argue the ‘social transhumanists’.


Fostering critical thinking on technology development

When the word transhumanism is used, people often think it means the unbridled ‘technicisation’ of our society, the product of unfettered capitalism leading to the excesses of ever-insatiable development of new technology. However, ‘augmenting’ human beings really means neither turning them into machines nor making machines more human either but, rather in the manner of a ‘deus ex machina’, placing intelligence at the service of intelligence through the use of technologies – developing rather than replacing. Didier Coeurnelle argues that “we’re now living through the finest hour in the history of humanity and yet at the same time we’re now at the most dangerous age.‟ Through the AFT, he is calling for reasoned and reasonable use of technologies and for regulation of AI development, which he believes could be immensely harmful to the human race. What he feels is needed is to steer innovations towards a desired goal. To do this, he wants to see greater emphasis placed on the precautionary principle, which was set out formally for the first time under Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, where it was described as the ‘Precautionary Approach’: ”Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.

This principle, which has gradually been extended to the economy and to technology in general, seeks to place the onus on individual people to anticipate and avoid ‘serious or irreversible harm’ stemming from technological development as part of their business or other activities. Many players in the business world interpret this principle in a passive manner – i.e. precaution is a kind of acceptance of the uncertainty as to the potential risk of business that involves technology, and it makes them abstain from doing or stop doing whatever it is or cease all development in that field. However, Didier Coeurnelle wants to see a change of thinking. He believes that the precautionary principle should be reinforced by a proactivity principle, which would require all players to take an active role in risk prevention.

In order to get the best out of technological advances, the AFT is thus pushing for added emphasis on risk prevention and want to see technological innovation steered towards socially desirable goals. Coeurnelle argues that risk should first and foremost be thought of in terms of usage. What added value can new technologies and the tools they invent provide? What individual and collective benefits, in addition to the purely financial advantages, can be obtained? He insists that in order to ensure desirable uses of new technology, any given activity must be thought through so as to ensure that it is not going to be harmful for the human race. In short, technological progress must not be allowed to open up the Pandora’s box of dystopic worlds that are the staple of science fiction novels, of Orwellian straightjacketed societies or the unbridled and outrageous capitalism of William Ford Gibson. Says the AFT: “Contrary to what is often suggested, being a transhumanist does not mean demonstrating blissful optimism in the face of technological innovations. Fear must never lead us to shut doors forever, otherwise we would still be in caves hunting with wooden spears! On the other hand, we must not bury our heads in the sand but must remain fully conscious of the risks involved, if we want to avoid the pitfalls and draw maximum benefit from these technologies.” 


Transhumanism becoming politicised?

So how can we proactively guard against the risks associated with the deployment of technologies in our societies? There are a number of transhumanist-oriented lobbies in existence which work to justify the use of nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, computing and cognitive sciences as a means of driving human progress. Little by little, transhumanists have infiltrated the heart of the world’s economy, NASA, and even Google, which has now reoriented its business planning to make the science of prediction its new goal. The Mountain View giant has been listening to the voices of transhumanism with the half-admitted goal of transforming its famous search engine into a true AI system: a platform capable of predicting and anticipating consumer needs. Moreover the firm supports the Singularity University, a private community funded by those doyens of transhumanism Peter Diamondis, Ray Kurzweil and Salim Ismail. Singularity University, which also runs lobbying activities, intends to create a worldwide innovation ecosystem to tackle these issues, scaling all the commanding heights of our society from multinational corporations to non-profit organisations and NGOs, all the way through to government agencies and departments. More recently Google hired one of the co-founders of Singularity University, and one of the most influential transhumanists, Ray Kurzweil, as its chief engineer.

Transhumanist ideas may attract high-flying entrepreneurs and multinational firms but they still struggle to get on to the political agenda. It is no secret that politicians tend to shy away from looking too far into the future, preferring to deal with short-term issues instead and of course elections have their own rationale, which owes very little to rational planning. However, these ideas are gradually starting to penetrate the world of politics, for example when it comes to regulating ‘smart’ systems. This holds true for the AI Principles and especially for legislation on robotics. Didier Coeurnelle points out: “Progress in this domain is moving at breakneck speed. We don’t know what intelligence is, or what consciousness is. Nor do we know whether intelligence can be stripped of consciousness. The smartphone has no consciousness, but that doesn’t prevent it from being smarter than we are. So now we’re able to conceive of an intelligence that is superior to human intelligence but does not possess consciousness, and that raises a lot of problems.“

This is why we are now seeing a number of regulatory initiatives regarding AI development. On 16 February the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission to draw up a set of legal rules on Robotics. Apparently, there is now a real recognition of the challenges and risks to our society posed by AI and robotics. The fact that the politicians seem now to have accepted that robots constitute a long-term business, ethical and civic issue – and that risk prevention in this field must be addressed proactively – represents a major step forward. But transhumanist groups and organisations remain wary of politics. Very often such groups are strong proponents of an open society where people ought to become the sole masters of their own existence and – when it comes their bodies or the way they want to go with their lives – must not come under any pressure from the authorities. They advocate individual freedom in the strict sense of the word, with no compromises. Didier Coeurnelle admits that he is afraid of political interference in technological development and of increased surveillance of manufacturers and users. On the other hand, he declares that he is in favour of legal regulation of business activity provided that it is justified and reasonable: a compromise between personal liberty and responsibility.


Health, singularity or immortality: a controversial goal

The ultimate purpose of this search for independent thinking, for individual freedom combined with responsibility, is to make personal self-determination, self-respect and respect for others possible and compatible. Coeurnelle’s driving aim is to improve human health. He believes that technological progress should be harnessed to help people live better and longer in good health. And living healthier is more important than living longer. Few people would wish to live longer in suffering. If we take the dictum of French poet  and essayist Charles Baudelaire, who wrote that “this life is a hospital where every patient has the desire to change beds,‟  then the AFT wants to see technology serve as our medicine.

The Belgian transhumanist underlines that there are three main causes of human death: cardiovascular incidents, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases, which basically means that “genetics is a cause of death”. If that is so, then bio- and nano-technologies offer a means to prevent what we might argue are ‘unnatural’ deaths. While his view of things is fairly moderate, other schools of transhumanism seek to go much further.

A central concept here is ‘singularity’. The concept dates back to the 1950s, when Stanislaw Ulam claimed: "The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the era, beyond which human affairs, as we know them, cannot continue."

In the 1980s the concept was applied to advanced technology by Vernor Venge in his essay Technological Singularity, which described a world where humanity was outpaced by frenetic technological development entailing the emergence of totally artificial superhuman intelligences capable of regenerating cybernetically and endlessly improving their own abilities. In this sense, singularity marks a sort of ‘end of history’ and the rise of a new civilisation, or perhaps even a new species, based on collective intelligence. This is what Kurzweil believes: that the ultimate goal of transhumanism is to combine the biological body with technology in order to achieve immortality, i.e. permanent abolition of human limitations and the transformation of the human being into a superior being, detached from material contingencies stemming from nature.

Meanwhile the Internet, which has in a way transmuted the human body into the virtual world in digitised form, re-creating people as digital identities, has already brought the prospect of direct transformation of the human body. So the challenge is no longer about building a digital body in a virtual space, but about going beyond the organic body within the physical reality. The proponents of singularity believe in using bio- and nano-technologies to transfer intelligence, consciousness and human identities into super-powerful computers and vice-versa, in order to achieve symbiosis between flesh and steel, emotions and reason. And while Coeurnelle does not deny Man’s basic, inevitable mortality, some transhumanists nevertheless regard death as a medical condition that can be ‘treated’. But perhaps German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer should have the last word here: “To desire immortality for the individual is really the same as wanting to perpetuate an error.”

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