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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Transhumanism and Evolution

Several days ago I stumbled on the following text and accompanying video in the FT of 2 July: "The case for transhumanism. Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist and 2016 presidential candidate, is at Camp Alphaville and explains his vision of a technologically enhanced human species." Actually, I assumed this was a joke and let it rest for some days. Obviously, my curiosity ultimately won. 

I had to visit Wikipedia as I had never ever heard or seen this strange word before. Reading the description below hardly made my alarm bells ring. It starts neutral and ends like Sci-Fi. My radar went on high alert when I read that transhumanism is considered to be one of the world's most dangerous ideas (Wiki). At least by Francis Fukuyama who was appointed to the President's Council on Bio-ethics in 2002 (link). Now it gets really interesting but first read the Wikipedia definition. 

Transhumanism is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as the ethics of developing and using such technologies. The most common thesis put forward is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label posthuman. 

Mr Fukuyama's accusation is supported by his 2009 article in the magazine Foreign Policy. I also found an interesting response to that article by Nick Bostrom. Please read both views on this topic.

The above is still a little too abstract and perhaps even vague and could use an example. Picture the movies Avengers, Fantastic Four, SupermanWolverine or X-Men. Now suppose that these movie characters did not have random gene modifications but that they were humans with deliberate gene modifications and also technological enhancements, similar to Iron Man

Nowadays, there is still a lot of discussion about genetically modified ("GM") food (Wiki). However, this discussion is peanuts compared to genetically modified human beings. Do not assume that this is a theoretical discussion. In April 2015, Chinese scientists claimed that they've genetically modified human embryos for the very first time to cure a fatal blood disease (NatureTelegraph).

Although genetic modification of humans may be banned in Europe, restricted in USA and practised in China, it is mainly an ethical issue. For many centuries, scientists have looked for a cure against ageing or even death. Apparently, immortality isn't even hypothetical. It has already been found to exist in a jellyfish (NYT). Immortality is even the new obsession of Silicon Valley (Newsweek).

I must admit that I struggle with the ethical component of today's topic. On the one hand, people should use their talents to do good (e.g., curing diseases). On the other hand, genetically modified human beings may well become - or worse, behave as - a different species and may even be inclined to compete with existing human beings. The combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and genetically modified humans, even brings Prof. Stephen Hawking's warning back to my mind. 

The current human race is most likely not able to survive the next Ice Age which is due in 80,000 years (see June 22 blog). Genetically modified humans might be. Interesting how Evolution works....