“What today sounds like a fairytale can be reality tomorrow. This is a fairytale of the future.“
– Introduction to Raumpatrouille Orion, German science fiction series in the 1960s, translation mine
A glimpse into the future
3D printers, Virtual Reality technology, industrial robots – the technological development is breathtaking these days. In March 2017, visitors of the world’s largest computer expo CeBIT in Hanover, Germany could gaze at the current trends in information technology. It made me realise, that robotic engineering has reached a point, where picturing robots as replacement for care staff, pets or soldiers is no longer dreams of a distant future. Just have a look at the newest civil and military robots by Boston Dynamics:
Also, Near Field Communication is ready to be taken to the next level: At CeBIT the company Digiwell provided possibilities to implant an RFID-Chip underneath the skin of the visitor’s hands. This tiny piece of technology can be used as a key or to make payments. The implanted user simply holds his or her hand close to the receiver and things will magically open, light up or do whatever they are programmed for.
Of course, information technology is not the only innovative field of research. There are countless areas where development is happening: genetic engineering, pharmacology, neuroscience, research on Artificial Intelligence, etc. Technological innovation seems to be accelerating, destination unknown.
What to make of it?
Possibly some of you, my fellow readers, already feel put off by all these novelties. To lighten up the mood, just have a look at this video:
Well, of course I did not show you this just for fun. What I found particularly interesting about it, is what the waiter in minute 1:00 is saying:
“This confuses me. I don’t like change.”
Clearly new technologies are frightening. They are fundamentally changing the way society works and nobody can say for sure, what will be the result. Countless science-fiction novels (Brave new world, Dune-Franchise), movies (I Robot and Transcendence) and games (Portal and Deus Ex) illustrate dystopic futures with almighty machines tyrannizing humanity. They address various (but related) fears ranging from becoming dependent on these technologies to being monitored by them, including the loss of personal privacy. This reflects a general rejection of new technologies we can observe in most parts of society.
In the following article, I will argue that this technophobia is in fact a very old companion of humanity. The human reflex of rejecting the new has stuck with us since the very beginning. As media theorist Kathrin Passig puts it:
“If by the time of the upcoming of life on earth, there would have been culture critics around, they would have grumpily written in their magazines: ‘Life – What is it good for? We were managing quite well without it‘“ (Passig 2009, translation mine).
Besides questioning knee-jerk reactions to new technologies, I want to take a closer look at the idea of transhumanism. Its supporters follow the idea, that one day humans will transcend themselves from their biological bodies and merge with the technology they have created. As the argument goes, this will be the point, where biological evolution will come to a halt and be replaced by a technological one.
New possibilities and old fears
Research on media history has shown that society at large has always been suspicious towards new media. From today’s perspective, it sounds unbelievable that the technological revolution of the printing press prompted a heated debate, whether reading harms people, especially children and women. Gutenberg’s contemporaries were afraid that these weak creatures could lose themselves in the now widely available narrative worlds. They described the practice of reading as a waste of time that harms the power of the weak souls. Also, they were debating how trustworthy non-handwritten words can be.
All of these fears sound familiar to us. We have heard them a million times, only targeting the revolutionary technology of today. In an essay (heavily recommended to all German speakers), Passig lists many of the common arguments against everything „new“: Nobody will use it. It’s not an improvement. It’s dangerous. And…
When you think of it, it’s kind of funny that US president Rutherford Hayes was doubting, whether anybody would like to use this new thing called telephone, that Charlie Chaplin called the cinema “little more than a fad” and that in the 90’s people were convinced that only white men in the age of 18 to 45 would have a use for the internet. That French Joint Chief of Staff assured the parliament in 1920, nothing would change regarding the new technology of machine guns and that aviation pioneer Octave Chanute was promising “[Airplanes] will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers” (Passig, 2009).
We can see that, despite the initial rejection, every groundbreaking technology has eventually become a vital part of society. It seems that, as soon as the feared technology enters the market, people get rapidly used to it. And soon after its introduction to the public, it has become a matter of course. The turning point, the moment when rejection merges into absent-mindedness usage, slips our attention. Fear gets converted into ordinariness. In fact, we endorse technology that is relatively new but not so new that we already take it for granted. As soon as we develop a feeling of how to handle it, we accept it as a given. In reverse, we can assume that most of the technological novelties we fear today, will be the most normal thing by tomorrow. Yesterday’s science-fiction becomes our reality today, and we don’t even think about it.
Origins and implications of transhumanism
Philosopher Michel Serres writes
“Without us even realizing it, a new kind of human being was born in the brief period of time that separates us from the 1970s. He or she no longer has the same body or the same life expectancy. They no longer communicate in the same way; they no longer perceive the same world; they no longer live in the same Nature or inhabit the same space” (Serres 2014).
This implicates an understanding of something new emerging, a new human that is essentially different to what he or she used to be. And here is where the transhumanist agenda comes into play. It was Julian Huxley, brother of the famous Sci-Fi author Aldous Huxley, who coined the term in 1957:
“The human species can, if it wishes transcend itself – not just sporadically. An individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: Man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature. ‘I believe in transhumanism.’: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence (…) It will at last ne consciously fulfilling its real destiny” (Huxley 1957: 17).
In the following decades ‘trans(-itional)human’ has become the term for the human of the future, mostly envisioned as partly human but essentially different from us so that it cannot be called human anymore. But transhumanism has gone through some major shifts of meaning. Media theorists Sorger and Ranisch try to sum up what transhumanism means today:
“Transhumanism advocates the radical transformation of the human’s biological capacities and social condition by means of technologies. These transformations are widely perceived as human enhancement or augmentation which might be so fundamental that they bring about life forms with characteristics that differ so drastically that the new life forms can be perceived as other than human. Visions range from the posthuman as a new biological species, a cybernetic organism, or even a digital, disembodied entity.” (Sorger&Ranisch 2014: 8)
It is claimed, that in the transhuman age, enhanced humans will live longer, happier and presumably more virtuous life because they will be engineered to become “better humans” (Tirosh-Samuelson 2014: 56). Today concepts and reflections associated with transhumanism are brought forward by philosophers, bioliberal thinkers, bioethicists, engineers, computer scientists as well as futurist (Sorger&Ranisch 2014: 14). But is transhumanism merely a niche discipline, a philosophical intellectual game, or does this theory already have (political) implications on our lives?
Is the Singularity near?
This question is an easy one: One of the most renowned spokespersons of the transhumanist movement, Ray Kurzweil, is a Director of Engineering at Google leading a team developing machine intelligence and natural language understanding. He was directly hired by Larry Page and called the „best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence“ by Bill Gates. When he is talking, people are listening, especially the powerful people of Silicon Valley.
And Kurzweil’s theories are convincing. I cannot go into detail here, but let me explain his most important idea: the (technological) Singularity. When striving to understand transhumanism, the Singularity is a key term. As Kurzweil argues, the speed of technological progress is accelerating. The computing capacities is getting better and better, and this growth is not linear but exponential. This phenomena is known as Moore’s Law:
Right now, this process lies within our own hands. We are the creators of machines that are more and more powerful each day. However based on Moore’s Law, Kurzweil predicts for 2045, that machines will be so capable, that they can improve themselves. They would no longer depend on humans. This point in time is called the Singularity. It would release an explosive increase in their abilities. Everything after this point lies beyond our imagination:
“Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind […]. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make“ (Good  in Sandberg, 2013: 377).
We already see signs of this today when algorithms are taught to independently learn. The Singularity might sound as taken right out of a science-fiction book but philosophers, engineers and all kind of people take this idea pretty serious.
If you feel intrigued, I recommend the documentary “Transcendent Man”:
Excursus: Religious scope
Some people associated with transhumanism seem to have the feeling of something rising that is going beyond the human imagination and comprehension. Exceeding every human measure evokes a reverence of something that might be bigger than mankind. Within the transhuman movement, there are people that relate this feeling to a somewhat religious experience. Therefore, there are aspirations to develop religious or seemingly religious structures within it.
However, this trend also alarms many transhumanist thinkers who would then publish pleadings to defend transhumanism of religious appropriation. In the H+Magazine, a magazine created for discussing transhumanist ideas, Matthew Bailey argues that
“preaching the Singularity is only going to cause others to see it as nothing but a shroud of delusion pulled over the eyes of its followers, a techno-cult preaching the Rapture of the Nerds, when this is absolutely not the case. The Singularity is a serious thing, and it demands serious study.” (Bailey 2011)
However, he admits that “the Singularity contains concepts that are ripe for use anyone wishing to create a religious ideology, whether they are doing so consciously or not.” (Bailey 2011) Analyzing Huxley’s quote (“I believe in transhumanism. (…) It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”), we can see that transhumanism indeed was initially coined in a somewhat religious context.
This religious context is what transhumanism is most critisised for. Therefore, I wanted to mention it but I will not dig deeper into this issue. Let’s continue with something more out of this world: our own bodies.
Artificial body parts as well as Augmented Reality Technology show something that media theory has been describing for decades: a merger of technology and body. Famous literary scholar Marshall McLuhan, known for his statement “The medium is the message”, describes media as extensions or amputations of human body parts. He goes even further when he envisions:
„Having extended or translated our central nervous system into the electromagnetic technology, it is but a further stage to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well” (McLuhan 1964).
And for philosopher Jean Baudrillard “virtual machines” are integrated into the human body in such a way that they almost genetically belong to it (Baudrillard 1997).
Artist Neil Harrbison, suffering from total color-blindness, took this notion literally. He implanted an antenna into his scull that substitutes his missing eyesight by transforming colors into audible sounds. This way, he can differentiate colors that are in front of him by listening to the different frequencies that different colors evoke. Now he can even “see” colors that are outside the visible spectrum for human eyes as ultraviolet radiation.
In an interview with the BBC he says
“I’m not using technology or wearing technology. I am technology. This [the antenna] is a body part. […] It’s a completely new sense and a new body part that allows me to extent color perception beyond human sight.”
We can see that technology not only shapes our daily lives, it shapes the human body itself and questions traditional concepts of the human condition. It questions the way we constitute ourselves as ‘human’. When do we stop to be human and when do we start to become machines?
Let’s make this a little more tangible: Clothes and buildings are usually not scrutinized as questionable objects that distance the human from its natural form. Quite the contrary, the fact that we learned to protect ourselves from unpleasant environmental influences by building tools of all sorts is regarded as one of the major differences between the homo sapiens (first technology creating species) and other life forms. We use language and systems of inscription to transmit and preserve knowledge. A rather popular differentiation between human and other species is that we are willing and capable of forming our environment in order to make it suit our needs. We create technology. That is what makes us human. There is no such thing as a human without the technology surrounding it.
If we take a closer look at the human ability to see, we realise that it is altered by a huge variety of gadgets: magnifying glasses, telescopes, reading glasses and contact lenses. VR glasses may feel like groundbreaking new steps but in fact they are just consequently following the path humanity has embarked upon ever since. At the end of the day, we cannot decide what is natural and what is artificial. The old idea of differentiating between nature and culture (possibly coined by Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico in the early 18st century (Müller-Funk 2006)) has long been superseded. The idea of a natural human body is an illusion. Our body is not what makes us human, it is the technosphere we surround ourselves with that defines the human condition. Our bodies have been augmented from the start.
In love with a machine?
A post-body scenario provokes a number of questions. One important one seems to be the question of physical touch and love. To what extent will there be the wish and the possibility for physical love when our natural bodies will be overcome?
At this point, I will not elaborate on the fact that our relation to technological gadgets already has a strong emotional essence, to some extent, it is replacing actual face to face communications between humans even by now. Rather, I want to take a serious attempt to outline a specific matter of discussion when thinking about future life-realities: interpersonal and especially sexual relationships between “man and machine”. Already, there are societies where this topic is on the agenda of everyday life. Japan is the leading nation in building humanoid robots. Unsurprisingly, it is also the country where robotic sex dolls are deeply integrated into the culture. There are people who prefer a serious relationship with these dolls over a relationship with a human being.
This topic seems to be a significant one since it touches a question as important as how we will reproduce ourselves in the future. Moreover, the feeling of love is one of the most essential experiences to many humans and its possible transformation concerns everyone. The movie Her (2013) conveys a beautiful insight into what it could be like to fall in love with a computer or an operating system, as they call it. Episode “Be right back” of the British Sci-fi series “Blackmirror” pictures a future where it is possible to stay in touch with the deceased. Martha loses her boyfriend Ash in a car accident but soon finds out that a new service can analyse all the data (videos, emails, sound files) Ash had produced during his life and use it to recreate Ash’s mind. Later, she buys a humanoid robot that looks exactly like Ash and continues her relationship with him.
Closely connected to that is the debate on genetic engineering. It does not seem unlikely that parents will soon be able to “design” their perfect baby, whether their design decisions will concern physical or cognitive aspects of the new human being. What consequences will that have on biological evolution? Will there still be biological evolution in the first place or will it be replaced by an insanely accelerating process of mechanical evolution as soon as Singularity is reached?
Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor of Osaka University Department of System Innovation, explains that to him
“It’s very interesting how human beings don’t really understand about ourselves. What is ‘Human’? What do you mean when you say ‘Think’? What are ‘Emotions’? The study of androids can never be done without the pursuit of ‘human-likeness’. Our study is almost equal to questioning ‘What is Human?’ In order to make something that is useful for people, we first need to understand human beings. Androids may not be in practical use right away, but the process of understanding our nature is the most interesting part of the study of androids.” (Video below (1:30))
In this article, I tried to accomplish my goal of outlining how we usually tend to underestimate the world building capacities technology inherits and the radical ways technological development could define the 21st century. As shown, the idea that humanity at one point will transcend their biological form of life and reproduction is not in fact a new thing. However, we have come to a point when we urgently need to be aware of this fact and address a set of questions: Will biological evolution stop and be replaced by technical enhancement? Will there be a time of the transhuman? What does it mean to be transhuman? Who will have access to augmentation technologies and who will be left behind? How will this change ownership globally? Finding answers to these questions will be one of the biggest challenges humanity will face in the 21st century.
It is important to keep in mind that human beings merely continue doing what they have always done, namely they have invented and used techniques for making their lives better or easier. Following this notion, technological progress is in itself part of the human condition. So rather than contemplating about the passing non-digital age and cultural practices that we might lose, we should focus on shaping the future.
A different version of this article was firstly released as part of a student’s project about „Keywords for the 21st century“.
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