Are you ready to become a cyborg? Or get an upgrade on your brain? The super-rich are looking at ways to become superhuman – and you could be left behind
If you had bad eyesight, would you wear glasses? If you lost a leg, would you get a prosthetic? If one of your organs failed, would you get a transplant?
What about if you wanted 360-degree vision? Would you get an eye implanted in the back of your head?
Humans have been using science and technology to improve their lot in life for centuries – it’s one of the things that sets us apart from the rest of the animals on the planet.
For the most part, these efforts have been constrained by our understanding of the human condition, and what we consider to be “normal” and “natural”.
But what if, rather than just fixing things when they go wrong, we could improve on what nature has given us?
This is the question that drives the intellectual and philosophical movement known as Transhumanism, which has been gathering pace across the globe.
Transhumanists believe that that mankind can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations to become “superhuman” and, eventually, immortal.
Rise of the cyborgs
Perhaps the most prominent transhumanist is a man called Zoltan Istvan , who is currently running for President of the United States, as leader of the Transhumanist Party.
Istvan believes that people have the right to modify their bodies in any way they want – as long as these modifications don’t hurt anybody else.
Moreover, he believes that people can give themselves significant advantages in life by “upgrading” their bodies using technology.
“If you show up to work, and your construction worker friend now has robotic arms and he can carry five times the amount you can, he’ll get promoted faster. So this idea of merging with machines is becoming more evolutionary reasonable,” he said.
“In 15 to 20 years it will be very common for someone to say, ‘I had an upgrade on my arm, and I’m happy about it, and I’m looking for the next model,’ sort of like we look for the next model of iPhone.”
It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s not as implausible as it first appears.
From bionic limbs to chips implanted in people’s hands that allow them to control the environment around them, there are already plenty of examples of people who have gained “superhuman” powers with the help of technology.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has even talked about something called “neural lace,” which would allow people to connect their brains with an artificial intelligence network to instantly access online information.
“Everyone says the human body is magnificent. It’s nothing of the sort. Biology is an incredibly frail system. There’s not a sensible person that doesn’t believe a robot is going to run 100 times faster than a human being,” said Istvan.
“Machines are going to be systematically better than us in every single thing we do – including work – and that’s why we absolutely have to integrate ourselves into them or we’re going to be left behind.”
It’s not just about turning ourselves into cyborgs. Scientists were recently given the green light to conduct human trials of the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR.
CRISPR is already being used to grow human organs for transplants inside pigs, and to develop part-human part-animal “chimera” embryos which could treat diseases. It is thought the technique could even be used to eliminate certain types of cancer.
Istvan believes that CRISPR could soon be used for “biohacking” – a type of cosmetic surgery designed to make the human body better, stronger and more efficient.
“I have friends that want to grow an eye on the back of their head. It sounds crazy, but actually there’s already been some success with growing some of these things, and it’s really not that complicated to connect something to the optic nerve,” he said.
“The question of course is perception, and how that would that change your visual outlook. But still, I think the biology is only three to five years away from us being able to at least start experimenting with that kind of thing, and seeing if it works.”
Some transhumanists believe that gene-editing technologies like CRISPR could eventually be used to slow or even prevent the aging process.
“The thing about genes is they’re responsible for generating each successive generation of cells to keep our bodies going,” said Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, who debated the issue with Istvan at the recent Brain Bar Budapest festival.
“But as time goes on, those cells deteriorate – so it’s like having a poorer and poorer xerox – and that’s how we grow old and debilitate.
“But of course we have a pretty good understanding of the biochemistry behind this. So, in principle, it could be possible to either arrest or even reverse this kind of ageing process at the genetic level.”
Through a combination of robotics and advancements in gene editing, it is becoming increasingly likely that, within a matter of decades, humans will be able to extend their lifespans indefinitely.
Istvan, as part of his “Transhumanist Bill of Rights”, claims that aging is a disease, and that there should be a universal right to immortality.
“We’re not saying you have to live forever, we’re just saying we want the choice,” he said.
“It’s crazy that we live under this spectre of death, and that death is ‘natural’. There’s nothing natural on planet Earth any more. Whatever we can’t do we call natural, but we change that all the time as human beings, as we pick up tools and explore the universe.
“So we’re trying to get people to look at death as something that’s not natural either. It’s just something to be overcome. It’s just a big giant roadblock on the way to becoming god-like human beings.”
Upgrading your brain
While many people find the idea of staying 30 forever very attractive, there is no use having a fit young body if your brain continues to deteriorate.
Istvan admits that the brain is “the most complex organism to deal with”, but claims that advancements in stem cell technology could one day enable brain cells to regenerate.
He also believes that it will eventually be possible for people to “upload” their brains to a computer, and continue living that way.
Meanwhile, Fuller talks about a branch of transhumanism called neuro-cosmotology, which is based on the idea that, by taking some kind of drug cocktail, you could periodically “turn up” your brain, so that you’re able to function much more effectively.
While this may seem desirable to some employers, who want to see their workers firing on all cylinders, it calls into question the ethics of enabling people to artificially enhance their intellectual performance.
According to Fuller, this is not dissimilar to athletes like Lance Armstrong taking the hormone EPO to stimulate production of red blood cells and increase his body’s ability to carry oxygen – thereby improving his stamina.
“I think the sports doping scandals are the thin end of the wedge of a problem all society is eventually going to face, with regard to the conditions under which people are seen as being competent in whatever they’re trying to do,” said Fuller.
“At the moment, people who undergo cosmetic neurology are typically people who work in the city. The sort of people who need to be sharp and quick,” he said.
“Once these things are seen to actually have some kind of impact in affecting performance against other people, then a lot of the very same issues that arise with sports doping stuff will arise with this.”
The new class divide?
Moreover, there’s the question of who will be able to afford to become “superhuman”.
As with other “cosmetic” surgeries, this type of medical procedure is unlikely to be offered on the National Health Service, so it will most likely be restricted to an elite group of super-rich people.
Fuller warns that transhumanism could end up exaggerating the inequalities that already exist in society, whereby only the rich are able to get access to technologies that enable them to think better and live longer.
“Let’s say I’m a rich guy who takes some kind of experimental drug that’s illegal otherwise. Let’s say it doesn’t go well. I can probably afford to get myself cured. So the fact that it has negative consequences doesn’t really impinge on me that much,” he said.
“My view is, I think it’s inevitable that richer people will get access to this stuff, but I think the key thing is to have them be open, and publicly report the results of using the stuff.”
This will allow public health services like the NHS to start redrawing the boundaries around what it means to live a “normal” life, and what relevant medical healthcare is necessary for that.
“So, for example, people are given eye glasses because being able to see properly is considered to be a normal part of living as human beings, but we may need to expand that to include some of these other kinds of drug treatments and prosthetics,” said Fuller
Istvan agrees there is a risk transhumanism could lead to inequality. A robotic heart, for instance, currently costs around $200,000 – meaning that only a tiny proportion of people in the world could ever afford to buy one.
However, he believes that, as these technologies become more widely used, the cost will come down, making them accessible to more people.
“There’s no way I would allow a system where only the rich could afford to augment their children’s intelligence. That’s a totally unfair advantage,” he said.
“There would be government grants created or things of that nature in order to make sure that all classes of people would have access to something.”
However, from Istvan’s point of view, the more pressing challenge is convincing conservative, Christian Middle-Americans to embrace scientific and technological progress as part of human evolution.
“Formal Judeo-Christian religion is diametrically opposed to transhumanism on a very fundamental philosophical level. They just don’t want any part of what we’re trying to say,” he said.
“They’re trying to say you should be humble, you should remain human and be prepared to die and go meet your maker in heaven, and also that you’re born in sin.
“Transhumanists believe that we’re born for our own greatness, to pursue it, through technology, to become as much as we can, to overcome death so we never have to lose our loved ones.”
Istvan and Fuller both acknowledge the risks and fears associated with transhumanism.
The specter of eugenics programs during Nazi-era Germany still hangs heavily over this kind of human experimentation, and Hollywood has done nothing to ease our fears, with films like The Terminator, Transcendence and The Matrix.
However, Fuller claims that people need to become more liberal in their attitudes in order to embrace the opportunities that transhumanism presents.
“There has been an incredible amount of caution surrounding experimentation, regarding this more adventurous gene therapy and stuff like this that could radically transform the human condition,” he said.
“We need a rethink about that. Maybe our ethics in a way need to be much more precautionary than we currently are. We need to live in a society that’s willing to embrace much more risk at this level.”