The Pitfalls and Pioneers Of Transhumanism

Remember Gattaca? The superb film describes the contrasting fates of two brothers, one of whom was genetically optimized at birth. A few years later, in another movie, The Island, a community of prisoners discovers one day they are nothing but clones of super-privileged people and that their sole purpose is to provide fresh organs as a guarantee of immortality.

Excellent science-fiction novels and films are there to illustrate mankind’s secular dream of transcending the limits of body and mind. But yesterday’s science-fiction has become today’s science and tomorrow’s medicine. Cell therapies, bioprostheses, artificial organs and neural implants are now bursting into labs and hospitals.

Meanwhile, the technology to edit our DNA keeps evolving at a breathtaking pace. After genetically modified organisms and animals, the inevitable next step will be GMH, genetically modified humans. After all, haven’t half-a-dozen U.S. researchers recently called for a moratorium on the genetic manipulation of reproductive cells and human embryos that state-of-the-art labs are already working on?

There’s cause to worry. Reality has indeed already outgrown fantasies, with the dazzling progress made in a small number of converging areas--nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, computer and cognitive sciences--making it possible to build an “upgraded” human being. A homo sapiens 2.0. A stronger, more cognitively advanced human whose normal weaknesses have been righted.

Such is the dream of transhumanists. Whether body-hackers, extropians, cryogenics enthusiasts or tech progressives, they all share a resolutely positive vision of innovation. They all believe that science and technologies will improve human condition. Thus they defend the right to alter their bodies in whatever way they want.

“But they disagree on the politics, especially on the consequences of technological advances for societies,” says French philosopher Gabriel Dorthe.

The French transhumanist association Technoprog, for example, places the social perspective at the heart of its reflections. Most of its U.S. counterparts, in contrast, are libertarian, meaning they place the right of the individual above that of the community.

Not surprisingly, transhumanism attracts fierce criticism. In France, associations such as TechnoLogos or Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre (parts and labor) are calling to “resist the power of technics.” Behind ape masks, these bioconservative militants recently disturbed a symposium on synthetic biology, shouting, “We are the chimps of the future!”

In the U.S., social science researcher Francis Fukuyama, famous for his theory on the end of History, believes transhumanism to be “the world’s most dangerous idea.”

Some see behind this movement the gloomy design of a totalitarian technocapitalism. Others simply believe it’s stupid to wish for immortality. Won’t killing death also eradicate dreams, the act of passing something onto younger generations, enjoyment, desire? What if our weaknesses are the actual essence of what it means to be human?

Paradoxically, the transhumanist ideology has never had that much influence. Once a simple utopia supported by a handful of mad scientists, it has become over the past few years the ideological horizon of the innovation prophets supported by the GAFA leaders (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple). Transhumanism is now a fully-structured lobby, with its own gurus, its transnational organizations (the University of Oxford’s Future for Humanity Institute, Humanity+ in the U.S.) and its own magazine, H+.

Most importantly, scientific research related to transhumanism is mobilizing some of the planet’s most brilliant minds, generously funded as they are by a handful of high-tech tycoons. “Libertarian, inequalitarian, transhumanist” could be the new motto for the Silicon Valley, the proselyte of a post-human humankind promised to be forever young. Convinced that technology is all-powerful and owners of the arrogance that comes with making a fortune by destabilizing entire industries, Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal), Sergey Brin and Larry Page (co-founders of Google), Larry Ellison (Oracle’s CEO) and the like firmly believe they will one day kill death.

“It is a huge revolution in human thinking,” historian Yuval Noah Harari explained in a fascinating interview for The Edge. “Throughout history, old age and death were always treated as metaphysical problems, as something that the gods decreed, as something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and reality… But the new attitude is to treat old age and death as technical problems, no different in essence than any other disease.”

In the minds of these super-rich who finance foundations or companies dedicated to the transhumanist ideal--like Google’s Calico--“death is optional,” Harari says.

Nobody embodies this idea better than Ray Kurzweil. Recently recruited by Google, the inventor of the music-writing computer and of the reading machine for the blind popularized in one of his books the concept of “singularity” as the inflection point--in the 2040s--when artificial intelligence, which will be able to feel emotions, will surpass all human intelligence combined.

By that point, everyone will be able to boost their abilities with neural implants or even download their entire consciousness on a super-computer. “People like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions,” says Harari. “These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria.”

In any case, these people have the means to spread their beliefs. Ray Kurzweil, together with Peter Diamandis, confounded Singularity University, which is financed among others by Google and accommodated on a NASA site in the heart of the Silicon Valley. The University’s creed is that “exponential technologies” will be able to solve all of humanity’s pressing issues, from health, poverty and education to pollution as well as water, energy or food shortages. “Why,” transhumanists ask, “would we want to erect ethical barriers in the way of bettering of the species?

They see a clear continuum between ancient Egypt’s wooden toe prostheses, the glasses we wear now, exoskeletons developed for paraplegics… and “DNA scissors” that will create tomorrow’s perfect babies. Why draw arbitrary borders to limit progress? Don’t you want the best for those you love? Would you turn down the opportunity to make your children more beautiful, more intelligent and less vulnerable to diseases?

Are those the beliefs of “disruption” wizards drunk on their own words, or the baloney of clever algorithm merchants eager to dominate new markets? It doesn’t matter either way. Even though we’re still far uncloaking all the mysteries of life, the unquestionable acceleration of tech-medicine is already placing our societies in front of difficult moral choices.

From the moment an unborn child’s DNA can be analyzed with a simple blood sample from the mother-to-be, which diseases should we look for? Some would argue that it’s okay to eliminate embryos of children carrying Down’s syndrome. But what about other deadly monogenic diseases like cystic fibrosis? Laurent Alexandre, a doctor, entrepreneur and author, believes the transhumanists will definitely win this battle against the bioconservatives.

If that happens, the wealth gap could then quickly translate into a very significant longevity gap too. An intolerable thought. Will the rich be the only ones to benefit from “immortality?” How can we adapt our health care systems and our society models to this future tech-medicine?

Europe needs to define a common “biopolicy” reflecting our values, and we need to do it quickly, warns Israel Nisand, founder of the Strasbourg-based European Forum of Bioethics. If not, we’ll fall into the same trap as the Americans and the Chinese, who are already looking for the genes of superior intelligence.