There’s a little symposium currently underway in Oxford entitled “Tomorrow’s People: the challenges of technologies for life extension and enhancement.”
On the surface you could be fooled into believing that some band of science fiction fans are gathering to discuss some imagined future but as it turns out, the congress is being run by the Transhumanist Association, a group which advocates:
“the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. We support the development of and access to new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy better minds, better bodies and better lives. In other words, we want people to be better than well.”
“Better than well”. Who could disagree with that one?
There’s something so human about it. That desire to live longer, be smarter, fitter, healthier. Immortal even…
Everything about our being, our art, our culture, our religion, our science, our whole expression in fact, seems to stem in some part from the sad realisation that life is short, death often painful.
It’s a pre-determination we cannot avoid.
But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.
So far though, our attempts at immortality have lain largely in the realm of art, philosophy and religion, but it appears that science may now be attempting to push the boundaries of our imagination and make our fantasies a reality. The age of the “posthuman” may be closer than we think.
Or that, at least, is what the transhumanists believe.
They have a vision of a human state that:
“so radically exceeds those of present humans as to be no longer human by our current standards … Posthumans could be artificial intelligences, or they could be uploaded consciousnesses, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nano-technology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.”
As outlandish as the transhuman vision of the future sounds, stem cell research is already producing some fascinating insights into how our cells deteriorate and is providing us with clues as to how we may slow down or halt such deterioration, and create cells with a significantly extended lifespan, suggesting that the prolongation of our lives may not be so improbable.
Of course, the question remains as to the feasibility and desirability of such longevity.
From an ecological point of view it is unlikely that the earth could sustain a population that is capable of surviving beyond its natural lifespan. Current pressures on natural resources due to population growth and over consumption are already stretching the earth to its limits.
Demographically of course, an ever-ageing population could place unbearable strain on economies. In western society today, falling birth rates and increased longevity are already forcing politicians and economists to reconsider policies on employment, immigration, retirement, insurance and medical care.
For the transhumanists however, such longevity need not pose a problem:
â€œInstead of consigning seniors to sickness, aging and death we believe governments should make reducing the mortality rate for all their citizens a goal, not just for those under 75, and that greater support for anti-aging therapies is one of the key ways to improve the public health and extend life. Transhumanists believe that twenty extra years of healthy life are just as valuable in someoneâ€™s second century as in their first.â€
Moral questions also arise concerning accessibility to life prolonging treatments.
While inequalities already exist with regards to access to medical treatment not only within nations but between nations, the spectre of a two tier system which sees a rich and powerful class enjoying the benefits of life enhancing and prolonging technologies and a poorer class which is incapable of accessing them, raises further questions as to the social consequences of such technological advancement.
In his book “Our Post Human Future” Francis Fukuyama argues that such technologies could give rise to an engineered class of human that develops a social superiority over those that are not engineered.
The technology, far from allowing us to achieve our life-forever dreams, could in fact produce a dystopia of Orwellian proportions.
Ultimately however, the transhumanists seem unfazed by such bleak predictions and envisage a form of humanity that is no longer even biological.
â€œSome posthumans may find it advantageous to jettison their bodies altogether and live as information patterns on vast super-fast computer networks. Their minds may be not only more powerful than ours but may also employ different cognitive architectures or include new sensory modalities that enable greater participation in their virtual reality settings. Posthuman minds might be able to share memories and experiences directly, greatly increasing the efficiency, quality, and modes in which posthumans could communicate with each other. The boundaries between posthuman minds may not be as sharply defined as those between humans.â€
It has a strangely familiar resonance to it, this notion of a vast intelligence floating in the ether, timeless, ageless and everlasting, this ideal energy force of pure thought, this essence of being….
Could it be that in the future we all become Gods?