Science & Technology

The Transhumans Are Coming!

And they're promoting mito flushes, sousveillance, cyberglogging, and genetic virtue


The World Transhumanist Association's annual conference—TransVision 2004—attracted some 125 philosophers, scientific researchers, and techno-visionaries to Toronto last weekend to think about, discuss, and promote the ways in which technology will transform human lives. WTA members come from around the world; they want to nurture an intellectual and policy environment in which advanced biotechnology, nanotechnology, and informatics help people live longer, healthier lives, become more intelligent, and gain control over their emotions. On display at TransVision 2004 were some notable advances in their efforts.

Probably the most immediate goal of these transhumanists is promoting research that will radically increase healthy human lifespans. This topic was addressed at a plenary presentation on "The Feasibility and Desirability of Indefinite Youth" by Cambridge University theoretical biogerontologist (and new editor of the scientific journal Rejuvenation Research), Aubrey de Grey. De Grey identifies the "seven deadly things" that cause aging and argues researchers have now reached the point where an engineering approach to preventing the damage they cause is tractable.

For example, one of the chief causes of aging is mutations in mitochondrial genes. The mutations are a byproduct of the energy-producing activities of these cellular organelles that damages their own small genomes consisting of only 13 genes. Most genes are encoded by DNA in a cell's nucleus. "Mitochondrial DNA is massively less well protected than nuclear DNA," said De Grey. Consequently, De Grey argues that mitochondrial genes would be safer and less subject to mutation if they were engineered into the nuclear genes. And this is not an impossible goal, since a number of researchers have already managed to do just that for a variety of organisms. His hypothesis is that better protected mitochondrial genes would slow down one of the seven deadly things that cause aging. De Grey suggested that the other six causes of aging are also amenable to such "strategies for engineering negligible senescence." At the end of his talk, he predicted that there is "50/50 chance of effectively reversing aging in 25 years."

For those of us whose mitochondrial genes look to be battered about as they are left hanging outside the nucleus for the rest of our all too short lives, University of Virginia researcher Rafal Smigrodski offered some hope. In his presentation, "How to buy new mitochondria for your old body" Smigrodski described work he and his colleague Shah Khan at Gencia Corporation are doing that is aimed at completely replacing defective mitochondria with fresh new ones. Look for whole body "mito flushes" in a few years.

But the transhumanists in Toronto were not only concerned about long healthy happy lives; they were also concerned with truth. George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson argued that super-rational posthumans in the future won't be able to "agree to disagree," chiefly because they'll agree on everything. Hanson argues that disagreements among less than super-rational people today exist largely because we deceive ourselves about what we really know to be true. There are good "reasons" for us to think that, for example, "the more you believe in yourself, the more you can get other people to believe in you," and thus get them to do what you want. But super-rational posthumans won't be able to deceive themselves or others, suggests Hanson. Does this mean the end of politicians?

In another session, McMaster University philosopher and editor of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Mark Walker gave a talk on "Genetic Virtue", the ethics of bioengineering children to be virtuous. Walker began by pointing out that parents and communities already spend a lot of time and effort trying to instill virtues in the young. Assuming that genes that predispose people toward being honest and caring for others can be found, what would be wrong with allowing parents to use biotechnology, say, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, to increase the chances that their children are born with those virtues? Walker concluded that if we accept that the goal of ethics is to make our lives and our world better, then we ought to explore the plausibility and possibility of genetically instilled virtue. One audience member suggested that this would remove a child's free will, but I pointed out that a child doesn't get any extra measure of free will just because they have randomly conferred genes.

Opening the conference was the rather creepy Steve Mann, who has been trying to turn himself into a cyborg for years. Mann apparently insists on seeing the world through a set of goggles that laser-write video onto his retinas. Using a video hookup, he could share with the audience exactly what he was seeing; his view was available on a giant screen onstage. Mann's subject was the future of wearable computers (people encased in computer gear were referred to as "gargoyles" in some science fiction novel I read a while back). In the future we will see what he calls cyberglogging, which will be essentially sound and video lifeblogs compiled by omnipresent wearable video and audio hookups. Mann has a response to people who worry that we are becoming too dependent upon technology. "Don't shoes and clothing damage our ability to survive wild in the woods?," retorts Mann. "Calculators make our brains rot; clothes make our bodies rot; shoes make our feet rot, don't they?"

In addition, Mann, in the spirit of David Brin's The Transparent Society, also pointed out that we live in world in which surveillance (that is, "watching from above") cameras are becoming ubiquitous. His response is "sousveillance", or "watching from below"; in other words, the watched turn their cameras onto the watchers. To demonstrate his aphorism that "surveillance and sousveillance get along about as well as matter and anti-matter," Mann showed the audience video of him talking with clerks and security guards in a department store. Invariably they refused to answer his questions about surveillance and asked him to turn his cameras off. Mann asks them why they are uncomfortable when he's videoing them, when after all they are videoing him without his permission.

Setting aside the fact that Mann is voluntarily on private property, that he is a prestigious professor picking on clerks who are not the ones who run the store much less its surveillance policies, and that being aggressively videoed by some random guy is naturally intimidating, he does have a point. As he says, "sousveillance should never be prohibited in area that is undergoing surveillance." And I bet that when we all can wear completely unobtrusive video and audio recording devices, no one will much care—we'll just assume that we're on camera all the time.

But TransVision 2004 was not all techno-science and philosophy. Saturday evening featured a presentation by the Australian performance artist Stelarc. Now, generally my attitude toward performance art isn't very welcoming, but Stelarc is the real deal. Stelarc insists that humans are—and have always been—Zombies and Cyborgs. Our bodies are not inhabited by Cartesian "minds," and as cyborgs we've always used technology to extend the reach of our bodies into the world. To demonstrate his points, Stelarc offered the assembled transhumanists a fascinating (and fun) multi-media program encompassing his career from his days hanging from giant hooks thrust through his skin to creating and running insectoid cyborg machines to a prosthetic head using the Alice AI program to answer viewers' questions.

Well-meaning though transhumanists may be, their efforts are apparently giving some people the willies. "Transhumanists intend to take us on a long march to post humanity," warns Center for Bioethics and Culture special consultant, Wesley J. Smith. "If that is not to happen, we will have to resist." Resist longer and happier lives, better health, stronger bodies, and smarter brains? The prospect sounds incredibly dangerous to me! It must be stopped!

However, listening to the panels and presentations at TransVision 2004, Smith does get it essentially right when he notes, "They assert that humans should not merely be allowed to metamorphose themselves through plastic surgery, cyber-technology, and the like, but should have the right to control the destiny of their genes via progeny design and fabrication." Yes, indeed they do. And so what? Well, watch this space as I occasionally chronicle the opening of the transhumanist front in our ongoing culture wars.