In Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity, authors R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell don't simply map the history and future of everything from cancer-curing nanobots to 200-year lifespans to the outer reaches of the inner mind. They also bring a great deal of humor and warmth to transhumanism, or radical, self-directed human evolution, that typically conjures up images of people with giant heads wearing white jumpsuits in a sterile, passionless future.
Sirius and Cornell worked together at H+ magazine and have long and varied histories in various countercultural and tech movements. Sirius was one of the creators of the acclaimed Mondo 2000 which, along with Wired, helped define "cyberculture" in the early 1990s and stretch the limits of magazine design and content. He also collaborated frequently with Timothy Leary, most fully on 1997's Design for Dying. Cornell is a web developer by trade and, prior to H+, worked on Gnosis magazine. He may be the only transhumanist to openly acknowledge his debt to Eleanor Cameron's incredible 1954 book The Wonderful Trip to the Mushroom Planet, the first in a series of kids' novels that are arguably more mind-blowing than the entire Philip K. Dick oeuvre.
In this wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie, they explain what "the singularity" might look like, why they're not overly concerned with robots taking all the good jobs, why having your parents live to be 150 won't necessarily be an ordeal, and why now more than ever transhumanists and singulatarians need to get "a sense of humor."
What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of an hour-long phone call.
reason: In Transcendence, you basically define transhumanism as self-directed evolution whose goals are ending the aging process, gaining greater intelligence, ending human suffering—or at least ending unnecessary suffering—and conquering the stars. Talk a little bit about the roots of the transhumanist movement. When did it become a self-conscious movement?
RU Sirius: I would say it became really a contemporary self-conscious movement with the beginning of the Extropians in the late 1980s. Max More and Natasha More really brought it to the point where it became an organized movement. Prior to that, you had FM-2030, the American-Iranian Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, writing and teaching at The New School in New York in the 1960s. You had Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson advocating space migration, intelligence growth, and life-extension. In the mid-1970s, there was actually a group called "The Network" and people met over these topics in Berkeley and Los Angeles. But I think the thing that turned into the World Transhumanist Association and then branched off into several other groups, really starts with Max and Natasha and even more, the Extropians.
reason: Your book is a great encyclopedia of around a hundred entries on all sorts of topics. It's a really nice book to dip through. You guys talk about the singularity. Talk a little bit about the singularity and the different ways that the singularity can be defined. Where do you guys fall in the various camps of the singularity. Is the singularity going to be wonderful? Has it already happened? Or is it going to be a clusterfuck of intergalactic proportions?
Sirius: I accept Vernor Vinge's original defining notion of a technological singularity as the time at which artificial intelligence becomes as smart and then smarter than human beings, and it continually boosts its intelligence until it's so much greater that we are, as Vinge said, to the A.I. as worms are to us. That's sort of his notion of technological singularity. It's this very radical sort of event sometime during this century. The analysis of it is very difficult to talk about. I'm not particularly a believer in that singularity. I think it's interesting and I think it might happen.
Obviously there are very intelligent people who know a lot about artificial intelligence. Will we get artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are? There are a huge number of naysayers in the scientific community—many more than those who endorse the concept. I tend to think that artificial intelligence will evolve in a way that's orthogonal to us. It will turn out to be something different than a pure human brain emulation, and it will end up being more like our tool and less like our mind-children who take off on a new evolutionary path. But I could be very wrong about that.
reason: One of the books in your bibliography is the John Markoff book What the Dormouse Said, a fascinating history of the '60s counterculture and its impact on the development of the personal computer. Markoff splits early technologists into those who believed in artificial intelligence that would replace human thinking in a way, and those who believed in human augmentation—the idea that computers and machines would supplement our abilities. Are you both in the camp where you see a kind of hyperactive technology or constantly increasing and increasingly vibrant technology as more about augmentation of human ability rather than a replacement via artificial intelligence?
Jay Cornell: That does fit my views. I think the augmentation aspects, the improving of humans, is more likely and possibly preferable. The more-far out ideas—"Well, we're just going to replace the human body with a robot or we're just going to upload our brains to a computer instead of dying."—are interesting to talk about, but I think they have more technological and even philosophical problems associated with them that many advocates wouldn't like to admit.
reason: One of the goals of transhumanism is gaining greater intelligence. How are we doing that? What are examples where technology or human ingenuity or self-directed evolution is already allowing us to gain greater intelligence?
Cornell: We are using computers to augment our intelligence in an indirect way in the same way that humans augment their intelligence by learning how to write things down. One of the things we talk about in the book is "distributed cognition," the idea that thinking isn't merely something that sort of happens in our brains. We use outside tools and other people and networks to increase our intelligence.
reason: That can be as primitive a form as Wikipedia, right? We can have a distributed encyclopedia that is accessible basically to everybody in the world if you have a smart phone or an Internet connection. You can make yourself smarter, avail yourself of that information. But it's also that we can crowdsource information or ideas or even the best route to get from here to there.
Sirius: Not only access to something like Wikipedia, but the fact that it's participatory, and the fact that this digital culture has grown up around the idea of open-sourced activity and maker-culture and participation. It increases people's intelligence that large numbers of people are encouraged to participate in things like Wikipedia and other projects.
reason: That's a radical shift, right? It's partly facilitated by technology, but it's also that the technology was created by thinking in participatory terms. In the past, encyclopedias were sources of knowledge. But they were kind of like sacred books, written by people in a language most people couldn't understand, and you didn't know how to read anyways, and you would never have access to a book, but we've flipped that now, right?
Sirius: A large chunk of our culture and our attitudes and the stuff that large numbers of people participate in come directly out of hacker culture. They have come directly out of hacker ethics, and the idea that you can take the tools, and you can use it yourself, and you can use it in your own way, and in any way you choose, and that you would have a certain enthusiasm for sharing that ability or that participation with other people. It's a huge part of our culture that dials all the way back to Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review with Stewart Brand. In the '60s, you had a whole bunch of freaks not liking industrial culture, dropping out and trying to get away from industrial culture. Then the Whole Earth crew creates access to "tools for living" and suddenly a whole bunch of people are sort of back in the game of technology, looking at it in this entirely new way. Technology is good again and so is spreading it around. You have to give a little bit of credit to the punk culture for spreading the idea of DIY [do-it-yourself culture] too. Anybody living under any conditions can do something creative and interesting without waiting to sign, say, a music contract with a large corporation or waiting for a big magazine to sign them up.
reason: I know that in other books that you've written, RU—I'm thinking of Everybody Must Get Stoned: Rock Stars on Drugs—you see rock and roll as the ultimate do-it-yourself demonstration project. It combined an urge to create with an urge for free expression. For the first time after World War II, electric instruments and musical technology more broadly was widely available. You get people who are generally self-taught. None of the Beatles came into the world knowing music, and I think Paul McCartney is the only one who ever learned how to read music. You have these autodidacts learning to do it themselves. The general current of post-war America was that it pushed back against the bigness of government, the bigness of business, all large-scale of attempts to control human activity. This is all the precursor to transhumanism and self-directed evolution.
Sirius: Yeah, I think there were two tracks before. There was the one track where you conformed and tried to find your way into the proper job or proper business. Then there were the few Bohemians and artists, the people who could somehow make a livelihood or were hearty enough to live outside the lines. They did art, but they were a very small group. Then rock and roll came along as this not particularly intellectual, elitist kind of art thing. It was a third track, where kids who have creative urges, and young teenagers and adults could say, "Here's this thing I want to do. I want to grab this technology, electronic music technology, amplified guitars, keyboards, whatever, and I want to deduce this other thing that's much broader in scope." Rock really was, I think, a kind of intervention in the usual two-track modality that we were in at the time.
[Earlier this year, Sirius and Cornell sat down with Zach Weissmueller to discuss what "out of control" bio-hacking means for our future. Watch below. Article continues below video]
reason: Talk about what it means to end the aging process. Over the course of the 20th century, life spans went up tremendously. How are we doing in the 21st century in terms of creating immortality, if that's possible?
Cornell: There seem to be two threads to this kind of thing. On the one hand, you have the big corporations and the scientists who are working on studying the brain and making scores of millions of cell phones and doing things that individuals can't really do. But at the same time, there's a significant thread of scientists who are doing biological experiments in their kitchens. These are grinders who are implanting magnets into their fingers and building homemade sensors they're implanting in their arms—and that's very rock and roll. That's very punk. And the interplay between those two threads is one of those things that makes transhumanism very interesting.
reason: We live in a world now where 40 is the new 30. 50 is the new 40. Are we making serious progress toward ending aging?
Cornell: It's happening in a number of ways. Improved nutrition. Improved health care and knowledge of health. One of the things that I find is a useful cultural marker is to watch movies from the 1930s and '40s and see how they treat characters who are in their 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s. They don't often mention an age, but when they do, you see that a woman who was 45 was a grandmother. If you made it to 60, you were kind of just barely there. Even if you subtract the effects of advanced plastic surgery and makeup techniques, you can look at any magazine and see that people are holding up much better than they did not so long ago.
Sirius: What we're seeing now is what we might call natural longevity that's due to nutrition and a better awareness of health care or exercise, and how that feeds into things. Also some plastic surgery and things along those lines. Then the question becomes: What about extending life beyond that point to where you can stay healthy until you're 80 or 90 or 100? There are two things going on. There's the down-home experimenter thing going on—people who are gobbling down vitamins and nutrients and different drugs. Peter Thiel is taking growth hormone, and a lot of people are taking drugs based on resveratrol, one of the agents in red wine.
Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, [the authors of the 1982 best-seller Life Extension,] are still alive. And they've been taking massive amounts of vitamins and nutrients and other drugs for a very long time. We can sit back and wait to see if they live to be 120. There's self-experimentation going on. And then there's the scientific progress, which many people are impatient for, and which goes along much more slowly. I think what's interesting is that we do have sort of proof of concept that life can be prolonged behind what we presume to be the biological limits. You keep a worm along for twice as long, you can keep a mouse alive much longer, and researchers have recently reversed cellular aging. So you can talk conceptually about reversing aging. How closely are we to actually having a treatment or a set of medicines or set of treatments to stop or slow aging in a way that would be accessible to large numbers of people? That is not clear, but it's clear that people are working on it and money is being put toward it.
reason: Are we much closer to conquering the stars? We've recently seen Europeans be able to land a tiny space ship on a passing meteor. Are we going to be terraforming Mars anytime soon? Are we going to be migrating into space?
Cornell: That's one of the great technological disappointments of my lifetime. When I was a kid, I'd have thought, "Oh, year 2016. That'll be when I'll have my personal helicopter that I'll take to the spaceport and vacation on the moon." Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen. On the other hand, I have a really cool smartphone that I could not have conceived of at that time. I think the big shift in space travel in recent years has been the fact that we now have a number of problems of private companies who are working on the project. And that they no longer look to the federal government to be the only entity that could possibly send people into orbit, and so we have a number of companies that are launching satellites. We have Richard Branson with his Spaceship One and Two. And Elon Musk, of course. People are working on this and I find that very hopeful. We're no longer looking to the government monopolies and bureaucracies to do this. We have basically some rich guys who want to get into space, and they're spending their money to do it.
reason: It also goes to one of the main themes of your book and transhumanism more generally: decentralization. Decentralization of power and decentralization of knowledge, but also decentralization of experimentation. You've said there are two tracks in all of this stuff. There is the big money, big research, large organizations, which are useful. It's kind of like having a supercomputer to crunch numbers or to work through data. But at the same time, there's this general push toward decentralizing things, because that's when people can check each other's math as well as kind of come up with stuff that everyone else is missing. How central is the dynamic of decentralization to the transhumanist project?
Sirius: I think it's kind of 50/50. If you look at the evolution of digital culture and private companies such as Apple and Microsoft, they've held their data pretty close and didn't decentralize terribly much…
reason: And look at the way they treat their intellectual property. It's the antitheses of open source, though Microsoft is actually changing a bit on that recently.
[Watch Jason Silva talk about how drugs helped to invent the Internet & the Singularity. Article continues below video]
Sirius: Yes, they've been very successful. Stuff like that is likely to continue to be very successful. And then there's the trend toward open source and decentralization. If you look at the genomics or biotechnology, at nanotech and so forth, some of these really are advanced artificial intelligence. It wouldn't shock any of us if some group of 14-year-olds working in a garage somewhere came up with the big event. That happened with Apple, and it centralized over time when the money came. I do think about discoveries that are made by kids and young people all over the country and all over the world acting independently of any institution or perhaps just working on a school project. One of the assets of decentralization is that, when I was doing Mondo 2000 in the early '90s, the Bay Area was kind of it, the place where this was all coming together. It was the center of everything. Most of the [transhumanist and digital culture] work was being done here. Most of the people who were interested in edge technology gravitated here. Now it's very distributed. You hear about cool projects taking place in Africa, which has had a strong hand in biotech. It's just all over the place. So there's that kind of distribution as well.
reason: RU, you're from upstate New York originally?
reason: Upstate New York to me is kind of like East Germany. It's this incredibly rich area that has so much going for it, but it's kind of a backwater. Talk a little bit about how you left the hinterland to go to where the action was—and now the action is popping up everywhere, right?
Sirius: Most of my old friends were real hardcore freaks. And most of them are probably dead. I hear from people I used to know. They're online. I know that there are nanotech projects. There is a nanotech art presentation in the town where I grew up. There's all kind of activity and all kinds of groups interested in the same sorts of technologies and the same sorts of narrative that we're into here [in the Bay Area]. A funny story: I hadn't been back home in about 20 years, and I went back there recently, and the moment I pulled in a coffee shop to see an old friend, there was a person sitting there with the Anonymous mask on. It's all everywhere [laughs].
reason: Robotics is also part of transhumanism. In the book, you talk about how robotics may well lead to a post-scarcity world, which is a fascinating thing to conceptualize. Both free-market economics as well as Marxist economics look forward to that post-scarcity world. You write in the book that robotics could not only lead to an end of scarcity but also an end to boring labor. A lot of people now seem to be very fearful that too many things are being automated and that we now have robots taking all the good jobs and we'll be left cleaning up the messes or working for the robots or something.
Sirius: I think there are possibly political questions and economics to resolve there. People hopefully can be liberated from doing stuff that can be done by simple robots. We can talk about complex robots in a whole other context. But hopefully people will be liberated to use their imaginations and their deeper desires to find projects and things to do that are more interesting than flipping burgers or doing accounting or what have you. Will the robots replace all forms of boring labor? There will probably be a few things that the bots can't do. But yeah, there's a general push in that direction. I think that in terms of ending scarcity, I think the whole 3D printing thing threatens and promises to allow people to do a lot of manufacturing in their homes. To get the goods they need right there at home or at a town center or what have you.
reason: In Transcendence, you talk about the Organovo, a 3D printer that's actually capable of building human blood vessels! Talk about that, because that's fascinating shit where you can actually print organs or capillaries.
Cornell: That's actually an interesting offshoot of 3D printing, and in ways, an offshoot of inkjet printing. Because what they have is essentially an inkjet printer that squirts out cells and materials for a matrix so that it can assemble a little section of your body, a little section of liver or a blood vessel or so on, and then they have something that they can transplant into the body.
reason: And this is already happening?
Sirius: Researchers gave a two-year-old girl born without a trachea a windpipe that was built with her own stem cells. The more recent thing was 3D printed liver tissue, and they're talking about 3D printing internal organs like that. One of the interesting aspects of this is that if you can print replacement parts, particularly messy replacement parts like the liver, you go in for surgery and have your liver yanked out and have another one put in. That sounds a little rough around the edges, but what Organovo is talking about is that there will be a way to take the liver tissue and get it into your system so that it starts to replace small damaged parts of the organ and encourages regeneration of the cells. And you basically do have a new young liver or kidney or what have you. That's right here. That's on the immediate horizon, I think.
reason: You guys are both techno-optimists. And the book is clear that there are some issues and questions to worry about. Things like a robot apocalypse. There's the nanotech grey-goo scenario where some kind of self-replicating nanobot gets out of control and just reduces everything to a big slop. But you're generally optimistic. A lot of people are not optimistic or they hate the idea of transhumanism—the idea of self-directed evolution, of ending aging, of increasing our intelligence, of going out into outer space and living among the stars. How do you respond to the idea that transhumanism is actually dehumanizing somehow. Critics say that when you take the human body and turn it into a cyborg or replace the human heart given by god or evolution and replace it with a robotic heart, you're destroying that which makes us human. What's wrong with that critique of transhumanism?
Cornell: The people who say that should become aware of the history of this kind of accusation. It's been around for a long time, about various technological advancements that have been considered unnatural or against god's will or whatever. When it comes to transhumanism, I think that actually some of these people have a legitimate point of view. If your religion gives you a certain view of human beings, I may not agree with you but I would grant the validity of that point of view. But at the same time, I would also caution people to look at the history of failed technological predictions. For many many years, at least since the Victorian times, people have been worried about how various technologies are going to either destroy us all or bring heaven on earth. There were people who said, "Oh, now that we have the telegraph, obviously there won't be any wars, because people will be able to work out their differences."
reason: Do you buy the argument that in fact we are becoming less violent and that the better angels of our nature are taking over? When you look at the amount of death from violence, it does seem to be declining.
Sirius: The great danger here isn't transhumanism and it isn't advancing technology. The great danger is the stasis and not developing things that can help resolve some problems [over resources and scarcity]. Things that can get us to cleaner energy so that we're not fighting over territory and resources. Not developing technology and not moving forward. Not developing things that can solve problems, that might seem weird or unnatural. That sort of inertia could be the most dehumanizing thing of all, if we all fall back into greater conflicts.
reason: Nothing is more dehumanizing than the death of a child before their first birthday, right?
Sirius: Right. Right.
reason: Let's talk a little bit about politics. One of the things that I thought was interesting in the book about transhumanism is the entry on "libertarian transhumanism." You guys write that the majority of transhumanists are probably on the progressive or left side of the spectrum—something like 54 percent. And you come up with a number that 27 percent are libertarian. I don't think there are a lot of conservative transhumanists, just by definition, but what is the big sticking point between progressive transhumanists and libertarian transhumanists?
Sirius: I think that first of all, pretty much as you say, none of them is conservative in the traditional sense, or very few of them. One way of defining transhumanism is that it's the right to alter yourself, and in that sense, pretty much all transhumanists believe in the autonomy of their bodies and brains. That will be a very important issue in the future—perhaps more important than property. Property—certainly the ownership of space—will still be an issue. But when you have 3D printers and when you have robotics and have perhaps an overabundance of material wealth, the question of not only being able to do whatever you want with your body and brain, but being able to protect your body and brain against the intrusion of others becomes a central issue. In that regard, I think all transhumanists are pretty much united. The other stuff is kind of just ideological. We're talking about divides that exist among people that are not transhumanist. Some people are libertarian, pro markets, some people are hybrid.
Collectivism, decentralization, centralization… I think that the same sort of map applies to transhumanists as applies to other people in our culture. Transhumanism has come to be identified in a lot of people's imaginations with libertarianism, because the original group, the Extropians, by and large were dominated by libertarian voices and a lot of libertarian voices are loud within the transhumanist movement and singularitarian movement today. Also, a lot of radical leftists are maybe less well known, but are also pretty loud in the transhumanist world today. The people who are quieter are often the people in-between. What I discovered when I started doing h+ magazine is that a lot of people are not far left or libertarian. They're sort of in this pragmatic area somewhere in-between, and they tend to be less interested in talking about the politics and more interested in talking about the technology, so the public image of transhumanism as people who are not out on the fringes of politics prevails.
reason: Jay, do you want to stand up for the hardcore libertarians?
Cornell: A lot of political divisions in transhumanism are some form of confirmation bias. Basically you have people who have—and I don't say this in a critical sense—a predisposed ideological viewpoint, If they're libertarians, they say, "Ah ha! Personal freedom! Autonomy! The ability to live my life better and stronger without government intervention!" And socialists, a lot of them seem to look at it and say, "Ah ha! Finally we can get socialism to work! It didn't work in the 20th century, but in the 21st century, yeah! We'll use these technological breakthroughs to achieve division that the communists had in the 20th century and it didn't work out so well."
Sirius: I have to say that I find it ironic when people who believe in the singularity and believe that it is this sort of event that is hundreds of thousands or millions of times beyond our own understanding are then completely sure as to what the politics will be.
reason: It's like a bad episode of Star Trek, right? No matter how far you go in the universe, you're going to find a planet where the politics are exactly the same as you just left, right? Comms and Yangs, baby, Comms and Yangs!
Cornell: Yep. Wishful thinking, you know. Come the revolution, everything will all work out great. And sort of the religious aspect of, "Ah, after the rapture, we'll all be in heaven, and it'll be wonderful."
reason: Bruce Jenner is changing genders. Is this the ultimate moment of transhumanism? You have the 1976 Olympic decathlete, a man who was the All-American, gold-medal-winning boy is now in a world where he can freely become a woman. Is that is part of the transhumanist project, and if it is, explain why that is a fucking awesome triumph for the goals of the movement.
Sirius: In some ways, I think that's true, and then on the other hand, it's amazing that people started changing genders back in the 1950s. If you started making a list of transhumanist changes occurring now or occurring in the near future, you start saying, well people will be able to start replacing their organs, implant new eyes that see better or have new ears or live for 300 years or have better limbs and so forth. And if you say they'll be able to change genders, that would sound like a really radical project, and yet here we are. We've been doing it. I'd be more interested if Bruce Jenner was having his melanin changed and becoming black or something like that, which probably could be done if somebody—if you'll excuse my genderism—had the balls to do it.
reason: Of course, Michael Jackson did become white.
Sirius: It was a harder road for him.
reason: Yeah, it didn't work out so well for him.
Sirius: Through genomics and so forth, it's something that should be doable. I think right now, given the politics of our country, that'll probably be the biggest monkey wrench you could possibly throw.
Cornell: I personally think that there's a somewhat unfortunate coincidence between the words transhumanism and transgender. While transgenderism is something that I think does fit within transhumanist concepts, I just don't think it's comparably central. I think that the language makes it seem more important than it is.
reason: Is that partly because a lot of times when people talk about transgender, it's actually an older model of an essential identity that a person is trying to express or recover? It's a conventional transgender narrative to say that "I was a woman trapped in a man's body and now I'm able to change my body to reflect my essential, unchanging character or identity." Transhumanism, in contrast, seems to be much more fluid than that. It seems to almost be anti-essentialist where the only truly enduring human value is the ability to reinvent yourself and alter yourself as you want to at any given moment. Does this make sense, or am I off?
Cornell: I think there is a difference between people who say, "This is what I really am," as opposed to "I am going to improve myself by making myself stronger and live longer and make my brain work better," and so on. The latter is more the transhumanist, techno-optimist worldview. In that sense, transsexualism is kind of not really this same thing on a certain level.
reason: How did you become interested in transhumanism? Did you have a eureka moment where you said, "This is what I'm very deeply interested in?" What was your moment of insight that this is something you really want to spend time thinking about?
Cornell: I don't know if there was a particular point, although being hired by h+ magazine was a big milestone. For me, my interest really grows out of my interest in science and the future and the science fiction that I read as a wee lad.
reason: Jay, how old are you, if you don't mind me asking?
Cornell: I'm 60 now.
reason: Ok, so who were those science fiction authors that fired up your imagination?
Cornell: I read Robert Heinlein "juveniles" and I particularly remember Attack from Atlantis by Lester del Rey, possibly one of the first books I read in that area. And The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet also, by Eleanor Cameron, was a crucial book to me. In elementary school, I checked it out from the library once a year and reread it, and many years later, I found out there was a whole series of sequels my library had, and I was just crushed. The concept that the author might have written other things that [the school library] didn't have never occurred to me when I was in 4th grade. "Well, there's this book in the library. Has this author written other things, and the library doesn't have them?"
reason: I read Mushroom Planet and a bunch of the sequels. Recap the plot for us.
Cornell: Well, talk about decentralized technology… It was a couple of friends who met this really strange man in the neighborhood who was kind of a citizen-scientist, and he had developed a new type of telescope which located a different moon around the earth. It was previously invisible. And there was a race of people there, and…
reason: Wasn't he one of the mushroom people. They pretended to be Welsh to pass on Earth.
Cornell: He had built a rocket to the moon in his garage and sent the boys to the mushroom planet and he saved them. I won't give the spoiler, but they figured out there was a dietary deficiency, and that saved his people.
reason: What about you, RU? Between h+, which was phenomenal, as well as Mondo 2000, your collaborations with Timothy Leary, and a variety of other things, you've been working this ground over for a while. What was the spark that made you want to not just be human, but transhuman?
Sirius: I think in some ways, I've been working on this thing since the late 1960s when as a high schooler. I became part of the counterculture and there was this idea floating around of "post-scarcity," of letting the robots do the miserable, boring, oppressive work. We could create this really interesting and far-out and liberating society with technology, which was a minority understanding within the counterculture, but it was there. I was taken by this, and in the early '70s, I'd go off to a farm and look at a hidden commune trying to live off the land and trying to get away from technology, and thought, "Well that's not what I want. That's boring."
reason: That's the past, right? That's the long arc of human deprivation…
Sirius: Yeah, it was uninteresting. There was also the influence of Marshall McLuhan and people like that and the idea that the media that we were growing up with made us mutants, freaks, different sort of humans from our parents. That was a great ego trip to have in your teens and 20s, but it created that interest in how media alters perception and who we are as human beings. Then Leary came along [talking about] space migration, intelligence increases, and life extension in the mid-1970s. He turned the idea of expansion from an inward trip to an outward, science-technology trip. That set me along on my path. When I think about the culture of the mid-'70s, there were a lot of people who felt really alienated by technology and big machines and businesses. But this other thing was seeding itself in my brain, and somehow, by the time I was 30, I had to do something about it and created the magazine that became Mondo 2000.
[Watch Ronald Bailey & Nick Bostrum discuss how to thwart a robot apocalypse. Article continues below video]
Cornell: One thing I find very exciting is that this year there will be some human trials with what are essentially anti-cancer nanobots. What they've done is create a DNA capsule around some anti-cancer medicine, and the DNA is constructed in such a way that once you put it in the body, it doesn't do anything until it encounters a cancer cell, and then it kind of pops open and releases the drug right where it's needed. There are lots of drugs that will kill cancer cells, but the issue is that they also have negative effects on other cells. This ability to very carefully target medicine is hugely promising, and for anyone who has had a relative who has dementia or even atherosclerosis and these other sort of major health issues that come along with aging, the idea of having nanobots that can be injected into somebody's bloodstream is incredible. They hunt around and find the plaques in your arteries and your brain and deliver targeted drugs or may use tiny little nano-scissors to snip them up into tiny pieces that they can get dissolved into your body. That sort of breakthrough is extremely exciting, and I think that's what people need to think of when they think about longevity.
Somebody like [cartoonist] Roz Chast in her new book is talking about dealing with her aging parents and just being horrified at the idea of people wanting to live till 150. Parents in their 80s and 90s are already awful, and getting to 150 would be extra awful [she implies]. Well obviously, that's not the goal of longevity research. What we want are more healthy years, and this sort of nanotechnology might really enable that to happen possibly sooner than you think.
reason: You came to this movement or this set of ideas through fiction and creative work [more than hard science]. Are the humanities an essential part of dreaming of a better future, of a more human future, of a broader, richer, more interesting future in novels, music, plays? Is that the essential starting place of improving the human lot?
Cornell: I believe so. If you look at the history of 20th century science and technology, great numbers of the people who were involved in real-world breakthroughs got their start because they read Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, a lot of these early science fiction writers. That's definitely where a lot of us came from. I think if you went into the NASA control room and asked who had read science fiction in their lives, I would be surprised if it wasn't 95 percent of the people there.
Sirius: Not only that, but if you read Walter Isaacson's The Innovators, a lot of the people who successfully bring breakthroughs and bring people together and organize projects are people who have brought aesthetic sensibilities. They are passionate about art or music or both and that sort of thing, so there's this other thing besides just thinking about how to make the technology and how to do the science among the technologists and scientists themselves that seems to contribute quite a bit to their ability to come up with something as peculiar as thinking machines.
reason: Do you guys have anything else that you absolutely want to add?
Sirius: Our encyclopedia is very playful and irreverent, and I think that the cultures of transhumanism and the singularity really need to allow for, and in some cases develop, a sense of humor. So this is an important aspect of what we're doing with the book.
reason: For sure. If we're going to live to be 1000, there better be a lot of humor in the future.
Sirius: I hope so.
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