The technological progress which humanity has made in the past 100 years is nothing short of absolutely astounding, and the more our technology advances, the more we begin to realize the seemingly limitless potential of human innovation. The application of modern technology is also seemingly limitless, as we create and develop artificial systems capable of everything from simple functions like flipping a light switch to infinitely complex functions like landing a spacecraft on a comet hurtling through space. As we learn and progress, our machines learn and progress as well, and humanity currently finds itself in a position in which machine learning grows and advances at an exponential rate. The application of this machine learning is simultaneously exciting and alarming, as we create a future in which artificial systems and intelligences are both our greatest tools and our greatest reminders of our limited abilities and potentials.
This idea is reflected through the conception of transhumanism, or the idea that human innovation and technological progress have advanced and grown at such a rate that our own ability to build and create has rendered natural selection obsolete. Things which once would have been considered disadvantages or weaknesses can now be overcome through technology, and while this is largely a positive thing, it carries with it some seriously heavy implications about the future of humanity. How far into technology can we be immersed before we begin to lose ourselves? If this synthetic integration is truly the future of humanity, will we even remain human? Is seeing the world through a cybernetic lens even seeing the world? At the rate at which machines learn and artificial intelligences advance, human intelligence and innovation will be obsolete within a hundred years. Billions of years of evolutionary progress are leading humanity down a path in which it becomes so powerful that it becomes the master of evolution.
This idea is both fascinating and frightening, and it is reflected through a number of the texts and themes we have covered in our course in addition to countless texts which we have not. Personally, this topic concerns me, as it should concern all of humanity, as it presents a scenario in which our own creations render us obsolete, a topic we have been concerned with since our earliest days (Prometheus). It also presents the idea that we become “more human than human”, and begs the question of how far can we grow and advance before we become something else entirely? Professionally, the limitless applications of technology are an invaluable resource which can be used to better inform and educate the youth of the world at an unprecedented rate.
“Stone Lives” examines both the good and bad aspects of the progression of technology and artificial intelligence. On the one hand, advanced technology allows the disabled and disenfranchised an opportunity to artificially gap their misgivings and shortcomings, creating a society in which we all have the capability to improve ourselves, our standing in society, and our quality of life. On the other hand, “Stone Lives” acknowledges the serious concerns of humanity dehumanizing itself and creating a new sort of artificial existence. This idea is covered in a number of other texts and stories, and the results are often not as pleasant as they are in “Stone Lives”, which itself is not all that pleasant. Ridley Scott’s criminally underappreciated film Prometheus, and its sequel Alien: Covenant reflects the original myth of Prometheus but instead paints humanity as the creator and artificial intelligence as the creation which comes to realize that the powers with which its creator has imbued it give it the capacity to render its creator obsolete.
The term “transhumanism” is originally credited to British biologist Julian Huxley, and is essentially the idea that the human condition and human physiology can be greatly bolstered and enhanced with the integration and further development of technology. Common applications of transhumanism are things like cybernetic implants, prosthetics, and machine integrated/synthesized learning. The benefits of transhumanism are plainly clear, as they allow the disadvantaged, disabled, and disenfranchised an opportunity to gap their shortcomings and live better and more fulfilling lives. I take no offense at the idea of giving the blind the ability to see, or allowing a paraplegic to move of their own free will. This are things that are tremendously beneficial to mankind, and should be supported and endorsed by all those whom have the ability to do so.
The problem with transhumanism comes when it is applied to the abled, advantaged, and enfranchised. Exceeding human capability means ascending to something beyond human, and while this could just be interpreted as the next natural step of evolution, I contend that there is nothing at all natural about it. I am a student of the humanities, and I am fascinated with the human condition, and this ascension/evolution implies something that is strictly inhuman. Artificial integration is not natural selection. There is inherently nothing natural about it. When studying the future it is necessary to understand the past, and here I would invoke the story of Icarus. In presuming to better ourselves, we go too far, to such a degree that we become something that is no longer ourselves. The evolutionary process takes place rather meticulously over the course of millions of years, and we will (relatively) soon hold in our hands a power capable of replicating that process in a matter of centuries. The record of history shows us that humanity is tremendously irresponsible when entrusted with the greatest powers which it knows, and there are some serious moral and ethical questions that need to be considered in the field of transhumanism that either are not being asker or are not being emphasized, and this irresponsibility could very well lead to the destruction of humanity.
The biological argument for transhumanism is largely wrapped in the concept of the “superficiality of species membership”, the idea that our conception of humanity is a largely arbitrary idea, and may even be limiting our potential for discovery and progress. German philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon proposed the idea of “Evolutionary Humanism”, essentially stating that evolutionary theory is open to and influenced by judgments of morality, and that evolutionary theory needs to be considered with principles of humanism in mind. This argument is more eloquently articulated by the character Dr. Ian Malcolm in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, as he observes of the unnatural process of evolution that the scientist of the novel have created that “you spent so much time wondering if you could, you never stopped and asked yourselves if you should”. As we move further and further down the rabbit-hole of technology, these concerns become more prevalent and more alarming, and as I expand this essay to include my research on and concerns about artificial intelligence I will continue to refer to these theories of transhumanism, evolutionary humanism, and the superficiality of species membership.