What would it be like to live through our own species’ evolution? The biological process of natural selection that gave rise to every species on Earth takes hundreds of generations to turn one species into another, but what if that process could be skipped entirely?
What would it be like to significantly upgrade humanity in a matter of decades, or even a few years? Welcome to Transhumanism, the movement determined to use breakthrough technologies to make humanity into something more.
What is a Transhuman?
The idea of altering or augmenting the human body through technology is as old as humanity itself. From the moment humans first fashioned tools and learned to harness fire, humanity stepped beyond its biological constraints.
Where evolution gave wolves a fierce set of teeth and the cheetahs unmatched speeds, evolution gave humanity the most sophisticated intelligence of any animal on the planet and humans have been using that intelligence to overcome their biological deficits.
Transhumanism talks about taking this dynamic and using it to not just impact the world around us, but to augment or even replace our biology with technology. Whereas humanity has fixed poor eyesight with corrective lens, straightened a person’s teeth with braces, or countless other examples of humans altering out bodies or senses through technology, the transhumanist wants to replace the eye entirely or hijack existing senses in our bodies to detect any number of things that our bodies aren’t built to sense.
A transhuman then is someone who has taken this step and upgraded their body in a way that doesn’t just fix a deficient part to behave as commonly expected but replaces something that works perfectly fine in order to do something more than is biologically possible.
Neuroplasticity: Plug-And-Play For Our Brains
Transhumanism is possible because of something known as neuroplasticity, the capacity for the neurons in our brain to make new connections and reconfigure its network in response to new stimuli, information, trauma, or dysfunction.
Examples include learning new skills, remembering information, people, or events, making complex movements with our bodies without consciously thinking about it, and taking the cacophony of stimuli around us and making sense of it all. It’s how we go through life with part of our vision being obstructed by our nose though we simply don’t notice it.
According to the late Paul Bach-y-Rita, “we see with our brains, not our eyes.” A neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the co-founder of Wicab—a company that develops technology based on his research—Bach-y-Rita has shown that in many ways, our senses are interchangeable. His pioneering research into blindness has even led to the development of a device that can allow someone to “see” with their tongue.
The key is understanding what sight—or hearing, or touching, or smelling, or any other sense—actually is: converting external stimuli to electrical signals that the brain then processes into our sensory perception of the world around us. Since the electrical signals traveling through our nervous system are no different from one another—they differ only in how the brain processes them—this leaves the door wide open for our existing sensors to be repurposed through technology.
If the visible light that enters our eye and “turns on” the rods and cones of our retina are essentially turned into a 0 or a 1 being tapped out onto our optical nerve, what is stopping us from creating an artificial eye that allows us to see a wider spectrum that includes infrared and ultraviolet light?
If the eye is essentially a video camera for our brain, why not swap out the camera? Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain may not know what to make of the different signals initially, but it will find a way to interpret them.
It will figure out how to “see” this new wavelength of light as if it were any other light. It’s not hard to think of many other examples of this type of sensor swapping, which gives you an idea of why Transhumanist are such evangelists for the movement.
The Future of Transhumanism Is Happening Now
The idea of cyborgs running around is the stuff of science fiction films from the 1980s, but it is going to become a reality sooner than most people think. Transhumanists are a remarkably diverse group, with DIY “biohackers” and the US Department of Defense being two of the most prominent examples.
Piercings and tattoos are as old as civilization, but a Biohacker is willing to put their body in service of the movement—and not necessarily with medical approval or even assistance. Biohacking can range from something as simple as implanting yourself with an RF tag that you can use to open electronic locks when you come to work to more extreme augments like inserting a tiny magnet under the skin of your finger to detect magnetic fields.
Likewise, it’s no surprise that armies around the world are eager to lead the way into the new frontier of transhumanism, generals and war leaders have always sought any means to give their army the upper hand over an opponent.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has come right out and said that humans “[were] the weakest link in defense systems.” Some examples of DARPA’s research into transhumanist technologies include allowing humans to convert plant matter to glucose, threat detection through optical implants, and even a way for humans to cling to the surface of a flat wall the way lizards do.
Sharing Your Brain With An AI
As computer technologies advance alongside biotechnologies, there is a growing convergence between the two in the form of neural interfaces that in the future can open the door to linking your mind directly to an AI in order to facilitate greater learning, overcome neurological conditions, or just to use the internet.
In the coming decades, as more advanced computer technologies continue to shrink in size, it’s not out of the question that brain implants, linked to an AI, might be possible. In fact, DARPA has already started research along these lines.
How Human is Transhuman?
Without question, these examples of transhumanism point to one of the essential questions every student or teacher of philosophy has grappled with: what does it mean to be human?
Evolution gave us the brain which has given us technologies such as flint tools, the wheel, and clothing that enabled us to extend ourselves past our biological limitations. Is an artificial eye any different? Are we any less human for using an arrow to kill a deer rather than our bare hands? Who gets to decide?
Some critics argue that the two positions transhumanists propose, rejecting human enhancement through augmentation and implants entirely or wholeheartedly embracing everything the transhumanist movement represents is a false dichotomy.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New York-Lehman College, believes that there is a necessary discussion society must have before we introduce—or even think of developing—such technologies: “it is perfectly acceptable — indeed necessary — for individuals and society to have a thorough discussion about what limits are or are not acceptable when it comes to the ethical issues raised by the use of technologies.”
What’s more, observers and economists note the movement towards a transhumanist society will exacerbating the gulf between the rich and the poor. Transhumanist technologies are expensive and will be for the foreseeable future, which inevitably means that the elites might pull even further ahead of the rest of the world, much of which is too poor for even basic healthcare.
How To Prepare For The Transhuman Revolution
The most essential thing that our society must do as these technologies advance is to have an open conversation about where we want humanity to go as a species. These technologies are being rapidly developed with no signs of slowing down, so it is up to us to decide how far down this road we want transhumanism to go. Unless we do, the transhuman future we will get may not necessarily be the one that we want.