Conversations abound about what it means to be human

Call it transhuman, posthuman or digital evolution, technology raises new questions

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"Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase," according to Humanity+, an international nonprofit dedicated to "the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities."

Dorothy Deasy Vancouver resident who sits on the board of directors of the Mormon Transhumanist Association

“Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase,” according to Humanity+, an international nonprofit dedicated to “the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities.”

For transhumanists, it’s not if we’ll become more than human, it’s when.

We have the technology.

Call it transhuman, call it posthuman, call it a digital evolution, whatever the term that is used to describe the theorized move away from human life as purely biological in favor of the technological has monumental implications for humanity as we know it.

Just like how the smartphone has become an extension of ourselves — our “second brain” as the devices are sometimes called — emerging technologies, especially those that directly impact our bodies, offer promise, and depending on how you look at it, peril.

But before humanity reaches its brave new world, we have some big concepts to consider.

“We are in a time where machine intelligence is likely to surpass human intelligence,” said Dorothy Deasy, a Vancouver resident and board member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, a nonprofit founded in 2006 that aims to further dialogue about how to bridge religious ideals and future changes to how we will relate to rapid shifts in technology.

The freelance design researcher, spiritual but not a Mormon herself, became interested with transhumanism in the 1990s, but she really dug into the field in 2009 when working on her master’s degree in applied theology at Marylhurst University, in Marylhurst, Ore., 9 miles south of Portland. Her thesis was on the relationship between spirituality and transhumanism.

There are many views as to what transhumanism, a term used for decades, actually defines. At its core it’s about broadening concepts of what it means to be human in a technologically advanced world and guiding us ethically on a path to the posthuman era. Certainly no one would argue that if you have an artificial limb you are no longer human. But what if the time comes when we are able to artificially adapt our eyes, ears, arms and even brains to the point where we are more machine than organic?

Deasy says dialogue is important so we can do our best to guide technology in ways that are beneficial, and not detrimental, to society.

“Within the transhumanist communities, it’s really interesting because you tend to come across the Utopians and the dystopians,” she said. “The reality is going to be somewhere in the middle.”

Debates continue to rage over cloning, stem cell research, genetically modified organisms and other ways we’re adapting the world and ourselves. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What if we have the potential to live forever by mapping our brains and uploading the data to a computer? Are we playing God?

“I think for some people, there’s no desire to remain human,” Deasy said. “One of the things that bothers me is the use of the term ‘evolution’ for that. I hear that a lot. It frightens me.

“It might be emergence of a new civilization, but it’s not the emergence of a new species. Because as soon as you start talking about that, it implies there’s a better than and less than. We already have history that shows that is very dangerous. You can’t ignore the abuse when you are looking at the benefit.”

Deasy has developed a workshop she is pitching to local churches to discuss the impacts of emerging technology and how it could influence society and faith all over the globe.

This all might all seem like the stuff of science fiction. Then again, at one time so was genetic engineering and 3-D printing.

“It’s hard for some people to really see that this isn’t fiction,” said Deasy. “The technology and the advances that are coming are increasingly turning fiction into fact.”

Rapid advances

We don’t have flying cars zipping around the sky, a common science-fiction device of the past, but Google’s self-driving car project is in the same ballpark.

That company, sitting on seemingly infinite amounts of highly valuable data it gathers and uses to sell catered ads, has for years been reaching into the future with its “moonshot” projects, which include the still not entirely functional driverless car.

On Wednesday, Google’s recent biotechnology venture Calico announced it was teaming with drugmaker AbbVie to each invest $250 million, with the potential of another billion, and build a facility in the San Francisco Bay Area to help fulfill Calico’s goal to “harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.”

Google, along with biotech company Genentech and other powerhouses, is also a backer of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University — named after the theoretical time when human intelligence will be dwarfed by artificial intelligence. It’s there that students pay $30,000 to spend 10 weeks at a NASA research facility developing projects with the mission to “apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges” in areas such as health, energy and the environment. Projects from the 2014 class include a “smart pad” that analyzes menstrual blood to provide monthly health updates for women and an earpiece for seniors to enhance hearing, monitor vital signs and boost memory by giving contextual information about what’s around them.

Humans have long been tinkering with their bodies. Without the 13th century invention of the eyeglasses, many wouldn’t be able to read this story. The artificial cardiac pacemaker was created in 1950, giving those with a faulty heart a chance to keep it ticking longer.

And there’s no end in sight.

Engineers at the University of Bern in Switzerland announced last month they are working to improve pacemakers by finding a way to power them based on technology used in self-winding watches — where body movement, in this case the heartbeat, would create energy for the device in lieu of batteries.

Innovations such as these are exactly why Dene Grigar, director of Washington State University Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture Program, thinks technology has such promise to improve the world — as long as we monitor progress along the way.

“God bless technology for these things,” she said.

The curriculum in her program is meant to prepare students for a “culturally diverse and technologically complex 21st century.” So the concept of posthumanism, and the ethics involved in altering the natural order, is a component of the lessons.

“The notion of posthumanity is the idea that our consciousness can take us further,” Grigar said. “We can enhance ourselves through knowledge and wisdom.”

Taking big steps

In a speech in 2012 at the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, Ken Fisher, CEO and founder of Fisher Investments, a California-based multibillion-dollar money management firm with offices in Camas, told the audience to begin preparing for the future.

“All power shifts to those who are creative consumers of technology,” he said at the time. “If you don’t accept the singularity and go with it, others from other places will. The place that resists loses. You either go with it or get left behind.”

Emerging technology has the potential to improve societies, he said, but it also has the potential to be disruptive, including by displacing jobs through automation and by broadening the socioeconomic gap.

Two years later, his thoughts haven’t changed, he wrote in an email.

“The future and technology are not as perceived. Technology is not Facebook and websites and apps, but instead, the things we can’t easily fathom now that are easily achievable ahead,” Fisher wrote.

We’re leaving more and more in the hands of machines.

“The concept is that technology will be deployed for normal functions increasingly in ways that produce opportunities and results while also creating displacements and social tension … and that people should emotionally and every other way prepare for that changing world.”