The Solution to Accelerated Human Evolution
The year is 2100. You are on your way to a hospital. You check in and sit patiently in the waiting room before you meet your doctor. There are children running around and playing. One young child in the group has an artificial limb. The robotic limb moves as well as any human leg. A previously deaf person comes out of the doctor’s office. The new implants in her ears have not just given her hearing back—with the click of a button, she now has the ability to hear things that no human has ever heard before.
Film and literature are notorious for using real scientific theories to explain out-of-this-world characters that would otherwise seem unrealistic. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, talks about a creature designed by an unorthodox scientific experiment. James Cameroon’s Avatar explores the journey of a paralysed U.S. Marine being able to walk again in an alien world. The use of science and technology to improve the lives of our species may seem like a distant reality, but this idea has been on the rise ever since the first pacemaker was implanted in a human, six decades ago.
The Building Blocks of a Transhuman
Ideas about advancing the human race through technology have been around since the early 1920s. Transhumanism, a philosophical movement detailing this idea, aims at increasing the rate of human evolution by scientific and technological means. The definition of what a ‘transhuman’ society is, has been modified and adjusted consistently as technology has evolved over the ages. While several theories form the backbone of transhumanism, the two most important concepts to understand are body augmentation, which is often represented in pop-culture in the form of cyborgs, and mind uploading.
Cyborgs are an excellent example of transhumanism in popular science fiction. They are part human and part machine, with the ability to extend the functionality of their existing features. Though the existence of such a being might seem unlikely in the real world, body augmented individuals are already living among us.
Neil Harbisson was born colour blind, with the ability to see the world only in greyscale. However, his ‘eyeborg’, a specialised electronic eye, allows him to hear colour. The eyeborg achieves this by converting each colour to sounds on a musical scale. He is so well adapted to this device that his brain has developed new neural pathways for this advanced perception.
Another body augmented individual, Nigel Ackland worked as a precious metals smelter. In a terrible accident, he suffered a debilitating injury that forced him to have his right forearm amputated. After undergoing months of surgeries, along with trying several less advanced prosthetics, Ackland was eventually fortunate enough to be fitted with a bionic prosthesis, called a BeBionic3 hand. This bionic arm returned to him an unprecedented range of motion and motor control. It allows him to grip fragile objects and is proof of the symbiotic relationship between medicine and technology.
These real-life cyborgs, who continue to thrive among us, are compelling examples of the impact transhumanism can have on human life.
A controversial theory, mind uploading refers to the transfer of cognitive data from the brain to a substrate other than our neurons. This substrate would typically be a computer. The idea behind mind uploading is that our brains are analogous to the processing units of computers—a place where information is simply processed. This suggests that it is possible to replicate the functionality of the brain on a computer.
This process could potentially be achieved in two different ways—either copy-and-transfer or the gradual replacing of neurons. In the former, we would be scanning and mapping the important features of the brain and then copying and transferring that exact information state into a computer system. The latter involves the steady replacement of individual components of the brain, say neurons, with microscopic devices of functional equivalence.
The copy-and-transfer method has come under heavy criticism as there is a genuine threat that the biological mind may not survive the copying process. There has also been debate surrounding the fact that the scan-and-copy process produces an entirely different identity on the computer substrate, such that personal identity is lost along with the biological brain. The gradual replacement of neurons is preferred as it preserves the identity of the person. However, while this method can lead to a longer lifespan for the mind, electronic parts that are implanted in organs or the brain can fail to seamlessly connect, causing havoc in the human system. Another possible outcome is the loss of brain function after the replacement of neurons, which would cause a plethora of issues in the motor, sensory and intellectual abilities of the subject.
Several decades of research provide proof that our brain cannot tell if it is made up of neurons or synthetic equivalents of neurons. The same applies to the processing of information. The ability to store information from the brain can be used to record memories and information that may have otherwise been lost with human mortality. This information would no longer be restricted to the limitations of individual human minds or life spans.
Transhumanistic ideals depend heavily on existing biological principles. It, thus, is not surprising that transhumanism relies significantly on the theories and technology of neuroprosthetics.
Neuroprosthetics—The Connector of Biology and Technology
Neuroprosthetics primarily refers to creating devices that aid the working of the neural system. Brain-user interfaces, electrodes to stimulate movement in patients suffering from limb injuries, and artificial retinas for visually impaired patients all come under the umbrella of this field.
The field, more recently, has branched out into being more than a medical solution. It has become the bridge between life and technology, offering a very real possibility of achieving a transhuman society. The existence of cyborgs and the theory of mind uploading depend largely on neuroprosthetic studies and the technology that comes from this field. This field may provide a practical solution to the idea of transhumanism and is the only real path to achieving accelerated evolution. However, while it boasts of being the best solution to solving our problems, several issues say otherwise.
Underlying Problems with a Transhuman Society
Being part machine comes with the ability to fix or easily replace non-human parts of the body, thereby increasing life spans. This could potentially mean a future of immortality for humanity. However, the major problem with immortality lies in an uncontrollable, growing population. The longer we live, the more resources we consume and the more environmental degradation we cause. While technology can be used to fix some of these problems, it will only be a matter of time before the environment reaches a breaking point and can no longer sustain a growing population.
One of the most significant issues with transhumanism is the inescapable weaponisation of body-enhancement technology. Several discussions have already begun among various national militaries about the enhancement of both the physical and mental capabilities of soldiers. This could lead to devastating consequences in any potential wars in the coming future and presents a threat that could be as devastating as nuclear technology. Many legal restrictions would have to be placed on the development of these technologies to ensure that such catastrophic occurrences do not come to pass.
One of the earliest attempts to alter living beings is the concept of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). GMOs have been very useful in improving several biology-dependent fields worldwide. Despite the advantages it offers, its dependency on gene-editing has sparked several debates. Many ethical questions have been raised about the possibilities of misusing this technology. Due to the vast number of potential applications of gene-editing technology, people have accused scientists of trying to “play God”. This has raised various social and religious issues, only increasing the morally dubious light in which this idea has been cast. There have also been concerns that GMOs could affect the earth’s natural biodiversity. Transhumanism and its body-altering processes raise many of the same issues. The heavy resistance to GMOs sets a very clear precedent for the future of Transhumanism and its accompanying technological advancements.
With the introduction of augmentation procedures, people may start looking down at themselves rather than appreciating and being content with who they are. Transhumanism could potentially lead to the social isolation of those that believe in the movement, fracturing society into opposing ideological factions, leading to social erosion.
Considering the current pace at which technology is developing, it may take us several decades to realise transhumanistic ideals. Technology is evolving, and the collaboration between medicine and technology can help improve lives. Transhumanism is giving humanity another shot at survival. Whether we choose to accept it with open arms or to fight against it, a transhuman society is an inevitability. We must ensure that we are prepared for any potential challenge that it may bring, so we can ensure that this technology is leveraged for the greater good of humanity.