Neuroscientist Anders Sandberg has an interesting career: he's working on uploading the contents of human brains onto a computer. This would be important, he explains, to combat aging as well as overpopulation.
Illustration by Michael Gibbs: a secular icon representing transhumanismAt a recent meeting of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) held in Chicago this past July, "Transvision 2007," Sandberg and other transhumanists from around the world got together to talk about the future of humanity ("transhumanism" means, literally, "beyond humanity").
Reporter Danielle Egan attended the conference and wrote about the experience in a recent issue of New Scientist . The WTA now has 5,000 members, up from 2,000 seven years ago, and has attracted investors and celebrities to get involved with the variety of transhumanist causes. Actors William Shatner and Ed Begley, Jr., spoke at the conference, which was hosted by music producer Charlie Kam. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has also donated $4 million to the organization.
In pursuit of his goal of creating human-machine hybrids, Sandberg described how to scan a mouse brain, using a camera, a laser beam and a diamond blade. Conceivably, with their brain hosted by a computer, a person could live indefinitely.
More pragmatically, AI member Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial neural networks and co-founder of the AI lab at MIT, explains why humanity would want this. "Ordinary citizens wouldn't know what to do with eternal life," Minsky explained to Egan. "The masses don't have any clear-cut goals or purpose." But scientists, who work on problems that might take decades to solve, would appreciate the extended lifespans, he says.
According to the Transvision Web site , the WTA has a foundation of seemingly non-controversial principles: for instance, they support the development of new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy "better minds, better bodies and better lives." Their goals are ambitious, yet common: they seek to solve nothing less than the greatest challenges that humanity will face. They look for solutions including longevity therapies, sustainable energy, clean water, a restored environment, and space development.
The science and technology they consider using is the most striking part of transhumanist thought, although much of it is abstract and theoretical. Often with the intent to modify the human body, transhumanists employ ideas and tools from biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science, simulated reality, artificial intelligence, and more futuristic disciplines. Because they deal with technologies far from today's lab bench, many "traditional" scientists are skeptical of the technical feasibility of transhumanist science.
Best-seller by Ray Kurzweil, WTA's unofficial prophetSometimes the transhumanists are accused of lacking ethical boundaries for their work, but the WTA actually is quite interested in ethics, morality and civil liberties, albeit with their own definitions. For example, a transhumanist thought is that humans can and should use technology to become more than human -- ethically worded, at least.
"Sooner or later someone is going to create these technologies," says AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky on the need to move forward before someone with malevolent intentions or ethical ignorance does first. "If a self-improving AI is thrown together in a slapdash fashion, we could be in for big trouble."
(If that's not an ethical understatement, what is?)
On the other hand, Minsky represents another perspective of transhumanist ethics. The 80-year-old father of AI, who is strongly against regulating the development of new technologies, told Egan, "Scientists shouldn't have ethical responsibility for their inventions, they should be able to do what they want. You shouldn't ask them to have the same values as other people."
...And, it seems, transhumanists don't seem to mind a little controversy.
New Scientist video interview with WPA members