Lots of political activists like to style themselves, justly or unjustly, as revolutionaries. The term has a certain cache, denoting an excitement that advocates of gradualism or the status quo struggle to obtain. But few are as truly revolutionary as the transhumanists. Communists, libertarians, anarchists and religious fundamentalists all want to radically transform human society. But rarely if ever do they suggest modifying human biology, the foundation of what it means to be a member of our species. Transhumanists have no such qualms. They want to reconfigure not just inter-human relations, but humanity itself. By doing so they believe they can remove our least attractive characteristics, stop the aging process and even abolish natural death. For some their vision is thrilling, for others terrifying. Few, I imagine, find it boring.
Author and commentator David Wood is one of the UK’s leading transhumanists. He Chairs the London Futurists, a group which meets regularly to discuss the societal implications of technological innovation, and acts as Treasurer for the Transhumanist Party UK. His most recent book, “Transcending Politics”, deals with the ways modern technology could allow us to transform our political systems. I spoke with him some months ago about what transhumanists want to achieve, how they are organising in the UK and the opportunities and dangerous presented by the technological advancements we’re likely to see in the near-future.
Wood’s vision of the future is nothing if not dramatic. In the year 2050 he tells me “I see at least a one in three possibility that the world will be much much worse than today. Whether we’ll be destroyed altogether or whether it’ll be like the decline of Rome and the plunge into the age of the barbarians”. Conversely “there’s a nearly two in three chance that we’ll be in an incredibly better situation by the middle of the century with people who are much smarter and also much kinder, people who are much healthier and longer lived, people who reach much higher levels of consciousness”. More generally “I don’t see much probability of chance staying roughly in the middle, keeping calm and bubbling along. That was good advice for lots of times in history but the forces which are being unleashed by these new technologies – nanotech, quantum-computing, robotics, bio-technology, neuro technology and of course AI and deep learning, they’re so huge that they’re not going to just stay simple and stay inert”.
Transhumanists believe that dramatic technological advancements which enhance the intellect and physical attributes of humans are both desirable and virtually inevitable. Their argument goes something like this: Human technological capabilities will continue to grow at an exponential rate. Something akin to Moore’s Law, that computer processor power will double every two years, will continue to apply. An explosion in artificial intelligence will unlock enormous capabilities, so dramatic in fact that beyond a certain point we are currently unable to reasonably predict them (the point of Singularity). This will have astronomic consequences for every aspect of human existence, to an extent not even remotely matched by any other period in human history. It may lead, as the American mathematician Vernor Vinge predicted, to the end of “the human era”.
I appreciate that much of this is likely to strike the casual observer as fairly ridiculous, and the transhumanist movement has been compared by more than a few critics to a utopian cult – the latest in a long line of factions making wild claims about an obtainable nirvana. But I’d be wary about rejecting it out of hand. Should artificial intelligence continue to increase at an exponential rate, and should it prove better at performing every or virtually every function than human intelligence (and it seems to me that both of these statements are at least broadly true) then it seems virtually inevitable that someone will have both the motive and technology to have a go at augmenting human capabilities. And from that point I’m not sure there’s any turning back.
It may sound fantastical, but plenty of incredible things have happened so far in the human story. With a handful of keystrokes I can access tens of millions of articles, books and videos from my laptop and communicate immediately with vast numbers of people across the developed world. In say 1930, I imagine this would have sounded pretty absurd. When the Aztecs encountered Cortez and his conquistadors in the 16th century the latter’s technological advances were such that many thought they were meeting Gods. And unlike in any potential transhumanist revolution both Aztec and Spaniard were operating from the same biological framework.
Unfortunately I’m no scientific expert, and am poorly placed to judge the progress of technologies which are integral to transhumanism. I have an instinctive feeling that the timeframe many transhumanists give is over optimistic (or pessimistic depending on your position), but I’m also convinced that humanity will at some point have to address these questions, even if it is some way down the line. What really interests me, and what I spent most time discussing with Wood, is the political impact of this potential transformation.
I start by asking whether the technologies transhumanists anticipate are most likely to be perfected in a liberal-democratic or authoritarian state, and what impact this could have on the international balance of power. Wood admits that “it is by no means obvious that the best progress will come from the countries with open and free markets”. In particular he singles out China, saying “I don’t think people appreciate quite how much progress China is making so there’s a Sputnik moment as it were lurking about to break out”. He explains “I believe it’s an objective fact that there are more articles published in China on deep learning than in any other country and Westerners say oh it’s just derivative stuff it’s just copycat…but I’m very cautious about that…there are certainly scenarios in which China will lead the way in at least some developments in AI, possibly some of the applications of genetic editing…there are serious questions about what controls should be applied to gene editing technologies but it seems that China is a little bit more open to doing things faster than other parts of the world”.
I ask whether this could give China a powerful competitive advantage over the West. “Well Vladimir Putin has more or less said as much last year”, he replies, referring to the Russian President’s statement that “whoever leads in AI will rule the world” which he describes as “I think true”. In answer to the big question, on whether a liberal-democratic or authoritarian state is most likely to win the AI arms race, Wood strikes a somewhat optimistic note. “I don’t know which group will win, I don’t know whether the Chinese method will be more successful” but his instincts say that “America or the EU or some other bloc which embodies the principles of open markets and open discussion of ideas” should have a “competitive advantage” over those which don’t. Importantly Wood tells me that “I personally think we’re more likely to have a good outcome [to the transhumanist revolution] if we have an open and democratic process to politics”.
On a related note we turn to whether the transhumanist vision, of humans with greatly enhanced mental and cognitive faculties, is itself compatible with one-person-one-vote democracy. Won’t transhumanism create an enormous divide between those who enhance their capacities, and those who either can’t (most likely for economic reasons) or won’t? Will these new super-humans be prepared to share power with their unmodified brethren on an equal basis (considering the potentially enormous gulf in intellect) and even if they are would such a society be able to compete with one run by either super-intelligent humans or advanced AI?
Wood admits there could be “pressure” to go down this route “which is why I’m seeking hard to ensure that there isn’t this huge gulf between the ‘near-Gods’ and the ‘useless’ and seeking to ensure that no one is left behind”. He explains that we need to avoid a situation where “there will be a few people who are fortunate enough to do very well and they’ll be doing much better than most of the Greek Gods could even have imagined…whereas most other people will have nothing to do as far as anything they might have thought of doing could be done better by automation”. However Wood adds that humans shouldn’t be obliged to augment themselves, and “there will still be scope for various types of Amish” but generally “it will be like somebody deciding they don’t want to learn to read and write…I think in the future there will be strong reasons people can see why it is good for them to enhance themselves”.
I ask whether there would need to be a strong global regulatory framework to mitigate the risks associated with transhumanist developments, and in particular to try and avoid differences in cognitive ability becoming so stark that they threaten democracy. Wood asserts that “I am in favour of there being a powerful regulatory framework, I don’t want it to be too heavy handed, I don’t want it to try and cover everything…and exactly what it covers needs to be a matter of serious and ongoing debate because there are things which can easily be overregulated and get in the way of progress”. He compares some transhumanist technologies to nuclear weapons or the smallpox virus in needing controls, adding that “it probably has to be done on a worldwide level too to be successful which is a complication because if we in Britain and Europe were to say alright we’re not going to do this kind of experimentation but China and Russia went ahead and did it then people in Britain would say we’re not going to have our hands tied behind our backs in this unfair competition”.
Of course this would require all the world’s major powers to agree to a joint regulatory regime. Wood thinks this is possible saying “I would hope that if there if we figure out that it would be better for certain things to be regulated then we’d be able to have an argument and take that to those leaders and the Chinese leadership, whatever else they are, they are sympathetic to engineering ideas”.
I tell Wood I was struck by a quote from American biologist Edward O. Wilson which he references in his book; “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terribly dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall”. Essentially, the argument goes, the human species as created by natural selection is so unsuited to wielding the kind of power which is going to fall into our hands that we are highly likely to self-destruct. Like a monkey with a hand grenade, it’s only a matter of time before we pull the pin.
Wood clearly shares this concern saying “I think there are real risks to human extinction, there are existential risks which are made worse by more powerful technology being used by standard or unmodified humans”. In this context he references Moore’s Law of mad scientists, the semi-satirical claim that “Every eighteen months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point”. He explains that aspects of human biology which were useful in the societies in which we evolved are, with modern technology, becoming supremely dangerous. “Being afraid of people who looked different was probably a healthy evolutionary advantage…just like we’ve got a sweet tooth, in ancient times it made good sense to eat as much sugar as you could get a hold of…nowadays we need to fight against that”. The logical outcome of this argument is that modifying human biology isn’t merely desirable, but necessary to avoid human extinction due to the power of the technology we will soon be dealing with.
So considering how high they believe the stakes are, what are British transhumanists doing to try and influence domestic and international politics? Primarily they seem to be trying to influence the existing political parties. Wood explains that “we have potential allies in virtually every political party. The decision as to whether somebody is in principle in favour of using technology to enhance human, enhance human capability, that is a separate one to where you stand on free market forces vs state control or liberal morality vs conservative morality”. However, as noted earlier, Wood is also Treasurer of the Transhumanist Party UK, a registered political party, and transhumanist candidates have stood for election in the UK. Wood describes these efforts as “an experiment frankly, we didn’t expect to win anything like enough votes to get into Parliament we just though let’s see what this is like”.
Logo of the Transhumanist Party UK
If the transhumanists are right, and at some point in the near future (say couple of centuries) we’re about to undergo an unprecedented technological revolution, there is much to be both terrified and excited about. The possible benefits in terms of human health, ability and life spans are vast. But it’s hard to argue that our current political institutions are remotely capable of handling such a revolution, and in particular the likely increase in ability and intellect inequality which initially at least seems all but inevitable. As such we should be grateful for those, such as David Wood, who are thinking about the transhumanist revolution could be managed so as to avoid threatening either democracy or our species itself. There’s a legend, probably more myth than reality, that during Roman triumphs a slave would sit behind the victorious general and whisper Memento homo – remember you are only a man. If the transhumanists are right we could be on the verge of becoming a good deal more than that.