A Short Guide to Transhumanism and The Future of Society

“So it says here that you’re proficient in C++, code assembly for multiple processor architectures, and . . . that you are a cyborg?” – Silicon Valley

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What a Transhuman might see?  Or way too many filters?

Friday’s discussion of Ray Kurzweil’s (LINK) work on immortality was just part of a bigger picture:  it is one of the foundational principles of Transhumanism.  One definition of Transhumanism is the use of biology, information technology, nanotechnology, and cognitive enhancements to consciously and dramatically evolve humanity in a short period of time.  I know, I know, it sounds like a villain’s plot out of James Bond, but there are a dedicated group of people who are working to bring this about right now.

Transhumanists even have a magazine (LINK) called H+.  H+, for humanity plus, is also the abbreviation that is used by some for the movement to indicate Transhumanity.  And they’re working on achieving H+ now.  One of the more recent articles was referencing a study showing that planarian worms keep their memory after being frozen – something that might be important if you are researching how to bring yourself back after being frozen, like Kurzweil plans for after he dies, if he’s not immortal by then.

We talked about biology on Friday, and getting people to live forever (or a really long time) is part of the movement.  But it’s not just living longer, it’s also increasing life quality.  Inevitably, the idea of uploading a human consciousness (maybe after getting thawed out?) into a machine comes up, since human life is frail and we could build a robot body that’s tougher than a refrigerator, and faster than one of those shaky little Chihuahua dogs.  Having a cool steel body would allow you to be either a Prius® or a Corvette©, depending on if you liked the metric system or not.

But if you had your brain already uploaded into a machine, why bother at all with an actual body?

That’s a second possibility – just upload your consciousness and live in a hard drive.  Some folks, like me and Elon Musk consider it more than a little likely that we live inside a simulation right now.  My first post to discuss this idea was here (LINK) where it becomes the explanation for why we haven’t been contacted by aliens.  We’re either living in a simulation or we’re non-player characters in a very detailed video game.  At least you might be a non-player character, I know I’m real (not as sure about you).  Maybe it’s a multiplayer game?

The other frontier of study that is impacting Transhumanism is nanotechnology.  For about a year, everything was “nano” in every magazine, every news story.  It think that’s been replaced (for now) with “sustainable.”  But, outside of a cool techno band name, what does nano mean?  Roughly it speaks to structures between 0.000000001 meters and 0.0000001 meters in size.

“Nano” had its start when Dr. Richard Feynman put together a lecture that was titled, “There’s Plenty of Room at The Bottom.”  You can find it here (LINK).  In it, Feynman sets the stage for manipulation and eventual mechanization of really, really small machines.  In it he referenced biology as a template – we know that these small machines can exist at that scale, because cells exist and are functional at that scale.

Another place that H+ folks are working on is cognitive improvement – concepts on how to better improve the functioning of the human brain and make us smarter, either biologically, chemically, or through fusion with technology.  And not smart like “vodka Saturday night,” but really smart.  Chemical enhancement has gotten a majority of the attention when discussing the subject, but I would suggest that Google® has already provided a significant cognitive enhancement.  I recall having conversation in 1998 when The Mrs. and I were having an argument about something so important I don’t even recall the subject now.  My friend Matt looked at us and said, “Why are you arguing about a fact.  Look it up.”  After booting up the computer and connecting to the internet via a modem, one Hotbot.com search later, and we had a factual answer (this was before Google™ took the world by storm).  We haven’t had an argument over a searchable fact in years.

I argue that the most significant cognitive enhancement in human history so far has already occurred.  The Internet provides a massive amount of factual knowledge and computing power.  This power makes us all smarter, and gives as a much more of information far faster than at any point in history.

By nature, this vast variety of views makes us drift further apart as a nation.  When I was a kid, there were three networks, plus PBS.  Everybody in the seventh grade talked about the same show – we were all watching it – after all, Fonzie.  Cable existed, but it was mainly a way to get The Three Stooges©.  Now, it’s very rare to go in to work and be able to talk about a television show – I’ve got 200 channels, and I’m certain that nobody I work with is watching Escape from New York right now.  Given DVRs and on-demand, people might not even watch the same show in the same year as you.

On Friday I said that I thought that, even though the several aspects of immortality seemed to be pretty far off from a technical standpoint, I thought that there might be a way that some of the more crazy-sounding things might happen sooner than we’d think.

And there is – it’s called increasing returns.  Outside of standard medical science, which I think we can all agree is pretty stunted (LINK), there is a massive increase in technical knowledge going on.  If I can use an analogy – if you’ve ever done a really big jigsaw puzzle, it’s very slow to start with.  All the pieces fit with other pieces, but there are so many other pieces it’s difficult to find the connections.  But once a few connections start to go in, the picture starts to make more sense.  Eventually, as there are only a few pieces of puzzle left, they go very quickly.

And it’s been that way with technology throughout history.  Our knowledge as a species keeps growing over time – more links are made, and finally we solve one puzzle quickly.  We do run into physical and thermodynamic limits, like the total amount of energy one can get from a gallon of gasoline, or the amount of flavor that can be packed into a piece of Juicy Fruit®.

As we have more smart people on the planet now than ever before in history that can now pull information from the entire history of the world working on information system problems, we end up with far more than Uber – we’re near to having AI systems that that will be able to replicate most of the things that most thinking people do at work.  From truck drivers to managers to accountants.  A few key decision makers and people who do actual physical work that robots can’t do will be all that’s necessary to run a major corporation.  One corporation I was working at around 1999 got rid of hundreds of accountants – floors of a skyscraper were empty – not because business was bad, but because those people had all been replaced with accounting software, and purchasing software.

And this will increase with time, too.

The big idea of Transhumanism isn’t that we replace a bunch of accountants and purchasing managers – the big idea of Transhumanism is that we replace humanity with newly evolved Transhumans.  And there’s no fixed version of what the final, evolved version of us will be like.  It almost certainly will not look like us.  Beyond that, I’m not even sure what the viewpoint would be of 200+ IQ immortal cyborgs – what projects would they work on – how would they vote?  Would we even be able to communicate with them?  The final form of Transhumanity might be one where they instantly communicate, one to another.  They might look much more like Borg® than Boy Scouts.

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Bought a t-shirt with this on it for The Mrs. – she still wears it.  No one wants to be late for the Singularity!  (H+ Magazine)

Greg Bear wrote a great story (that he eventually turned into a novel) about combining intelligence plus cells using nanotech – the original short story can be found here (LINK).  The story describes increasing returns in a pretty unusual and chilling way.

We can’t know what the final form of Transhumanity will look like.  There is a mathematical definition that describes when mathematics and logic break down – like one divided by zero, or a black hole where gravity overpowers all other forces.  We call this a Singularity – and it’s clear that we cannot imagine what an all-powerful humanity would look like.  I just hope that they don’t get me in the freezer too late during the Singularity – I would hate to still be in the microwave when the Singularity hits.  That’s just bad form.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom - How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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