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Yeats's wish, expressed in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium," was a governing principle for those attending the World Transhumanist Association conference at Yale University in late June. International academics and activists, they met to lay the groundwork for a society that would admit as citizens and companions intelligent robots, cyborgs made from a free mixing of human and machine parts, and fully organic, genetically engineered people who aren't necessarily human at all. A good many of these 160 thinkers aspire to immortality and omniscience through uploading human consciousness into ever evolving machines.
The three-day gathering was hosted by an entity no less reputable than the Yale Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project's Working Research Group on Technology and Ethics; the World Transhumanist Association chairman and co-founder is Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom. Dismiss it as a Star Trek convention by another name, and you could miss out on the culmination of the Western experiment in rights and reason.
The opening debate, "Should Humans Welcome or Resist Becoming Posthuman?," raised a question that seems impossibly far over the horizon in an era when the idea of reproductive cloning remains controversial. Yet the back-and-forth felt oddly perfunctory. Boston University bioethicist George Annas denounced the urge to alter the species, but the response from the audience revealed a community of people who feel the inevitability of revolution in their bones.
"It's like arguing in favor of the plough. You know some people are going to argue against it, but you also know it's going to exist," says James Hughes, secretary of the Transhumanist Association and a sociologist teaching at Trinity College in Connecticut. "We used to be a subculture and now we're becoming a movement."
A movement taken seriously enough that it's already under attack. Hughes cites the anti-technologist Unabomber as a member of the "bio-Luddite" camp, though an extremist one. "I think that if, in the future, the technology of human enhancement is forbidden by bio-Luddites through government legislation, or if they terrorize people into having no access to those technologies, that becomes a fundamental civil rights struggle. Then there might come a time for the legitimate use of violence in self-defense," he says. "But long before that there will be a black market and underground network in place."
Should a fully realized form of artificial intelligence become in some manner enslaved, Hughes adds, "that would call for liberation actsnot breaking into labs, but whatever we can do."
But beyond the violent zealots, who are these supposed bio-Luddites? From the right, Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, rails against transhumanism in his book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, and Francis Fukuyama weighs in with his fearful exploration, Our Posthuman Future. From the left, environmentalist Bill McKibben fires Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, a book that reads like a 227-page-long helpless screech of brakes on a train steaming ahead at full power.
They have a case for being somewhat apocalyptic about the convergence of genetics, computer science, nanotechnology, and bioengineering. The outcome is almost guaranteed to strain our ancient sensibilities and definitions of personhood.
For now, though, the dialogue sounds like a space-age parlor game. Why should the noodlings of a relative handful of futurists matter? The easy answer, and that's not to say it isn't a true one: As with science fiction, the scenarios we imagine reflect and reveal who we are as a society today. For example, how can we continue to exploit animals when we fear the same treatment from some imagined superior race in the future?
But the purpose of the Yale conference was direct, with no feinting at other agendas. The crowd there wanted to shape what they see as a coming reality. From the first walking stick to bionic eyes, neural chips, and Stephen Hawking's synthesized voice, they would argue we've long been in the process of becoming cyborgs. A "hybrot," a robot governed by neurons from a rat brain, is now drawing pictures. Dolly the sheep broke the barrier on cloning, and new transgenic organisms are routinely created. The transhumanists gathered because supercomputers are besting human chess masters, and they expect a new intelligence to pole-vault over humanityin this century.
"All one has to do is read the science journals to know these issues are on the table today," says Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, who serves as a bioethics adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and has, along with other dignitaries, discussed the posthuman prospect with French president Jacques Chirac. "One thing I can say with certainty from my experience is that the wheels of law, of the legislative process, grind very slowly within nations and slower still internationally. The progress of science, on the other hand, is ever accelerating. If anything, we've been surprised at how quickly technology has progressed. It's worth taking on these issues intellectually now, rather than in crisis later."
Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil argues we should clean our ethical house so our technologically derived descendants inherit compassionate values, but he predicts the transition to posthumanity will be smooth. "We already have neural implants for things like Parkinson's disease," he says. "By the time machines make a case for themselves in a convincing way and have all the subtle cues indicative of emotional reaction, there won't be a clear distinction between machine and human."