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By Zachary D. Roberts
Natasha Vita-More, a founder of the trans-humanist movement, says there's cause for vigilance now. "To relinquish the rights of a future being merely because he, she, or it has a higher percentage of machine parts than biological cell structure would be racist toward all humans who have prosthetic parts," argues the activist, whose adopted name reflects her aspirations. She has already laid out a conceptual design for an optimized human, called Primo, featuring add-ons like sonar, a fiber-optic cable down the spine, and a head crammed with nanotech data storage.
But progress toward these new beings is often overestimated by the transhumanist crowd, applied scientists caution. "Some of these transhumanists are pretty far out of touch with what's going on in the labs. When I tell them that, I feel like I'm smashing their dreams," says Steve Potter, the Georgia Tech neuroscientist behind the hybrot.
A leading creator of "sociable robots," Cynthia Breazeal of M.I.T., says a chief worry is that we might try to extend rights to beings who aren't prepared for them. Breazeal assiduously avoids calling her robots by gendered pronouns. That even she occasionally slips when faced with the large, beseeching eyes of one of her creations means nothing, she says. But it must mean something. No one accidentally calls a toaster "he" or "she."
illustration: Anthony Freda
Indeed, a good many of the transhumanists and extropians (a libertarian subset concerned with improving human nature through technology) are feverishly anticipating what they call the Singularity, the moment when technologies meld and an exponentially advancing intelligence is unleashed. To critics, that millennialism can seem like irrational religiosity.
"I go straight to the question of why on earth we would want to do this in first place. I've been unable to come up with an answer," McKibben says. "All of this enhancing and souping up presupposes a goal or an aim. What is that goal? What is it we're not intelligent enough to do now? It's not to feed the hungrythat has to do with how we share things. Fighting disease? We're making steady progress in conventional medical science with the brains that we have right now. There are a thousand reasons not to trade in people, as we have known them throughout human history, for something else."
Except that human history may be brief without the Singularity. This is the core argument for the entire movement, the reason that hall at Yale was packed: A posthuman future may be our species' only chance for any legacy at all.
Talk to transhumanists about the nightmares of a blitzkrieg of nanites turning the world into "gray goo," the dark vision of human mutants in rebellion, or the specter of killer robots on the loose, and they'll calmly remind you the earth has an expiration date. Climate change, natural or not, could break civilization in mere thousands of years; cosmic catastrophes will snuff out the survivors later. If anything is to remain of us, we'll need to settle around other stars.
Us. We. Here's where vanity finds its end. The humanitythe us, wethat strode out of Africa and braved the Pacific Ocean in outrigger canoes and the Arctic in longboats cannot and never will be able to make that final journey. We're too delicate and too dumb. But new forms of being might be able to stake out an interstellar future. They could view us as kin, carrying some essence of our ideals, a memory of Shakespeare secure in their vast webs of intelligence. Transhumanists are asking whether we'll embrace the kinds of life that come next as a necessary extension of ourselves or shun them as monstrosities.
Simply deciding against their existencewilling them into a shadowy corner of the imagination or legislating against themwon't work. Every law ever made has been broken, observes Kirby. "Detailed regulation is not possible and probably not desirable," asserts Kirby. "This is not defeatism or resignation. It is realism."
If he's right, we can't afford to renounce a role in a new intelligence's emergence or cede the chance to imprint it with cultural values. One day, that first cybernetic, genetically spliced, or wholly artificially created being will step into the town square of democracy. What then of the seminal words of our society: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
"Men," or even "human beings," won't be adequate labels anymore. Life will have been radically redefined, along with the fundamental events of birth and death that bracket it. Equality will be moot, and enforcing it could reasonably be seen as unjust to beings with categorically different or greater abilities. Blake's words ring here: "One Law for the Lion & the Ox is Oppression."