Transhumanism: Zoltan Istvan vs. Professor R. Jones

In this technology edition’s impact essay, Zoltan Istvan and Professor Richard Jones debate the merits and faults of transhumanism.

ZOLTAN ISTVAN

Transhumanism—the international movement that aims to use science and technology to improve the human being and the human experience—has been growing quickly in the last few years. Everywhere one looks, there seems to be more and more people embracing radical technology that is already dramatically changing lives. For example, exoskeleton technology allows the paralyzed to walk, cochlear implants allow the deaf to hear and driverless cars will mean the end of tens of thousands of fatal drunk driving accidents.

However, Transhumanism is just getting started in how it will positively affect people everywhere. Soon, robots, software, and artificial intelligence will dramatically make people’s lives easier, doing tasks of every type. Free time—something many people have very little of in the modern world—will become commonplace.

Most importantly, in just a few decades, transhumanism technology will likely halt biological aging and even death through a myriad of ways, including genetic editing, 3D printing of organs, and robotic replacement of body parts. Over 100,000 people die every day around the world, causing devastating loss to loved ones and communities.

Transhumanism wants to change that. Transhumanism wants to use science and technology to overcome hardship and suffering. If one loves life and wants to preserve it, transhumanism is an amazing philosophy and social movement to participate in and embrace. I believe the world needs transhumanism to achieve the most it can out of our precious existence here on Earth.

PROFESSOR RICHARD JONES

Who could be opposed to technological progress? Certainly not me: I’m a physicist who has devoted his career to understanding the nanoscale world. I’m all too aware of how much better the lives of people like me, prosperous inhabitants of the developed world, are than those of our grandparents, as a result of technological progress.

But this technological progress isn’t inevitable, nor is the direction it takes pre-ordained. Transhumanism as a movement appropriates the achievements that technology has made already, and uses these to give credibility to a series of future aspirations that aren’t so much extrapolations of current trends, but the fulfillments of ancient human desires. People have longed for a transcendent world of material plenty and everlasting life for millennia, and these wishes don’t become any more likely to be fulfilled by being dressed up in a new language of science.

I’d love to see cures for the cruel diseases of old age, like Alzheimers. But these cures aren’t going to come from “signing up to a philosophy and social movement”. They will come from sustained effort of many biomedical scientists – and a lot of money. The recent history of the pharmaceutical industry in general – and the search for anti-dementia drugs in particular – suggests that this is getting harder, not easier. Transhumanism’s claims that we’re in sight of abolishing ageing and death are hollow.

And robots, software and artificial intelligence could make many people’s life easier – or they could make a few people very much richer, leaving everyone else in a situation of growing economic precariousness. The outcome we end up with will be the result of the political choices we make. Transhumanism’s technological determinism obscures these political choices; the result is to lend support to the existing holders of political and economic power.

To summarise, many of the claims of transhumanism are technically wrong, the ideological roots of the movement are dubious, and the wide circulation of transhumanist views is damaging to the way we talk about technology.

ZOLTAN ISTVAN

I hear this question a lot: Why do we need a “transhumanism” movement? The answer, while not obvious, is straightforward. We need a movement because most have us have been brought up in cultures that don’t uphold reason and science values. In America, for example, where a majority of the population is religious, most people see no reason to want to try to use science and technology to change the human experience or overcome death. Naturally, this type of thinking carries over into the US Government, where 100% of the US Congress, the Supreme Court, and the President are religious and believe in an afterlife. This environment is not conducive for those of us who want to use science to change the world and hopefully eliminate all human ailments. It’s not conducive because our leaders won’t spend any money to help science and technology forward.

Government funds some medical and science research, but currently, that funding (in the US) is about 10 times “smaller” than funding for defence, wars, and bomb making. This is a tragedy that we fight wars against human beings—and not against cancer, or heart disease, or Alzheimer’s, or even aging. This is a primary reason transhumanists must organize into a movement, so that we can battle the powers that be, and demand much more government funding go directly into science and medical research. Instead of a military industrial complex, we can create a science industrial complex. If that happens, technological development will dramatically speed up—and so will all the benefits from science for the human race. We are literally in a race to save billions of lives from disease and aging.

Imagine for a moment if the environmental movement never became a formal movement, or the Women’s Rights movement. Organizing, collaborating, developing strategies, lobbying and undertaking activism is how people change the world. This can be done better when those involved have structure and power from greater numbers of people and their groups. That’s what transhumanism needs, and that’s what transhumanism is essentially becoming—a bonafide global movement where political parties, television shows, non-profits, new companies and even wacky cross-country bus tours like my Immortality Bus occur to promote it.

Like all movements, not everything will turn out as planned. Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots may take jobs and this may cause social conflict, but transhumanism—like democracy—will find a way and improve the standard of living for everyone. Technology has that history. And it will also find a way around death and disease, especially now that companies like Google’s Calico are starting to pour vast amounts of money into this field.
Transhumanism is a social movement that is imbued with a techno-optimism that is contagious. The movement is growing like wildlife because people see the promise of being part of something that wants to make humans have better lives.

PROFESSOR RICHARD JONES

We can certainly agree on the need to spend proportionately more on science and medical research, and proportionately less on the military. And it’s certainly true as a matter of fact that the USA is a much more religious country than the UK or the rest of Europe. It would be rude for me as an outsider to pass judgment on that, but the greater religiosity of society in the USA hasn’t stopped your country being the world’s science and technology leader. It has, perhaps, made some aspects of research more difficult in the USA than in Europe – stem cell research, for example. But on the other hand other types of technology – like agricultural biotechnology – seem much more acceptable in the USA than in Europe. The relationship between societal attitudes to science and technology and religion clearly isn’t that straightforward.

But it puzzles me that, if you think that it is religious thinking in the USA that is the problem, you should think the solution is a movement – transhumanism – that has so many religious echoes of its own. You look forward to an event in the future – the “Singularity” – which looks very much like the apocalypse of religious millennial traditions. Not for nothing do people call the Singularity the “Rapture of the Nerds” – the promise of a post-Singularity world of material abundance and ever-lasting life, ruled over by the benevolent superintelligence of AI looks pretty religious in character to me.

And who can deny the appeal of an end to death and disease? As I hinted in my first statement, I’m very sceptical on technical grounds that science can deliver on this promise any time soon. But, in any case, many of the problems we have in health aren’t about a lack of science. In my city, living at the wrong end of a simple bus ride can take 10 years off your average life expectancy, such is the scale of the health inequalities we suffer. And in your country, the USA, the work of Deaton and Case has shown that for white, non-Hispanic middle-aged men and women, mortality rates are actually increasing. Whatever is going on there, these problems aren’t going to be solved by more medical research – these are problems of society, that are going to need political solutions, not technical ones. Impossible dreams about eternal life just divert attention from these pressing here-and-now problems.

ZOLTAN ISTVAN

It’s true there are some so-called religious aspects to transhumanism, specifically the idea of the Singularity or of transhumanism technology eliminating death. Both concepts mirror fundamental human desires to find a lasting place of happiness and ensure permanence by not dying. And who doesn’t want to find happiness or find a way around losing their being and consciousness for eternity? To me, it’s not the goals of religion that are wrong, but rather how religion makes promises to people to achieve them. Transhumanism wants to deliver happiness and indefinite lifespans through reason, science, and the tools of nature. Formal religion—like Christianity or Islam—do it through guilt, fundamentalism, wacky ritual, and the threat of eternal damnation. That’s no way to go about achieving the universal spiritual desires that many of us feel inclined to embrace. Using science and technology to satisfy the profound desires in our spirit is a much better way.

I understand you are skeptical that science is still a long way off achieving indefinite lifespans for humans. However, recent progress in rejuvenating mice cells to be younger, testing robotic organs like the bionic heart and the promise of genetic editing are bringing us closer every day to living much longer than ever before. With so many more resources flooding into the longevity and anti-aging field—including by an increasing amount of billionaires—I believe we are about to hit a tipping point in the research. There’s even a growing chorus around the world to treat aging like a disease—which would help form a more scientific culture to embrace indefinite lifespans.

However, this good news is not immediately helping some of the social issues you mentioned, which are complex and varied. While Americans are living longer than ever before, as are generally people all around the world—and living standards across the globe are higher than they’ve ever been, according to recent World Bank reports—much work remains to bring social equality. Much work also remains to eliminate poverty and stop wars worldwide.

This is the primary reason I’m running for US President under the transhumanist banner. While I have little chance of winning the 2016 election, the visibility of the campaign has been showing the world how democracy, social equality, peace, environmental preservation and living standards could be dramatically improved with technology and science. For example, my campaign champions a Universal Basic Income, which would eradiate poverty. It also insists on free education, free health care, and equal access to the best transhumanist technologies out there. I’ve said time and time again that as we move forward with designer baby technology, where we can improve the human species before they’re even born, everyone—including the poorest—must have access to it. I’d accomplish this with government grants.

Many transhumanists and technologists like myself lean somewhat left and are very concerned that the coming world of transhumanist science and technology is shared equally among all people. I personally will insist on that. And I know the burgeoning transhumanist movement will also maintain that. We are a social movement that insists on making the world a better place through radical science and technology. Embracing and focusing on these ideas will lead to a world with much more abundance for everyone.

PROFESSOR RICHARD JONES

You don’t have to be a transhumanist to want to use science and technology to make humanity’s lot better, but what science and technology delivers for us depends on the choices we make as a society. The visions of transhumanists obscure such choices by suggesting that there’s only one possible direction for technology to go in. When you talk about “designer baby technology, where we can improve the human species before they’re even born”, many people reading will ask, who gets to decide what constitutes an improvement? How will we know that new technologies will lead to abundance for everyone, rather than leading to more polarization between those with money and power and those without?

I am less enthusiastic than you are about the fact that it is billionaires who are putting resources into longevity and anti-ageing research. That’s just one example of the way research agendas are set by the rich and powerful. The way to make sure the technologies that are developed are the ones that have the widest benefits to humanity isn’t to give the richest people the most influence in setting those agendas, it’s to open up that process much more widely. But it’s naïve to imagine that the directions in which technology is developed isn’t affected by who has power in society.

I am glad you recognize the quasi-religious dimensions of transhumanism. Historically, one role of some religions has been to justify the position of those who hold wealth and power. It’s not surprising that transhumanism is popular amongst the Californian techno-elite; the idea that technology is a wholly positive force unfolding with its own inevitable logic is one that is very comforting to those who benefit the most from the current arrangements. Transhumanism is, in effect, the state religion of Californian techno-neoliberalism, and like all state religions its purpose is to justify the power of the incumbents.