“Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity,” author, computer scientist, and inventor Ray Kurzweil once said. “We created them to extend ourselves, and that is what is unique about human beings.” In the past few years, there has been considerable discussion around the idea we are slowly merging with our technology, that we are becoming transhuman, with updated abilities, including enhanced intelligence, strength and awareness.
Considering Kurzweil’s words is a good place to begin this discussion. It’s no secret that Google has transhumanistic aspirations. In 2011, Steven Levy made this bold statement about the company in the book, In the Plex: “From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity.” Naturally, it makes sense Google would bring on Kurzweil to be its Director of Engineering in 2012. For years, Kurzweil has been pushing the cultural conversation toward the idea of human transcendence with thought-provoking books: The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
Although Kurzweil has gained much notoriety for proposing provocative ideas in the latter book, such as, “The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots,” the term “singularity” originated in a 1993 essay, The Coming Technological Singularity, by science fiction author and professor Vernor Vinge.
To grasp the significance of Vinge’s thinking, it’s important to realize where we were as a society in the early 1990s. Back then, the invention of smartphones and social media platforms were years away. The Internet itself, now so vital to all aspects of our life — communication, commerce and entertainment — was in its infancy. Yet, here was Vinge boldly proclaiming, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
Just consider: Here we are, a little shy of 30 years from Vinge’s prediction and the reality of transhumanism has not just caught on with the public as a distinct possibility, It has become a living, breathing reality. Recently, Michael Ashley, my coauthor of the upcoming book, Uber Yourself Before You Get Kodaked: A Modern Primer on A.I. for the Modern Business, and I sought to tap into the cultural zeitgeist on this subject by interviewing Ben Goertzel. Goertzel is just the right person to speak about human potential in the age of A.I. The founder and CEO of SingularityNET, Goertzel is the chairman of the Artificial General Intelligence Society and the OpenCog Foundation. Along with David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Goertzel co-created Sophia, the first robot to gain national citizenship.
Like Vinge and Kurzweil, Goertzel is fascinated by the idea of transhumanism and makes the case it’s not just pie-in-the-sky conjecture. Transhumanism has been occurring for some time, albeit in analog form. “In a way, it’s happening bit by bit,” Goertzel said. “If you take my glasses away, I become heavily impaired, I can't participate in the world.” Goertzel also points to more recent developments to illuminate the subtler ways we have been merging with computers in recent years. “And, of course, if you take the smartphone away from my wife or kids, they will go into withdrawal and also become heavily impaired.”
Still, many people fear transhumanism. Critics warn of designer babies and chips implanted in our minds. Theologians fear we will denigrate the soul’s sanctity by achieving immortality. In the early 2000s, the editors of Foreign Policy asked policy intellectuals: “What idea, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, pointed to transhumanism, calling it the “world’s most dangerous idea.” Writing for Psychology Today, Massimo Pigliucci stated, “There are several problems with the pursuit of immortality, one of which is particularly obvious. If we all live (much, much) longer, we all consume more resources and have more children, leading to even more overpopulation and environmental degradation.”
No matter the intellectual misgivings surrounding this controversial topic, the fact remains that if we view transhumanism the way it is conventionally defined; people have been evolving toward an updated version of humanity for some time. “In some ways, we already operate as human machine-hybrids,” said Goertzel. “If a caveman came into the modern world, he would be astounded at how symbiotic we are with the various machines we use. We use cars to get from point A to point B and air conditioners to regulate our temperature. In Hong Kong at least, you never see anyone who’s not holding a phone in their hand and staring at it.”
However, there may be other, more pragmatic reasons why we need to become transhuman, if only to stand up to the intelligent machines that are coming. Early on, Elon Musk sounded the alarm about humans being usurped by artificial intelligence in a series of well-publicized warnings. Since then, he has suggested that the only way not to be overtaken by computers is to merge with our creations. His venture, Neuralink, is in development precisely for this purpose. Meant to combine human brains with computers, it’s his attempt to symbiotically join our minds with the machines. “The merge scenario with A.I. is the one that seems like probably the best,” he recently said on the podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience. “If you can't beat it, join it.”
A visionary himself, Goertzel has long foreseen Musk’s vision coming, yet he urges caution in its implementation. “The next step to take is to wire these machines directly into the brain and body rather than have them held in our hands. Clearly, this takes time and thought because you need to be careful with sticking wires into human brains and bodies. But that work is being done, and it’s not going to take more than a decade.”
Returning to Vinge’s prescience at the end of the 20th century, we can see he imagined a future that would occur even sooner than he predicted. If we take Goertzel at his word, we are through Fukuyama’s and others’ hand-wringing stage. We’re now at the point to think about practicalities. Technology slows down for no one. Whether we like it or not, there is a pre-smartphone and a post-smartphone world. Presumably, we all know someone who was loath to adopt the new technology — it’s likely their business even suffered until they began using an iPhone or Android — or got swept aside by adapters willing to change with the times. Are we at the precipice of a similar phenomenon? Are we staring down the gulf at “Human 2.0?”
To put this dilemma in clearer focus, Goertzel advises considering the question, not from your perspective, but from your child’s. He paints a picture: “Imagine it’s eight years from now. All the other kids in your daughter’s third-grade class are way ahead of her because their brains are connected directly to Google and a calculator, and they’re SMSing back and forth by Wi-Fi telepathy between their brains while your daughter sits there in class being stunted because she must memorize things the old-fashioned way and can’t send messages brain-to-brain.”
Goertzel suggests you consider what you would do if your daughter’s teacher brought you in for a parent conference and told you your daughter couldn’t keep up with her classmates. Imagine she suggested some form of upgrade. You love your daughter. You want the best for her. What would you do?
At this point, the prospect of transhumanism stops being an intellectual exercise. It becomes a question of subsistence.