January is a month for renewal and for change. Many of us have been gifted shiny new fitness trackers, treated ourselves to some new gadget or other, or upgraded to the latest smartphone. As we huff and puff our way out of the season of excess we find ourselves wishing we could trade in our overindulged bodies for the latest model.
The reality is that, even with the best of care, the human body eventually ceases to function but if I can upgrade my smartphone, why can’t I upgrade myself? Using technology, is it not possible to live forever(ish)?
After all, humans have been “upgrading” themselves in various ways for centuries. The invention of writing allowed us to offload memories, suits of armour made the body invincible to spears, eyeglasses gave us perfect 20/20 vision, the list goes on.
This is something that designer and author Natasha Vita-More has been thinking about for a long time. In 1983 she wrote The Transhumanist Manifesto, setting out her vision for a future where technology can lead to "radical life extension" – if not living forever, then living for a lot longer than is currently possible.
Vita-More has also designed a prototype whole body prosthetic she calls Primo PostHuman. This is a hypothetical artificial body that could replace our own and into which we could, in theory, upload our consciousness. This is more in the realm of living forever but is a concept as distant to us as Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a flying machine was to 15th century Europeans.
Even so, while the replacement body seems much closer to science fiction than science, recent advances in robotics and prosthetics have not only given us artificial arms that can detect pressure and temperature but limbs that can be controlled by thoughts using a brain-computer interface.
As a transhumanist, Vita-More is excited by these scientific developments. She defines a transhumanist to be “a person who wants to engage with technology, extend the human lifespan, intervene with the disease of aging, and wants to look critically at all of these things”.
Transhumanism, she explains, looks at not just augmenting or bypassing the frailties of the human body but also improving intelligence, eradicating diseases and disabilities, and even equipping us with greater empathy.
“The goal is to stay alive as long as possible, as healthy as possible, with greater consciousness or humaneness. No-one wants to stay alive drooling in a wheelchair,” she adds.
Who wouldn’t want to be smarter, stronger, healthier and kinder? What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, says Dr Fiachra O'Brolcháin, a Marie Curie/Assistid Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Dublin City University whose research involves the ethics of technology.
Take for example being taller than average: this correlates with above average income so it is a desirable trait. But if medical technology allowed for parents to choose a taller than average child, then this could lead to a “height race”, where each generation becomes taller and taller, he explains.
“Similarly, depending on the society, even non-homophobic people might select against having gay children (assuming this were possible) if they thought this would be a disadvantage. We might find ourselves inaugurating an era of ‘liberal eugenics’, in which future generations are created according to consumer choice.”
Then there is the problem of affordability. Most of us do not have the financial means to acquire the latest cutting-edge tech until prices drop and it becomes mainstream. Imagine a future where only the rich could access human enhancements, live long lives and avoid health problems.
Elysium, starring Matt Damon, takes this idea to its most extreme, leading to a scenario similar to what O'Brolcháin describes as "an unbridgeable divide between the enhanced and the unenhanced".
Despite the hyper focus on these technological enhancements that come with real risks and ethical dilemmas, the transhumanist movement also seems to be about kicking back against – or at least questioning – what society expects of you.
“There’s a certain parameter of what is normal or natural. There’s a certain parameter of what one is supposed to be,” says Vita-More.
“You’re supposed to go to school at a certain age, get married at a certain age, produce children, retire and grow old. You’re supposed to live until you are 80, be happy, die and make way for the young.”
Vita-More sees technology as freeing us from these societal and biological constraints. Why can’t we choose who we are beyond the body we were born with? Scholars on the sociology of the early Web showed that Cyberspace became a place for this precise form of expression. Maybe technology will continue to provide a platform for this reinvention of what it is to be human.
Maybe, where we’re going, we won’t need bodies.
Nell Watson’s job is to think about the future and she says: “I often wonder if, since we could be digitised from the inside out – not in the next 10 years but sometime in this century – we could create a kind of digital heaven or playground where our minds will be uploaded and we could live with our friends and family away from the perils of the physical world.
“It wouldn’t really matter if our bodies suddenly stopped functioning, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. What really matters is that we could still live on.”
In other words you could simply upload to a new, perhaps synthetic, body.
As a futurist with Singularity University (SU), a Silicon Valley-based corporation that is part university, part business incubator, Watson, in her own words, is "someone who looks at the world today and projects into the future; who tries to figure out what current trends mean in terms of the future of technology, society and how these two things intermingle".
She talks about existing technologies that are already changing our bodies and our minds: “There are experiments using DNA origami. It’s a new technique that came out a few years ago and uses the natural folding abilities of DNA to create little Lego blocks out of DNA on a tiny, tiny scale. You can create logic gates – the basic components of computers – out of these things.
“These are being used experimentally today to create nanobots that can go inside the bloodstream and destroy leukaemia cells, and in trials they have already cured two people of leukaemia. It is not science fiction: it is fact.”
Nanobots are also able to carry out distributed computing i.e. communicate with each other, inside living things, she says, explaining that this has been done successfully with cockroaches.
“The cockroach essentially has an on-board computer and if you scale this up to humans and optimise it there is no reason why we can’t have our smartphones inside our bodies instead of carrying them around,” she says.
This on-board AI travelling around our bloodstream would act as a co-pilot: seeing what you see, experiencing what you experience, recording everything and maybe even mapping every single neuron in your brain while it’s at it. And with a digitised copy of your brain you (whatever ‘you’ is) could, in theory, be uploaded to the cloud.
Does this mean that we could never be disconnected from the web, ever again? What if your ‘internal smartphone’ is hacked? Could our thoughts be monitored?
Humans have become so dependent on our smartphones and so used to sharing our data with third parties, that this ‘co-pilot’ inside us might be all too readily accepted without deeper consideration.
Already, novel technologies are undermining privacy to an alarming degree, says O’Brolcháin.
“In a world without privacy, there is a great risk of censorship and self-censorship. Ultimately, this affects people’s autonomy – their ability to decide what sort of life they want to lead for themselves, to develop their own conception of the good life.
“This is one of the great ironies of the current wave of technologies – they are born of individualistic societies and often defended in the name of individual rights but might create a society that can no longer protect individual autonomy,” he warns.
Okay, so an invincible body and a super brain have their downsides but what about technology that expands our consciousness, making us wiser, nicer, all-round better folks? Could world peace be possible if we enhanced our morality?
“If you take a look at humanity you can see fighting, wars, terrorism, anger. Television shows are full of violence, society places an emphasis on wealth and greed. I think part of the transhumanist scope is [to offset this with] intentional acts of kindness,” says Vita-More, who several times during our interview makes the point that technology alone cannot evolve to make a better world unless humanity evolves alongside.
Vita-More dismisses the notion of enhancement for enhancement’s sake, a nod to the grinder movement of DIY body-hacking, driven mostly by curiosity.
Examples include implanting magnets into the fingertips to detect magnetic waves or sticking an RFID chip into your arm as UK professor Kevin Warwick did, allowing him to pass through security doors with a wave of his hand.
Along the same lines as Vita-More’s thinking, O’Brolcháin says “some philosophers argue that moral enhancements will be necessary if enhancements are not to be used for malevolent ends”.
“Moral enhancement may result in people who are less greedy, less aggressive, more concerned with addressing serious global issues like climate change,” he muses.
But the difficulty is deciding on what is moral. After all, he says, the 'good' groups like Isis want to promote is vastly at odds with the values of Ireland. So who gets to decide what moral enhancements are developed? Perhaps they will come with the latest internal smartphone upgrade or installed at birth by government.
Technology does make life better and it is an exciting time for robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. But humans have a long way to go to before we work out how we can co-exist with the future we are building right now.