Why society isn’t ready for the high-tech future that is fast approaching

Experts believe the start of mind and physical enhancements is a matter of years away

In the late 1990s, while visiting family in Silicon Valley, I saw a listing for an event that sounded intriguing – a discussion on transhumanism, technology and the future of the human race.

I'd never heard of transhumanism before. Max More, one of its original proponents and one of the speakers at the event I attended, defines it as "a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values".

The philosophy is closely integrated with an enthusiasm for the possibilities of technology to enable a merging of software and/or hardware with our “wetware” bodies. The goal is the elimination or at least, the severe curtailing of the ageing process, extending life for not just a decade or two, but for centuries, perhaps even forever.

The discussion that day included an expert on cryonics, the preservation of human bodies at extremely cold temperatures – or, for those without the wherewithal to opt for a full body, their heads – in specialised tanks until a future when transhumanists trust science will have advanced to a point where the bodies can be returned to life.


Morbidly fascinating

Of course, this bit was morbidly fascinating, and made for good copy for a story I subsequently wrote, but I was far more intrigued by the discussion of human enhancement, physically and mentally, through technology.

The physical stuff was all a bit Six Million Dollar Man and exoskeletons and action movies for the boys. But the notion of being able to upload intelligence and upgrade mental capabilities – or conversely, to be able to copy one's own consciousness and save it or upload it to some other physical form – that was mind-blowing.

I still remember what struck me most that day: Max More used the word “when” for such developments. Not “if”. Even for a sceptic like me, even way back then when most people’s most complex interaction with technology was having to do a dreaded clean install of Windows 95, the note of confident possibility was compelling.

Two decades later, some of these physical and mental enhancements are becoming real, ranging from exokeletons that have enabled the paralysed to walk again, and prosthetic hands controlled by brain impulses , to a team of Tetris players communicating through thought.

Such advances, including new abilities to manipulate our DNA, point towards ever greater capabilities. But many worry that, as a society, we have not even begun to consider a future that, thanks to exponential growth in computing power, is arriving far faster than we think.

More’s “when” seemed an exciting but unimaginably way-off someday back in the late 1990s. Now many futurists, scientists and technologists believe the start of mind and physical enhancements that let us see, hear, move and think in utterly changed ways, is perhaps a matter of years or decades away. There’s an international programme to reverse ageing by 2029. A decade away.

In the past two years I’ve attended presentations at mainstream conferences at which a range of thinkers, including philosophers, technologists and lawyers, have flagged just some of the vast challenges such enhancement will pose for society.

Physical enhancement

Who has access to these technologies and developments? Will a new class of poverty be introduced when good jobs become dependent on mental or physical enhancement only the wealthier can afford? If software is forever vulnerable to hacking, what happens when it melds with your own thoughts? Could your behaviour be changed? Could the state or the private sector then easily surveil not just your every action, but your thoughts (today’s worries about exposure via social media fade by comparison)? Will the poorer die, and the wealthier live forever, in control across the centuries?

This future, in some form, is coming. We are at the point of “when”, not “if”. And our political, legal and social system isn’t remotely prepared for these changes.

We are currently at the stage of being flabbergasted by the easy manipulation of social media networks by bad actors. Eventually, they could be inside your head, not just your Facebook news feed.

So what’s our future going to be like? How fast is it coming at us? What do we want? How do we manage it? What are the politics of such possibilities?

Tomorrow night, as part of the Festival of Politics in Dublin, I'll be talking to two thinkers with opposing ideas on our human future: Zoltan Istvan, transhumanist philosopher, writer and politician (he has run as a transhumanist candidate for US president in 2016 and California governor in 2018); and futurist, consultant and writer Gerd Leonhard, who argues that we and our political systems must urgently prepare for this future, but that transhumanism is the wrong route to take.

I can’t wait to hear what these two have to say tomorrow about this “circuit vs sinew” future.