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The transhumanist movement continues to gain momentum through recognition by mainstream media and a ever-burgeoning army of empricists, free thinkers and rationalists. Recently,  the Australian incarnation of 60 Minutes interviewed David Sinclair, a biologist whom has identified  the potentially life-extending properties of resveratrol. All this attention has sought to swell the awareness of transhumanism within the general community, most notably due to the inherently appealing nature of anti-senescent interventions. But what of the neurological side of transhumanism, specifically the artificial augmentation of our natural mental ability with implantable neurocircuitry? Does research in this area create moral questions regarding its implementation, or should we be embracing technological upgrades with open arms? Is it morally wrong to enhance the brain without effort on the individual level (IE: are such methods just plain lazy)? These are the questions I would like to investigate in this article.

An emerging transhumanist e-zine, H+ Magazine, outlines several avenues currently under exploration by researchers, who aim to improve the cognitive ability of the human brain through artificial enhancement. The primary area of focus at present (from an empirical point of view) lies in memory enhancement. The Innerspace Foundation (IF) is a not-for-profit organisation attempting to lead the charge in this area, with two main prizes offered to researchers whom can 1)  successfully create a device which can circumvent the traditional learning process and 2) create a device which facilitates the extension of natural memory.

Pete Estep, chairman of IF, was interviewed by H+ magazine in relation to the foundation’s vision as to what kind of device that satisfied their award criteria might look like. Pete believes the emergence of this industry involves ‘baby steps’ of achieving successful interfaces between biological and non-biological components. Electronic forms of learning, Pete believes, are certainly non-traditional, but still a valid possibility and stand to revolutionise the human intellect in terms of capacity and quality of retrieval.

Fortunately, we seem to already made progress on those ‘baby steps’ regarding the interface between brain and technology. Various neuroheadset products are poised to be released commercially in the coming months. For example, the EPOC headset utilises EEG technology to recognise brainwave activity that corresponds to various physical actions such as facial expression and intent to move a limb. With concentrated effort and training, the operator can reliably reproduce the necessary EEG pattern to activate individual commands within the headset. These commands can then be mapped to an external device and various tasks able to be performed remotely.

Having said this, such devices are still very much ‘baby’ in their steps. The actual stream of consciousness has not yet been decoded; the secrets of the brain are still very much a mystery. Recognisation of individual brain patterns is a superficial solution to a profound problem. Getting back to Searle’s almost cliched Chinese Room thought experiment, we seem to be merely reading the symbols and decoding them, there is no actual understanding  and comprehension going on here.

Even if such a solution is possible, and a direct mind/machine interface achieved, one small part of me wonders if it really is such a good thing. I imagine such a feeling is similar to the one felt by the quintessential school teacher when handheld calculators became the norm within the educational curriculum. By condoning such neuro-shortcuts, are we simply being lazy? Are the technological upgrades promised by transhumanism removing too much of the human element?

On a broader scale, I believe these concerns are elucidated by a societal shift towards passivity. Television is the numero-uno offender with a captive audience of billions. The invasion of neurological enhancements may seek to only increase the exploitation of our attention with television programs beamed directly into brains. Rain, hail or shine, passive reception of entertainment would be accessible 24 hours a day. Likewise, augmentation of memory and circumvention of traditional learning processes may forge a society of ultimate convenience – slaves to a ‘Matrix-style’ mainframe salivating over their next neural-upload ‘hit’.

But having said all this, by examining the previous example of the humble calculator it seems that if such technological breakthroughs are used as an extensor rather than a crutch, humanity may just benefit from the transhumanist revolution. I believe any technology aiming to enhance natural neurological processing power must only be used as such; a method to raise the bar of creativity and ingenuity, not simply a new avenue for bombarding the brain with more direct modes of passive entertainment. Availability must also be society-wide, in order to allow every human being to reach their true potential.

Of course, the flow-on effects of such technology on socio-economic status, intelligence, individuality, politics; practically every facet of human society, are certainly unknown and unpredictable. If used with extension and enhancement as a philosophy, transhumanism can usher in a new explosion of human ingenuity. If a more superficial ethos is adopted, it may only succeed in ushering a new dark ages. It’s the timeless battle between good (transcendence) and evil (exploitation, laziness). Perhaps a topic for a future article, but certainly food for thought.

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In contrast to our recent discussions on religious extremism, transhumanism offers an alternative position that is no less radical yet potentially rewarding. The ideology of transhumanism is comparable to secular humanism in that both advocate the importance of individuality and personal growth. However, where these two positions diverge is in regards to the future of human evolution. In this article I would like to firstly offer a broad definition of transhumanism, followed by the arguments both for and against its implementation. Finally, I would like to discuss the possibility of society adopting a transhumanist position in order to fully realise our human potential.

Transhumanism proposes that in order to take advantage of our natural abilities, a complete embracing of technological progress is necessary. Specifically, and where this position differs from the more conservative and broader topic of humanism, transhumanists believe that self- enhancement to achieve this goal through the use of emerging technology is entirely justifiable. The details of such modifications include a large variety of breakthrough technologies; transhumanists vary individually based on personal preference although the end goal is similar. Cryogenics, mind-digitalisation, genetic engineering and bionic enhancement are all possible methods proposed to usher in a ‘post-human’ era.

A secondary goal (and flowing as a consequence from the first) of transhumanism is the elimination of human suffering and inadequacies. By removing mental and physical inequalities through a process of self-directed evolution (enhancement or prenatal genetic screening/selection) the transhumanist argues that social divides will also be eliminated. Specifically, an improvement of human faculties through cybernetic augmentation is thought to eliminate the gap between intellect. It puts society on an equally intelligent footing. Likewise, the genetic engineering approach hopes to select intellect and physical prowess either pre-birth or post-birth through genetic modification. Mind-transfer or digitalisation proposes to extend both our lifespans (indefinitely) and our mental capacities. The trade-off here is our loss of the physical.

Many transhumanists regard such enhancements as not only natural, but necessary if humanity is to truly understand the world in which we live. They argue that the natural process of evolution and ‘old-fashioned’ practice/training is too slow to equip us with the necessary skills with which to undertake research in the future. One example is space travel. Human bodies are arguably not designed for prolonged exposure to the rigors of space. Bones become brittle and radiation vastly increases the chances of cancer developing (not to mention the unknown psychological and physiological effects of permanent space-habitation). Eliminating such ‘weaknesses’ would allow humans to more efficiently conquer space by removing the need for costly habitation modules and protective shielding. But does self-augmentation create more problems than it solves?

Certainly, from a moral point of view, there are a multitude of arguments levelled at transhumanism. While the majority of these arguments hold merit, I intend to argue that once the initial opposition based on emotional responses is exposed, the core principles of transhumanism really can improve the quality of life for many disadvantaged people on this planet. While the attacks on transhumanism come in many different forms I will instead be concentrating on the moral implications of endorsing this position.

The threat to morality posed by transhumanism has been levelled by both the theistic and the scientific community alike. This argument postulates that 1) ‘contempt of the flesh’ is immoral in the sense that rejecting our natural form and processes is also a rejection of god’s power and intent and 2) rather than removing divides, transhumanism will actually operate in reverse, creating increased discrepancies between those with the ability to improve and those that don’t – the creation of a ‘super-class’ of human and vast disparities in wielded power. The first point is easy enough to dismiss (from an atheistic point of view). Delving deeper, philosophical naturalism, to a degree, proposes that natural effects arrive from natural causes, thus the introduction here of artificial causes results in artificial effects. The problem lies within us being created from natural ‘stuff’ therefore how can we predict with any accuracy or confidence the outcome of unnatural processes? The second point proposes that democracy itself may be threatened by transhumanism. The potential for abuse by the emergent ‘superhuman’ class is easy enough to see. The only rebuttal hope I offer here is that surely self-improvement would aim to not only improve rational faculties, but also emotional – humans would naturally seek to improve our ability to empathise, cooperate and generally act in a morally acceptable manner.

The divide between the intellectually/physically rich and poor can only be closed if transhumanism is enacted uniformly. Unfortunately, the capitalist society in which we live most likely ensures that only the monetarily rich will benefit. Since money does not necessarily equate with moral goodness and intelligence, we are thus in dire straits as transhumanist ideology will quickly be abandoned in the pursuit of dominance and power. Therefore, transhumanism is probably the world’s most dangerous idea (Fukuyama, 2004). The potential for great evil is dizzying. Fortunately, the reverse is also true.

Elimination of inequality is a noble goal of transhumanism. It also attainable from two main angles of attack. Through the means – universal adoption of technology that removes the necessary conditions for suffering to occur (eg disability, sustenance, shelter – uploaded minds stored on digital media) and through the ends – augmentation and improvement that creates superior organisms that live harmoniously. Perhaps this is a necessary step in order for humanity to fully realise its potential; taking charge of our species’ destiny in a more directed and controlled manner than blind evolution can ever hope to achieve.

But arguably, the transhumanism dream is already happening. Society, in a way, is habituating us to the changes that must occur if transhumanism is to be adopted. Psychologically and philosophically, the ideas are out there and being debated regularly. The details, while not finalised, are being worked over and improved using (mostly) rational methodology. Internet and other wireless communications methods have begun the process of ‘disembodiment’ that the digitalisation of human minds surely requires. The internet has facilitated an exponential growth of non-traditional social interaction, existing mostly on the digital plain. Thus, we are already developing the necessary mindsets and modifications to etiquette that transhumanism requires. Cosmetic surgery, while not altogether a morally appropriate example (due to its use and abuse) is also a moving trend in society towards self-modification. On the other hand, negative examples such as psychological disorders such as self-harming and anorexia are salient reminders of how these trends can manifest themselves in untoward ways.

Therefore, the fate of transhumanism rests squarely on its ability to tread carefully across the moral tightrope; too liberal and abuse is inevitable. Too conservative and its full potential is unrealised. Left-wing supporters of transhumanism (Marvin Minsky et al) are, unfortunately, the main public face of this ideology. Their ideas are too liberal, and dangerous if used as a springboard for implementing transhumanist principles. Such examples only serve to highlight the potential for this position to be abused for personal gain. Aging scientists desperate to continue life without the frailties of decaying flesh. They look to the future like a boy dreams of one day living the space-age tales of science-fiction novels. This is not what transhumanism is supposed to be about. It is the practical realisation of a humanist life philosophy; how we could possibly use the technological tools at our disposal to create a utopian society and encourage exponential individualistic growth.

Unfortunately many obstacles remain in the path of a future where humanity transgresses its shortcomings. Morally, the question comes down to a simplistic decision. Why should we be afraid to improve what we currently leave to chance? Surely it is ‘more moral’ to realise the potential of every individual, rather than leaving it down to the throw of a dice. Allowing a child to live a life of disability and suffering as opposed to one where all opportunities are open to them has to be morally acceptable. The only uncertainty in this equation is whether the means justifies the ends.

Transhumanist ideals must be regulated and monitored if they are to be implemented appropriately and uniformly. Just as there are people now who chose not to embrace modern technology, so too will there be people who chose not to augment themselves with improvements. Such people must be respected if transhumanism is to be morally just, and does not delegate groups of people to lower levels of status or the exhibits of future-museums. Just as liberty was used to create a choice to proceed with technological advancement, so too must the liberty of those who chose not to be protected and cherished. After all, the creation of diversity is what makes us human in the first place. To sacrifice that for the sake of ‘progress’ would be a travesty and ideological genocide of the worst kind.