There’s a lightweight white headband on my laptop screen promising to ‘synchronise my mind with my body’. The ELF EMMIT is a non-invasive brain wave manipulator that plugs into my phone and is run from an app, and claims that its pre-loaded frequency patterns can help me study when stressed, work when tired, and even get better quality sleep. In the 49 seconds it takes me to watch its ad, the website’s checkout counter notifies me that three people have purchased the $199 (approximately R2 700) device.
Elf Emmit Synchronize Your Mind And Body Photo Gallery
The technology driving it is just the tip of a burgeoning iceberg – a growing school of thought surrounding the idea that we can and should use science and technology to evolve beyond the physical limitations of the body and mind. Welcome to the age of transhumanism. Billed by its faithful as the next frontier of human development, the transhumanist movement seeks to improve human life using science and technology. Goals include eliminating our need for sleep and uploading one’s consciousness to the internet – the human brain as cloud computing. The latter is estimated to be possible by 2045 (Neuralink, Elon Musk’s new start-up, is dedicated to the development of interface tech that would connect humans and computers).
The result of field-wide research and development is a growing collection of products that run a vast spectrum of applications, all in the name of overcoming the limitations of the human body. Why? Because for all our spirit and resilience, we are fatally frail creations according to Zoltan Istvan, the Libertarian candidate for Governor of California, campaigning on a transhumanist platform that would see him using the Scientifi c Method to make policy decisions concerning public matters like health and education. Fascinated by science fi ction as a child, Istvan dedicated himself to ‘overcoming death and pain with extreme medicine’ after a brush with death at a landmine in Vietnam as a National Geographic Channel journalist. ‘As soon as we have the technology here, humans will all likely upgrade to becoming mostly or all-machine, just like we gave up the horse and cart for cars and jet airplanes,’ explains Istvan. That may sound far-fetched, but advancements in the fi eld are further into the future than may be publicly evident. Mind-to-mind communication – telepathy, technically – took place for the fi rst time in 2014, when a team of researchers used internet-connected electroencephalogram (or EEG) technology to send a thought, translated as a light transmission, between India and France. Istvan’s best-selling book, The Transhumanist Wager, has given him a platform to promote the movement’s radical science, and he believes this ‘next natural step’ is not a case of can, want or should, but must.
‘In the next 10-20 years, 85% of jobs will be replaced by robots and Artifi cial Intelligence (AI)… In order for humans to compete, we will ourselves have to merge with machines. The diffi cult part is getting our minds to be as smart and fast as a computer, so we will have to connect our brains directly through a neural prosthetic of brainwave headset. These devices are already here, and in fi ve to 10 years may be here commercially. They will allow our brains to think in the clouds and literally search the internet in our thoughts… Whatever happens, if people don’t plug directly to the ’net and augment their physical strength with robotic parts, then they simply will not be able to economically compete with the billions of machines that will soon be running our economy’, says Istvan. Some scientists predict that the Technology Singularity – a major event characterised by machine intelligence surpassing human intelligence – will be the beginning of a mass spread of many of these developments.
Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, estimates its arrival as soon as 2029. While some may see it as a takeover, transhumanists see this hyper-integration of technology into everyday life as a partnership. ‘People often think of technology as separate from us. This is a major misconception,’ says transhumanist and co-author of Super You: How Technology is Revolutionizing What it Means to be Human, Kay Walker. ‘Since the time of cavemen, we’ve been using technology to be better humans. We built shelters to survive. We created clothes to keep us warm. We developed tools to cut our food, and fi re to cook it. We’ve been using technology to live better and longer for centuries. Ultimately, humans are the creators of technology… It’s a beautiful and natural relationship.’ Resistance to this kind of mass change is expected and it exists. It isn’t just because we are creatures of habit, but because of the intangible aspects of the human experience that seem repeatedly – and inevitably – ill-considered by technology. Machines can’t experience or relate to any concept of spirituality, and can’t programme them to suffi ciently process and understand ethics yet. ‘Where the two concepts intersect and contradict each other is around the topic of living forever. I see spirituality as a personal choice, where transhumanism is not. It’s a choice to follow the transhumanist movement, but regardless of what an individual believes, it’s happening.
Technology will progress,’ says Walker. Istvan addresses the same concern by comparing data with spirit: ‘One day, probably before this century is over, we won’t have bodies, we’ll just live in the cloud, or as pure AI intelligence as 1s and 0s. In this sense, we’ll practically just be spirit, which data is like. Genetic editing will fi x biology eventually, but having a body is not the answer to being transhuman. The real transhuman will aim to become not just fl esh, but pure data or nanotechnology that can span the cosmos, perhaps instantaneously, as organised intelligence.’ While some see this as a hope, Walker makes it clear that it is not yet known to be possible. ‘When it comes to preserving consciousness, it’s tough to say whether we’ll be able to preserve this aspect of a person beyond decay of their body. Currently, the field of neuroscience has come far, but still knows little about the brain. What creates consciousness is still a topic up for debate. There are theories but no hard science on what makes us conscious.’ Besides its resolvable ethical issues, the idea of a transhumanist future provides hope for many sectors of society, particularly for the aged or chronically ill. Genetic engineering could make bioprinting replacement organs, conscious food engineering, and perfecting stem cell research to regrow limbs and organs and treat and cure major diseases all possible. Current research and development efforts in brain treatments also hold promising results for sufferers of mental illnesses, as well as virtual reality brain training and cognitive ability enhancement for an overall improved quality of life.
To embrace that hope, society will have to see the technology that will become a large part of our lives post-Singularity as part and parcel of our lived experience; not a threat, but a created collaborator. How do we do that? Stay informed, says Walker. ‘Learn how to use new technology to your personal advantage. And remember that technology came from and is driven by man. It’s not a black-and-white relationship. When you can appreciate and be grateful for technology, that’s when you notice its role and importance and how you can use it to live your best life.’ However, there’s still the much larger question of whether we should be tampering with consciousness and the natural life cycle at all. A basal human fear of death means no-one needs to explain the appeal of immortality, but many question its effect on morality, mental health, social progression and a planet whose resources we are already consuming at an unsustainable rate. Even if the possibilities post-Singularity don’t extend to immortality, should life’s speed increase to a pace we have to augment our minds to keep up with? So many of the health problems we seek to cure are caused by unhealthy, stressful lifestyle choices that the idea of going any faster – even with modifications – seems counter-intuitive.
And there’s also little to suggest that the technology would belong to the public, conjuring up a vision of a world where wealth can buy you extended time on earth. Essentially, the rich getting richer and living longer, and the poor, well, you get the meaning. ‘It’s naïve to imagine that the directions in which technology is developed aren’t affected by who has power in society,’ says Prof Richard Jones, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, who sees many problems with the transhumanist movement, including hollow promises, problematic ideology, and the narrow view that transhumanism is the only way forward. In a 2016 debate with Istvan, he made a poignant observation: ‘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, and the visions of transhumanists obscure those choices by suggesting that there’s only one possible direction for technology to go in.’ So, should we, as a species, merge with machines to keep up with the technology we are developing? Can we afford to sit still and run the risk of becoming obsolete? Or is eternal life on your radar? Where do you fall?