Tuesday 20 September 2011

T is for Transhumanism

By Sam Kepfield

Transhumanism is not a new concept. The quest to improve the human organism, and thereby improving human civilization, can be traced to pre-Biblical times, such as Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. Subsequent quests, such as Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth, affirmed the notion in popular culture.

Some early strains of transhumanism focused on improvement through self-actualization, such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s “uberman.” Beginning in the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution shaped transhumanism, turning it into a technology-based notion. Naturally, as the Information Revolution came of age in the 1960s, transhumanism became closely identified with artificial intelligence and/or computer technology.

Man and machine are already merging. Pacemakers are a commonplace medical device. Artificial hearts, pioneered with the Jarvik-7 in 1982, are slowly becoming routine. Within the last several years, the “total artificial heart,” has been used in clinical trials. The prototype uses electronic sensors and is made from chemically treated animal tissues, called “biomaterials”, or a “pseudo-skin” of biosynthetic, microporous materials.

Cybernetic limbs are moving closer towards Luke Skywalker’s hand from The Empire Strikes Back. DARPA and Southern Methodist University are working on a fiber-optic nerve connection from the brain to the limb, allowing a direct interface, rather than relying on muscles to move the limb. In theory, this could allow the limb to “feel.” In twenty years, a prosthetic limb may be indistinguishable from a real limb—although the art-deco steel design from Creative DNA Austria’s Lukas Pressler and Nico Strobl looks like a classic sci-fi cybernetic limb, with a variety of different apps—sort of a Swiss Army limb.

The trend doesn’t stop there. A Dutch team in August 2011 announced the creation of “bulletproof skin,” made from spider silk and human skin cells, capable of stopping slow-moving bullets. Given ten years, skin” able to stop regular-velocity bullets does not seem beyond the realm of possibility, and in fact seems quite likely.

Man and machine will continue to blend until, at some point, they become indistinguishable. Ray Kurzweil calls this event “the Singularity,” and in a Time magazine article earlier this year, Kurzweil stated that the Singularity will occur in 2045. At that point, human and artificial intelligence will become as one, meaning—what, precisely?

Pessimists believe that it will spell the end of human civilization, as AI and nanotechnology utterly transform homo sapiens, voluntarily or (worst case) involuntarily. The positive ramifications could mean assistance for those with physical disabilities—artificial limbs or even bodies for those with physical injuries or disabilities, nanotechnology to fight disease. The potential applications are limitless.

The recent announcement that a UK laboratory had created 150 human-animal hybrids touched off a controversy over parahumanism, which could be called a subset of transhumanism. Few details were released; the ostensible reason for the creation of the hybrid embryos was disease research. However, it’s not hard to imagine the creation of a human embryo with certain animal genes mixed in—perhaps the night vision of a cat, a bat’s radar-like means of navigating, reflexes a cheetah, perhaps a digestive system modeled after a bovine, able to consume anything. It’s old stuff to anyone who read Cordwainer Smith’s 1962 short story “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” as a youth.

Legal? Most likely yes; Britain’s Parliament passed the Human Fetilisation Embryology Act in 2008 which permitted such research. Ethical? Well, that’s a whole different subject—and it’s one of the ways science fiction can lead the discourse.

Science fiction has, of course, been at the leading edge of the curve on transhumanism. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) is, arguably, one of the earliest science fiction novels. Victor Frankenstein seeks immortality for mankind by mixing organs and limbs from the dead, and re-animating them. It’s a crude form of genetic engineering, but Shelley blends science and philosophy, which is the essence of good science fiction—that is, the stuff that makes you think, and lets you learn more than you ever did in high school science class.

The cyberpunk movement of the 1980s is generally credited with making the notion of human/machine melding a staple of popular culture, with works such as William Gibson’s Count Zero or Neuromancer, which display a nihilistic, shallow pop-culture slant. In contrast, Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis (1927), later brought to the screen by Fritz Lang, features an android named Maria, copied from a human Maria, who assumes leadership of a worker’s mob who seek to destroy the city’s power generation machinery. Both works have barely-disguised Socialist leanings.

Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (1954) is the first cyberpunk book. Wolfe foresees a post-World War III future in which the amputation of limbs and their replacement by mechanical limbs becomes a means to channel warlike aggression into peaceful means. Martin Caidin’s Cyborg (1972), which was turned into the popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, carried the idea into the popular imagination.

Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) explores the cybernetic transformation of the human body to survive on the surface of Mars, with no artificial assistance. Pohl goes beyond the merely physical and focuses on what happens to a man’s mind when his body is no longer human—does his mind change as well?

J.G. Ballard wrote in 1971 that “everything is science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” Ballard’s words are even more true as we begin the second decade of the 21st century. Transhumanism or para-humanism will continue to be fertile ground for those writing science fiction. The traditional “hard” science fiction, with spaceships and colonies will still provide numerous opportunities for social commentary on mankind’s urge to explore, and how that exploration can shape mankind and the type of social organization he favors—Allen Steele’s Coyote series is the best example today.

Trans- or para-humanism allows a talented writer to go to inner space, to ask even more fundamental questions, such as what makes us human, or what separates man from the Other, or eve if there is any separation. As transhumanism and parahumanism become reality, not everyone will embrace the products of such experiments, even if the results of the experiments are all too human in appearance. Technological advance does not take place in a social/political vacuum, and while those of us in the science fiction community may give our support in varying degrees to the concept made flesh, others will stoke a backlash. Witness the reaction against the British experiment above. Mankind has shown himself to be all to willing to separate out some other group from the mainstream, and give it a lower status. Slavery from pre-Biblical times, the Jews, Africans who became African-Americans, native populations in America and elsewhere, and the GLBT community in the present day, all have been seen as less than human, and subjected to all manner of sanctions from loss of civil rights to mass extermination. There is no reason to believe The Future will be any more enlightened—see A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan (1940) as the best example. Perhaps science fiction can clear the way for this next step in our evolution, to make it acceptable and even normal to the population at large, making our community even more relevant and necessary if we are to survive as a species.

1 comment:

JJT said...

There's an alternative posthuman construction in the cyborg, as articulated in Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto (1985). What I see as the main difference between these two posthuman visions is the way in which they respond to the anthropological construction of Enlightenment Man: H+ seems, IMO, to take on this anthropology and simply enlarge it, while Haraway's cyborg offers a feminist/queer/postcolonial critique of it from the perspective of those who have always been historically excluded from this limited philosophical and political view of the "human." To simply carry over this view of the human into the posthuman, as I interpret transhumanism to be doing, simply recapitulates the mistakes of a former era in a new technological vein. Not an improvement. The solution is not the reactionary backlash, but a strong articulation of an alternative possibility for the future, one which is equally technophilic but genuinely inclusive.

I will now shamelessly plug my forthcoming book--which, alas, has much less SF in it than I wish, but a large part of which argues for making a strong distinction between feminist cyborg constructions and transhumanism...Cyborg Selves: A Theological Anthropology of the Posthuman. :)

P.S. Slan is among my favorite SF novels from my childhood to revisit...I stole my dad's old paperback, come back to it regularly...