Saturday, July 16, 2011


And now for something totally different!

For me, my introduction into one of the most dangerous ideas in history started innocently enough. It started with my own imagination, and my propensity for role-playing. I created a race for a particular game that I called the "Helios" - the Helios were a race of hyper-advanced humans whose bodies were made out of programmable matter. They resembled normal humans except for the "sinklines," which were bleed-off grooves in the skin to allow for the release of excess heat (hence their names) generated by their inbuilt power plants. Each individual Helios was a walking Swiss Army tool; their programmable matter nature meant that they had absolute control over their body. They could change their shape, their size, their sex, their color - all by thinking about it. They could generate various tools with their fingers, and they possessed an anti-gravity generator that allowed for flight. What was more, each Helios was born this way. We're used to seeing cybertech and cyborgs and think Robocop and other clunky gears, wires, and hydraulic pumps and such, but that's not the way I designed them. They were a fusion of the biological and the mechanical on a molecular level. The watch word was "synthetic biology".You were born with an antigravity generator, born as a being made of programmable matter, born from birth with the ability to control your physiology by thinking about it; immune from all diseases, all birth defects - the perfect human (ignoring the fact that the Helios earned a reputation among my group as "hurr stoopid". It wasn't entirely deserved, but given the world they came from - a near utopia - it was understandable why they were less intelligent and more naive than the average person. I built them with the Eloi in mind, so the Helios are slightly smarter than your average Eloi, despite being as technologically advanced as they were).

I never gave it much thought after that. The Helios remain one of my favorite races ever that I created; I versatility of the species, along with their ability to fly and bounce back from devastating injuries due to the programmable nature of the matter make them seem like a true race of superheroes. But I never made the connection; I never made that leap.

Fast forward to 2010. I was sifting through my old RPG PDF files and I came upon a particular RPG that I realized I hadn't looked at a whole lot. It was called Eclipse Phase. I opened it up and took a couple of peaks and realized I liked I saw, but I had to put it back until later. The more of the setting I read, the more I fell in love with the game. It so closely paralleled what I was writing at the time as a hard science fiction writer, but at the same time, it managed to be more fantastic than I could ever hope to be. Through this game I was introduce to the concept of animal uplifting, of mind uploading, of virtual immortality and body-surfing. I was introduced into a whole wide array of new ideas and philosophies - I love it when a game does this, because more than anything, it reminds me why I love RPing so much - a good game will change your outlook on life. It wasn't entirely the game's fault, but Eclipse Phase is a major reason why I consider myself a transhumanist today (best of all, it's totally legal to share and torrent the core rule book PDF. You read that right - they made it legal to share their game book. I'd love to see Wizards do something like that, because they won't).

"But Enigma... What's a Transhumanist?" /Chick Tract

Transhumanism, simply put, is the belief that humanity can use technology to take control over nature. We can become something better, we can defy death, we can surpass gender and so-called natural restraints. We can advance to the point where we are healthier, prettier, faster and smarter than the average human is today. We can become Human Plus - or H+, the symbol for transhumanity.

The term was first used in the 1960s, by a professor of futurology FM-2030 (real name Fereidoun M. Esfandiary). It caught on in Britain in the 1990s when Max More laid the ground work for the philosophy, found a home with certain circles in California, and since, it has expanded to into a world wide phenomena.

Our stated purpose is nothing short of a techno-utopia (maybe; we're a varied group). Because it has such a positive view of technology and hope for the future, and a desire for progress and understanding, it should surprise nobody that Transhumanism is squarely planted in the same philosophies as the Enlightenment is (the same school of thought that gave us universal human rights, separate of church and state, the scientific method, and democracy).

There are several "currents", or trains of thought, present in the Transhumanist movement. Some people focus on all of them, some transhumanists will only focus on a few, but speaking in broad generalizations, these are the "currents" present in the movement, with just the briefest of overviews:

Abolitionism - we are obligated to use our technology to eliminate all suffering in sapient beings; both transhumans and uplifts, one assumes.
Democratic Transhumanism  - the fusion of democracy of all flavors and transhumanism; this is a political ideology.
Extropianism - Evolution is a participation sport and we've sat on the sidelines for far too long; it's time to get out there on the field and play!
Immortalism - Being immortal is not only possible but desirable; it's our duty to offer the opportunity to be immortal to anyone willing to accept it.
Libertarian Transhumanism - the political fusion of libertarian ideology and transhuman aims.
Postgenderism - Male, female, hermaphrodite, neuter - gay, straight, bi, a - it doesn't matter. We've moved beyond primitive concepts such as gender. Absolute gender equality is a necessary here.
Singularitarianism - Often dubbed "the Rapture for Nerds," this is the belief that the Singularity is possible and that steps should be taken to make it as painless as possible.
Technogaianism - Environmentalism plus transhuman aims to make the world healthier, humanity healthier, and to give humanity a chance to co-opt nature.

Think of it like a multiple intelligences test; you may score high in one and low in others, or moderate in all of them, but all transhumanists will support all of those currents to some degree (except, maybe, Libertarian Transhumanism). I spend most of my focus on Extropianism and Postgenderism, although I align myself with Technogaianism as well. I'm also strongly in favor of uplifting animals, resurrecting dead species, and looking nature in the eye and telling it point blank that it can't do something unless we say it can.

My Helios were a prime example of Technogaianism, Postgenderism, Immortalism and Abolitionism. I just didn't realize it at the time. Rather than being Democratic Transhumanists they were Anarchic Communist Transhumans, but that's beside the point. Mind-uploading for the purpose of immortality is part and parcel to some ideas of transhumanism (although I didn't use mind-uploading with the Helios; I knew about it at the time, but I couldn't fathom what it was - I was only 18 when I created this race. I could be forgiven for being ignorant about these concepts, back in 2004, when the world was going backwards and Bonzo the Monkey Bush II was in office.)

Ah, but there's quiet a few ethical concerns that go along with transhumanism. The one that I've found more than anything is the idea of "playing God," or "Playing with things we don't understand," to which I respond "If God was truly all powerful, how can we be playing God? We aren't all powerful. If we're stepping on God's toes, it's his own damn fault for giving us the stuff to do it to begin with." As for the "playing with things we don't understand" - obviously we understand them, otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here going on at length about them. More serious objections are about the nature of the "Self" and the "I" - which gets really, really messing when you start talking things like Mind-Uploading and "Forking" - a term used in EP to describe an individual who makes copies of themselves, uploads those copies in different bodies, and then merges those copies sometime in the future. Other concerns are geared towards forced Eugenics, which is a very real possibility given the technology at hand (are we helping deaf people by making it so they aren't deaf anymore? Ask the deaf community what they'd think about that - of course, AR, or Augmented-Reality, would fix being deaf anyway. At least, until you dropped out of AR), and then there's Existential Threats, aka the Terminator Argument. It's formally called the "Gray Goo" argument until those making it realized that Thermodynamics has nothing but HAET for self-replicating nanoswarms as detailed in that particular argument. 

The only two I see being any real problem or posing any real ethical issues are the Eugenics argument (what constitute 'helping' others?) and the Existential Threat argument (Oh sure, self-improving hard AI would be nice, but you better damn well make sure you've socialized it to be human, first.) I laugh at the whole 'hubris' thing, because that's what the romantics have been saying since day one, (man is too arrogant, we'll never fly! Man is too arrogant, we'll never fly in space! Man is too arrogant, we'll never create life! Man is too arrogant, we'll never have indoor plumbing!) and really, it's static that you learn to tune out. The other two, and the whole concept of self and all of the ontology and identity problems raised by mind-uploading and forking - what does happen if someone makes a copy of your back up and downloads you into a different body? Does that mean there's two of you running around? See the Ship of Theseus and it's variants, grandfather's ax and for those folks in the UK, Trigger's Broom. How much of something do you replace before it's not that something anymore?

I don't foresee any of those ethical concerns being solved anytime soon. However, technology will improve and who knows... maybe someday, in the far, distant future, my Helios will become a reality.


  1. I find the Eugenics issues troublesome, also the sociological implications of consent (what happens to those who choose to be "Left Behind" in the Nerd Rapture?)

    More worrisome is the way that our technology always seems to be running ahead and our ethics no even playing close to catch-up, but that's a problem as old as humanity; we still haven't quite figured out who (and why) should be permitted to play with the sharpened rocks...

  2. *waves* - Hi! Welcome to my little blog. :)

    @ Eugenics; it's a legitimate concern. With the ability to scrub the human genome free of mutations like Down's Syndrome and ALS comes the ability to remove certain genetic traits all together that could even make us human, resulting in something that resembles a very 1984ish scenario.

    One thing I didn't touch on, though, is the eventual collapse of the nation-state. It would take a nation-state to do something like that - as powerful as a corporation it is, it doesn't have the capacity to affect a lot of people, just those that would identify with it. The collapse of the nation-state and the develop of collectivist communities would be the thing to prevent that; it'd be almost required. And the nation-state is on the way out: look at all of the divisions throughout the world. Sad as it is, the death of the Earth's ecosystem due to global warming/climate change will probably be what ultimately does in the nation-states, unless they obliterate themselves in a war. Hopefully by that time, we'll be places other than Earth - Mars is awaiting terraforming (a whole different ethical dispute), and there's a very temperate cloud level on Venus where we could build floating cities. What's going to happen is you'll either see the nation-state totally replaced by collectivist communities, or you'll see liberal techno-democracies grow in the stead. Now, I won't say that the death of the nation-state is good thing, but it will help keep large tracts of people from being affected by it. Thus, if any group is affected by the eugenics movement, it will be that group, and they will be affected willingly, rather than having the tool of a nation-state to enforce their vision of genetic purity on others.

    Another thing to think about would be the economics available for transhumans. The presence of nanofabricators, which can reproduce literally anything, including other nanofabricators, means that the economy is no longer based on scarcity. We enter a post-scarcity economy, which is just yet another deathblow to the nation-state, which couldn't function in a situation where there's no tax money because you don't need money at all. I've heard that the new economy would be "favor-based," meaning you use social networking and have a standing credit with the community, and you can draw on that credit to call favors in from others. To build that credit back up, you do favors for others. We're moving to that right now with things like that Right Nanny service, and other services that let you rate businesses based on their professionalism, and then post it on line for others to see. If you have a bad rep, everyone knows about it. The nation-state can't tax reputation, so there'd be no monetary flow to keep it up and running. I know it sounds weird listening to an avowed liberal talking about the death of government (that's normally what libertarians yammer on about), but at the end of the day, when you have a self-policing community with a nanofabricator at hand, do you need it?

  3. @ Left Behind - horrible, horrible books by my understanding. ;)

    Anyway, the way this could unfold would probably be like this: individuals who want to remain unmodified probably wouldn't experience any pressure initially. However, as humans become more wired (and it's only a matter of time before we've got computers in our heads and monitors on our eyes), those without those modifications will find themselves at a huge disadvantage in society. There probably won't be any pressure to be immortal, though. Whether or not society will accommodate them I'm not sure. When you're faster, stronger, and smarter than a person who doesn't have all the advancements you have, there may be a degree of pity there. This position actually has a name: it's called "bioconservatism," a portmanteau of biological and conservative. I'm sure there will be a place for biocons in the future, if only because there will be more than a few of them. with the collapse of the nation-state, biocons might find an easier time if they isolate themselves from the society that becomes increasingly alien to them, and build their own society. After all, if I can chat with someone over the internet without opening my mouth vis a vis messaging (my message appears in your eye, your message appears in mine), we could have a whole conversation without having to open our mouths once. As a bioconservative, you'd be completely out of the loop. At best, and what I hope, is that biocons are viewed with the same degree of respect that Amish and other groups like them are viewed with today. At worst, they're actively and passively discriminated against or looked down upon with pity as being something less than transhuman (which is technically correct; they'd still be human, which isn't as advanced as transhuman). However, I don't see enough organization following the death of the nation-state, or the organization of liberal techno-democracies, to force a biocon to be anything other than a biocon.

  4. @ the Ethics of Technology: I have little doubt there will be those that abuse the technology. That's guaranteed, just because so long as there's recognizable humanity, there's recognizable assholes. I think that by making nanotechnology available to the masses eliminates most of that, however, and you'll have communities policing themselves and an economy based on your reputation within that community, so there'll be ample peer-pressure to avoid anything extraordinarily stupid; after all, the community is at risk here. Yeah, you may have a back up, and you might be able to replace yourself once you're dead, but that'll still piss a lot of people off, and they'll know who you are. unless you're from the campus of Mad Scientist University. In which case, all bets are off :)

    Now, if I'm wrong about the nation-state as we recognize it, things will get a lot uglier before they get better. Nation-states have repeatedly proven to be a very inefficient form of government, time and again. But make no mistake - it's on the way out, one way or another. the Internet respects no nation. And in the future, I strongly suspect transhumanity will not, either.

  5. Hey! Fellow transhumanist here. Just popping in to say I quite enjoyed this post - it's a pretty good explanation of what transhumanism is all about, I think. I don't agree on every detail, but I think that's to be expected.

    Nation-states have repeatedly proven to be a very inefficient form of government, time and again. But make no mistake - it's on the way out, one way or another. the Internet respects no nation. And in the future, I strongly suspect transhumanity will not, either.

    For example, I could imagine nation-states sticking around in some way - not like anything we have today, of course, but I don't think having "nation-like administrative units" of some sort is neccessarily a bad idea. Think Subsidiarity - not every problem can be handled purely locally and decentralized, but on the flip side, not every problem is worth dealing with in the World Parliament or whatever.

  6. Oops - that second paragraph was supposed to be in italics, being a quote. Sorry!

  7. Hi, Josh! Just popped over from Slacktiverse because, while I don't have the spoons to marshal a whole comment/post in response to this, I do have a question. I just saw the trailer for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which, if I understand your terminology correctly, basically implies that the end of the human world starts with 'uplifting' apes. Have you seen the trailer? Any thoughts on that or related issues?

  8. Hi! *waves at Literata*

    No, I haven't seen the trailer for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." But it sounds to like, if you'll forgive a horrible pun, they're just aping something everyone else has already done to death, starting with "Frankenstein" and then moving froward to "Terminator" and other scenarios. I don't remember much about the original book, but it seems to me like they're just following through with the "turned against their masters" theme that's so prevalent in romantic fiction and other anti-intellectual and anti-progressive fiction out of Hollywood.

    I believe it's all in the socialization. If we uplift apes and socialize them like they're humans, with the intellect that we humans have, and treat them like humans rather than being terrified of them, then the whole "turned against their masters" theme becomes mute, because they would have no masters. They would be treated as full citizens in whatever organization/group uplifted them. It's a matter of treating equally and looking forward; sort of like what we progressives have been saying all along :)

  9. New post on this subject matter can be found here:

    As hinted by the title, this one deals with animal uplifting.

  10. Nice post...I am not sure that I agree with the statement, "all transhumanists will support all of those currents to some degree." For instance, some transhumanists do not believe that a technological singularity will occur and so do not share any of the corollary tenets which are part and parcel of this branch of transhumanism.

    At the same time, while transhumanism is, on the whole, an optimistic philosophy, some darker, more pessimistic elements do underlie transhumanist narratives.

    Speaking of science fiction writers...I think most of them fail to discern the ways in which new technologies (will) change people's behaviors, perspectives, and cultural mores. That is unfortunate.

  11. It was first used by Julian Huxley in "New Bottles for New Wine", in anything close to its contemporary context (the Huxley quote is "Man transcending himself, while remaining Man"). It has earlier uses in T.S Eliot, and in Dante's Divine Comedy as a verb, "transhumanize". It didn't get revived until FM-2030 however. :)