Politicians aren’t allowed to have visions. Guy Verhofstadt


An emerging tech-driven industry is trying to merge man and machine. Yet we have barely begun to understand what constitutes our humanity.

Martin Heidegger wasn’t the only one who believed that we are approaching a boundary of reciprocal man-machine relationships; a boundary which will ultimately put our conceptions of man and machine into question. Some of today’s leading thinkers – Colin McGill, Adam Keiper, Nick Bostrom, Kevin Warwick, Steven Pinker, and Bill Joy – have been fascinated by it as well. So what is all the fuss about?

Technological changes have turned discussions about human self-perception from a peripheral topic into a substantive one. Our conditio humana, that which we have thus far embraced as the essence of human identity, is being put into question. For example, neurotechnologies of the newest generation aim to increase human freedom by transcending established boundaries of human capability. They do so by entering into our own flesh and blood: Brain implants have made it possible to link man and machine at the neural level and have produced simple patterns of neural-technological interaction. Some advocates harbor the ultimate hope of constructing a system of interactivity on a global level: It promises universal agency without the need to even get up from our chair.

Already, some of those technologies have reached the stage of mass adoption. Sensors can be implanted under our skin to measure blood pressure and hormone levels. Military scientists experiment with technologies that can increase soldiers’ performance and stress resistance or simply replace human warriors with drones.

A unique evolutionary moment

While we can measure the degree to which technologies transcend physical and physiological boundaries, we can merely speculate about the ethical consequences of these developments and about their effect on human self-perception. The merging of human consciousness and technology changes not only the latter, but also the former. And the question is whether technology will become more human in the long run, or whether humans will become more technical.

The human body sits squarely at the center of this debate. Until today, we have largely conceived of technology as a collection of external objects. Now, technology enters the body, merges with it, becomes a constitutive part of its host. This presents us with a unique moment in evolutionary history. The biggest drivers of change can be found in the military and the pharmaceutical sectors of the economy. And the big unknown is whether we will be able to put the new possibilities to good use.

New ideologies have emerged that frame the techno-narrative and justify its propagation. The most influential among them is the ideology of transhumanism, a worldview predicated on the notion of transcendence. By merging man and machine, transhumanists hope to open up new avenues of human development. A core group of transhumanist thinkers has found a home at Oxford University, from where they fight against the humanist desire to protect and examine humanity in its current form.

While transhumanists want to transcend our current human existence as quickly as possible, humanists proceed at a more leisurely pace. They argue that we must first understand the constitutive factors of humanity: Despite centuries of scientific inquiry, we know remarkably little about what makes us human. For example, the examination of human consciousness and conscious self-perception is still in its early stages.

However, transhumanism has a strange and attractive pull. After all, transhumanists justify the merger of man and machine by pointing to widespread suffering and despair, and by offering a technological remedy. According to scientists like Nick Bostrom, director of the “Future of Humanity Institute” at Oxford, a hybrid creature with artificial implants or prosthetic limbs would have higher cognitive capacities, better information processing mechanisms and better motor skills. Genetic manipulation or selection could help to prevent diseases or aging processes.

According to transhumanists, this would finally solve a problem that has plagued humans for hundreds of thousands of years. Over the 200,000 years of the existence of homo sapiens, we have remained slaves to our natural abilities. Only in the last hundred years have we pushed into the airspace above us and, ultimately, into space. Only in the last fifty years have we significantly increased our average life expectancy.

Many people put high hopes into these developments. But just as many are justifiably frightened of the transhumanist vision. It would result in decreasing respect for contemporary culture. Literature, art, religion, and philosophy would come to be regarded as remnants from the era of “natural men,” unworthy of the attention of the New Man. Culture would become replaced by technology. The early stages of that development already unfold all around us: Communication technologies are increasingly unified and global, and they have also led to the abandonment of ethical traditions and established forms of human interaction.

Man, machine, industry

This changes everything: Not only our human self-perception (which has always been important for our conception of present and future) but also our definition of civilization. Some of these developments proceed at a breathtaking pace, and it’s only justified to ask whether members of the transhumanist vanguard and advocates of “inversive” technologies actually grasp the consequences of their work.

Hence the following assertion: The emerging global neuro-technological industry is more significant than all current political uprisings and military conflicts. Experiments are good. Careless tinkering with human nature is not.

The crucial point is that we simply don’t know enough about ourselves to speedily abandon our current view of humanity and to turn ourselves – as some transhumanists desire – into cyborg creatures. Our confusion starts at the fundamental level: For example, what does it mean to “know”? Is it possible to transfer all knowledge online if we can develop algorithms with adequate levels of sophistication? Can knowledge become de-corporealized?

I remain skeptical of such adventurous ideas. The outsourcing of knowledge will inevitable change the person from whom knowledge is taken, or to whom knowledge is transferred. Instead of transhumanism, the 21st century requires a neo-humanistic approach to the world. Instead of abandoning the current human condition, we must carefully develop it. This also means that we will have to protect certain areas of our self-perception against the power of new technologies. Our human core cannot be found in implants but in the singular “I” – that which imbues our existence with meaning and which might also drive us into the abyss. The challenge is to uncover more of this mysterious “I” – scientists have their work cut out for the years ahead.

Read more in this debate: Christopher Stringer, Giovanni Maio, Kevin Kelly.


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