Silicon Valley is 90 percent men. Jessica Erickson

"Perfection is a strange concept"

Natasha Vita-More is a committed transhumanist: She believes in the power of technology to alter human nature and, ultimately, human destiny. She talked to Lars Mensel about meta-brains, artificial limbs, and digitized memory.

The European: In 1983, you authored the Transhuman Manifesto and wrote: “As our tools and ideas continue to evolve, so too shall we.” What tools and ideas do you find the most exciting, thirty years later?
Natasha Vita-More: The tools that especially help resolve human problems in ourselves and our interactions with the world around us. If I could put these tools in a tool chest, I would label it NBIC+ for nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science, robotics, artificial general intelligence. How we use these tools is the real issue though: We can have all the latest, greatest, and most fun tools in our playground and still be unhappy. When I say in the Manifesto that “as our evolve, so too shall we,” I I actually meant that we evolve as the technology advances, our lives are affected and, in turn, human perception.

To many, the talk of human-guided evolution seems at once promising and frightening. In Germany, there is large concern about PID or genetic modification.
Germany may be deeply concerned because it has a history with the coercive behavior of the Nazis, who used technology aggressively to hurt and damage people. Their aim was to create a superior race through force and coerciveness, which is malicious and criminal. But that behavior is a far cry from human enhancement. Human enhancement is two-fold: therapeutic and selective. Therapeautic returns a peson to a normal state of well being. Selective means the use of technologies to alter or change physiological functions beyond biological capabilities, including regeneration and replacement of these functions. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In all instances, human enhancement is aimed at resolving psychological and physiological disease and injury for the benefit of human beings – by their own choice.

Voluntary evolution.
Enhancement should be looked at not as a coercive but elective behavior. An important human right is called Morphological Freedom. This human right means that a person has the right to enhance his or her body – and the right never to be coerced to enhance.

More like the decision to get a tattoo?
Only much more invasive when we talk about extreme enhancement. Something simple would be to add a wearable device to yourself as to enhance one of your senses. Say you want better vision to stargaze or look deeply at molecules. You could have a lens put on your eye for telescopic vision. Consider it a tattoo with a function.

“The scope of advances if prodigious”

You have suggested some possibilities in your concept called “Primo-Posthuman,” a future human prototype. They range from skin that can protect itself against UV-rays to the ability to change our own gender. How close to this ideal are we today?
I designed this whole body prosthetic as a type of alternative or replacement body to parallel the advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and human-computer interfaces, including the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience. It would offer people the possibility of “optional death” – for example, the brain could be transferred into the body prototype like a whole body prosthetic. We are at the very beginning stages of designing future humans outside of the biological evolutionary script authored by DNA. One of the most advanced areas in medical science and technology is the skin, our largest organ. Advances in transdermal solar protection creams are already highly sophisticated and very easy to apply. That is a very basic type of non-invasive upgrade that everyone is very accustomed to.

Let’s consider sunscreen as a starting point. Where do we go from there?
Synthetic or artificial skin grown in labs can provide a substitute skin. Plastic skin, as developed at Stanford University, is sensitive to touch and is capable of self-healing at room temperature. Researchers are working on ways to print 3D skin. This would be a type of living construct resembling our biological skin. Even artificial tissue could be printed. This offers resolve for faltering cell tissues throughout the body – the kinds that causes cancer etc. We are able to intimately intervene in certain cellular structures to help stabilize and reverse malfunctions, which affect the cells and the organs and systems they are a part of. If we remove cancerous cells from a bladder, then the bladder can resume its efficacy without the dangerous mutating cells. Regarding our gender: From infertility to jump-starting ovulation or freezing embryos, to sex change operations – the scope of advances is prodigious

You also mentioned psychological advances.
Neuropharmacology has helped many people with physical diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or other types of mental or neurological debilitating diseases to regain cognitive properties, such as memory, and also to help people with erratic mental behaviors to have a more balanced psychology. Depression, phobias, psychosis, and other mental maladies have benefited through these interventions. I have suggested a meta-brain which enables better memory, better performance with our cognitive abilities of problem solving and taking a look at our emotional behavior to start restructuring the way we behave and react to certain instances.The body prototype I proposed would be able to regenerate its own body, to autocorrect and to forestall certain diseases as well as aging and constantly regenerate itself.

What would it look like?
I designed Primo-Posthuman to look like a human and less like a cyborg, because the latter seems too mechanistic. I wanted it to look like the kind of human we know and are familiar with – our bodies and our senses.

But from what you are describing, it sounds possible to design a body that looks nothing like ours.
It might and it might not. The fields of design and engineering are going to have a field day in the coming decades. Prosthetics has become a design discipline. It can create smart devices that not only interact with the brain more seamlessly – to provide a sense of touch, for example – they also have begun to look stunning. Limbs are now being looked at as design products. Some designs for leg replacements have been featured in design magazines because they are so exquisitely beautiful. But remember: We always have to have some kind of structure. Some kind of scaffold, let’s call it body. Consciousness, the brain, its cognitive functionalities, the whole neurological system of the brain and the body’s central nervous system have to be located within in some kind of structure. Whether that is biological, computational, or a structure yet to be known. It still has to have some cohesiveness.

What other limitations are there?
We are still fragile. And what we haven’t achieved are whole body prosthetics or backups of the brain. We are looking at ways to back up our memory through our computers. My view is that once we back up the brain, we will be one step closer to a more sustainable existence.

Some of these ideas – like full body prosthetics – sound like a radical departure from our human nature.
If part of our human nature is to problem solve, we must continue being innovators. There are two elements here. When we talk about human nature, most often we reflect on nature around us, the environment which has its own agenda. But we have learned to work with it, we have dealt with hurricanes and earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. We have done our best to deal with mother nature. But human nature is different. Our nature certainly ties into biology and our DNA, but we have never been fully human. We have always contained a different set of DNA in our bodies: That of mitochondria, our cells’ sources of power. What would it be like to alter our psyche and how would it affect us? It would affect us in extraordinary ways, but not in ways that we won’t be able to deal with. We have changed over the eons as we have evolved.

“The aim is not to outperform”

Imperfections are an integral part of the human experience. Should we just turn off all mistakes or biological processes in search for perfection?
Perfection is a strange concept. To reach it, we would have to get to a stage where there is no more to do, no more hopes, no more dreams, no more problem-solving. Arriving at such an existence would mean remaining in a state of stasis. How boring. Perfection in and of itself is not a state I would want to be in – and reaching a level of perfection is not in the transhumanist scope. I think the idea of perfection has been put on us through religion, particularly Christianity. Human enhancement and transhumanism aren’t striving for perfection, but striving make us better people. The aim is not to enhance and outperform someone else, the aim is to become more aligned with one’s psyche and feelings.

“Does technology want to replace us?”

What role would technology play?
We need to think about the long-term direction of technology. Does it want to replace us? That is yet to be seen, but most likely not. If there is a far-future notion, then it is mostly likely that we will become the super intelligent technology because we are continually using technology to make us smarter, more efficient, more fluid and more transparent. If we grow this seamlessness, then it is probably that we will use it to exist in physical real time environments and also artificial, synthetic simulations. Humans have been accumulating technology for eons because technology increases our opportunities. Is this a positive thing? It depends on how we use it.

The famous computer scientist Alan Turing once said in response to claims that tinkering with biology would amount to playing God: “We are, in either case, instruments for His will, providing mansions for the souls that He creates.” Do you agree?
For Christians, heaven is the ultimate finality. For Buddhists, life is ongoing. For many others, we create our own peace of mind by the actions we take. It is our responsibility to protect and sustain our species. How our species evolves is up to us. That is a very cybernetic approach to steering our future, but I think it makes sense. The more society learns about science, the more we can have discussions about our future in the public sphere. All these fields are opening up, we are learning more and taking front seat to driving our future.

But doesn’t that kind of future weaken the social bonds between people? Technology seems to promise to replace the social animal with self-sufficient ones.
I don’t think so. Our sense of connectivity has grown stronger as we have enhanced. Historically, we were only connected to those in our reach. Today, we have telecommunications and the internet to bring us closer. If we continue to develop the fluidity and transparency of communication, it will become more immersive and more intimate. Internet communication and virtual reality are examples where enhancement could make us more real with each other. What if we could share experiences? Imagine I could take the neurological connections of a great memory and turn them into algorithmic code, and you could download them into your brain. The more we enhance and technologically increase our capabilities, the more we’ll feel and become interconnected.

Other concepts like super-longevity sound great on the individual level but problematic for our planet. Already, we are facing overpopulation and aging societies that our welfare state is struggling to take care of.
This is a very important issue. If there was overpopulation, indeed there would be a problem with the environment and society in general. Currently, the population is still on the rise. But in the long term people are having less children, meaning that the population will decline in the Western world. The specific issue of super longevity could change that. Currently the maximum is 122-123 years. If we live beyond this to 150 or longer, then this will be a paradigm shift for our species

But what would the world look like with so many people on it?
I think it would look like a series of near earth orbiting societies and an expanding civilization in our solar system.

We have talked about the promises of technological progress. It’s much harder to think about possible dangers and unintended consequences. Is this the time for techno-optimism, or for carefully tip-toeing into the future?
Neither a techno-optimism nor dystopic pessimism is going to resolve the many problems we face. We live in a time where the possibility for progress or a prosperous future is stalled by the nagging issues of the world. Techno-optimism is an oxymoron. How can anyone be blind to the global faltering economy, environmental issues and pollution, poverty, or the continuous wars in the Middle East? So I suggest a third alternative: The proactionary principle employs critical thinking to consider these issues and how to deal with them more carefully. It is optimistic – in a practical way.


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