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Transhumanism—Is It a Dangerous Idea?

Some Silicon Valley greats hope to merge with machines to live forever. But what then?

Michael Graziano, author of a just-published book on human consciousness, thinks of consciousness as a purely physical phenomenon. According to his attention schema theory, about 350 million years ago creatures evolved the ability to model the world around them:

As Graziano, a Princeton neuroscientist, sees it, this meta-level tally of what our brains are paying attention to simply is consciousness; it explains why looking at a red apple also “feels like” having such an experience. This extra layer of processing — the attention schema — “seems like such a small addition,” Graziano writes, “and yet only then does the system have the requisite information to lay claim to a subjective experience.”

Dan Falk, “Three New Books on Human Consciousness to Blow Your Mind” at Undark

Because Graziano (right), the author of Rethinking Consciousness, thinks that consciousness is both randomly evolved and purely physical, he also thinks that humans can develop machinery to model it. We could thus postpone death indefinitely and perhaps achieve immortality. That point of view—transhumanism—is big in Silicon Valley.

What does he think uploading minds to software would feel like?

At the simplest level, mind uploading would preserve people in an indefinite afterlife. Families could have Christmas dinner with sim Grandma joining in on video conference, the tablet screen propped up at the end of the table – presuming she has time for her bio family any more, given the rich possibilities in the simulated playground. It’s this kind of idealised afterlife that people have in mind, when they think about the benefits of mind uploading. It’s a human-made heaven.

Michael Graziano, “What happens if your mind lives for ever on the internet?” at The Guardian

He argues that most peopled in high-tech environments live in a virtual world already so it would make little difference whether those we interact with in our human-made heaven are living persons or the sims of deceased ones.

In his envisioned world, individuality is no longer a term that has any meaning:

One of the strangest quirks of the mind-uploading mythos is the notion that if you upload yourself into a computer, your “real” self in the “real” world disappears. And you have to get yourself back out of the computer to return to the “real” world. This wonderful bit of fantasy is total nonsense and was invented to solve a narrative problem in story telling. If you copied your mind and uploaded it onto a computer, there’d be two of you, one in the real world and one in the computer world, living through separate experiences. And the one in the computer world could in principle be copied any number of times, until there are millions of you. And some of those versions of you could be directly linked to other uploaded minds, with direct access to each other’s thoughts. This is very hard for people to wrap their minds around. It challenges our understanding of individuality. This is the main philosophical challenge of our future, it seems to me; the breakdown of the concept of individuality.

Admin2, “Michael Graziano on the evolution of consciousness and mind uploading” at Brain Preservation Society

This is Graziano’s vision:

Graziano is not a lone crank. Whether his or any other transhumanist scheme is viable, the idea thrives:

Transhumanism isn’t fringe. To the contrary, it has become quite the elite phenomenon. Hundreds of millions go into transhumanist technological research. Some of the biggest names in the tech world are devotees, such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The movement is furthered at elite universities, with — as just one example — bioethicists seriously discoursing about whether AI robots or cyborgs should be granted human-type rights. For some, it is a substitute for religion, offering hope in the wasteland of materialist existential futility.

Wesley J. Smith, “Jeffrey Epstein, a Narcissistic Transhumanist” at National Review

Kurzweil has even put a date on the beginning of genuine transhumanism:

Kurzweil said, “The year 2029 is the consistent date I’ve predicted, when an artificial intelligence will pass a valid Turing test — achieving human levels of intelligence.

“I have also set the date 2045 for singularity — which is when humans will multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold, by merging with the intelligence we have created.”

Dom Galeon & Christianna Reedy, “Ray Kurzweil claims singularity will happen by 2045” at Futurism (March 20, 2017)

The concept has been around in the Valley for decades. An ex-devotee recounts,

The contemporary iteration of the movement arose in San Francisco in the late 1980s among a band of tech-industry people with a libertarian streak. They initially called themselves Extropians and communicated through newsletters and at annual conferences. Kurzweil was one of the first major thinkers to bring these ideas into the mainstream and legitimise them for a wider audience. His ascent in 2012 to a director of engineering position at Google, heralded, for many, a symbolic merger between transhumanist philosophy and the clout of major technological enterprise.

Meghan O’Gieblyn, “God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism[article title]” at The Guardian

The Valley is surely a natural home for techno-immortality:

It’s no secret that Google has transhumanistic aspirations. In 2011, Steven Levy made this bold statement about the company in the book, In the Plex: “From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity.” Naturally, it makes sense Google would bring on Kurzweil to be its Director of Engineering in 2012. For years, Kurzweil has been pushing the cultural conversation toward the idea of human transcendence with thought-provoking books: The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology…

Neil Sahota, “Human 2.0 Is Coming Faster Than You Think. Will You Evolve With The Times?” at Forbes

Perhaps most people think of transhumanism as a cultural fad for well-heeled secularists. But some who consider the underlying ideas at least possible are alarmed:

Transhumanism has been described by Francis Fukuyama as one of the greatest threats to the idea of human equality and says that transhumanists are “just about the last group I’d like to see live forever”. When I wrote about transhumanism for Wired back in 2014, many people thought I was a lunatic. Then, in the 2016 presidential election Zoltan Istvan ran against Donald Trump as the Transhumanist Party’s candidate, and this year, Mark O’Connell’s book To Be a Machine won the Wellcome Book Prize.

Mark Piesing, “Silicon Valley’s ‘suicide pill’ for mankind” at Unherd

The late philosopher Jerry Fodor (1935—2017) believed that the reason “we’re all materialists” is that the alternatives seem even worse. Transhumanism, had he lived to see its further development, might end up giving him pause for further reflection.

Further reading on transhumanism:

Will we become mere apps of our smart computers?

Is Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity now nearer—or impossible? In response to Kurzweil’s talk at the COSM Technology Summit, panelists noted that AI achievements are revolutionary in size but limited by their nature in scope

Tech pioneer Ray Kurzweil: We will merge with computers by 2045 For computers, “Even the very best human is just another notch to pass,” he told the COSM Technology Summit

What if technology caused some people to live forever? What would it mean for them and for the rest of us? The authors also warn, “We can be pretty certain, for instance, that rejuvenation would widen the gap between the rich and poor, and would eventually force us to make decisive calls about resource use, whether to limit the rate of growth of the population, and so forth.”


But could techno-immortality ever be the real thing? Oxford mathematician John Lennox looks at Ray Kurzweil’s techno-immortality from a Christian perspective

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Transhumanism—Is It a Dangerous Idea?