Talk of artificial intelligence often revolves around what machines can do for us. How can machine learning help in the development of voice recognition? Driverless cars? Customer service bots like MyKai, for banking?
But machine learning is just one branch of artificial intelligence—dealing with the predictions that can be gleaned from constructing artificial neural networks. There's another camp in the AI community that puts its faith in a philosophy called transhumanism—that is, in short, how human minds can be preserved, enhanced, or replicated via artificial means.
Transhumanism is both a movement and belief that that humans should use technology and science to redesign ourselves beyond the limits of our biological constraints. It is beginning to seem inevitable, though whether that's a good thing remains up for debate. The term transhumanism was first coined by English evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley (brother of the "Brave New World" writer Aldous Huxley) in a 1957 essay, but the ideas behind it didn't begin to gain real traction until the 1970s.
While the number of transhumanists today is still relatively small (and the movement is broken into several factions), many top researchers and tech moguls are investing significant resources into the potential for human "augmentation." These champions include billionaires like Peter Thiel, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and futurist Ray Kurzweil (who is famous for bringing the idea of "the Singularity" to light). Even Google established a biotech subsidiary to address aging. And transhumanism has even become a political force, with transhumanist advocate Zoltan Istvan running for US president in 2016.
So what is the movement all about? TechRepublic spoke with James J. Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), to learn more about the history and significance of transhumanism to current conversations around AI.
The IEET was formed 11 years ago, by Hughes and Nick Bostrom (who The New Yorker called "arguably the leading transhumanist philosopher today"). Bostrom's 2014 book "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies," gained a cult following in the AI community. In it, he argued that machine intelligence could potentially exceed humanity's brain capacity, resulting in a "superintelligent" setup that "greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest."
In a talk at the 2016 Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence conference in Phoenix, Bostrom did not specifically mention transhumanism, although he referred to a "deep future" that "could include things like a cure for aging, uploading, ancestor simulations, and more."
For Hughes, the purpose of transhumanism should be to enhance humanity rather than transgress it. "The central goal of transhumanism is to give everybody access to safe and effective human enhancement technologies that extend health ability, longevity, cognitive capacity, and reproductive control," Hughes told TechRepublic. "And if you believe there should be a regulatory state, then you have to figure out how we get those things through the regulatory state."
Transhumanism in politics
Transhumanism encompasses a big political tent, with factions such as democratic transhumanists, libertarian transhumanists and anarcho-transhumanists. In regards to the IEET, Hughes said the nonprofit organization began with "a techno-progressive perspective on technopolitics." He said that it limited political infighting within the institution by wrangling in transhumanists who more or less agreed that there should be governments, and that they should be democratic and provide public goods. "
By not having 'transhumanism' in our name, we were giving non-transhumanist intellectuals an opportunity to engage with our issues and community without being bogged down by the transhumanist movement's stigma and fractious politics," he said.
Almost immediately, though, IEET developed its own distinct identity by focusing on a dual mission with the futurist community and various progressive social movements. "In the futurist community we promoted progressive perspectives to counter libertarian and apolitical views, and in the progressive social movements we attempted to show that emerging technologies could be liberatory if well-regulated and broadly accessible," Hughes said.
For Hughes, once-emerging technologies that were considered science fiction 10 years ago and were often seen as unworthy of serious policy engagement have morphed at an accelerating pace. "While there are still some futurists who deny technology risks or propose magical solutions to them, it is time for us to move from 'catastrophic risks' to a more specific focus," he said.
"Over the last 11 years, the inevitability of technological unemployment and the desirability of basic income was a continuous theme in our work, connecting our critique of apocalyptic and anti-political AI risk work with our expectation that eventually, the policy world would have to embrace a post-work paradigm and vision," Hughes said. "Again, technological unemployment and basic income are core components of the technoprogressive perspective, but it doesn't make sense for us to make them the focus of our work."
So what is left for the IEET to concentrate on? "When we surveyed the IEET audience in 2013, we found that, next to anti-aging work, their second greatest enthusiasm was for the IEET to focus on the project of defining and promoting technoprogressivism," Hughes said.
Yet, according to Hughes, in 2015, many futurists interested in politics began to build parties of their own. Some of these projects, Hughes said, engaged with previously nonpolitical futurists by debating and endorsing a technoprogressive policy agenda, which he called a "step toward serious political engagement." However, others, he said, "wasted efforts in promoting cults of personality and dead-end projects that soon stuttered to a halt. These projects have justified our suspicion that 'transhumanism' is far too limited to build a political project around, without grounding itself in the pre-existing and inescapable history of political thought."
Finally, Hughes said progressive transhumanists have to take a stance in the post-Donald Trump world. "That the transhumanist billionaire Peter Thiel, whose philanthropy has dominated futurist organizations, threw himself behind Trump has justified the IEET's insistence that the techno-political space is three-dimensional," He said. "Libertarian transhumanism and fascist transhumanism need a visible technoprogressive response. Technoprogressives know who belongs at the table, and it's not white nationalists and the alt-right," he said.
How transhumanism will progress in our current political climate remains to be seen. Still, as enthusiasm and support for AI research continue to grow, it is clear that the quest to enhance human potential through machines will remain a strong and expanding force in the AI community.
- Evolution to AI will be more radical than ape-to-human, says Nick Bostrom (TechRepublic)
- Why robots still need us: David A. Mindell debunks theory of complete autonomy (TechRepublic)
- Smart machines are about to run the world: Here's how to prepare (TechRepublic)
- Artificial intelligence: The 3 big trends to watch in 2017 (TechRepublic)
- Prepare for the Singularity (ZDNet)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.