If there was ever a time in recent history when humans became aware of their bodies’ fragility and materiality, it has been 2020. Fear of getting ill was invading every conversation and penetrating every thought. If you wondered about how great it would be if we could simply eradicate death, you’re not alone – there’s an entire movement devoted to it! Transhumanists work towards enhancing human bodies and minds by means of technology and science to become smarter, healthier, and, hopefully, less-mortal. But is this view of the future realistic? What would happen if we could engineer ourselves or our children? Art and design may help us imagine different scenarios, consider potential threats and benefits, and prepare for an unknown future.
Transcending the body
This year, all illusions that humans are beyond nature, and our bodies can be kept healthy only by tracking biometrics on smartphones were shattered. The reality of being an animal in a larger, interconnected ecosystem was clawing its way back in the shape of a virus. Bringing with it the feeling of uneasiness and anxiety forced us to think about the nature of existence and how frail humans are. Personally, on more gloomy days, what helped me was to remind myself – transhumanists have it worse right now.
Imagine believing that our ordinary bodies, with their physical and mental limitations and expiration date, are holding us back. Instead, they should be transformed and, eventually, discarded, which would allow humans to live their potential encumbered. How much more difficult would it be to get defeated by a virus? Or to succumb to the constraints of your own organic prison cell? The sentiment reflects in words by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford and the founder of the World Transhumanist Association, today known as Humanity+: “Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder.”
To escape their faith of being transient and prone to decay, transhumanists are working towards self-improvement through AI, neuroscience, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics. Some want to transcend the physicality of being human, such as Google’s Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil. A believer in eventual Technological Singularity, Kurzweil maintains that human intelligence will, in time, merge with greater machine intelligence and will saturate the entire universe.
If it all sounds a bit like science fiction, you’re mostly right. Still, the world has recently witnessed some incredible scientific developments that point to a future of enhancement. Take CRISPR-Cas9 genome -editing technology for which Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. CRISPR enables the removal and replacement of particular genes. It could potentially be used to engineer human embryos to create designer babies (how many of you The Sims fans will leap at the opportunity?).
The cusp of self-enhancement
Besides gene-editing, many other discoveries have shaken the world. There was growth in the exoskeleton and smart prosthetic projects, among which – functional robotic limbs. Stem-cell research that allowed transplanting lab-grown vaginas and producing 3D-printed ears. Scientists at MIT were successful in implanting false memories in the brains of mice. Bionic lenses, face transplants, organs-on-chips, and linking a paralyzed man’s brain to a computer chip were all developed in the last five years. Recalling dystopian (and the rare utopian) scenarios of Black Mirror, these developments encompass an enormous potential in the field of human health.
It is no wonder that it may feel that humanity is on the cusp of self-enhancement, especially to transhumanists themselves. Hence, they devised modes of preservation in order to extend the lingering process. Together with other prominent figures, such as PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Kurzweil is a strong supporter of cryogenics. According to Alcor (one of the four and the largest cryogenics organizations in the world), Cryogenics is “the practice of preserving life by pausing the dying process using subfreezing temperatures with the intent of restoring good health with medical technology in the future.” At the time of writing, Alcor has 181 stored bodies (called “patients”) in their facility. The organization offers different packages for brain or full-body freezing. The minimum funding for the latter is $200,000.
This, of course, is no coincidence. When you’re a Silicon Valley giant with virtually endless power, it isn’t easy to imagine that your extraordinary life will end in an ordinary way. Many companies set to enhance the future of human life have received immense investments by tech giants. Calico, SENS Research Foundation, and Palo Alto Award set to slow down and eventually cure aging. Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences with funding from Mark Zuckerberg seeks to fund research in understanding living systems and promoting life extension. Google’s DeepMind hopes to “solve intelligence” through developing AI systems.
Ethics of the future
If you have already thought of a myriad of ethical issues that could arise in the era of human enhancement, you are not alone. Many scientists and scholars have expressed their concern about the underlying threats. Philosopher Francis Fukuyama, writing on the post-human future, underlines that the “political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality.” But what if the equality itself would be eradicated and the inequality would be inscribed directly into our DNA? An economic or social barrier between different layers of society could turn into a physical difference. Already rich and powerful (and, thus, able to afford certain technologies such as CRISPR) would become smarter and stronger. That would leave the natural half inferior. “We’re all born equal” would lose its meaning.
Numerous theorists have argued that the idea of playing God and designing our offspring resembles eugenics. This 19th- and early 20th-century philosophical movement to purposely breed people later helped fuel Nazi Germany’s promotion of racial purity.
On a political level, the human enhancement could lead to a larger drift between those leading and those lagging in technological development. Think about war. The US has been researching ways of reducing their soldiers’ hunger, fatigue, and need for sleep to optimize durability. For now, the primary focus is the military application of exoskeletons. But will we allow long-term changes such as a reduced sense of pain or increased aggressiveness? Will it be fair for an enhanced army to wage war on a nation without that privilege?
Transhuman potential urgently calls for the identification of potential threats and the devising of early legislation. And this is not to say that human enhancement is all gloom and doom. The possibility of preventing disease, improving disability, or unlocking human brain potential would bring considerable value. But as with any significant power, we need to make sure that we think critically about these issues right now. What laws should we put in place to ensure fairness in access? Will technological advancement take the direction of universal inclusivity and plurality? What do we value most as species, and which of these principles should guide us in the future? Have we considered in what way living forever would transform our goals and expectations? Would the eradication of death kill our desire and ambition?
Questioning through art and design
When it comes to getting a sense of what the transhuman future may feel like, art and design can provide an ideal entry point. Unrestricted by the scientific field’s rigidity, creatives have the liberty to experiment with unconventional and challenging concepts. Giving shape to abstract ideas provides a better understanding of what is at stake and how to prepare. Thus, speculative scenario-making in art and design offers a possibility to “practice” a response to a future that is yet to be developed.
Consider Neil Harbisson – the world’s first officially recognized cyborg. Neil was born color-blind and, thus, wears a prosthetic device – an antenna implanted into his skull, which allows him to hear the color spectrum, among other things (such as receiving signals from satellites). For Neil, the means of his creative expression are designing new senses and organs and merging with them. But what does his acquired cyborg status tell us about the future of self-enhancement? Should everyone be given the possibility to shape their body and identity in the way they want? Of course, the immediate answer is YES! – but what if someone is self-enhancing with an intention to harm?
In a similar fashion, performance artist Stelarc focuses on transforming his body, which he believes to be outdated. His performance pieces include growing an artificial ear on his arm and having his muscles controlled via a remote audience’s signals. Stelarc’s practice of treating his body less like a temple and more like a construction site gives us an idea of what it may be like when people will be custom-built. What will be the threshold of stopping being a person and becoming a cyborg or a hybrid? How will it alter our perception of human identity and consciousness?
Speculative artistic projects present an equally important opportunity for reflection and questioning. For instance, Frederik Heyman uses photogrammetry to stage digital worlds that blend fact and fiction. Heyman is often commissioned by luxury brands such as Burberry and Diesel and famous performers, including Lady Gaga and Arca. His vicinity to popular culture raises questions about the normalization of enhancement. What would happen if beauty and fashion trends dictate not as much the eyebrow width but the latest brain chips?
In like manner, Lucy McRae, in her immersive installation Biometric Mirror questions the accuracy and assumptions of facial recognition algorithms. She explores a futuristic scenario of a beauty salon, where visitors get their faces scanned by an AI. After the procedure, they receive a mathematically perfect version of their features. In this work, McRae questions the tendency to entrust AI with making supposedly unbiased decisions for us. Whose ideas of beauty are informing these recommendations? Whose interests are best served when those recommendations are adopted?
On a different note, Agi Haines explores the possibility of bioprinting experimental organs. These would blend hybrid functions of different species. For instance, one of them uses parts from an electric eel that releases an electric current to the heart when it recognizes it going into a heart attack. Haines’ work highlights that human enhancement may take a radical and exploratory approach. What if we could customize our organs according to our medical history? Would being half-animal change our attitude towards other living beings and the environment as a whole? Would being less-human allow us to become more-sentient?
Whether you agree with the transhumanist view of the future or not, it is crucial to think about the above questions’ solutions. Self-enhancement is already part of our reality and will become more so with time. Pondering scenarios that may now seem science fiction can help us prepare for a very different world. Which direction would you like it to take?