Recently I’ve seen a triumvirate of transhumanism-related talks and projects on the web, so I figured it was time to give some account of them filtered through the lens of transgenderism – which itself can be characterised as an ongoing transhumanist project. And a preliminary warning, like many of my rants, this is a really long one (not quite the longest, happily).
So, before I go on, what is transhumanism?
Basically, it’s an intellectual philosophy and practical programme aimed at transcending the limitations of our evolutionary, biological heritage, and some of the basic concepts in it can be traced back as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche or in mythic form in stories as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh. As humanity is no longer completely at the mercy of the blind effects of natural selection, there are multiple strands of transhumanist and futurist thought aimed at improving the human condition: through perfecting the human body individually, and society in totality, to maximise its intellectual, physical, and psychological capabilities; and as part of improving the human condition and minimising suffering, extending life and attempting to preserve it – both biologically and technologically.
There are numerous criticisms that can be made of this, the most pertinent of which is the monumental hubris and Western supremacism inherent in the arrogant conceitedness of thinking to toy with our basic humanity, and believing we can easily and plastically bend it without large-scale unintended consequences and harms. It is also no surprise to find the transhumanist movement largely populated by self-important, privileged and elitist men who think of themselves as an intelligentsia doing the hard work of building the techno-utopian future, to whom the rest of humanity should be eternally grateful. Hand in hand with that goes a criticism of the movement’s historical, ethical, and political naïvety – of being seemingly unaware that the twentieth century had already provided a horrifically painful object lesson in the dangers of attempting the eugenic improvement of humanity.
I’ll briefly point out one pertinent strand of transhumanism that has been held up for radical feminist criticism (and one not entirely unrelated to transgenderism), before turning to the meat of this post, and that is the idea of postgenderism. It is not difficult to find controversial writings by Internet radfems imagining a post-gender Utopian world that has abolished many commonplaces of today: structural sexism; gender roles; the reliance on sex, pregnancy, and birth to continue the species; and lastly, some radfems who would be better described as exterminationists imagine men could be largely or totally eradicated, except for a small breeding stock providing the minimum supply of gametes, or made redundant by the development of female parthenogenesis – the radfem Elysian Fields are of course, totally devoid of patriarchy and penises, and thus an idyllic lesbian separatist paradise.
Where this has a basis today is starting from the crucial medical developments of the last century: the oral contraceptive has given many FAAB people in the west control over their fertility (a state currently being busily undermined by anti-choice theocrats in the U.S.A.), and technologies have artificially augmented fertility, such as in vitro fertilisation allowing embryos to be conceived outside the body.
Several obvious postgenderist projects would be to address gestating a foetus outside the body entirely, removing the need for women to become pregnant in order to have children; or to allow same-sex partners to conceive without the intervention of an opposite-sex donor; or for non-female assigned people to be able to bear children. Of these possibilities, some are closer to happening than others; the first successful recipient of a uterine transplant in 2011, Turkish woman Derya Sert, has now become pregnant earlier this month at the age of 22, following implantation of an embryo. Derya had been born without a womb – a condition affecting one in five thousand cis women.
Do you want to visit space and leave behind the gravitational shackles of the Earth? Do you want to personally ensure the long-term expansion of humanity beyond its planetary cradle? Do you want to be an astronaut? Do you, in the infinitive-splitting words memorably uttered by William Shatner, wish to boldly go where no man has gone before? Why not sign up to be one of the first four humans to go to Mars?
Well, actually there are a number of good reasons why you wouldn’t want to, at least as far as the Mars One project goes (as I think will become clear): but let’s start by outlining the scope of the undertaking, which is more of a futurist concept than a transhumanist one, if you want to be really picky. It started in 2011 with a number of private approaches to interested parties by Dutch entrepreneur, Bas Lansdorp, and the undertaking of feasibility studies ahead of the first public announcement which happened in June last year. Applications for astronauts opened at the beginning of this week.
The schedule leading to the first human-crewed landing in 2023 is to establish a communications satellite in orbit, and then use a rover lander to find the most suitable site for colonisation; followed by several launches to set up a logistical supply of consumables and habitations patiently waiting in orbit; and from 2023 onwards, a delivery of four human colonists would occur every successive two years – in practice, this is due to the synodic period of 779.96 days, which is the dominant orbital effect on when Mars may be most efficiently reached from Earth.
Some of the technical hardware is already available, or is anticipated to become off-the-shelf hardware in the next decade if the project takes off: for heavy lift launch capacity to orbit, Mars One intends to use the SpaceX company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, and similarly utilise equipment from various aerospace companies for other mission components – Mars transit vehicles and life-support modules; logistic supply and human-rated Mars landers; life support units for the Martian surface; the Mars rover; and Mars suits for the colonists.
Lansdorp has in some ways modeled the project like a crowd-sourcing funding design, by assuming a low-cost approach to reward stockholders, who would reap revenue or return on investment from syndicating the media rights to the Martian expedition, which would be held by a for-profit ‘Interplanetary Media Group’: the first four astronauts would be the stars of the first ever off-world reality television show. The whole project seems suspiciously cheap at approximately six billion US dollars. Does that put a different spin on things for you?
If that doesn’t, perhaps the following aspect of the mission profile will be more of a head-scratcher: to dramatically minimise costs the launch profiles are deliberately planned to be one-way only. Actually, this is to be somewhat admired, since one characteristic of NASA’s pussy-footed approach has been to worship an illusory shibboleth of complete safety and caution above everything else (rather than managing the occasional risk-taking to, you know, get on with the job of exploring), so that the equivalent Mars mission which they contemplated and costed back in 2009 was anticipated to cost over 100 billion, and take a minimum of 20 years to undertake – which nonetheless would be money far better spent than having wasted over ten years, many tens of thousands of lives, and a good portion of the national wealth on ill-conceived and even-worse-executed military interventions in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. The Mars One project, on the other hand, is utilising a high-risk, no safety-net, possibly beyond any hope of return strategy, but it could be marvellously rewarding.
The problem as I see it, is that Mars is fundamentally hostile: the living environments will be above ground, so the first killer is radiation. The lack of a breathable atmosphere will kill you swiftly if you make any mistakes, so the first crew of four will have an extremely hard life maximising their life support supplies – recycling air, water, and attempting to establish any biological cycles that can grow plants (eventually for food) to purge the accumulations of toxic levels of poisons in their biosphere. Like the expeditions to the International Space Station, the colonists may be eating out of tubes and cans for quite a long time.
Apparently something like forty thousand people have already submitted applications to train as crew, and the selection process is anticipated to start later this year. Judging by the most recent videos submitted to the website, the number of men applying outnumber women by a ratio of about nine to one, which is not a huge surprise when looking at the futurist and transhumanist communities. Obviously anyone selected needs to be multi-talented, and the crew as a whole has to have a wide degree of specialities… but the ‘reality TV’ aspect of the project may mean that a selectee’s popularity overrides their usefulness to the mission. Who would want to be a part of Survivor: Mars starring a team of douchebros? Especially when there is a good chance that the enterprise may end in the fast or slow deaths of everyone involved: and it wouldn’t be much fun being the next Big Brother housemates to arrive and have to clean up the corpses of the previous team who succumbed, knowing there’s only one way out of leaving the house.
If nothing else, humans are the most adaptable species evolution has yet produced on this planet, so I’m actually
reasonably somewhat confident that whomever ends up going will make a reasonable effort of surviving and adapting, but it will be extremely hard work for the first team (and probably several subsequent teams). Stripped of sensational aspects, it could even be the first reality tv show to be really compelling and worthwhile! And eventually one or other of the large space powers will probably tool up sufficiently to allow a return trajectory… if the enterprising colonists can survive long enough. If.
The second main transhumanist project that came to my notice recently is the 2045 Initiative, spearheaded by a Russian futurist, Dmitry Itskov, who is attempting to organise a consortium to develop new technologies that will usher humanity towards a transition point to a post-human future, often called ‘the Singularity’. The most ambitious element of this is the Avatar Project (title implicitly based on the recent James Cameron 3D film), which is envisioned as four successive stages that become increasingly silly and science-fictional (you may don your tinfoil plated headwear now):
Not so silly
I’ll go straight on the record as saying Avatar A is not really that silly at all – we already have plenty of real-world applications and occupations involving life-threatening danger to the humans who do them, where the ability for the worker to perform the work safely and remotely via telepresence would prevent entirely avoidable injuries, maimings, and deaths. To some degree we already do employ robots for some of this dirty work (bomb disposal often utilises robots for remote detonations) but for everything else that robots are incapable of doing, people end up doing the work, with an inevitable human cost:
I could have chosen so many other examples, because cynically human beings are viewed by society as both cheap and expendable – even when you have to clothe, feed, educate, house, and look after them for an average seventy years – and robots are currently much more expensive and far less capable or adaptable. So robust ‘avatar’ robots using thoroughly reliable telepresence rigs may possibly revolutionise some industries in the future, but the economies of scale and manufacture need to be solved first.
As the unfortunate injuries suffered by Sergeant Dague also illustrates, there clearly are plenty of real-world uses to be had for prosthetics of various kinds to allow people with spinal, limb, and organ injuries to regain full use of their bodies; the last couple of years have seen the arrival of numerous models of robotic exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to walk (or to augment an able-bodied person’s own strength by many times) – however the starting prices are usually well beyond a hundred thousand dollars. (Whereas an alternative, medical and biological approach advocated by other transhumanists would be to develop the techniques to regrow damaged body parts, which some other animals are capable of doing but humans are not.) Again: economies of scale, blah blah etc.
Astute readers will have noticed that the proposal for ‘Avatar A’ states it is to be ‘remotely controlled via BCI’ – I presume that’s short for ‘brain computer interface’. So the telepresence rig involved in that sounds just a teensy bit more involved than having a webcam and microphone on your robotic pal that sends images and sounds back to your desktop or laptop computer.
Presumably for ‘full immersion’ telepresence, the 2045 Initiative imagines sensory input from the telepresence setup going directly into your bodily senses – visual data going straight into your brain via the optic nerve rather than by wearing goggles; sound impulses piped directly into the hearing centres of your temporal lobe rather than through reproducing hi-fi sounds in your eardrums; likewise reproducing tactile, olfactory, and taste senses by stimulating the brain rather than wearing a body suit and overriding some of the possible senses we experience as part of our sensorium. (How do they anticipate dealing with the brain’s internal sense of balance in the inner ear, which will remain tied to the orientation of your flesh body?)
And remember that much is only to get the data into your brain (i.e. a unidirectional flow of information); to actually drive the avatar, the machinery at the human end has to work out what you’re doing – more accurately, what your mind is imagining it’s doing: say, walking, flexing your right arm, looking over your shoulder, or speaking a command, or possibly all of those things at the same time – and feed that back as actions to the robot in real time; and the whole setup has to provide this bi-directional feedback accurately, continuously, smoothly, and quickly. Potential bandwidth issue?
To suggest this will be a real thing by the year 2020? I say, dream on.
It’s all getting very silly from this point on, so let’s briefly dispatch it. Avatar B is hacking your brain out of your body just before you naturally expire, and putting it in a robotic survival shell. Why, hello, I believe I’ve met you before!
Given this is such an appealing future – your senses trapped inside a machine, never again to enjoy a nice meal and a sweet glass of wine except as a ‘replay’ – life may not be worth continuing, even if you knew that you were just about to drop off the twig (when as often happens, you have no prior warning of death) and also assuming that mental deterioration hadn’t set in first.
Frankly, it sounds about as inviting as a living form of euthanasia, and possibly of interest to only the die-hard survivalists who want personal immortality for themselves and their massive ego – like those who’ve arranged for cryogenic preservation of their corpses in repositories, hoping that some time in the future medical technology will facilitate their revival. Somehow I suspect Avatar B will not be all that it’s cracked up to be, and deprived of sensory stimulation from existing in a non-human body that lacks many of the capabilities that make life enjoyable and liveable, disappointed upgraders will go for the option of permanently unplugging themselves.
And let’s not forget the human brain is a couple of kilos of grey matter – it’s meat. It has to be fed a continuous supply of warm, oxygenated blood to keep working. Plugging it into a robot and generating heat by getting it to continue to do work doesn’t sound like the best method of preserving it. I predict early adopters may find their few remaining meaty bits going off if they’re not careful.
Meanwhile, dream on, frozen corpsicles.
Okay, Avatar C is just plain daft. An artificial copy of a human personality is still only a copy: it’s never going to supplant the original consciousness it’s modelling, which once the brain dies and the cell structure decomposes to any degree, is gone forever. As a form of immortality, only the ‘B’ option is going to preserve the original ‘you’ (however imperfectly). The ‘C’ option is only emulation, therefore of interest to supreme egotists who wish to self-importantly continue exerting influence after they’re dead.
Obviously it’s a tragedy that people spend a lifetime gaining experiences, talents, being generally brilliant (or not) and then all of those talents disappear with death: we have a culture that tends to remember and venerate the deceased by the creative achievements they managed to do in their short span. Yes, it would be wonderful to have the consciousnesses of Mozart or Shakespeare or Picasso embedded in a digital box, still churning out concertos, plays, and paintings indefinitely after their decease. Except, there’s a real difficulty in being able to emulate the human brain at any significant level – it’s way too complex, for a start – let alone considering how you would be able to obtain a ‘recording’ of the state of a brain in the first place, to be able to store it. Slicing and dicing a whole lot of cells post mortem doesn’t actually give you any more than a single brain state – how do you go from that to modelling how a brain changes state in order to emulate thinking?
As for Avatar D – this is getting beyond silly. Brains – consciousness, generally – involve physical, electrochemical processes that have to be embodied in highly organised biological matter, so an incorporeal brain is a basic contradiction in terms. How the hell is a hologram going to do anything without some element of a physical form or machinery? Presumably like Rimmer from Red Dwarf, there’s a nice holographic projector inside that shimmering body, doing all the work. But you’ll still have to work out how you’re going to interface with the human brain before you can envisage putting on a nice light and sound show around the box.
The most basic criticism is that a lot of the transhumanist schtick represents the output of technologists’ wet dreams, who have close to zero understanding of biology, and haven’t gone to the trouble of actually talking to biologists to discriminate between what is possible, and what is half-baked absurd fantasy. For a reasonable criticism of these ideas from a biologist’s standpoint, you could do worse than check out this talk by PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame at the recent Skeptech conference in Minnesota – though the sound quality is execrable, so that you will need headphones to hear his talk; built-in speakers on your computer or mobile probably won’t cut it. Also, PZ’s talk is often wickedly funny.
PZ covers cryogenics in detail, briefly touches on the 2045 Initiative, and rushing to avoid running over time notes that the year 2045 is supposed by transhumanist Ray Kurzweil to be the critical point when artificial intelligences will have achieved a runaway or self-sustaining cycle of improvement of knowledge and control over matter, rather like an exponential or asymptotic increase heading off towards infinity, creating a ‘technogical singularity’ – analogous to how the increasing density of a collapsing neutron star creates a spatial singularity that swallows matter and spacetime itself, known as a black hole. Some of these transhumanists have a quasi-religious certainty that enough technology will eventually solve everything, like the Avatar Project will supposedly solve the problem of death; by that point, Kurzweil hopes to have lived long enough to have his brain uploaded, his consciousness permanently upgraded to digital.
Do I need to say it? Dream on.
And lastly, from an ethical standpoint, the 2045 Initiative seems to have a rather dodgy manifesto as the basis of its philosophy, asserting ideas like ‘[t]he majority of people are almost exclusively absorbed in merely maintaining their own comfortable lives’ as an underpinning rationale for the transhumanist improvement of humanity: so what is to be the driving motivator hastening these changes? Avarice.
I’m surprised no one has yet mashed these two projects together, but maybe I’m the only person who has weird fixations about cyborgs and space exploration. As I said before, there is an identifiable need for Avatar A–like robot servitors to do dangerous, life-threatening jobs at humans’ bidding. The logistic difficulties with supplying living human beings with breathable air, potable water, nourishing food, at the end of a hundred-million kilometer supply chain with a transit window only available every two years are such that you want to minimise consumption rates of non-renewable resources. So if you’re sending four human beings to Mars in 2023 – does that need entail that they occupy four completely intact human bodies?
Seriously. We already have robots on the surface of Mars (with names like Curiosity and Opportunity), but the problem is they proceed with extreme caution (maximum speed: 200 metres per day), when the nearest driver is between ten minutes and half an hour away at the speed of light. The idea of sending people is to have intelligent explorers capable of investigating their environment in real time, rather than in slow-motion delay. So spend ten years perfecting some really good telepresence (which necessarily involves the operator being relatively close-by to the robotic avatar), and then turn the candidate explorers into (mostly complete) cyborgs, about halfway towards Avatar B; it will make logistics easier by cutting down on consumption of resources, and hopefully make it harder for the Martian colonists to kill themselves by accident.
Am I really excited by these technological possibilities, as a transgender person? Not hugely. If I had to place the best bets on developments which will assist trans* people, my money would be on the biologists rather than on the robots. But who knows.
UPDATE: I’ve made a handful of very minor changes, marked in red, like this!