Does transhumanism have a serious objective? The question resonates oddly yet provocatively given the stakes being considered. Augmenting the human frame potentially expands our powers, while the goal of uploading consciousness seems to offer a kind of immortality. These are surely desirable steps, but some versions of a posthuman future seem to point toward triviality, an existence within a simulated reality within a computational matrix, an awareness that sees no need to explore when simulation and observation can suffice. Can we avoid such a result?
I have a visceral, non-digital sense that a ‘singularity,’ if it occurs, will not include pushing minds evolved over eons to cope with a physical biosphere into digital frameworks. I doubt seriously that a human consciousness could make the adaptation — madness is the likely result. Hardly an expert on any of the relevant disciplines, I could well be wrong, but I noted Athena Andreadis’ thoughts on this issue in a recent entry on her Starship Reckless site. Here’s she’s talking about the first starship crews, surmising they may not represent a social or mental elite:
…the first generation of humans adjusted to starship living are far likelier to resemble Peter Watts’ marginalized Rifters or Jay Lake’s rabid Armoricans, rather than the universe-striding, empowered citizens of Iain Banks’ Culture. Such methods and outcomes will not reassure anyone, regardless of her/his position on the political spectrum, who considers augmentation hubristic, dehumanizing, or a threat to human identity, equality or morality. The slightly less fraught idea of uploading individuals into (ostensibly) more durable non-carbon frames is not achievable, because minds are inseparable from the neurons that create them. Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies.
Copies. The idea that I will be immortal fades with the thought that my human existence will end more or less the same way that of my ancestors’ did, either by accident or disease. The alternate take, that I may somehow cheat death through breakthrough advances in the science of medicine, makes more sense, but I suspect that even such long-term survivors will run into the limits of augmentation, which are imposed not by science but by evolutionary history.
I admit to remaining fascinated with the question despite my skepticism, and hadn’t thought it through from the space travel angle in quite the way Athena has. Do we have a human, biological future in interstellar space? If so, it surely must involve one of two things. Either we do develop a breakthrough technology for single-lifetime travel between the stars, or we take a lead from transhumanism by finding out just how far people can be altered to make potentially millennial journeys bearable. Such an outcome involves something Freeman Dyson has often written about, speciation. Widespread colonies lose contact with each other and breeding pools become isolated. The species changes over time, adapting anew as biological intelligence moves outward star by star.
I see that as an interesting and positive result, what Athena calls “…a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds…” In fact, I’m not sure the transhumanist community would necessarily disagree with that outcome, although I don’t see any great enthusiasm for space travel in much of what I read. Why travel to the stars when you can create an existence around your own star that becomes so computationally rich that any experience you might choose to have is within your grasp?
The answer is that our species is hardly monolithic, and as we move outward, it is less and less likely to be so. There was always some young dreamer in the average 18th Century port ready to sign up for a trip to the other side of the world, even if every friend he had planned to stay home. Sometimes he was the son of an admiral, planted there to gain experience for the naval career that awaited him. Other times he was a three-time loser on the run from problems imagined or real.
If we find a way to manage interstellar voyaging, will the scenario be any different? True augmentation of the species should emphasize its essential richness. We are dreamers and thieves and speculators and scholars, and some of us are travelers, at times unknowingly working for a common outcome that involves making life better even as we push outward. Ever the optimist, I have a sense that our species will survive in many forms, and that some of them will look back on our Solar System from a distant vantage indeed.