No death, please, I’m bionic

Cyborg-obsessed transhumanists push bioethical limits while fending off foes from all sides

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The sensation is akin to micro scopic grubs burrowing forcefully into my biceps. “Effectively, what we’re doing is applying more voltage externally than what’s operating inside your body,” says Australian performance artist Stelarc, turning the dials on his control box. My arm rises like I’m picking up a briefcase, operated by commands outside my brain. For the purpose of this demonstration, my upper limb is a found machine.

To be fair, Stelarc has endured more volts than this, from electrodes all over his musculature, in “Ping Body” performances during which he’s remotely controlled over the Internet. In his philosophy, the human body is obsolete technology.

It may be a wild thought, but here at this gathering of 100 at a U of T Medical Sciences Building lecture theatre, he’s preaching to the choir. While the audience signed up for the TransVisions 2004 conference may not specifically share Stelarc’s personal brand of techno-nihilism, they’d likely agree that God doesn’t exist, the technological millennium is around the corner and human evolution is a dead end unless directed from this point by the radical application of science.

The people here refer to themselves as transhumanists and excitedly define a number of technologies as transhuman, some as everyday as pacemakers, the Internet and the Atkins diet, others as far-out as nanotechnology, cryonics and uploading our minds to supercomputers. It’s hard to pin down a precise definition, even if you read all the literature and ask people point-blank.

Transhuman presupposes the “posthuman,” a categorically unknown next step in evolution. Humans are still in a middle transitional state – i.e., transhuman. The means to the posthuman are various, whether through nanotechnology, cryonics, GMOs, cybernetics, genetic engineering or, yep, cloning.

Founded in 1998 by Yale philosopher and Oxford fellow Nick Bostrom, the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) has branches in upwards of a hundred countries. The term “transhumanism” was coined by futurist F-M 2030 and first put to use by an everything-goes society of American futurists called the Extropians, which remains closely associated with the WTA.

The latter came along, according to Bostrom, “to provide an organizational platform and to encourage (transhumanism) to develop into a more academically respectable and intellectually serious inquiry.”

In 2002, George Dvorsky and fellow enthusiast Simon Smith started the Toronto Transhumanist Association and the online magazine BetterHumans. Dvorsky and Smith both describe coming to transhumanism after intellectually restless periods of sampling futurism, Eastern philosophies, left-leaning politics, mainstream secular humanism and assorted other ideologies.

Art And Life In The Posthuman Era is the theme of this year’s conference. The human being as a work of art in progress is a good analogy for the transhumanist project of augmenting ourselves, whether outwardly with wearable tech or inwardly by rewriting the genome itself. Critics of the movement, who include environmentalists, bioethicists and people of faith – “bioconservatives” or “techno-Luddites” in the transhumanist vocabulary – would call such an approach interfering with nature, playing God and ignoring the warnings of cautionary fiction like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake.

“Leave evolution alone?” says Dvorsky. “That’s unethical, that’s barbaric, because, as we know from our friend Charles Darwin, nature works in a very cruel way. The transhumanist agenda, if we can talk about such a thing, is that ideally we’d like to be in a post-Darwinian phase where we’re no longer subject to natural selection.”

No one at this conference is noticeably superhuman. Certainly not Dvorsky, who has a regular job and kids. And not WTA founder Nick Bostrom, a pleasant, rather tweedy European. There’s at least one self-proclaimed cyborg, U of T engineering professor Steve Mann, who for the past 30 years has been his own primary test subject for the wearable computer and the elegantly designed “eyetap,” a camera and sight enhancer. His latest model is a wire-thin device camouflaged as eyeglasses.

The sampling of transhumanists at this conference appear to be on the same evolutionary plateau as the rest of us. While there’s much racy talk about how it would be cool to grow extra limbs or augment ourselves with robotic bits, both the presenters and walk-ins would most prefer to enhance their intelligence and live a lot longer – hell, why not forever?

“Ask it what you think of birth and death,” says Stelarc. He’s referring to a towering three-d scan of himself from the neck up, programmed for conversational strategies. A booming voice voice answers, “Death is an outmoded evolutionary strategy. The body must become immortal to adapt.”

“That’s why I have this,” says one attendee earlier on, holding up an arm to show off what appears to be a Medic Alert bracelet. It reads something like “In event of my death, call this number.” It’s the number of a cryonics facility that will try to collect his body within 24 hours so his head can be frozen in liquid nitrogen and kept safely in a tank, waiting for people in a sufficiently enlightened age to revive it and grow him a new body.

No living tissue has ever recovered from the severe freeze of liquid nitrogen, and there is no guarantee that future humans will be capable of, or especially interested in, reviving a bunch of strangers’ heads from the ignorant past. Cryonics seems as much a leap of faith as anything else.

Besides, it’s a stopgap measure. Many would rather not die in the first place. There’s a growing body of medical literature proposing that genetic therapies may eliminate disorders like Huntington’s disease, cancer, diabetes and cystic fibrosis. These treatments would involve the harvesting of stem cells, a procedure now greatly limited by recently passed laws in a number of countries, including Canada.

Transhumanists present themselves as a kind of biological pro-choice movement. Most of them fend off the term “eugenics” (“good origins” in Latin). “It’s tainted,” says TTA founder and BetterHumans co-editor Smith. Some in the fold, however, passionately defend the term and call for reclaiming it.

The use of hard mechanics to assist the handicapped, from pacemakers to artificial limbs, is another favourite talking point of transhumanism. Dvorsky and others – like Mann, who hopes the eyetap can assist the visually impaired – submit that the disabled are a vanguard of cybernetic augmentation, since they need technological assists to approximate normal functioning.

Stelarc raves about a neuro-electric pacemaker that works remarkably well for Parkinson’s patients. The controversy begins when people talk about fixing what already works. An armless man with a bionic limb is acceptable, but what about replacing your organic arm with a mechanical one you like better?

“There’s this big debate about enhancement vs. therapy,” says Smith. “Transhumanists and a lot of bioethicists say it’s arbitrary. It just depends where you draw the line.”

While a number of transhumanists tend toward social democratic views and favour government regulation to some extent, there are also outright libertarians. The Extropians, who have moderated some extremes of their rhetoric since the 80s, favour terms like “spontaneous order” and propose that science try everything and let the market and/or the survivors of future cataclysms decide. In other words, keep the government out of it and your copy of The Fountainhead close by.

Dvorsky favours careful regulation of cloning science to prevent abuses. “Hopefully, future governments will honour the needs of citizens and not (those of) of corporations.” He believes world democracy will be necessary for the human race to truly evolve. Still, he speaks about his right-leaning co-thinkers with a kind of collegial tolerance.

“Of course, being a transhumanist, one could say that I’m a bio-libertarian to some degree,” says Dvorsky. “When I see something like Bill C-6 slip through, I’m very troubled at how much of a role the government is still playing in our lives.”

Bill C-6, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, passed by the federal government in March, bans all forms of human cloning, prenatal manipulations like gender selection, and creating human-animal hybrids. Countries all over the world have drafted similar cloning laws or have them in the works. C-6 goes too far, says Dvorsky.

Unlike cloning laws in England, Korea and elsewhere, C-6 forbids therapeutic cloning, in which a cloned embryo is created specifically to harvest stem cells that would be compatible with a given patient. Such cloning could be used to treat Alzheimer’s or grow Christopher Reeve a new spine.

Transhumanists who tend to secular humanism complain a lot about the feds caving in to religious lobbies on these matters. Mark Walker, an ethical philosopher at U of T’s Trinity College, good-naturedly turns the “playing God” metaphor on its head. “If you take seriously the idea that we’re children of God, then, like our own children, we shouldn’t stay children our whole lives. The point is that they should develop and become identical with us.”

One point where transhumanists clearly diverge from environmentalists, their other sparring partner, is their position on GMOs. Environmentalists point to research that reveals suspect nutritional value, super-weeds that require even more noxious herbicides, contamination of indigenous and organic strains, etc.

Greenpeace and the transhumanists have posted pretty much opposite responses about GMOs. But some transhumanists believe that environmentalism needn’t be anti-technology. Steve Mann, who uses solar panels and wind turbines to help power his house, proposes that a good eyetap would reduce power consumption in lighting your house because you’d be able to see in the dark.

More provocatively, Mann has called himself a “cyborg Luddite.” He’s less than thrilled by the notion of artificial intelligence. “Mediation” of human intelligence is Mann’s preferred direction – to make the human brain and body easier to use, but always with a plain old human enjoying the advantages at the centre.

There are, though, those on the fringes of the transhumanist community who seem to confirm everyone’s worst eugenic nightmares. In 2002, the WTA officially dissociated itself from the self-named Marcus Eugenicus when he posted links to racialist groups on their Web ring. Eugenicus, in turn, established the Promethians, whose intention is to establish a superior race bred for “intelligence and patriotism.”

Certainly, compared to Eugenicus, transhumanists seem quite reasonable. Says Dvorsky, “I’m convinced that we’re inexorably headed toward an existential paradigm shift.”

Assuming that progress is likely not slowing down, there is merit in at least discussing all these new human creations and their looming capacity to alter, improve or truly bollocks up everything.

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