In my continuing series of conversations with thought leaders related to heritable human modification, today’s post is an interview with Natasha Vita-More, a pioneer in the transhumanism movement and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Humanity+ (H+), the global transhumanist organization.
Where do you see transhumanism today? Has it changed over the years? What are the primary areas of focus today?
NVM: Transhumanism is no longer a subculture and an emerging academic discipline. It has become a worldview that represents the currents in global society. These currents reflect the sciences, technologies, and innovations that are changing the way people do things—their health, lifestyle, communication and self-awareness, and adapting.
Looking back over the years, transhumanism introduced the first strong social interest in the benefits and possible risks of emerging and accelerating technologies. The scientific research on human physiology and cognition, developments in biotechnology, along with who expanded on the notion of Moore’s Law formed the basis on which many of these critical ideas were based. The technological Singularity formed a related but different trajectory for deeper contemplation of humanity’s future, and alerted focused research on artificial intelligence, which fostered AGI (artificial general intelligence), and the new connections between fields that developed forming the loci for generating ideas for delivering novelty. The trends toward entrepreneurial practices, being an innovator, starting a company, making a change in the world brought about this current culture that aims to educate and inspire others to think about what is needed today to help us arrive into the future, safely. The focus changed from being far future visionary toward sustaining life long enough to get there. The means that adapting to the challenges of change is necessary to evolve.
The primary focus is twofold. First, to progress forward, it’s necessary to have a thoughtful start. Unravel the confiscated knowledge and make it available and accurate as possible. The information that transmitted through the journalistic media, postmodernists wrestling with a new philosophical worldview, and info centers like Wikipedia (which is more of a bible of edited stories than a formative recording of facts) that chalkboard, erase and rewrite data are all mishaps in the branding of transhumanism. Second, to be forward, inclusivity and diversity are essential. This means that transhumanism exists in a world of different values and can respect others but to hold its own in the larger arena of policy making, laws and legislation. This reflects the basis for the Proactionary Principle, Morphological Freedom, and the Regenerative Generation.
Do you see genetic self-editing as an important part of transhumanism?
NVM: This is a loaded question. On the one hand DIY and QS are stables in the generation of innovators who see the body as a makerspace. On the other hand, messing with genes can have terrible consequences. Why would a person want to mess with their genes unless the practice was viable, ethical, and safe? But then sexual reproduction is a type of genetic self-editing not governed by legislation, the FDA, or AMA. But it is not 100% viable, ethical or safe. A person can be impregnated by force, or a person may transmit abnormalities in the sperm or egg causing a genetic disorder. In a society of self-responsibility of one’s body, and where access to medical and scientific information is accessible, it could become a field or business as a massively accelerated self-help trend. When looked at this way, techno-genetic self-editing may eventually pass through regulatory systems when it proves to be viable, safe, and beneficial, and a natural way to protect one’s sustainability.
What about human germline editing to produce healthier children, such as via CRISPR-Cas9 technology? Does that have a potential positive role for transhumanism and humanity?
NVM: Most people want their children to be healthy, both mentally and physically. If a child has a horrific disease, to not remove the gene is simply wrong. It is far more immoral to allow a person – of any age – to exist in pain or suffering than to apply medical technologies to assist in their riddance of despair.
Would you be supportive of the use of such technology for enhancement, meaning not just for the correction of say a mutation that causes a disease, but also for making enhancements of potentially desirable traits such as intelligence, slow aging, strong bones, better muscles, etc.?
NVM: Yes, certainly, provided it is safe. Cancers ought to be caught and eradicated early on. But let’s consider what pharmacology and neuropharmacology offers today: for bone loss, currently the enhancements include calcium and vitamin D, and for more enhancements needs, Fosamax and Actonel. For muscle loss, current interventions include anaerobic exercise, and for more aggressively growth hormone, testosterone, and HRT. Enhancing intelligence is met with nootropics for an intelligence boost, but also the computer, smart phone, etc. do increase human intelligence because, even though they are external device, they interconnect with cognitive functions (memory, logic, calculation). The hypercognition probability will form a type of metabrain, whether it is an internal or external appendage to the brain.
Some people have made comparisons between transhumanism and eugenics: how do you feel about that kind of comparison? Is it valid? Is there a beneficial role for “positive eugenics” in the world today?
NVM: There is no comparison between transhumanism and the coercive manipulation of human beings. By its very nature, and certainly identified at its core, transhumanism values human rights. Human rights include individual freedom and the right to enhancement and the right never to be coerced to enhance. This is human enhancement for healthy outcomes, based on the freedom of choice.
I think the word eugenics has too much of a vulgar taste in the mouths of humanity to make it positive. Historically, the horrific abuses to human kind at the hands of criminal minds are reprehensible to humanness. These abuses are inflicted by criminals who perform abusive acts – from cutting off a woman’s clitoris, to enslaving others with violent and egregious acts against their psychology and physiology. One might call this eugenics, but it really isn’t. It is a term allocated to the Germans under the influence of Hitler and who performed terrible, criminal acts against those they devalued.
Where do you foresee transhumanism being in the coming 5-10 years? How about in 25 years? Will there be transformative advances?
NVM: In the coming five to ten years, there will be outreach to inform the public about the challenges we all face. I like to think of it as the electronic grassroots of people realizing that they need to have more knowledge of what the late 20th century term NBIC means. Where is nanotechnology headed, and what is meant by nanomedicine; how can biotechnology protect and sustain human life; how can we protect our identities from black hat hackers and where is cognitive science headed? (Literally!) During this time frame people will become more self-aware of being healthy and active, and facing economic challenges as the baby boomer generation lives longer and find a need to be included in the social climate, rather than retire and be forgotten. Design plays an important leadership role because it sets the pace for usability and functionality of any product or process within all sectors.
In the next 25 years, many grand challenges will be tackled, with smart use of nanorobots to clean up the environment and to form protective molecular systems. The idea of a white cloud swarm could have important environmental attributes, such as forming a wall to protect a location from external dangers. Expansive AI can integrate stale systems from task-based to solution-finding. A core issue is the protection of personal identity from black hats, and the growing need for forensic security. An area to concentrate on is the practice of “change fitness”, as we may all become athletes of life in exercising an ability to adapt to change.
Transhuman Politics is an area where we need visionary work. It may be a passing trend, but it could offer new insights to actually dealing with adversity. Recently I was in France where I felt set up as being of a political persuasion rather than what I am — an independent, so I can look at this a bit objectively. I remember being elected on a transhumanist platform in 1992, in Los Angeles County, with a technology platform at a time of large anti-technology staging by Green Peace. There were too many hard lies encircling witlessness. Today the risk has become more human centric; either the human caused it or it will adversely affect the humanity. This ought not bog us down. To encourage progress, technology is crucial if grand challenges are to be tackled. From the core values of transhumanism, others can apply their knowledge and experience to address the policies, laws, rules, legislation, of socio-economic-political conundrums. And while there is certainly risk in the economic structure, if people gain new information bearing skills, societies can overcome obstacles. The aim is to be informed. Not easy, but well worth the effort.