Why transhumanism is a dangerous leap for humanity
It was reported last month that many employees at the Swedish unit of the German travel company Tui had volunteered to have a microchip implanted in their hands. What for? The chip opens office doors by pressing against an electronic reader, activates printers, opens locks on cabinets, and allows other such actions to be performed quickly. The employees reasoned that, instead of having to carry magnetic cards or various kinds of keys and risking forgetting or losing them, they could just have the chip implanted in their hands and have it programmed for all kinds of devices and functions.
At my university, we have magnetic cards that allow different people to open different doors, as well as “YubiKeys” — electronic keys that resemble USBs and function as long, secret and unbreakable passwords (this system was installed to prevent the hacking of the academic records that professors and administrators enter into the university’s database). And if I count all the (physical) keys I carry, it would indeed make my life so much easier if there was a chip implanted in my hand that was programmed for all the various functions I need keys for.
Modifying my body even in such a seemingly small, useful and innocuous way may seem like a novel and small step to take, but it is actually a giant leap that I — and I think humanity — should refuse to take. Let me explain why.
In the last few decades, a new techno-socio-philosophical movement called “transhumanism” has been growing and attracting thinkers from fields ranging from robotics and artificial intelligence to philosophy and sociology. Transhumanism, which could be called “Humanity 2.0,” is a movement that aims to “upgrade” human bodies and brains using technology. It says quite simply: If our bodies, including our brains, have obvious limitations and tend to break down with age, why not replace them with better performing parts (prosthetics for legs, hearts, eyes, etc.) even before they start to break down.
Transhumanists argue that, if we can raise humans’ capabilities — such as better vision and hearing, greater cognitive abilities, larger memory storage and faster retrieval — then it makes no sense to forego such possibilities and stick to the deficient bodies that we have. They point out that we have been replacing body organs for many years. This latter argument is simply wrong, however, as it ignores the distinction between replacement and enhancement — a crucial point in this ethical matter.
We need to set limits on what modifications will be allowed while still preserving ‘human’ nature.
But are we today able to (or close to) producing 2.0 versions of human bodies and brains, or is this just science fiction, exaggerated and amplified from little tricks like the above chip implants in hands?
We are certainly not yet at a point where eyes and brains (or parts thereof) can be replaced, but today’s prosthetic legs do allow for strong runs and jumps without fatigue, and various devices can now “supplement” some organs. Indeed, major body transformations will require great advances in nanotechnology, genetic engineering, computer science and electrical engineering, but this is coming.
Various projects, big and small, are already under way. Large ones include the research currently being conducted by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Facebook, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which aims to control objects remotely using brain implants. Smaller schemes are undertaken by “biohackers,” individuals who “hack” their bodies to make them do things that they normally cannot (e.g., attract a piece of metal like a magnet).
Now why do I believe that even small “enhancement” steps are dangerous leaps that humanity must not allow?
First, because this would change the nature of the human body, which carries intrinsic limitations and declines with age. We need to keep a clear understanding of what it means to be human, body and mind, and from that we need to set limits on what modifications will be allowed while still preserving “human” nature. After all, everyone agrees that cyborgs (robots that are built in the shape of humans) are not human; indeed, they can do things that humans cannot.
Secondly and very importantly, any chips and advanced devices that we implement in our bodies will be connected to the Internet and thus subject to monitoring (by authorities) and to hacking, with the hackers becoming able to make our bodies do what they want them to do.
Last but not least, such transformations will be very expensive, at least at first, and thus open only to rich people. The technology will probably later become affordable to the general public, but by the time this happens there will be a new advanced step that will be very expensive and open only to very rich people, and so on. And, when a class of humans becomes superior in various ways to others, there will be a temptation to either subjugate the weaker, low-performing hordes or to get rid of them altogether.
Society, through its thinkers, opinion-makers and decision-makers, needs to address this transhumanism trend that is creeping in slowly and surreptitiously. We need to set clear definitions of what it means for us to be humans — bodies, minds and spirits — and to set laws and regulations to try to ensure the preservation of humanity. We do not want to become cyborgs without noticing.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum