(Roughly) Daily

“The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”*…

Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss. It’s a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity — a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied — and the world will pass beyond our understanding.

Vernor Vinge, True Names and Other Dangers

The once-vibrant transhumanist movement doesn’t capture as much attention as it used to; but as George Dvorsky explains, its ideas are far from dead. Indeed, they helped seed the Futurist movements that are so prominent today (and here and here)…

[On the heels of 9/11] transhumanism made a lot of sense to me, as it seemed to represent the logical next step in our evolution, albeit an evolution guided by humans and not Darwinian selection. As a cultural and intellectual movement, transhumanism seeks to improve the human condition by developing, promoting, and disseminating technologies that significantly augment our cognitive, physical, and psychological capabilities. When I first stumbled upon the movement, the technological enablers of transhumanism were starting to come into focus: genomics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. These tools carried the potential to radically transform our species, leading to humans with augmented intelligence and memory, unlimited lifespans, and entirely new physical and cognitive capabilities. And as a nascent Buddhist, it meant a lot to me that transhumanism held the potential to alleviate a considerable amount of suffering through the elimination of disease, infirmary, mental disorders, and the ravages of aging.

The idea that humans would transition to a posthuman state seemed both inevitable and desirable, but, having an apparently functional brain, I immediately recognized the potential for tremendous harm.

The term “transhumanism” popped into existence during the 20th century, but the idea has been around for a lot longer than that.

The quest for immortality has always been a part of our history, and it probably always will be. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written example, while the Fountain of Youth—the literal Fountain of Youth—was the obsession of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.

Notions that humans could somehow be modified or enhanced appeared during the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, with French philosopher Denis Diderot arguing that humans might someday redesign themselves into a multitude of types “whose future and final organic structure it’s impossible to predict,” as he wrote in D’Alembert’s Dream

The Russian cosmists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries foreshadowed modern transhumanism, as they ruminated on space travel, physical rejuvenation, immortality, and the possibility of bringing the dead back to life, the latter being a portend to cryonics—a staple of modern transhumanist thinking. From the 1920s through to the 1950s, thinkers such as British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, Irish scientist J. D. Bernal, and British biologist Julian Huxley (who popularized the term “transhumanism” in a 1957 essay) were openly advocating for such things as artificial wombs, human clones, cybernetic implants, biological enhancements, and space exploration.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that a cohesive transhumanist movement emerged, a development largely brought about by—you guessed it—the internet…

[There follows a brisk and helpful history of transhumanist thought, then an account of the recent past, and present…]

Some of the transhumanist groups that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s still exist or evolved into new forms, and while a strong pro-transhumanist subculture remains, the larger public seems detached and largely disinterested. But that’s not to say that these groups, or the transhumanist movement in general, didn’t have an impact…

“I think the movements had mainly an impact as intellectual salons where blue-sky discussions made people find important issues they later dug into professionally,” said Sandberg. He pointed to Oxford University philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom, who “discovered the importance of existential risk for thinking about the long-term future,” which resulted in an entirely new research direction. The Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford are the direct results of Bostrom’s work. Sandberg also cited artificial intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky, who “refined thinking about AI that led to the AI safety community forming,” and also the transhumanist “cryptoanarchists” who “did the groundwork for the cryptocurrency world,” he added. Indeed, Vitalik Buterin, a co-founder of Ethereum, subscribes to transhumanist thinking, and his father, Dmitry, used to attend our meetings at the Toronto Transhumanist Association…

Intellectual history: “What Ever Happened to the Transhumanists?,” from @dvorsky.

See also: “The Heaven of the Transhumanists” from @GenofMod (source of the image above).

Donna Haraway


As we muse on mortality, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Marvin Minsky; he was born on this date in 1927.  A biochemist and cognitive scientist by training, he was founding director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Project (the MIT AI Lab).  Minsky authored several widely-used texts, and made many contributions to AI, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics.  He holds several patents, including those for the first neural-network simulator (SNARC, 1951), the first head-mounted graphical display, the first confocal scanning microscope, and the LOGO “turtle” device (with his friend and frequent collaborator Seymour Papert).  His other inventions include mechanical hands and the “Muse” synthesizer.


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