Who wants to live for ever?
Thinking machines, eternal life, space colonisation, neon bunnies – no, not science fiction but soon-to-be-realised science fact, according to a new generation of futurologists. But who are they, and can they be serious? Adam Smith takes you on a whistlestop tour of this brave new world, with five of the most prominent groups. Illustrations by Martin Rowson
In essence The wise of the machines
Mission To continue pushing technological innovation up to the moment in the future when an intelligence greater than that of humans arises through technology. This point is known as the “singularity”. After the singularity, all bets are off. Once robots and computers become smarter than humans, it is expected that the rate of artificial intelligence development will increase exponentially.
Take me to their leader Chief proponents of the singularity include sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, who coined the term, and futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. To make sure he lives to see the singularity, the ageing Kurzweil pops hundreds of vitamins a day. With his anti-ageing doctor, he runs Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products, a supplements company.
Future sailing There can be no doubt that computing power will continue to accelerate well into this century. Robotics technology is also becoming smarter and more nimble every year. But the idea that humanity will turn a corner as a result of a milestone in computing blithely skips over the fact that much of the world’s population is not plugged in. Inventions in the so-called developed world might percolate into lifestyle improvements elsewhere, but history shows war and famine are persistent.
Say what? “By the 2030s, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate” – Ray Kurzweil
In essence Taking a flesh perspective
Mission To create glow-in-the-dark bunny rabbits, among other things. BioArt has no codified philosophy, but its practitioners tend to communicate their art through scientific and technological innovations. The approach is still novel and still fringe, but it grabs headlines. One example is “Aussie man implants ear into forearm!”, a response to the ongoing project of artist Stelarc. Other works that exemplify the genre include Laura Cinti’s Cactus Project, which genetically engineered a cactus so that it grows human hair (think Cousin It in a plant pot). BioArt thus predicts scientific possibilities without being dragged down by ethics or limitations of scale that can impede science.
Take me to their leader Although he’d be too modest to accept the role, Stelarc is probably the BioArt boss. His Ear on Arm continues to grow – as a project, not an appendage. This year he’ll implant a wifi device into the third ear to receive and transmit sound. Stelarc’s booming Transylvanian guffaw even has its own Twitter account, @StelarcLaugh. Other proponents include Eduardo Kac, who coined the term BioArt, and then produced a transgenic rabbit that contains jellyfish genes to make it glow. Fans can now buy GloFish, a patented breed of fluorescent zebrafish.
Future sailing BioArt’s future is already here: the point of the movement is to push through the barriers that can hold scientists back. Practitioners don’t explicitly want everyone to have a wifi-enabled ear or Oyster card chip implants, but they show us what’s possible.
Say what? “To be human is to be augmented, extended and enhanced by technology” – Stelarc
In essence Humanity is so last century
Mission Transhumanists have no time for squeamish ethical reservations about enhancing humanity – anyone who has drunk caffeine, wears glasses or has been vaccinated, they say, is already engaging in augmentation. They just want to push this to its logical, and utopian, conclusion, which looks very much like science fiction (which is why the movement is filled with sci-fi fans and is funded in part by sci/tech millionaires). Sub-categories of transhumanists include followers of Aubrey de Grey, a former computer scientist who is now working on how to extend the human lifespan, and philosophers, including those who earlier this year suggested mitigating climate change by inducing meat intolerance among humans and breeding smaller people who use fewer resources.
Take me to their leader Natasha Vita-More sits as the chair of Humanity+, a talking shop for all things transhumanist. She’s been involved in the movement since it was codified in the ’80s, and even wrote the first Transhumanist Manifesto. Today she’s a supplement-supping, iron-pumping supporter of cosmetic surgery and every other “enhancement” on offer.
Future sailing Humanity+ has incorporated into its mission a campaign for the ethical use of science and technology to achieve transhumanist ends. Members support body enhancement and adaptation as a basic human right, transcending gender, class or wealth. Humanity+ claims a membership of 6,000 worldwide and hold seminars and conferences on issues such as the colonisation of space and “living forever”. All their work is aimed at achieving a “radically more positive future”.
Say what? “Death is only for those who tire easily, bore quickly, and are over satiated with living. The rest of us just want to stick around” – Natasha Vita-More
In essence Ice, ice, body
Mission To save people from dying, even when they’re already dead. Principal organisations include Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona and the Cryonics Institute, Michigan. Each has around 1,000 members and just over 100 patients actually preserved, including baseball star Ted Williams and, yes, departed pets. Here’s what happens to people who sign up and then die: when the patient’s heart stops, scientists intervene to keep their blood flowing and maintain brain viability. Then they replace 60 per cent of the water inside the patient’s cells with chemicals. The body is then “deep cooled” to -135°C (cryonicists get tetchy if you use the word “freeze”). Although science cannot yet reverse this process and resuscitate the patient, the cryonics business model is based on the promise that it will one day be able to.
Take me to their leader Bristol-born Max Moore has for several years been making the move into immortality, via cryonics in Arizona. He joined Alcor in 1986 as its 67th member (or patient), has spoken about cryonics for decades and played a key role in building the transhumanist movement. With his marriage to Natasha Vita-More, transhumanism has its first power couple.
Future sailing It is true that we have learnt to fly and even extend our life spans through medicines. So it’s sensible to extrapolate. But the idea of re-animation after death is still a far-flung dream of empire builders who can’t bear the thought of dying – and can afford to be frozen preserved.
Say what? “I had and have no credentials worth mentioning being only a teacher of college physics and math” – Robert Ettinger, father of cryonics (preserved, 2011)
In essence Don’t believe the hype
Mission The sceptics’ only unified approach to transhumanism is, well, sceptical. They question many of the movement’s boosterish claims and naïve optimism about the future, pouring cold water on the idea that immortality is achievable, and questioning whether in any case it would be desirable. Gerontologist and philosopher Raymond Tallis is one prominent critic, pointing out for example how transhumanists elide the words “mind” and “machine” to make unwarranted claims about the nature of Artificial Intelligence and the possibility of downloading human consciousness onto computers. More direct critics of transhumanism include rejects from the movement, such as technocritic Dale Carrico, who writes a consistently cutting critique on his Amor Mundi blog about how transhumanists’ denial of mortality is a symptom of our society’s pathological desires.
Take me to their leader If sceptics were to coalesce around an individual, their credibility would soon diminish. They are united by their shared commitment to science and rationalism, and a suspicion of the motives and rhetoric of the future boosters.
Future sailing Mainstream science is far too busy working on vaccines for HIV, and capitalism too obsessed with inventing a new widget for tomorrow, not next century, for the singularitarians’ or transhumanists’ far-flung ideas to be taken very seriously. Artificial intelligence and cryonics may be fun ideas, but offer little practical assistance to the world’s woes today.
Say what? “I hate to break it to Natasha Vita-More. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic she is about it, she’s going to die” – Dale Carrico