Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Transhumanism: the younger generation's view

In case you haven't read it here yet, I'm a college educator.

We have just finished reading the book Feed by M.T. Anderson in one of my classes.  It is a novel with strong transhuman themes, namely that the principle characters (and most everyone else in the world for that matter) get social media and the rest of the Internet delivered directly into their heads by a chip implant in the brain. Truly, one experiences the "feed" 24/7.  We had already been working on the book for a few weeks, addressing questions such as "what is technology doing to our society?" and "can you see the roots of Feed's technology today?"  The class responded to discussion questions around attention span and literacy.  What was not covered in discussion or other lectures was transhumanism and I argued that the author was in at least a few ways, responding to such technology in the book.

So I gave a lecture to the entire freshmen class on the subject of transhumanism.  I described ways in which humans are already integrating with technology that sound like science fiction but are very much realities.  Given their 18-19 year old age bracket, I figured that these transhuman technologies might be new to them, but they would readily recognized them as either being within the realm of possibility or at least promise.  I covered:

Cybernetic replacements for human limbs.
Quantum computing.
Uploading your own memories and thoughts to a computer system.
Disembodied consciousness within a machine (a la Ghost in the Shell.)
Military drones with artificial intelligence.
Uploading your consciousness into android bodies as in the work of Dmitry Itskov.
Suits of "Iron Man" armor.
"Sexbots" somewhat like Pris from Blade Runner.
Brain-enhancing drugs and nanotech.

The result?

They were terrified.

I had not expected that.  With these students being among the most technologically savvy generation in history, I expected initial shock that would fade into a shrug of "should have seen it coming and it's ok."

That's not what I received.  The discussion rapidly turned to an arraignment of transhumanism, something I was not quite expecting.

In dialogical form, here was our discussion (paraphrased):

"This freaks me out."
"Are you even human anymore after all of this?"
"What is human?"
"Something that eats, breathes, and sleeps."
"So...my dog is human?"
"But that fits your definition."
"No it...it isn't what a human is supposed to be."
"What is a human 'supposed' to be?"
"Not metal.  What do we do if robots and other machines that think turn on us?"
 "I don't know.  No one does."

Bear in mind they are college freshmen and in many regards are beginning in their journey towards becoming critical thinkers.  But they began to dwell on the negative far too much in my view.  So I tried this out on them:
Imagine you could time travel to see Henry Ford.  Would you say to him, "Do you know how many people will die in horrible crashes and how polluted the world will become because of your invention?  Please, for the love of God, don't invent the car!"  In effect saying, "I'm okay with walking everywhere the rest of my life."

That got 'em right in the teenage gut.  Take whatever you want but don't take my car.

No technological development comes without a downside.  No gain comes without a loss.
I asked them if they could at least see the benefits of transhumanism?
They admitted that it brings hope to those who cannot walk or face debilitating disease.  They also were completely unwilling to part with their smartphones or WiFi connections, the current form of much of the technology we're discussing.

There are no easy answers.  There are no gains without losses.  But I will take a transhuman future over other possibilities any time.  These are smart folks that I'm teaching and I feel confident that they will be able to discern possible pitfalls and to help find ways around them.  No need to fear this change.

Then again, whether you want it or not, it's coming.  Resisting is a bit like being angry at water for being wet.

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