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The Age of Transhumanist Politics Has Begun

Will It Change Traditional Concepts of Left and Right?

An Interview with Political Analyst Roland Benedikter

 Part I

The founding of the Transhumanist Party of the United States, the intensifying of the U.S. BRAIN-Initiative and the start of Google’s project “Ending death” were important milestones in the year 2014, and potential further steps towards “transhumanist” politics. The most significant development was that the radical international technology community became a concrete political force, not by chance starting its global political initiative in the U.S. According to political scientist and sociologist Roland Benedikter, research scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “transhumanist” politics has momentous growth potential but with uncertain outcomes. The coming years will probably see a dialogue between humanism and transhumanism in — and about — most crucial fields of human endeavor, with strong political implications that will challenge, and could change the traditional concepts, identities and strategies of Left and Right.

Roland Benedikter is the co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers concerning the future of Neurotechnology and the Ethics of Neurowarfare (2013 and 2014), several books about global strategic matters (two of those on Xi Jinping’s China) and of the upcoming book “Neuroscience and Neuroethics: Impacting Human Futures” (in cooperation with James Giordano, Springer New York) which will be published in 2015. He has co-authored the commentary Neuroculture: How to keep ethical pace with the current ‘deep’ transformations through neurotechnology? for “The Leftist Review” with James Giordano in March 2012. Katja Siepmann and Annabella McIntosh conducted the interview.

Question: In the book you co-authored with Pentagon-advisor and Georgetown-neuroscientist and neuroethicist James Giordano “Neuroscience and Neuroethics: Impacting Human Futures“ you state that these two fields at the interface between science and politics might lead to bigger changes in the coming years than either conventional politics or science. The reason: Technology is becoming an increasingly more powerful political and social force – not only sectorially or nationally, but globally.

Benedikter: In recent years technology has indeed emerged as a concrete social and political force. 2014 has seen a noticeable intensification of that trend. The traditional political players are poorly prepared for it. What, for example, nowadays takes place in just one year at the interface between the human brain and technology, until recently required a decade. It is an exponential development. The mechanization of society and humanity is occurring within many disciplines– for example, in the form of neurotechnology, which is increasingly used for medical and both dual-use and direct military purposes. But there are other fields too. From neuroeconomics to, neuroaesthetics, neurosprituality, neurosociology and even neuropolitics, the “neuro”-prefix is becoming omnipresent in the understanding and meaning of our time and civilization – and with regard to its self-ascribed identity.

What exactly is going on?

Supporters of “human enhancement”[1], which encompasses scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians and transcends language, cultural and ideological barriers, advocate mechanization of the human body in general and the broad “culturalization” of brain-machine interfaces in particular as the progressive, transformative path for humanity in the 21st century. By playing a consulting role in the “high spheres” of politics, science, and management, representatives of the transhumanist movement (including the World Transhumanist Association[2], which was initiated in the 1980s), are promoting the fusion of humans and computers. Among other things, they recommend the broad use of implants to enhance cognitive abilities, neural engineering to expand human consciousness and the cyborgization of the body and its tissues and systems in order to increase resilience, prosperity and lifespan.

Sounds gruesome at first. What is the idea behind all this?

The name “transhumanism” is the basic concept that tells it all. Its followers want to go beyond the present human condition. At its core it means to overcome the “natural” limitations inherent in human existence, which is to be born, live relatively short, half-conscious lives, and then die. The supporters of “human enhancement” and “transhumanism” intend to break through these current physical and cognitive (and perhaps even spiritual) barriers. In order to do that, they will pursue biotechnological upgrades to the human body and thus, conceivably, try to eliminate the negative effects of ageing and eventually (at least as an ambition) even death.

You state (in a scientifically “neutral” sense) that the first breakthrough of this development could now be imminent, but there will also be inescapable associated ethical problems?

Possibly. Those who view the future human being as a technoid being, if not as a body fully integrated into technology – as, for example, Google’s chief engineer Ray Kurzweil or the Oxford professor of philosophy Nick Bostrom, who is the head of the “Future of Humanity Institute” at the faculty of philosophy and the Oxford James Martin 21st Century School[3] — regard the mid 21st century as a probable date for reaching the singularity. That’s the moment when artificial intelligence allegedly surpasses that of human intelligence and becomes in some way “self-conscious”, as these thinkers expect.[4] Kurzweil has recently even referred to the year 2029 as the date when technology could reach a level of self-conscious “intelligence”.[5] If that happens, even on an approximate basis, it will without doubt affect virtually everything, even though it will likely not occur in as spectacular ways as predicted.

Why will it affect everything?

Every conscious “being”, not even speaking of a self-conscious “being” (assuming that technology can achieve such a status, which is contested) possesses the first and basic instinct of self-preservation. Like other beings, a technological singularity will presumably apply its intelligence anticipatively once it has a satisfactory level of consciousness in order to preserve its existence. That could hold true also for highly developed Artificial Intelligence (AI). Due to that Bostrom in his current book on “Superintelligence”[6] believes that the most important question of the coming decades will not be how to prevent wars or how to build the best weapons or the best international relations, but how to control an increasingly intelligent technology – a superintelligence which is coming into existence through the combination of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. The question is how to provide some kind of internal AI “control mechanism” to prevent it from turning against humans in order to eliminate the only ones who could switch it off.

There is in fact an increasingly intense debate about the possibility that artificial intelligence may harm humanity – to the point of wiping it out.

That’s right. Influential opinion-makers like Microsoft’s Bill Gates[7], investor Elon Musk[8] or scientists like Cambridge’s Stephen Hawking[9] believe that artificial intelligence could become a serious threat, actually the most important threat to humanity in the coming decades, because it could become too powerful to control. In contrast, others like Eric Horvitz[10], managing director of Microsoft Research’s Redmond lab, are of the opinion that we will be so “pro-active” in implementing the new intelligent technologies, that we will master their inborne threats before they become harmful.

Both sides, the apocalyptics and the optimists, have good arguments.

Indeed they do, with a strong majority still on the optimistic side. If you’ve noticed, essentially all internet- and technology-based firms in the meantime are committing a good deal of their innovation efforts to the development of artificial intelligence, and if you follow the parallel developments in the traditional heavy industries towards non-human production through the massive substitution of robotics for humans, combined with AI, then it becomes clear that this development will impact humanity’s future as perhaps no other – not only by merging man and machine, but also by replacing humans with technology. For example, automaker Volkswagen (VW) is replacing a large part of its work force with robots, and will deploy artificial intelligence on a large scale.[11] A member of VW’s board of management for human resources, Horst Neumann, declared in February 2015, that this will dramatically reduce costs from 40 euros per human working hour in Germany and 10 euros per hour in China to just 5 euros for a robot. And this is only the beginning of a massive wave of change coming throughout industry, and from there spreading out to most other fields too.

You state, that in terms of technology as an increasingly “universal factor” the year 2014 generated three important developmental steps, that some consider milestones on the way to “transhumanism”. What are those?

Firstly: Tech giant Google — which has recently been focusing more and more on transdisciplinary “moon shots” or “major advances” that others may regard as utopian or fantasy — launched its new project Calico to “stop ageing and eliminate death”[12] under the guidance of its technology director Ray Kurzweil. The aim of the project is to make information on how to fight ageing more “intelligent” by combining data volumes, some of which have been collected and collated by Google’s search engines, with a “self-learning” ability. Information could then potentially develop itself further generating new information. As a first step this is supposed to eliminate disease and increase the lifespan of the human body by a measurable amount and ultimately – if possible – defeat death. According to those responsible for this and similar projects, new life-technologies such as the prevention of telomere shortening or genetic modification, are available for this purpose but need to be combined with artificial intelligence in order to become sufficiently sophisticated to reach an advanced level.

Secondly?

Leading transhumanists, for example the cofounder of the transhumanist movement Nick Bostrom, have been providing commentary input to the USA BRAIN-initiative since summer of 2014.[13] On the initiative of President Barack Obama, the BRAIN initiative[14] is generally dedicated to unraveling the secrets of the brain through the use of neurotechnologies so as to improve human health and well-being. Explicit to this is the “enhancement” of the human brain and cognition (“cognitive enhancement”). It deals with fundamental questions of how to improve human existence based on consciousness issues, and it focuses on the responsibility that derives from the perspective that a possible transformation of the human being as we know it is becoming feasible. The BRAIN initiative and its European counter-part, the Human Brain Initiative of the European Commission since 2012, set a trend– willingly or unwillingly– that conveys a strong transhumanist message. As James Giordano and I have noted[15], and urged preparation for, this trend will not only have an impact in the USA but also will have international influence. It is already being imitated, and embellished upon by nations such as China within their current capabilities.

Thirdly?

Thirdly, the transhumanism movement organized itself for the first time as a concrete political force in autumn 2014, thereby reaching a new level of public visibility and potential impact, irrespective of the immediate success it can or will have at the ballot box. In October 2014, the American philosopher and futurist Zoltan Istvan founded the Transhumanist Party[16] of the USA and wants to run for president in 2016 as its candidate. Istvan published the book The Transhumanist Wager[17] in 2013, which became an Amazon number one best seller, and he is the founder of the philosophical current Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF) that advocates radical efforts to transform oneself, for example, through “enhancement” of one’s own body and brain.[18] Istvan wants to fashion this into a concrete political agenda that will play a role in the US-presidential campaign. For this purpose he apparently has financially strong sponsors, who are supposed to guarantee his party public attention.

Istvan’s step did not just appear out of nowhere?

The founding of the Transhumanist party of the USA was based on several pre-initiatives. One impulse for the political mobilization of the radical technophiles was the open letter of the second Global Future 2045 Congress on 11th March 2013, addressed to UN-general secretary Ban Ki-moon.[19] In this letter important philanthropists, such as sponsor James Martin, and members of important universities such as Oxford or opinion leaders and entrepreneurs from the USA, Great Britain, Russia and Canada[20], demanded among other things governmental support for the development of artificial bodies (anthropomorphic avatar robots), for an integration of them with further-developed brain-computer-interfaces, for extending life supporting measures, especially for the human brain, for the development of a “fully technical equivalent of the human brain” and finally for its “embodiment in a non-biological substrate” for the purpose of immortality, which basically means the reproduction of the human mind as an individualized computer program. The Congress assumed in 2013, that humanity today is facing a “threshold in its history” and that only a radical technology offensive could “free” humans from several of their existing problems. According to these transhumanists, technology is the key to basically every single problem of our time and the future: it could prevent wars, find a solution to global resource problems and pave the way for a global society centered on the individual. These aims of the Global Future 2045 Congress of 2013, in essence correspond to those of the Transhumanist Party in the USA founded in 2014. Istvan’s proposed presidential candidacy in 2016 takes this agenda to the next political and policy level.

TO BE CONTINUED

Editor’s note: Part II of this three-part interview will follow within two weeks.

About the interviewee:

Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., is Research Scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation Boston, Senior Research Scholar of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington DC and Full member of the Club of Rome. Previously, he was a Long-term Visiting Scholar / Research Affiliate 2009-13 at the Europe Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, and Full Academic Fellow 2008-12 of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Washington DC. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Harvard International Review and Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs, and is author of books about global strategic issues (among them two on Xi Jinping’s China), co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers and of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker’s Report to the Club of Rome 2003 titled “Limits to Privatization. How To Avoid Too Much Of A Good Thing“. Contact: r.benedikter@orfaleacenter.ucsb.edu and rolandbenedikter@yahoo.de

About the interviewers

Katja Siepmann, MA, is a socio-political analyst, Senior Research Fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington D.C., Member of the German Council on Foreign Relations, Lecturer at the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Cultural Sciences of the European University Frankfurt/Oder and has written for Foreign Affairs, Harvard International Review and Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs.

Annabella McIntosh is a freelance political writer based in Berlin, Germany.

______________________________


[1] Savulescu, J., Bostrom, N. (Eds.): Human Enhancement. Oxford University Press, 2009.

[3] Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

[4] Kurzweil, R.: The Singularity Is Near. When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin, New York, 2005.

[5] Kurzweil, R.: Don’t fear artificial intelligence. In: Time Magazine, December 19, 2014.

[6] Bostrom, N.: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press 2014.

[7] Rawlinson, K.: Bill Gates insists AI is a threat. Microsoft’s founder says we should worry that AI escape our control, despite claims to the contrary by a Microsoft Research chief. In: BBC.

[8] The Guardian: Elon Musk: Artificial Intelligence is our biggest existential threat. In: The Guardian, 27 October 2014.

[9] Cellan-Jones, R.: Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind. In: BBC News, 2 December 2014.

[10] BBC: AI will not kill us, says Microsoft. The chief of Microsoft’s research division says he does not believe artificial intelligence systems are going to wipe out humankind. In: BBC News, 28 January 2015.

[11] Leber, J.: At Volkswagen, Robots are coming out of their cages. In: Fastcoexist Magazine, September 9, 2013. Cf. Financial Times: Volkswagen to replace Germany’s retiring baby boomers with robots. In: Financial Times, October 6, 2014.

[12] McCracken, H.; Grossman, L.: Google vs. Death. In: Time, September 30, 2013.

[13] Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies: Nick Bostrom Testifies on Cognitive Enhancement for Obama BRAIN Initiative, August 22, 2014.

[14] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN).

[15] Lanzilao E., Shook, J., Benedikter R., Giordano J.: Advancing neuroscience on the 21st century world stage: The need for – and proposed structure of – an internationally relevant neuroethics. Ethics Biol Engineer Med 4(3): 211-229 (2013); Benedikter R., Giordano J.: Neurotechnology: New frontiers for European policy. Pan Euro Network Sci Tech 3: 204-207 (2012); Giordano J., Benedikter R.: An early – and necessary – flight of the Owl of Minerva: Neuroscience, neurotechnology, human socio-cultural boundaries, and the importance of neuroethics. J Evolution and Technol 22(1): 14-25 (2012).

[16] Transhumanist Party: Putting Science, Health & Technology at the Forefront of American Politics.

[17] Prisco, J.: Book review: The Transhumanist Wager. In: Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence Blog, May 15, 2013.

[18] Istvan, Z.: The Transhumanist Wager Is A Choice We’ll All Have To Make. Zoltan Istvan in interview with Nikola Danaylov.

[19] Global Future 2045: Open Letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. March 12, 2013.

[20] Global Future 2045: Towards A New Strategy For Human Evolution.

 

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8 Responses to The Age of Transhumanist Politics Has Begun

  1. liberalvoice on March 29, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    The rate of change is off the charts. As others have noted, exponential. So this decade’s rate will seem tortoise-like in the 2020′s and beyond.

  2. Brad Arnold on March 12, 2015 at 6:04 am

    We are at the foot of an exponential curve. Most people can agree that technology is playing an increasingly important role in all aspects of our lives, but few can imagine how much and how soon. Currently, culture is retarding technological progress. Soon, artificial intelligence will emerge that rivals human minds, and shortly thereafter will exceed the smartest human mind. To make an analogy – right now driverless cars about about to explode on the scene, and the paradigm of computer driven cars being unsafe will quickly give way to the opposite, that human driven vehicles are unsafe. The same will go for AI vs human anything. Human culture (and psychological limitations) will stop retarding technology.

    Right now in the US we have political gridlock, with both sides locked into rather simplistic ideologies, but that is about to change (like every aspect of human vs AI control). Furthermore, our economy will make the transition from one based upon scarcity (Malthusian), to one based upon abundance, since wealth is solely the product of man’s (AI’s) ability to think.

  3. daredevil on March 10, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    Sure, I guess it’s only a matter of time until we reach the technological Rubicon–where AI technology becomes so advanced that it attains self-consciousness and begins on its own trajectory of evolution. But are we really that close? Everything I’ve heard about trying to mimic the way the human brain “thinks”–in terms of design and complexity–seems to suggest to me that we are further away than we’d like to admit from aping the behavior of the human mind with software and processors.

    I’ll admit though, it is both exciting and scary to see yesterday’s science fiction themes, dreams, and nightmares come to fruition only a few decades later. James Cameron’s post-apocalyptic future where the human race is deemed a threat by a self-aware artificial intelligence known as Skynet–and targeted for extermination–seems more like a legitimate concern rather than fiction-y escapist entertainment lol.

  4. JasonR on March 8, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    No disease, no death. We’re going to need a lot of entertainment.

  5. Alex Powers on March 7, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    What a mind f$&@k! I’m looking forward to the end of disease and aging!

  6. Thomas Parslow on March 7, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    AI (artificial intelligence) could be — and probably will be — the next arms race (along with robots): Our AI versus theirs (China, Russian, whomever? etc.). The possibilities are mind boggling and no one can see over that horizon yet. At some point it’s all going to get completely out of hand and there’s a significant chance it’ll get away from us, despite the optimism of people like Eric Horvitz. It’s hard to escape the feeling that we know not what we do and we are rapidly approaching a moment when it will be too late to put this genie back into the bottle. Whether AI will attain consciousness is anybody’s guess. We don’t have a clue yet what consciousness is or how it emerges, if it does, from complex systems. The cognitive community, and especially philosophers of mind, have been thinking and writing about these issues for decades. I am a little sympathetic to, though not convinced by, John Searle’s point that consciousness may also be a property of not just complexity alone, but somehow linked to the (as yet not understood) nature of the “wetware” in our heads. But… AI can certainly surpass humans in intelligence, whether conscious or not, and therein lies the problem. Kurzweil (and others before him) makes this point in his book (“The Singularity is Near”): Once we create an AI slightly smarter than us, it can create (using our methods) an AI smarter than it, and so on and so on. You get a cascade effect where all of a sudden there is this incomprehensible intelligence before you (getting ever more so all the time) and humans will be no more able to understand it than — to borrow an expression from the philosopher Colin McGinn — ‘a dog can understand algebra.’ Ask yourself: How hard is it to fool a dog? That would be a modest comparison of the extreme differences in our intelligence compared to an evolved AI. We could be in for a wild ride!

  7. SteveH on March 6, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Wow, this article was mind bending. I had no idea the world was on the threshold of this kind of a tech transformation of humans! I have to say, it seems like social regulatory mechanisms are broken and whatever is coming, the People will have no say about it. Not that I think people should be barred form enhancing themselves, if that’s what they want and can afford to do.

  8. globalcitizen on March 6, 2015 at 11:56 am

    As strange as this ‘brave new world’ seems, it also seems inevitable. Once an idea becomes a movement, its momentum often becomes culturally irresistible. The technology is coming–there’s little to doubt in that proposition. Some of it’s already here. How do we deal with it? I think RB is correct, governments are not going to be ready for this and will adapt too slowly. That will create cultural and political upheavals.

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