Will It Change Traditional Concepts of Left and Right?
An Interview with Political Analyst Roland Benedikter
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”, 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, 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 — 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. Kurzweil has recently even referred to the year 2029 as the date when technology could reach a level of self-conscious “intelligence”. 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” 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, investor Elon Musk or scientists like Cambridge’s Stephen Hawking 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, 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. 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” 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.
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. On the initiative of President Barack Obama, the BRAIN initiative 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, 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, 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 of the USA and wants to run for president in 2016 as its candidate. Istvan published the book The Transhumanist Wager 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. 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. 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, 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: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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