How Will Traditional Concepts of Left and Right Be Affected?
Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of a three-part interview. Part I can be found here; Part II, here.
An Interview with Political Analyst Roland Benedikter
Summary of Parts I & II
Technology is emerging as a social and political force in its own right. Although predicted years ago by scientists like Roland Benedikter and James Giordano, the rapidity of technological evolution has caught governments off guard and slow to recognize and deal with the changing social and political landscapes, while militaries and the private sector (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo etc.) have embraced it mainly through investment in artificial intelligence and neurotechnology.
In parallel with these developments there is a risk that artificial intelligence may soon surpass human intelligence and become a potential threat to humanity; a risk taken seriously by many influential leaders ranging from Bill Gates and Elon Musk to Steven Hawking; all of whom have spoken out about it publicly.
Movements to “enhance” the human body and mind by integrating computational and cybernetic components into a unified being — a technoid being — to overcome human frailties, are springing up around the world and in the U.S. a “Transhumanist Political Party” has been established with its founder, Zoltan Istvan, considering a run for the presidency in 2016.
It’s likely that the Transhumanist Party will at first play only a marginal or peripheral role in U.S. politics, in much the same way as the Green Party has, and although it is claimed that transhumanism is non-ideological, that is ostensibly not true. How this will play out politically is unpredictable as the future of the human body — its form and function — is at stake.
Most people are woefully unaware of how radical the technology changes will likely be over the next decade. How best do we manage the inevitable transition from human to posthuman? Will the transhumanist party, as Istvan claims, “be a bridge to a scientific and tech-dominated future”? There are ethical considerations and inherent contradictions in a programme that sees technology as the answer to most of the problems facing humanity and some “laws” of transhumanism seem to be at odds with the concept of a social contract.
One can ask: is the transhumanist agenda dismissive of core humanism and democratic culture “for the sake of radical technological individualism”? Political accommodations of transhumanism will likely be controversial. For example: How much money should be allocated by governments for things like robotic hearts, which could effectively eliminate the number one killer, heart disease? How should America handle the coming designer baby technology? Will all of this necessarily lead to a war of worldviews?
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.
THE INTERVIEW CONTINUES…
Will a similar dialogue take place also between transhumanists and the religious? There seem to be certain transcendent, if not even religious implications in the merging between computer, human consciousness and machines, allegedly making “mind over matter” a reality?
Indeed that is what some interested in such an interpretation assert. For example, some expect that broader use of brain implants, including certain forms of Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCI’s), such as those yoked to prosthetic limbs, will lead to breakthroughs in overcoming disablement, physical handicaps, and by extension the general limits of the human body (including particular functions of the brain). In this case, “mind over matter” means that the inventiveness of the human mind transcends the limits of the human body – and that the self is taking control of its material restraints. Personally, I would see this not as a religious issue in the strict sense, but rather as something like “metaphysics put into action” in ambiguous ways.
Such a general motive had been forecast by Post-Humanists such as philosopher Martin Heidegger in the 1960s to necessarily rise out of the trend toward further technological advancements. Heidegger saw technology, in anticipation of its merging with the human body and human consciousness, as the embodiment and reality of metaphysics in a new form, which would lure humans to superstition and thus threaten traditional human ethics with extinction. He was certainly right in pointing out the deep ambiguity and the dangers in the current stylization of technology as the new metaphysics. On the other hand, Heidegger was hoping for “a god” to save us from the unparalleled metaphysical power of technology, which seems to be a very traditionalist answer of a similar ambiguity, considering that Heidegger didn’t speak of “god”, but “a god”, probably appealing to the “god” of the self in everybody’s own mind.
Be that as it may, indeed, to a certain extent, transhumanist politics is the politics of metaphysics in a different way. It is a more naturalistic approach that James Giordano and I call “idealistic materialism”, which while not necessarily incorrect in its naturalistic orientation, in its more assertive stances, tends to ignore realistic considerations of the limitations of technology, and the vulnerability of humanity to avant-gardistic ideas. We’ve called for a more reasoned approach that seeks to be prepared for the momentum of technology, yet calls for responsible deliberation in its use.
In total, what is intended by the founding of these Transhumanist parties?
That the radical international technology community gets used to the “post-ideological” struggle for concrete political power. And that transhumanism will become an ever-present political factor in public reality – in “natural” ways originating from the politically and technologically most powerful force on earth, the USA. But this seems to be seen as only the starting point since transhumanism is, in its own understanding, a global “materialistic idealism.” It wants to reach out to the whole of mankind and “help” it take the “next step” to go beyond its current human form. Without that step humans allegedly might reach a dead end, as for example Nick Bostrom has described in his poetry (“On the Bank at the End”), published on his website.
What do those developments mean?
They will become challenges to traditional parties in the USA as well as in Europe in the medium term, without them drawing much attention yet, and probably also for non-democratic parties like the so-called Communist Party in China. The biggest challenge for traditional parties might indeed be the transnational political organization of technophiles that has already begun. It could be similar to the development of modern TV: from channels offering a broad spectrum of programming to specialized channels – from people’s parties to specialized parties, from ideology to technological applications. The message is: technology is going to solve everything, it is a universal mechanism and it is beyond all parties and ideologies. In 2014, this mindset started its quest to find a political identity.
The humanism of the 20th century did not have this kind of direct political organization.
No, not really. And in today’s era of “human enhancement” and “body engineering” it has even less, whereas transhumanism is increasingly influencing decision-makers and now openly asserting a claim to acquire political power. Do we now have to get used to relatively radical technophilic views in the public realm, received especially by the newer generations of internet and mobile phones? This is going to be one of the big issues in forthcoming years – not only in the USA, but in the West, and given the increasingly global trend in biotechnology, maybe internationally.
What is the biggest problem inherent in this trend?
As the second congress “Global Future 2045” described in its open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in March 2013, the current human form is supposed to be replaced by a “neo-mankind.” It is characteristic that transhumanists use the term “neo-humanism” synonymously with “transhumanism.” They clearly want to gain supremacy in the use of the “humanism” term. Humanists now have to respond to this in a constructive manner offering a different meaning of the word “neo-humanism.” We have barely begun to understand what defines a human being and wherein lies our humanity. So before we focus on transhumanism we should “complete” humanism to a certain extent. We are far from that – very much to the detriment of a balanced human self-concept.
What is your conclusion?
As contemporary humanism is in some ways too weak and partially indulges in outmoded ideas, transhumanism has the opportunity to thrive. Therefore, we need a new global humanist agenda – especially a policy-oriented development program for humanity and a constructive discussion on new technologies. That should not come only from the private sector, but also requires institutions, such as universities and research centers, to participate on behalf of their own interest. It is important to avoid dividing society into “warring” factions over ideology concerning the human being and being human. A sensible discourse is of mutual interest – for transhumanists and humanists alike.
Is this expectation realistic?
We will have to see if the foundation of political parties on both sides would rather lead to dialogue or to conflict. As I said, currently I see rather reasonable signals and am hopeful that there will be a constructive conversation. The fact that in Germany for example, large organizations like the Daimler Benz Foundation in Berlin are dedicating increasing space and funds to discuss the topic publicly is a positive signal.
Would you give an example of the differences between humanists and transhumanists in concrete matters?
One central problem is – and will increasingly be – inequality, which is one of the big issues of our time, not only in the economic and social spheres, but increasingly also in the technological domain, as Nick Bostrom stated in front of the U.S. President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical issues in August 2014. Interestingly, this is a point also made by the rather “humanistic” co-inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, outlined in December 2014 with regard to the access to new technologies.  Bostrom made a strong point in asserting that “there are already large inequalities in cognitive capacities — partly biological, partly because different people have different amounts of education, and so forth… One question that one can ask about a hypothetical new cognitive enhancement intervention is whether it would increase or decrease that. That might partly depend on the system we have to access [the enhancement].” So that inequality will be a core issue, is widely out of discussion. But the opinions are divided when it comes to how we should concretely react to inequality. Berners-Lee demands, as a reaction to the recent report of the World Wide Web Foundation, which is led by him and measures the contribution of the Internet to social, economic and political progress in 86 countries, that we acknowledge access to new technologies as a human right. Transhumanists would never come up with that idea– simply because they want to overcome the classic meaning of “being human” and thereby in essence “human rights” as they have been defined so far as well. Looking at classical philosophies, Shintoism is probably the one closest to transhumanism: objects, plants, animals and humans all have a soul and are equally “of value”, so in principle there are no differences between these things and a human being – and thus there are no special “human rights”.
So will the mechanization of our environment proceed due to the combination of artificial intelligence and the internet?
As it seems today, that is probable – with opportunities, contradictions and challenges ahead. For example, Microsoft advertises the development of Artificial Intelligence, despite the outspoken skepticism of its founder Bill Gates about the potentially upcoming superintelligence that could arise out of it: “The cloud that is helping cure cancer. Research that once took years now happens in hour. Using Microsoft (technology), scientists at Virginia Tech harness supercomputing power to analyse vast amounts of DNA sequencing information and help deliver lifesaving treatments. Now the next big breakthrough might not be found in a test tube, but in big data.” This is basically the same program as the one I have mentioned with regard to Google’s planned “moonshot” to modify aging and eventually “end death” by combining large amounts of data into something new. These types of ideas seem to be going ever more mainstream, and it will get to a point where politics will have to make difficult decisions.
You say there is evidence that a similar process is occurring at the same time on both sides of the Pacific?
Yes. The Chinese version of Google, Baidu, is also working on creating a “learning intelligence” through the use of its data archives and network connections involving tens of thousands of computers. For this venture, Stanford-researcher Andrew Ng founded in 2014 a new research institute for Baidu, located in California. At the same time, Facebook is striking out in a similar direction: In 2014, the company worked intensively on a so-called “digital assistant” for their users. This is a feature where artificial intelligence operates a self-learning mechanism in terms of identification tasks, which for example can (and according to Facebook should) prevent users from posting pictures of themselves when they are drunk. The central problem with all these efforts is to integrate the quickly developing artificial intelligence, and hence the possible “singularity,” with human consciousness and behaviour without asking many questions about the multi-dimensionality of the potential outcomes. A formal, even highly developed and “learning” operative logic, is, as far as we know today, in reality not the same as an ontological understanding, which is aware of its actions while acting with self-consciousness. Ironically, it is transhumanist futurist Ray Kurzweil who states that consciousness, especially human consciousness, is more than pure logic and learned combinations of algorithms – which is an interesting contribution to the problem.
Is overall seen mechanization of the human an inevitable development?
Not inevitable, but technology and humans are indeed getting closer on several levels with an exponential speed, now for the first time including ordinary, everyday reality. For example, there are items of clothing, such as jeans, which are already manufactured to block wireless signals in order to prevent identification and payment information from being stolen from mobile phones. Or the Apple-watch, which is probably only a very first step toward a permanent human connection to intelligent technology (or, as Lev Grossman describes it, “never to be offline again”). To be realistic, these are signs of mechanization of everyday life rather than of an anthropologization of technology. In 2014, technology surely set into motion important impulses and trends that will evolve quickly and affect vast numbers of people. That should make us think, especially with regard to the future of the social, and that in a democracy ultimately means the future of politics.
Transhumanists themselves keep emphasising that the transition into a transhumanist era also poses significant risks. What kind of possibilities do you see for misusing the new technologies and what does that mean for future security policies of the USA?
Nick Bostrom has indeed eloquently pointed out some of the dangers in his controversially discussed book “Superintelligence,” published in 2014: the already mentioned problem of control – i.e. the issue of how to build an ethical code into AI – will be a central question when defining and securing the future relation between artificial intelligence and the human being. However, what is missing in these precautionary measures to be considered are the internal contradictions of transhumanism, particularly, the problems associated with the relation between our current physical form and human consciousness.
Transhumanists usually claim: “There is no ‘I’”, thereby suggesting that human self-consciousness is in principle nothing special compared to an (upcoming) intelligent machine, and that the human self thus can’t have a special status as compared with technology. Therefore this human self can be “modified” more or less at random. But who says that – that sentence: “There is no ‘I’”? Strictly logically speaking, there already has to be an “I” present and enacted here and now to formulate and express that sentence at all. When it needs an “I” to say: “There is no ‘I’”, the sentence logically countermands itself while it is uttered. What the “I” and the “self” are in contradiction to this statement must still be defined by an “I” or “self”, and every notion of “superintelligence” still depends on an “I” that is coining that notion as an act of self-consciousness here and now. These are blind spots in transhumanism that will have to be considered by politics, the more the technological options advance and the human being is being merged with technology.
Recently even Apple-Co-Founder Steve Wozniak has joined those who are alarmed by the overall development and has spoken out about the dangers – with dramatic words.
Yes. Wozniak went so far as to forecast that superintelligence will rule the human species, making us a sort of slaves of machines – and he didn’t offer much of an alternative to that scenario, but rather depicted it as sort of inevitable. Personally I must say that I am rather skeptical about such prophecies of doom, to which paradoxically some of the very fathers of contemporary technology and its development like Wozniak or, in a similarly resignative way, Sun Microsystem’s Bill Joy, one of the inventors of the microchip and thus forefathers of everything that came after, seem to transform. I instead believe we should be in favor of technology, but also be very careful about the new anthropological and ethical implications it generates. That may sound simple, but it implies a new awareness of complexity whose mastery will be a huge challenge with insecure outcomes.
Do you believe the founding of the “Transhumanist Party” is a clever step?
The founding of the “Transhumanist Party” is at least a clever step for the transhumanists. Although some in the USA believe that the transformation into a political party may be counterproductive in the end, because as long as the transhumanist influence was not obvious and directly political, there was hardly any resistance. Now that they stand for elections, resistance may grow. It’s hard to imagine that such a program could gain a majority at the polls at the moment, as it is too radical for most citizens. But it will induce a critical debate. In the long term it will have some attractiveness. I estimate the party’s potential to be up to 15-20% of the popular vote.
What do you see as the concrete task for political analysis and ethics in this debate? What possibilities are there to deal with the outcomes of technological and scientific progress?
The only possibilities, as I see it, to influence the development – apart from a more contemporary self-organisation of humanism and the development of alternative programs on the future of the human body, which should indeed seek dialogue with transhumanists – are first, not to confine the development only to its negative aspects, but ponder the different aspects carefully; and second, not to look away. On the contrary, we should pay as much attention to the present “deeply ambiguous” tendencies as possible and do everything to intensify the public discourse on the topic. In my opinion, the topic is still underexposed especially in Europe. Most people know hardly anything about what is going on, because the discussion is still too rarely present in the media. That should change as soon as possible, so that the debate gains maturity.
About the authors
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 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 is author of books about global strategic issues, co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers on the ethics of Neurowarfare (February 2013 and April 2014) and of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker’s Report to the Club of Rome 2003 titled “Limits to Privatization.“ Contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 political writer based in Berlin, Germany.
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 Ibid. Cf. many other examples at http://www.extremetech.com/tag/bci.
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