For much of existence, Homo sapiens have labored to simply survive. Now, centuries after technological and biomedical breakthroughs, humans can edit the human genome, print 3D body organs, and walk with the support of an exoskeleton. Bioethicists today face new quandaries: Where should we draw the line on what makes us human? How long should humans live? If a technology is useful for improving human biology, should it be used? But a transhumanist would argue that these are the wrong questions to ask.
Transhumanists believe humans are not the final stop in an evolution toward higher-intelligence species. One day a brand-new species — something beyond human — will inhabit Earth (and possibly beyond) after technology has taken over most or all of the body's biological processes. Those bioethical questions miss the point because this next species is part of a natural progression, according to thought leaders in the movement.
“It's inevitable for everyone," says Natasha Vita-More, chair of Humanity+, a global nonprofit advocacy group, and partner of Max More, a philosopher and futurist who was one of the early definers to the movement in the 1990s. Vita-More likes to think of transhumanism as a blueprint for how to handle this inevitable future. “The benefit of living longer is based on one's purpose in life," she says. “A core value [of transhumanism] is an understanding of the preciousness of life and a purposefulness." A simple way to summarize the movement: the aging process isn't a given. Vita-More, a two-time cancer survivor, has designed a prototype of a posthuman — the species after humans. It's a full-body prosthetic called “Primo Posthuman." In her explanation of the model, she posits that while humans are stuck with given genes, the posthuman will have replaceable genes. While humans body parts wear out, posthumans will get upgrades. “Posthuman is the non-biological offspring of the human," she explains.
Another term for the posthuman species could be “CoBe," or intelligent cosmic being, says Ted Chu, a chief economist at the World Bank and author of the book Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential. Chu pinpoints the origins of transhumanism ideals to around 500 BCE, when Buddhism was established, and humans transitioned from worshipping personal gods to addressing a single cosmic being. “Transhumanism is the moment in history when human aspirations to the highest spirituality become a reality through modern technology," Chu says, adding that this event should not be confused with the singularity, another term that appears frequently in futurist discussions. The singularity is generally defined as the arrival of widespread artificial intelligence and the moment when computers become smarter than humans. (A well-known proponent of this idea is Google engineering director and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who predicts that 2029 will be the year computers are able to independently understand and learn from humans.)
The future described by transhumanists does not seem far-fetched. For instance, next year a Swiss university will host the world's first sports championship for athletes who rely on robotic limbs or who use brain-computer interfaces to move their muscles. Scientists at MIT have created special fibers that can be implanted inside the brain to deliver drugs, among other things, without damaging delicate neural tissue. The victory of IBM's computer, Watson, on Jeopardy is ancient history. Machine learning and artificial intelligence research continues apace.
“With each new technology we adopt, we change our behaviors and introduce new possibilities," says San Francisco–based entrepreneur Jason Sosa, who founded (and recently sold) an emotion recognition and facial detection software company. He adds that the coming explosion of augmented reality (AR) devices, which overlay computer-generated images onto physical, real-world objects, will be used in the same way that smartphones are today. When that happens, “as Reality 2.0 takes hold in the minds of a new generation, there will be no looking back," Sosa says.
Transhumanism may emerge further from its obscure philosophical roots to buzzword status as more public figures identify with the concept. Last year, New York magazine published an in-depth profile on Martine Rothblatt, who is CEO of United Therapeutics Corp., and the former founder of Sirius Satellite Radio. Rothblatt, who describes herself as a transhumanist, says she wants to contribute to a future where humans can be free from the annoying limits of human biology. Researchers at her pharmaceutical company are trying to create 3D printed organs that can be seeded with a patient's cells, thus eliminating the need for donor transplants altogether.
There's even a 2016 U.S. presidential candidate running for the so-called Transhumanist Party. Zoltan Istvan, a former endurance athlete, shares little — if any — similarities with his Republican and Democrat counterparts. The No. 1 party goal listed on his party's website is to “implement a Transhumanist Bill of Rights mandating government support of longer lifespans via science and technology."
Even as transhumanism enjoys an uptick in publicity and awareness, it is not without its critics. One of the more outspoken and well-known adversaries of the movement is Francis Fukuyama, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. His 2009 article in Foreign Policy magazine is often cited in articles that question the validity and even the necessity of transhumanism. “The first victim of transhumanism might be equality," he writes. But Chu suggests that front-runner biotechnology could quickly become available across all socioeconomic groups as the price of new treatments and devices drops quickly, just as it did with other revolutionary gadgets, like mobile phones and personal computers. Spiritual aspects of transhumanism aside, it can appear to be a theory unfairly geared toward the rich who can afford the latest technology and who, in turn, would seem to have the largest influence in shaping a posthuman life. At the same time, transhumanism as a movement could itself be experiencing growing pains. Its thought leaders may, in the near future, bring more clarity on how a transition from human to transhuman could occur.
For now, Chu says, the movement has special implications in Europe. “The problem with Europe is that it is losing religion," Chu says. “It has become a more secular society." By this he does not mean a decline in church attendance or a lack of belief in an afterlife. Rather, increased secularism in the region could lead to a devaluation of humanity itself, Chu says, by assuming that the highest goal of humans is to coexist peacefully with other species on Earth. “But no other species on Earth asks what is the meaning of life," Chu explains. The simple act of asking this question is what both religion and philosophy are all about, he says. “We need to ask: Does humankind have a goal?" Without a spiritual belief that humans today are part of a greater goal, then the stagnant global economy, climate change threats, and overpopulation could seem to spell the end of the human species — not the beginning of another.