Monday, August 17, 2015

are humans obsolete?


rpi |  Predictions that humanity will soon yield to successor species are especially popular among those who spend a good amount of time in corporate and university research laboratories where movement on the cutting edge is the key to success. While most scientists and technologists at work in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, man/machine symbiosis, and similar fields are content with modest descriptions of their work, each of these fields has recently spawned self-proclaimed futurist visionaries touting far more exotic accounts of what is at stake-vast, world-altering changes that loom just ahead. Colorful enough to be attractive to the mass media, champions of post-humanism have emerged as leading publicists for their scientific fields, appearing on best seller lists, as well as television and radio talk shows, to herald an era of astonishing transformations. 

While the claims of post-humanist futurism are always pitched as unprecedented, sensational forecasts, the rhetorical form of such messages has assumed a highly predictable pattern. The writer enthusiastically proclaims that the growth of knowledge in a cutting-edge research field is proceeding at a dizzying pace. He/she presents a barrage of colorful illustrations that highlight recent breakthroughs, hinting at even more impressive ones in the works. Although news from the laboratory may seem scattered and difficult to fathom, there are, the writer explains, discernible long-term trends emerging. The trajectory of development points to revolutionary outcomes, foremost of which will be substantial modifications of human beings as we know them, culminating in the fabrication of one or more new creatures superior to humans in important respects. The proponent insists that developments depicted are inevitable, foreshadowed in close connections between technology and human biology that have already made us "hybrid" or "composite" beings; any thought of returning to an original or "natural" condition is, therefore, simply unrealistic, for the crucial boundaries have already been crossed. Those who try to resist these earth-shaking developments are simply out of touch or, worse, benighted Luddites who resist technological change of any sort. Nevertheless, the post-humanist assures us, there is still need for ethical reflection upon the events unfolding. For although these transformations will necessarily occur, we should think carefully about what it all means and how we can gracefully adapt to these changes in the years to come. 

Typical of this way of arguing is Gregory Stock's Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines Into a Global Superorganism. With a PhD in biophysics from Johns Hopkins and an MBA from Harvard, Stock is prepared to map both scientific and commercial possibilities at stake in re-engineering the species: 

Both society and the natural environment have previously undergone tumultuous changes, but the essence of being human has remained the same. Metaman, however, is on the verge of significantly altering human form and capacity….

As the nature of human beings begins to change, so too will concepts of what it means to be human. One day humans will be composite beings: part biological, part mechanical, part electronic….
By applying biological techniques to embryos and then to the reproductive process itself, Metaman will take control of human evolution….

No one can know what humans will become, but whether it is a matter of fifty years or five hundred years, humans will eventually undergo radical biological change.