Ideals Have Taken Us Here
Could the yearning to improve the quality and efficiency of our daily human experience also bring us to abandon much of what we consider “human”?
Before making such a bold proposition, let us look at modern “first world” society in comparison to life in Europe in the year 1200. In many respects, we of the 21st century could be considered “superhuman,” or indeed “inhuman” from a dark ages perspective. We fly in the air, and we communicate across the planet and through the ether. We have touched foot on the moon itself. We have cured many of the world’s worst diseases, predicted earth’s weather patterns, and harnessed the sun to power many of our machines.
Under our skin we have pacemakers, artificial hips, and cochlear implants – and the parts of some human hearts have been replaced with plastic. In society today, these additions are not occasional extraneous additions to our “human” form, but supporters and aides, prolongers and enhancers of what “human” life is.
A forward, progressive yearning has taken us to the destination we call “now.” Our own dreams and ideals have pulled us beyond our past conditions to a state which thinkers and doers now deem to be better, happier, more efficient, more complete.
- “I will build a motorcar for the multitude” said Henry.
- Thomas exclaimed: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
- Alexander yearned to build “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically.”
- “If birds can glide in the air… then, why can’t I?” asked Orville.
I’m sure you easily provided the last names of these individuals, because all of our lives have been touched by these very thoughts, and our way of life is indeed molded by them. Because they dreamed beyond what was presently possible – and turned ideas into realities – the names of Ford, Edison, Bell, and Wright will not soon be forgotten.
Wonder and curiosity drive our visions for what a different, better future might be. Cars have replaced horses, audio recording allows for an infinite number of repeat performances, vaccines prevent epidemics, cell phones connect the most distant people, and a human fetus can be examined and treated through all stages in the womb.
My American Oxford dictionary defines “ideal” as:
“(n) a standard of perfection; a principle to be aimed at,” and “something existing only as an idea.” Ideals help to take our thoughts from “what is” to what “could be.”
Ideals are subjective, and might seem possible (IE: the ideal form of transportation might imply a vehicle which burns no fossil fuel), or impossible (IE: “uploading” human consciousness into another computational substrate to indefinitely store our mind and experience). These ideas of something “better” precede all vision – and action – for the development of cultures and technologies.
The ideal visions in our past have driven us to transcend the challenges of that past – from health to communication to transportation and beyond. No boot could have been planted on the moon’s grey surface, no organ transplanted from one human to another, unless someone had thought about it first, and posed the far-out question, “what if?” Centuries of these “what ifs,” corresponding visions of possibility, and technological developments have taken us from hunters and gatherers to hackers and jet-setters.
Compare our lives to our medieval ancestors, and we have become either monsters or gods.
Relative Technologies and Relative Standards
Today, however, most of us don’t feel like monsters or gods. We were “born into” many technologies in use today, or our world evolved with their development – They are our norms, but we can’t see how outlandish our norms are when compared to those of our ancestors. “God” and “monster” only appear through a particular perspective, like a rainbow which is invisible unless the sun is behind the observer.
It is the contrast between a medieval perspective and the perspective of today that makes the latter stand out as “god-like” or “inhuman.”
“There is nothing that exists so great or marvelous that over time mankind does not admire it less and less.” ― Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Gradual change that produces incremental differences does not incite the same shock. When confronted with large changes in our current technology, we resist the difference so that we are like the frog, who – when held above boiling water – will squirm to escape, resisting the drastic change in temperature. Placed in a pot at room temperature, however, the frog will not notice gradual changes of heat, and so will sit still – adjusting his body temperature to the water around him as it rises – even to the extent of being boiled alive.
With each generation, a new set-point of “normal” is established. To us, as for our ancestors, there seems to be a reasonable limit, a ceiling to technology’s development. Some thinkers – however – are capable of extending technology and culture into future applications that the previous generations were fearful of, ignorant about, or deemed blasphemous. They prove the past generation’s “ceilings” of development to be an illusion.
Stem cell research – for example – was initially seen as unacceptable by a huge swath of the American population, and today has a much greater general acceptance. Each generation alters the level of “acceptability” of a technology, a cultural trend, or a way of doing or being. In 1950, the “morning-after pill” would have been quite a controversial pharmaceutical technology – and today it is not. Today, it might be said that human cloning occupies the “no man’s land” for acceptable technologies, and some of us likely see the imaginary ceiling once again. Yet, cultural and technical forces proceed. It is in the nature of an “ideal” to exist beyond present conditions and to build off of or entirely neglect past notions.
Visiting Mars – never mind colonizing it – might have been a wholly absurd notion in the 1950s as well, and today companies are planning to send the first humans to Mars within a decade. Uploading human minds into computers might not have even been imagined by previous generations, though many researchers posit that 30 to 40 years may be all it takes to house consciousness inside a machine.
With our perspective grounded firmly in the present, it’s difficult for us to think of just how many of those “impossible” circumstances we as a society have caught up to – and blown past – in just the past few decades. In 1950, major innovations included Dr. Jonas Salk’s successful polio vaccine and the telephone answering machine by Bell Laboratories. From a 1950‘s perspective, how many of the now-mundane achievements of humanity would have been deemed absurd, literally impossible, or obviously not morally permissible? From surrogate mothers for hire to internet pornography to the Mars rover, a bygone era’s notions of “impossible” and “blasphemous” are more than occasionally noticeable.
We’re literally swimming in them. And like fish, we don’t notice the water is even there.
Yet, our automatic assumption is that OUR future will somehow not be as groundbreaking, and our standards of “blasphemous” or “impossible” will stick firm. We might think to ourselves:
“Maybe prosthetic limbs will become more and more the norm, but surely there will never be entirely prosthetic parts of the human brain.”
“Maybe we will improve the artificial intelligence on our cell phone to GPS systems, but surely nobody would allow for an artificial intelligence to gain sentience and take any sort of leadership or governmental role above humans… machines will always be only aides to man.”
“Maybe deep brain stimulation will be used to help the truly clinically depressed, but surely an electrical alteration of our emotional states would never become popular as an enhancement for ‘normal’ people who want to just feel happier.”
How much easier it is to chuckle at the limited notions of past generations than to begin to imagine just how many of our own beliefs will be laughable in the coming decades. In the present, all of our notions seem safe and rational, but we have no better idea than our ancestors as to which ideas will remain useful and which would go the way of sun-god worship and phrenology.
We Think We’re So Wise
Let’s say I told you about a science fiction film in which huge portions of society decided to permanently “plug in” their minds to a virtual reality device as opposed to continuing to exist as humans in a physical reality. You might deem the idea novel or ridiculous – as it implies cultural and technological shifts that we haven’t come close to seeing yet.
You could write that possibility off rather quickly, it would seem, as there’s no reasonable way that such a shift would occur in your lifetime, or maybe even that of your grandchildren.
Hindsight would show that our grandparents’ assumptions were clearly misguided, naive, or uninformed. But given our level of technological development, we clearly have better perspectives for making informed judgments about what technologies will or will not come into existence.
How often have we uttered such words of certainty about technologies that we now take entirely for granted?
How many respected thinkers and perfectly reasonable people have had egg on their faces for boldly assuming “certainty” in setting limits to human innovation?
- Guglielmo Marconi was thought to be insane when he suggested to the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs that wireless communication might be possible.
- The four-minute mile was deemed impossible even by some scientists of the 1940’s and 1950’s until Roger Bannister broke the record in 1954.
- In 1936, the New York Times read: “A rocket will never be able to leave earth’s atmosphere.”
- In 1895, Lord Kelvin, head of the Royal Society, was quoted as saying “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
- The associates and engineers of Ford Motor Company told Henry Ford that the V-8 engine would be literally impossible to construct in one engine block.
- Sir John Eric Ericksen, dubbed ‘Surgeon-Extraordinary’ to Britain’s Queen Victoria bluntly stated in 1873 that “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”
I said on the TEDx stage in 2015 that now is the worse time in history to hide behind the rock of “It hasn’t happened yet, so it never will.”
So, what are we certain about?
Are our hunches so much better than those of our grandparents?
Why do we habitually block off these mental pathways for exploring radically different futures?
Unfortunately, we are victims of the same mental heuristic, the same doubting tendency that may leave us unprepared to handle the practical and ethical concerns posed by the next wave of revolutionary technologies – which we cannot possibly predict in full.
Culture Will Protect Us – Until it Doesn’t
The speed of technological advancement, though, is not the only factor that will determine these potentially radical futures. Culture, policy, and politics also play a part. Some might argue that even though the Wright brothers did fly, it would not have amounted to any kind of change in our day-to-day lives if the government hadn’t allowed for commercial or personal flight, or if society hadn’t at least in some way seen flight as useful and acceptable. Politics and culture may be the forces that impede the “slippery slope” technologies that seem most likely to disrupt our notions of present-day human life.
It may very well be that society will simply not permit replacement brain parts in human beings – even to cure disease – because of the perceived risks of this kind of technology. Even with all the computer intelligence in the world of 2050, many governments may completely prevent artificial intelligence from having a say in matters of politics or leadership (whether these governments will fare better or worse than their AI-augmented rivals or neighbors is yet to be known).
It may very well be that society will pass laws against the use of technologies that allow us to modulate our own emotions with the push of buttons, or against a kind of immersive virtual reality that rivals actual experience.
Some technology, it seems, will inevitably be halted or slowed by society’s standards and norms, and certainly by policy and law – as we’ve seen with cloning and stem cell research. However, we should not allow ourselves to make the same insidious mistake of “certainty” that thinkers and societies have made previously with technological progress – and end up with the same kind of egg on our faces.
We can admit it is nearly inevitable that mind-expanding cerebral implants or brain-machine interfaces – for instance – will be forced to comply to some kind of regulation from government agencies, and it seems that there are human safety concerns that would warrant this scrutiny. Cultural forces will dictate that some technologies or applications will inevitably be deemed by some as “unacceptable”, such as chemical weapons, or human cloning.
Some technologies and applications, however, will be “unacceptable” in the same way that interracial dating, stem cell research, deep brain stimulation and sex-change operations might have been seen as “unacceptable.”
Imagine just how unacceptable a sex-change operation would have been considered in Christian medieval Europe, never mind the early 1950’s, when America saw it’s first sex-change with Christine Jorgensen. Though it is difficult to imagine from our present vantage point, ever so many of our notions of “acceptable” will be trampled over by time, necessity, and the ideals of new generations. For instance:
- When programmatically generated “characters” in virtual reality are indistinguishable from real people – and can be tailored entirely to our own needs, preferences, and desires – some people will choose to fulfill their needs in an entirely virtual way.
- When blissful experience can be sustained (think about the peak of human happiness, and multiply it by 400) for decades in a row with a combination of drugs and neural interfaces (i.e. wireheading), some people will abandon familiars, careers, and children to hook into this irresistible experience.
- When consciousness is better understood, and we can replicate consciousness in machines, some people may come to value superintelligent and superconscious machines more than individual human lives, even if the machines themselves cannot articulate this argument.
As many examples of previously “impossible” cultural shifts exist around us as do “impossible” technical shifts. Prosthetic limbs and interracial couples are in all ways “acceptable” in much of the modern world. Similarly, even sex-change operations are today relatively commonplace and carry a minute fraction of the moral stigma that once accompanied the procedure. A study by the University of Michigan breaks down some interesting numbers on the prevalence of sex-change surgery in the US.
In addition, censure or aversion to a technology in one nation does not mean that the same development will fall flat altogether. Not only do “times change” (again, think sex-change operations in the USA), but what is not permitted within our culture may easily and swiftly be adopted elsewhere – and so flourish there instead of here.
How many seemingly offensive and unbelievable acts are carried out as common cultural practices all over the world?
From female genital mutilation to stoning, to coming-of-age ceremonies, the smorgasbord of the world’s traditions shows a massive and wide range of “acceptabilities” outside of those that our lives are accustomed to. This doesn’t just translate to cultural oddities like stoning – we also see Scotland permitting cloning, and stem-cell research flourishing in Korea.
- If it were possible to “upload” new information – or even new senses – into our brains – wouldn’t it be reasonable that some nations would adopt this technology rather quickly?
- If augmenting human memory with implants becomes illegal in the United States, it may be legal in Denmark, or in China, or in Japan. Would we permit ourselves to be left behind?
- Would an “arms race” of human enhancement begin as soon as it became clear that military and economic advantages will be accrued by the countries who pursue them? (I posed the three questions above in my first TEDx presentation titled “Tinkering with Consciousness.”)
Our customs and standards are remarkably pliable, and always have been.
“There are peoples, where, his wife and children excepted, no one speaks to the king but through a tube. In one and the same nation, the virgins discover those parts that modesty should persuade them to hide, and the married women carefully cover and conceal them. To which, this custom, in another place, has some relation, where chastity, but in marriage, is of no esteem, for unmarried women may prostitute themselves to as many as they please, and being got with child, may lawfully take physic, in the sight of every one, to destroy their fruit…
…Moreover, has not custom made a republic of women separately by themselves? has it not put arms into their hands, and made them raise armies and fight battles? And does she not, by her own precept, instruct the most ignorant vulgar, and make them perfect in things which all the philosophy in the world could never beat into the heads of the wisest men? For we know entire nations, where death was not only despised, but entertained with the greatest triumph; where children of seven years old suffered themselves to be whipped to death, without changing countenance; where riches were in such contempt, that the meanest citizen would not have deigned to stoop to take up a purse of crowns.” – Montaigne, Of Custom
Our Responsibility is Vigilance
Not only does it seem as though our minds aren’t inclined to foresee groundbreaking change, but our “certainties” also serve to help us sleep at night.
The universe seems a lot less daunting when we believe that these most disturbing alterations to our present norms are just science fiction. Whether it is a natural disposition to think the future will be like the present (as Peter Diamandis and others happen to believe), or a head-in-the-sand perspective to preserve our sense of comfort, it would seem more responsible to instead seek a more truthful perspective from which to handle our future head-on. It is a future that is today being guided and facilitated by our own impetus toward the ideal, by the same visionary force and primal desires that brought our human race to where it stands today.
It was human questing for the ideal that took man from horse and carriage to motorcars; that brought us cellular phones, email, heart transplants, freedom of religion, freedom in choosing a mate, and so many other societal and technological shifts.
Where will the ideal take us next?
When technologies become available to literally alter human sentience, or create beyond-human general intelligence from silicon, will we be prepared for the consequences?
Our desire for the ideal is bringing us now towards arguably better – and almost certainly more efficient – modes of… everything. Faster travel, instant communication, fixing memory problems, treating depression, curing the world’s deadly diseases and even staving off death altogether. As a result, we see the Hyperloop, Google Glass, replacement brain parts, medication to safely influence emotion, and life extension research.
Each of these ideas is the airplane, motorcar, or cotton gin of it’s own era. Which will become realities, how they manifest in our societies, and when… is all for time to tell – and our innovators and policymakers to determine. The difference between motorcars and replacement brain parts, or a moon landing and a human-level artificial intelligence, may simply be the era in which we live, and our level of technological development. It may well be that “automobiles” were more monstrous to generations past than brain prosthetics will be for us in five years.
It may well be that a moon landing was a more god-like feat than our eventual creation of post-human intelligence.
There is no certainty whatsoever about which technologies will develop first, or how – but there should be certainty about our responsibility to steward them into reality in a careful way towards what we believe to be an aggregately beneficial future. I argue that there is no more important task than exactly this stewardship, and so I have dedicated my life to fostering the global conversation that might make this kind of human solidarity and future-building possible (read: The Cause).
A Pliable Definition of “Human”
“Monstrous” and “inhuman” transitions have not prevented the ideal from taking tangible form in the past, and we should assume no safety from similar developments now. When Benjamin Walt went under the knife to treat severe depression by having electrodes implanted inside his skull – the ideal was to feel better. The fact that deep brain stimulation is an “experimental” procedure apparently paled in comparison to the potential benefits of a better conscious experience.
When Cathy Hutchinson had a stroke and was left mentally sharp but trapped in a body incapable of movement or speech, she aimed to do whatever it took to interact with her world and loved ones again. She opted to have a device implanted in her motor cortex to allow her to drive a wheelchair, control a computer mouse on a screen, and even bring a cup to her mouth to drink with a robotic arm – all using the power of her thoughts alone.*
Benjamin and Cathy are human beings with machines interacting with their brains, enhancing and/or recovering their mental and physical capacities. These treatments began as “what ifs,” too – dreams that some would have supposed might never happen. Who could say that we aren’t already inhuman, monstrous, or god-like compared to our ancestors?
Our sense of the ideal drives action and creates the future from our imagination. Different versions of the “ideal” may or may not place the highest value on a conception of “human.”
If Benjamin believed that a happier day-to-day life was more important than preserving a body unencumbered by machine parts, then making the choice for brain stimulation was an obvious one. I’m sure Cathy had some notion of “human” that clashed with the image of a hole drilled in her skull and a computer chip inserted into her brain tissue with dozens of tiny metal spikes. However, escaping her incapable body to interact with her environment was a priority that superseded the desire to stay “human” or “regular.”
It’s easy to see how either Benjamin or Cathy could argue that the pursuit of a better and more capable life was the most “human” thing that they could do – and who could argue with them?
This brings us to a potentially troubling perspective on our condition – a perspective which also happens to be a requirement for our honest, vigilant, and open-minded transition to a future:
“Human,” as a notion, is not concrete, and is as pliable an idea as any other. It is an ephemeral idea, an un-graspable concept that has already altered over centuries, and may be completely re-invented with the advent of tomorrow’s technology and ideas.
Our perceptions of communication, of travel, of speed, of “normal” have all been drastically altered by the passage of time and procession of technological and cultural changes. There is no safety – or indeed sanctity – in a present notion of “human,” and so there is no telling what the future might permit.
The only “certainty” to find may be in the fact the “human” idea is bound to the same fate of alteration as all others, and that we will all be a part of that transition. As it is, few people have accused Benjamin or Cathy of being “inhuman”… and what will happen when their procedures are commonplace? When will this same acceptance transfer to “humans” with wires or chips affecting their brain, behavior, or personality? The lines continue to show themselves to be grey, the slopes slippery, the notion of “human,” pliable.
Even if “human” were to imply the un-enhanced, biological human body, it seems as though we have more than ample evidence to suggest that – even if valued – this concept does not necessarily rank at the top of our notions of the ideal, and we may move beyond it altogether. When I say that “Human ideals will tear us from humanity,” I am using “humanity” to represent the notion of “human” that we hold today. Our momentum and technologies are taking us not just to fancier, smaller, more capable gadgets… we are moving to an entirely new human condition within our lifetime. It is a circumstance where our minds and bodies will themselves be altered – where we don’t just break from humanity with regard to our “tools,” but with regards to ourselves.
Humans are Stewards of Consciousness and Intelligence Itself
The urgency of our present condition comes not only from the gravity of the situation on the whole – but from the speed of its approach. Our future will not just come “faster” than that of the middle ages… it will hit harder. We need to be taking the steps now to understand the ramifications and implications of the technologies that will shape humanity, and guide this transition with caution and with collaboration. More likely than a malicious use of tomorrow’s technology, is the risk of our race being ill-prepared for just how drastic the shift will be. We may be unready to steer with the aide of our technological and ethical compasses as we venture to the important “ports” of the future.
Our unfortunate tendency is to ignore or brush off notions which prove too different from our present condition – but a blind eye turned to the real possibilities of these major trends and trajectories is a blind eye turned to the human future. We have our grandparents’ tendency to do this. Kodak was put out of business by its underestimating digital photography. Thalidomide was distributed to pregnant women without anyone’s calculating it’s horrific impact on an unborn fetus.
What needs to be considered when 3-D printers can produce everything from guns to human organs?
What would we need to plan for in considering memory or intelligence augmentations to our very brains?
Our own technological explosion will not necessarily lead to being boiled alive like the frog, unless we, too, lack an appropriate understanding–and therefore an appropriate response to our conditions and also ignore the constant, incremental changes that shift our predicament. The only thing worse than a frog boiled alive out of poor perception is an ostrich with its head in the sand, willful ignoring real concern – or acting on cowardice. Ignoring what seems too “far out” now would mean being horribly ill-prepared for a transition that requires all the attention and preparation we can muster as a united race.
Our future is the future of our ideals.
It is these very notions of the ideal–what to improve and create to achieve what is best–that will pull us farther and farther from not only our human condition (as did automobiles and electricity) but from what is “human” in the first place. I am not foretelling the “crash” of our proverbial ship in the future, but merely calling us to unite in this cause, gripping the wheel with both hands and making sure we’re looking forward.
This is not a task merely for scientists, for philosophers, for businessmen, or for governments, but for all of society. Though it doesn’t require that we hold the same beliefs, or use the same methods, it does require that we share the same intention and purpose. The time to unite our efforts is now – when we hold the responsibility not just as providers for our next generation, but as stewards of consciousness and intelligence itself. This collaboration, then, is not just geared towards discovering technologies but discovering the best ways to introduce and implement them as we swing forward into a transformative new era.
Will we have no say in the direction of our race’s future?
Will we ignore any deviance from our own perceived norms and miss out on guiding the course of the greatest changes that have ever tested humankind?
It seems clear that through the whole of nature, there has been a kind of bumbling forward – a series of accidents leading to a series of new combinations – leading to new forms and new situations:
“No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use. There could be no such thing as sight before the eyes were formed. No speech before the tongue was made, but tongues began long before speech were uttered…
…The limbs, the sense, came first, their usage afterwards. Never think they could have been created for the sake of being used.” – Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
It is possible that despite our efforts to bring order (or hedge risks) in this constant flux, we are essentially powerless in influencing it one way or another. It may all be in vain.
I hope not.
How can we prepare now for further shifts away from what we “know” to be “human” – and how can we collaborate to ensure the safest and best transition forward?
How can we aim to direct the grand trajectory of intelligence in the most aggregately beneficial (“good”) way – and in a way that avoids armageddon and catastrophe?
How do we define “catastrophe” from a far enough time horizon – and how will evolve our idea of “the good” itself?
Only with open eyes, and only with resources dedicated to understanding the massive risks and untold opportunities of altering our condition – a process that requires our united vigilance and best intentions now.
This will almost certainly involve an international steering and transparency committee around neurotech and AI (which may well be impossible and lead to massive international conflict) – but that’s an essay for another day.
This article was last updated July 17, 2019. Contextually relevant links (TEDx talk, others) were added, some grammar and spelling edited.
Image credit: Popular Mechanics
* When this article was originally written in February of 2014, there was no such thing as Neuralink or Kernel – and essentially all of the researchers in neural interfaces were working on ameliorating conditions like Alzheimer’s, not on enhancing capability or wellbeing.