Nick Bostrom is Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute and of the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology within the Oxford Martin School, UK. He has been listed in the FP 100 Global Thinkers list, the Foreign Policy Magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 minds.
David Pearce is a British utilitarian philosopher. In 1998, he co-founded the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) with Nick Bostrom. The association, which later changed its name to Humanity+, advocates transhumanism –an ideology and movement which has emerged to support the recognition and protection of the right of citizens either to maintain or modify their own minds and bodies so as to guarantee them the freedom of choice and informed consent of using human enhancement technologies.
Andrés Lomeña: Transhumanism, or human enhancement, suggests the use of new technologies to improve mental and physical abilities, discarding some aspects as stupidity, suffering and so forth. You have been described as technoutopian by critics who write on “Future hypes”. In my opinion, there is something pretty much worse than optimism: radical technopessimism, managed by Paul Virilio, the recently deceased Baudrillard and other thinkers. Why is there such a strong strain between the optimistic and pessimistic overview?
Nick Bostrom: I can’t recall any instance of me personally being labeled “technoutopian,” although certainly it’s a term that has been applied to transhumanism by some critics. In fact, there is some justice in this criticism. Transhumanism is a very diverse movement, and some individuals who call themselves transhumanists might fairly be called “technoutopian” in the sense of “uncritically accepting of the view that technology will inevitably soon solve all big problems.”
I don’t know whether technopessimism is worse or better than technoutopianism. It seems to me that we should try to overcome biases in either direction–biases towards positive as well as biases towards negative outcomes–and assign probabilities based on evidence and honest judgment rather than on the basis of ideological or temperamental prejudice.
David Pearce: Is our quality of life in technologically advanced societies better than life for our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the African savannah? The answer might seem, “Obviously, yes.” Technopessimists might reply that evidence suggesting we’re on average any happier is thin–and then go on to extrapolate accordingly. Such extrapolation is premature. We’re on the eve of a profound transformation of human nature itself. In theory, we can even recalibrate the hedonic treadmill and become constitutionally happier –relegat-ing pessimism to history. Technopessimism can sometimes be useful when it encourages deeper thought on unanticipated consequences of new technologies, worst-case scenario planning and better riskreward analysis. But if humans were all depressive realists, then we’d still be living in caves. Transhumanists believe that we can overcome our physical, intellectual, emotional (and moral?) limitations as human beings via the responsible use of technology. For what it’s worth, I’m a pessimist by temperament. But I (tentatively) believe that infotech and biotechnology will deliver billions of years of invincible well-being far richer than anything feasible today.
A.L.: There is much fear and even more ignorance. Wikipedia classifies them as follows: infeasibility, playing God argument, Fountain of Youth argument, Brave New World argument, Frankenstein argument or Terminator argument (based on Our Final Hour by Martin Rees). Which of these issues are sound (understandable) fears and which are not? One common criticism uses to be the eschatological vision of transhumanism (like Marxism and Christianity, for instance). In short, how can we struggle against these dystopian points of view?
N.B.: On a case-by-case basis, as well as by trying to identify biases that could affect our judgments across a broad range of cases. Fear is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it’s directed at something that really is dangerous, and that it results in some constructive striving to reduce the danger. For example, it makes good sense to be concerned about pandemic disease, naturally occurring as well as the possibility of bioengineered superbugs. But to fear having the option of delaying disease and senility through some effective rejuvenation therapy is perverse. In fact, I don’t think there are many people who are actually afraid of that, although some might express opposition
for ideological reasons. For an illustration of how one might attempt to diagnose and
remove a bias affecting judgment across a range of enhancement issues, see a paper on status quo bias (http://www.nickbostrom.com/ ethics/statusquo.pdf), which I wrote together with Toby Ord.
D.P.: Hubris/Playing God? What could be more “godlike” than creating new life? Not all cultures historically have made the connection between having sex and reproduction; but we have no such excuse. On the one hand, we condemn writers of computer malware who release corrupt code. Yet we freely propagate our own corrupt code across the generations–notably a lethal genetic disease (aging) and a predisposition to anxiety disorders, depression and other nasty Darwinian states of mind. As reproductive medicine advances, what’s wrong with acting as responsible parents instead? Why not plan the long-term genetic health and happiness of future generations?
Contempt for the flesh/Fountain of Youth argument? What could show more contempt for the flesh than to champion Darwinian bodies which crumble and die? As genetic medicine matures, why not design blueprints for perpetually youthful bodies? Moreover, we will soon have the opportunity to explore richer forms of sensuality; to magnify the somato-sensory cortex; and to isolate the molecular signature of sexual desire and amplify its substrates on demand. Transcending the flesh might be an option; it’s not an obligation.
Brave New World? This argument is harder to dismiss outright. But biotechnology can potentially empower the individual citizen rather than the state. For example, enhancing mood tends to increase personal autonomy and active participation in society. Conversely, low mood is associated with subordination and social withdrawal.Huxley’s soma was wrongly touted as an “ideal pleasure drug.” Truly utopian pharmacology will surpass it.
Dehumanization / the Frankenstein argument? Yes, technology can dehumanize; and biotech can create monsters. Yet biotech can also create saints and angels. Put less poetically, we will shortly be able “humanize” ourselves. For we can biologically enhance our capacity for empathy – whether by functionally amplifying our mirror neurons, or by use of pro-social designer empathogens, or by genetically engineering sustained oxytocin-release to promote social trust. Will we do so? I don’t know.
The Terminator argument? Bioterrorism and “gray goo” are perhaps the most worrying scenarios. But within the next few decades, we will most likely have self-sustaining bases on the Moon and Mars. Even on the most apocalyptic scenarios, any existential risk to intelligent life will thereby be sharply diminished. From an ethical utilitarian perspective, it’s critical that human beings survive to become posthuman. For we are the only species capable of eradicating suffering in all sentient life. We are also the only species smart enough to spread intelligent bliss throughout the accessible universe.
A.L.: Probably, the most important problem is the shortage of information. Actually, we do not know too much about Transhumanism, excepting some of Fukuyama’s articles (initially optimistic and then pessimistic). We would like to ask you about the connections between transhumanism and other topics. For instance:
Transhumanism and religion: Do you consider yourself religious? Is there an atheist or agnostic transhumanism?
N.B.: I would call myself agnostic. Most transhumanists appear to be non-religious, but there are also Catholic transhumanists, Mormon transhumanists, Buddhist transhumanists, etc.
D.P.: I think it’s hard to reconcile transhumanism and revealed religion. If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer itourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bugridden genetic code and become god-like. “May all that have life be delivered from suffering,” said Gautama Buddha. It’s a wonderful sentiment. Sadly, only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the living world. Compassion alone is not enough.
A.L.: Transhumanism and eugenics: Are all transhumanists eugenicist? Do you have a political program with regards to this topic? Do you consider yourself a lobby of future generations?
N.B.: The World Transhumanist Association has officially adopted a statement banning all forms of neo-Nazi eugenicists from the organization. (This was in response to an incident some years ago when one or two such trolls attempted to infiltrate the WTA.) Transhumanism supports reproductive rights among other human rights. We tend to think that it is better that reproductive decisions be in the hands of parents, in consultation with their doctor, and within broad guidelines laid down by the state. It would be ethically unacceptable, as well as potentially very dangerous, to have the state impose a one-size-fits-all formula on what kind of people should exist in the next generation.
If I were a parent, I would consider myself as having a moral duty to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the child which I was about to bring into the world would start his or her life with the best possible chances for a good life. If a pregnant woman can improve her child’s IQ by taking folic acid or choline supplements, and by avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and lead-contaminated drinking water, I believe would be irresponsible for her to fail to take these easy steps. Similarly, if I were using in vitro fertilization, and there were a simple genetic test which could select the embryo with the best genes for health and other desirable capacities, then I believe it would be negligent not to make use of the test. It would be a very small inconvenience for a potentially large gain.
D.P.: Transhumanists aren’t eugenicists in anything resembling the odious traditional sense. However, humanity is on the brink of a reproductive revolution. Prospective parents will soon be empowered to choose the kinds of children they want to bring into the world. Preimplantation diagnosis is likely to become routine. Designer genomes will follow. Most parents will aspire to have happier, smarter, healthier children. In principle, a majority of people today would probably support use of genetic medicine to prevent diseases such as cystic fibrosis. By contrast, only a minority of people currently favor “enhancement” technologies. But today’s enhancement technologies are tomorrow’s remedial therapies. By the standards of our successors, mortal humans will presumably all seem tragically diseased and dysfunctional. At present we think it’s morally acceptable to pass on to our children the lethal hereditary disease of aging –and a predisposition to various ugly states of mind (e.g. jealousy, low mood, anxiety, resentment, and loneliness) adaptive in the ancestral environment. Yet human life could potentially be so much richer. As technology matures, why not replace the cruel genetic roulette of natural selection…?