Beyond Our ‘Monkey Brain Meat Bags’: Can Transhumanism Save Our Species?

Abe healed. Death conquered. Work finished. The human brain is reverse engineered by AI. Babies born outside the womb. Virtual children, non-human partners. The future of humanity could be virtually unrecognizable by the end of the 21st century, according to Elise Bohan — and that is if we get the transition right. If we’re wrong, fine.

“The future is very scary,” says the young philosopher-macrohistorian-futurist with a smile. ‘I can’t lie about that. In ten years it will all look very different, and in another ten years that’s a total event horizon for me… I think at that point it’s very plausible that the game has changed in a very fundamental way, be it good or bad. †

Bohan, 31, speaks from a sunny Mosman apartment, where she sits on the house and tends to the plants. It’s well back from the Hawkesbury River on the outskirts of Sydney, where she grew up; a place with beautiful places, but where it was difficult to be smart. And it’s half a world away from Oxford University, where it’s part of the Future of Humanity Institute.

She’s in Sydney to see family and promote her new book Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-or-Break Century. The subtitle is not a guess. “I believe so,” she says. “We are in the century that will determine the future of humanity like no other.”

Transhumanism is a movement that aims to address – or end – what Bohan calls the “tragedies of reality”: aging, disease and involuntary death. It is, she writes, “a philosophy and a project that aims to make us more than human”.

Whether we recognize it or understand it, that project has already begun, she says, and it will transform our world—and mind and body—within our lives. Not only is it happening, she says, but this transition is necessary if humanity is to survive in eternity.

Elise Bohan.
Elise Bohan says her new book is a “love letter to humanity.” Photo: Jessica Hromas

for Bohan It’s not great to imagine a baby born in 2030 being able to map its entire genome at birth, uploading data to a central health record, and getting to it at every medical appointment throughout its life. referenced. It’s not hard to think that AI will become the most powerful intellectual force of the century. That human consciousness could be transferred from our “flesh bags” (bodies) into a technological sphere. That the rise of AI and automation could make large parts of human labor obsolete, and that maybe – if we do it right – there could be more time left for leisure, thinking big, meditation, connection.

Experiments are already underway in the field of artificial wombs, and Bohan is sure that – when viable – women will “scream” to be freed from the shackles of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.

The book, she writes, is a “love letter to humanity”, but hers is a “tough love”. A love that sees a future for humanity, but not necessarily for humans as we know them.

‘We love, we lose, we die’

When Bohan first encountered transhumanism, around age 21, her first reaction was, “It’s crazy. It’s science fiction. It’s so far away. How strange,” she says. “But also – how interesting.”

Her brother had jumped down the stairs and insisted that they watch the documentary Transcendent Man, about the godfather of transhumanism. Ray Kurzweil. He thought they would find it hilarious – “what we did” – but it gave Bohan the idea of ​​a rapid acceleration of growth in computer technology, technological singularity (the theoretical point at which the power of technological change moves out of human control and human civilization), and the idea that there was a future for humanity beyond what she calls our “monkey-brain meat bags.”

At the time, she was studying English literature, obsessed with poetry and the written word.

“It was a point of sadness for me as a young person, realizing that there were so many wonderful things that had already been written – and forgetting all the things that would be written in the future – that I would never live long enough to encounter , to explore and to bring all of these things together,” she says.

Fiction began to bore her as her interest in transhumanism increased. If fiction was all about exploring the human experience, it became apparent that there was a tragic repetition. “We work, we learn, we love, we lose, we die,” she writes. Transhumanism offered something better.

Elise Bohan.
Elise Bohan. Photo: Jessica Hromas

By age 28, she had written the world’s first book-length history of transhumanism for her PhD. It’s ironic, she says, to hold on to this—she’s always hated “isms.” They have a “ring of cult-like fascination” about them.

“We’re building God, you know?”

Transhumanism is perhaps best known for its preoccupation with achieving human immortality. An immortal life, however, is a confronting concept. If scarcity determines value, doesn’t the fact that our time on earth is finite give that time its value? What exactly is tragic about death?

“To me, the loss of all that matters. It is a loss of all things of value,” she says.

Rather, she says, “if people kept healthy, continued to learn, you’d have this cumulative effect where our experiences and knowledge would accumulate much faster. The things our species could do with that! The mysteries of the universe we could unlock. The problems we could solve. And the depths of each other’s souls that we could explore.”

Souls, she admits, is a loaded word. But without an alternative vocabulary for what makes consciousness, she is not averse to using spiritual language.

“Is transhumanism going to invade domains that religion has traditionally owned? I think so.”

When Bohan was a PhD student, she held her first major paper at a conference. Afterwards, a biologist came to her and congratulated her on her work.

“Then he looked me in the eye and whispered to me, ‘We’re building God, you know,'” she chuckles. “I looked back at him and said, ‘Yeah, I know.'”

They knew they didn’t mean it as a religion, she says. “But much of what has been discussed in religion – omniscience, omnipotence, hopefully all-benevolence – we are at least getting closer to that all-seeing, all-knowing, all-exploring [force]†

Who controls that force or those forces is, of course, a crucial question. The rapid growth of technology in the early 21st century has led to power and wealth piling up and concentrating among a small number of predominantly white males. One criticism of transhumanists is that they never quite stopped clinging to the sci-fi that fascinated them as young boys.

“There’s a degree where a lot of them are probably still little boy fantasies,” Bohan says. “But they happen to be very, very clever little boy fantasies who also have engineering degrees and are very capable of building reusable rockets and what good is it. I don’t think we can ignore the real tangible, species-enhancing projects they’re at the helm.”

Regulating technology during this transhuman transition is not a good idea, according to Bohan.

“All things being equal, would I rather be a politician or cluster politician who rules the nuclear powers of the nation-states, or rather someone with a PhD from MIT who is really very smart and understands the technological systems as best as a human can? ” she asks. “I’d rather it be the tech geek.”

“But that said, I’d rather it wasn’t human at all.” A technological solution to regulation would free decision-making from human bias, short-termism and tribalism — if done right, she says. “It may not be like that.”

Elise Bohan
Elise Bohan: ‘2100…I think we’ll be much further along in the game.’ Photo: Jessica Hromas

Best case, worst case

At worst, she imagines sounds pulled from the pages of science fiction dystopias. A future in which ruling AI does not share people’s values, nor does it value people at all.

The best scenario for the end of the century? Bohan fully expects that she is still alive (she would be 110). “My honest answer is that I think the best-case scenario is that by the end of the century… people will be ready. But humanity isn’t ready, right? So intelligence continues,” she says.

There is a utopianism to that ideal of just being incredibly intelligent, being able to see further than any intelligent human being has ever seen, to know more, to experience more, to feel more, to discover more.”

Future Superhuman by Elise Bohan front cover

But this imagination, she has come to believe, is beyond the capacity of most mortals. For them there are the Cliff’s Notes.

“I think the comfortable version is, we have really good healthcare and everyone is rich. And there is a lot of equality,” she laughs.

“But 2100 – I don’t think we’ll be there. I think we will be much further in the game.”

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