[Paleopsych] Reason: The Transhumans Are Coming!

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Reason: The Transhumans Are Coming! And they're promoting mito flushes,
sousveillance, cyberglogging, and genetic virtue
4.8.11 by Ronald Bailey

    And they're promoting mito flushes, sousveillance, cyberglogging, and
    genetic virtue

    The [11]World Transhumanist Association's annual
    conference--TransVision 2004--attracted some 125 philosophers,
    scientific researchers, and techno-visionaries to Toronto last weekend
    to think about, discuss, and promote the ways in which technology will
    transform human lives. WTA members come from around the world; they
    want to nurture an intellectual and policy environment in which
    advanced biotechnology, nanotechnology, and informatics help people
    live longer, healthier lives, become more intelligent, and gain
    control over their emotions. On display at TransVision 2004 were some
    notable advances in their efforts.

    Probably the most immediate goal of these transhumanists is promoting
    research that will radically increase healthy human lifespans. This
    topic was addressed at a plenary presentation on "The Feasibility and
    Desirability of Indefinite Youth" by Cambridge University theoretical
    biogerontologist (and new editor of the scientific journal
    [12]Rejuvenation Research), [13]Aubrey de Grey. De Grey identifies the
    "[14]seven deadly things" that cause aging and argues researchers have
    now reached the point where an engineering approach to preventing the
    damage they cause is tractable.

    For example, one of the chief causes of aging is mutations in
    mitochondrial genes. The mutations are a byproduct of the
    energy-producing activities of these cellular organelles that damages
    their own small genomes consisting of only 13 genes. Most genes are
    encoded by DNA in a cell's nucleus. "Mitochondrial DNA is massively
    less well protected than nuclear DNA," said De Grey. Consequently, De
    Grey argues that mitochondrial genes would be safer and less subject
    to mutation if they were engineered into the nuclear genes. And this
    is not an impossible goal, since a number of researchers have already
    managed to do just that for a variety of organisms. His hypothesis is
    that better protected mitochondrial genes would slow down one of the
    seven deadly things that cause aging. De Grey suggested that the other
    six causes of aging are also amenable to such "[15]strategies for
    engineering negligible senescence." At the end of his talk, he
    predicted that there is "50/50 chance of effectively reversing aging
    in 25 years."

    For those of us whose mitochondrial genes look to be battered about as
    they are left hanging outside the nucleus for the rest of our all too
    short lives, University of Virginia researcher [16]Rafal Smigrodski
    offered some hope. In his presentation, "How to buy new mitochondria
    for your old body" Smigrodski described work he and his colleague Shah
    Khan at Gencia Corporation are doing that is aimed at completely
    replacing defective mitochondria with fresh new ones. Look for whole
    body "mito flushes" in a few years.

    But the transhumanists in Toronto were not only concerned about long
    healthy happy lives; they were also concerned with truth. George Mason
    University economics professor [17]Robin Hanson argued that
    super-rational posthumans in the future won't be able to "agree to
    disagree," chiefly because they'll agree on everything. Hanson
    [18]argues that disagreements among less than super-rational people
    today exist largely because we deceive ourselves about what we really
    know to be true. There are good "reasons" for us to think that, for
    example, "the more you believe in yourself, the more you can get other
    people to believe in you," and thus get them to do what you want. But
    super-rational posthumans won't be able to deceive themselves or
    others, suggests Hanson. Does this mean the end of politicians?

    In another session, McMaster University philosopher and editor of the
    [19]Journal of Evolution and Technology, Mark Walker gave a talk on
    "[20]Genetic Virtue", the ethics of bioengineering children to be
    virtuous. Walker began by pointing out that parents and communities
    already spend a lot of time and effort trying to instill virtues in
    the young. Assuming that genes that predispose people toward being
    honest and caring for others can be found, what would be wrong with
    allowing parents to use biotechnology, say, [21]pre-implantation
    genetic diagnosis, to increase the chances that their children are
    born with those virtues? Walker concluded that if we accept that the
    goal of ethics is to make our lives and our world better, then we
    ought to explore the plausibility and possibility of genetically
    instilled virtue. One audience member suggested that this would remove
    a child's free will, but I pointed out that a child doesn't get any
    extra measure of free will just because they have randomly conferred

    Opening the conference was the rather creepy [22]Steve Mann, who has
    been trying to turn himself into a [23]cyborg for years. Mann
    apparently insists on seeing the world through a set of goggles that
    laser-write video onto his retinas. Using a video hookup, he could
    share with the audience exactly what he was seeing; his view was
    available on a giant screen onstage. Mann's subject was the future of
    wearable computers (people encased in computer gear were referred to
    as "gargoyles" in some science fiction novel I read a while back). In
    the future we will see what he calls cyberglogging, which will be
    essentially sound and video [24]lifeblogs compiled by omnipresent
    wearable video and audio hookups. Mann has a response to people who
    worry that we are becoming too dependent upon technology. "Don't shoes
    and clothing damage our ability to survive wild in the woods?,"
    retorts Mann. "Calculators make our brains rot; clothes make our
    bodies rot; shoes make our feet rot, don't they?"

    In addition, Mann, in the spirit of David Brin's [25]The Transparent
    Society, also pointed out that we live in world in which surveillance
    (that is, "watching from above") cameras are becoming ubiquitous. His
    response is "[26]sousveillance", or "watching from below"; in other
    words, the watched turn their cameras onto the watchers. To
    demonstrate his aphorism that "surveillance and [27]sousveillance get
    along about as well as matter and anti-matter," Mann showed the
    audience video of him talking with clerks and security guards in a
    department store. Invariably they refused to answer his questions
    about surveillance and asked him to turn his cameras off. Mann asks
    them why they are uncomfortable when he's videoing them, when after
    all they are videoing him without his permission.

    Setting aside the fact that Mann is voluntarily on private property,
    that he is a prestigious professor picking on clerks who are not the
    ones who run the store much less its surveillance policies, and that
    being aggressively videoed by some random guy is naturally
    intimidating, he does have a point. As he says, "sousveillance should
    never be prohibited in area that is undergoing surveillance." And I
    bet that when we all can wear completely unobtrusive video and audio
    recording devices, no one will much care--we'll just assume that we're
    on camera all the time.

    But TransVision 2004 was not all techno-science and philosophy.
    Saturday evening featured a presentation by the Australian performance
    artist [28]Stelarc. Now, generally my attitude toward performance art
    isn't very welcoming, but Stelarc is the real deal. Stelarc insists
    that humans are--and have always been--Zombies and Cyborgs. Our bodies
    are not inhabited by Cartesian "minds," and as cyborgs we've always
    used technology to extend the reach of our bodies into the world. To
    demonstrate his points, Stelarc offered the assembled transhumanists a
    fascinating (and fun) multi-media program encompassing his career from
    his days hanging from [29]giant hooks thrust through his skin to
    creating and running [30]insectoid cyborg machines to a [31]prosthetic
    head using the [32]Alice AI program to answer viewers' questions.

    Well-meaning though transhumanists may be, their efforts are
    apparently giving some people the willies. "Transhumanists intend to
    take us on a long march to post humanity," [33]warns [34]Center for
    Bioethics and Culture special consultant, Wesley J. Smith. "If that is
    not to happen, we will have to resist." Resist longer and happier
    lives, better health, stronger bodies, and smarter brains? The
    prospect sounds incredibly dangerous to me! It must be stopped!

    However, listening to the panels and presentations at TransVision
    2004, Smith does get it essentially right when he notes, "They assert
    that humans should not merely be allowed to metamorphose themselves
    through plastic surgery, cyber-technology, and the like, but should
    have the right to control the destiny of their genes via progeny
    design and fabrication." Yes, indeed they do. And so what? Well, watch
    this space as I occasionally chronicle the opening of the
    transhumanist front in our ongoing culture wars.
    Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His new book,
    Liberation Biology: A Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech
    Revolution will be published in early 2005.


   11. http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/index/
   12. http://www.liebertpub.com/REJ/default1.asp
   13. http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/sens/AdGbio.htm
   14. http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/sens/just7.htm
   15. http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/sens/index.html
   16. http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/people/dop/dopDetail.cfm?drid=1151
   17. http://hanson.gmu.edu/home.html
   19. http://www.jetpress.org/contents.htm
   20. http://www.permanentend.org/gvp.htm
   21. http://www.reason.com/rb/rb030602.shtml
   22. http://wearcam.org/
   23. http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2004-05-13/goods_next.php
   24. http://www.livingroom.org.au/blog/archives/nokia_lifeblog.php
   25. http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/Econ_Articles/Reviews/Transparent.html
   26. http://www.reason.com/hod/nh123002.shtml
   27. http://www.reason.com/0303/ci.bd.poking.shtml
   28. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/index2.html
   29. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/suspens/suspens.html
   30. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/exoskeleton/index.html
   31. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/prosthetichead/index.html
   32. http://www.alicebot.org/
   33. http://www.thecbc.org/redesigned/research_display.php?id=129
   34. http://www.thecbc.org/

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