[Paleopsych] Courant (Hartford): (James Hughes) Better Than Human

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Better Than Human

In The Future, We May Be Able To Artificially Improve On What God Gave Us

Courant Staff Writer
June 26 2005

Sitting in his office at Trinity College, James Hughes explains his
vision of a family gathering a couple of hundred years from now: One
family member is a cyborg, another is outfitted with gills for living
underwater. Yet another has been modified to live in a vacuum.

"But they will all consider themselves as descendants of humanity," he

At no point in the interview does Hughes peel off his face to reveal a
set of wires and blinking lights. Nor does he roll up his sleeves to
expose super-strong mechanical limbs. Bearded and bespectacled, he looks
pretty much the way you might expect a professor of health policy to

But as executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, he's
one of the leaders in a movement that sees, in the next 50 years, a
world where flesh fuses with mechanics and brains with circuitry. He
recently published "Citizen Cyborg" (Westview Press, $26.95), a book
that has made waves in academic circles and urges the need to prepare
for this future.

Transhumanism, a theory that has been kicking around for a few decades,
envisions a "post-human" phase where technology will bring us beyond
human capabilities. Intelligence-boosting brain chips, extended life
spans and even immortality are all part of this vision.

The movement has split into a number of factions, some of which take on
a quasi-religious tone. The World Transhumanist Association, based in
Willington, is one of the largest organizations and offers what Hughes
calls a "more mature and academically respectable" take on the
philosophy. According to its Transhumanist Declaration, the organization
seeks "personal growth beyond our current biological limitations."

It's an idea that covers a lot of ground. Walking canes and eyeglasses
are a basic form of transhumanism. And then there's uploading one's mind
and living as sheer consciousness on a computer.

The organization was founded in 1997 by Nick Bostrom while he was a
philosophy professor at Yale. Hughes says it now has more than 30
chapters worldwide, including recent additions in Somalia and Uganda.

While transhumanism was long relegated to the scientific fringe, it has
edged closer to the mainstream in the past few years.

"I believe part of it is that these technological possibilities, five or
10 years ago, seemed like science fiction," says Bostrom, now director
of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. "Just the
general progress that we've made makes it easier for people to see it

It's gained enough prominence to get the attention of some well-known
critics. One of them, political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently
nominated transhumanism as the "world's most dangerous idea" in Foreign
Policy magazine. His fear is that enhanced versions of the human being
will threaten the sense of equality that societies have been working
toward for centuries.

A lot of what the transhumanists talk about is timely, like genetic
engineering, cloning and the use of steroids and other
performance-enhancing technologies in sports. But they also talk about
things like civil rights for artificially intelligent beings and animals
whose learning and speaking abilities have been artificially enhanced.

Much of which informs one of the main questions transhumanism tries to
answer: What makes a person? Hughes says "human" no longer works as a
definition. A person, as Hughes sees it, would be any being with a
certain level of self-awareness and intelligence, including robots and
talking animals. Then, we would need to determine what rights these
enhanced creatures have in our society.

"What are we going to say `I'm sorry, you're not human - you shouldn't
have the right to go to school and get an advanced degree'?" he says.

The image of gorillas sitting in a college classroom discussing the
Bronte sisters might cause some to dismiss transhumanists as sci-fi
fanatics whose imaginations have gotten the best of them. But take a
look at what's happening now, Hughes says. He cites a slew of recent
news articles: Scientists at IBM plan to build a computer model of a
human brain; chips are being implanted in the brains of paralyzed
people; MRI can be used to read thoughts. How many people 50 years ago,
Hughes says, thought any of this was possible?

"I don't know how anyone who pays attention can't see how quickly things
change," he says.

As an example of how quickly things change, Hughes points to a recent
road race where runners objected to competing against an amputee with a
mechanical leg. The prosthetic leg, they said, gave him an unfair

"When the cyborg athlete can out-perform the non-disabled athletes,
that's transhumanism," he says.

Hughes describes himself as a "techno-optimist" and believes that human
enhancements can lead to better lives. Others aren't so sure. Objections
range from overpopulation to the possibility of hacking into people's

Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a think
tank in Seattle best known for advocating "intelligent design" as the
basis of evolution, worries about what a transhumanist future would mean
for humanity. If you listen to Hughes and other transhumanists, he says,
we are nothing but "so much meat on the hoof."

"They're saying that being human does not have intrinsic value, that we
have to earn our moral value by having requisite capacities, generally
cognitive capacities," he says. And if merely being human loses its
value, he says, legal distinctions will be made as to who and who
doesn't deserve certain rights.

Hughes calls Smith, Fukuyama and other critics "bioLuddites" - people
who expect only the worst from science. You can't stop scientific
advancement, he says. But you can make sure it is pursued responsibly.
There have always been crime and suffering, he says, but as societies
advance, the better they become at protecting their citizenry. He says a
post-human future will follow this pattern and most likely increase
personal freedom.

"The tendency in our world is for an increased respect for personal
rights," he says. "We will increasingly become masters of our own fate.
We will be making decisions on what kind of person we want to be."

Contact Bill Weir at bweir at courant.com.

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