[Paleopsych] More-Than-Humanism: Ramez Naam In Conversation with R.U. Sirius
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Tue May 3 22:15:53 UTC 2005
More-Than-Humanism: Ramez Naam In Conversation with R.U. Sirius
Ramez Naam's recently published book, More That Human: Embracing the
Promise of Biological Enhancement provides a well-researched,
detail-oriented argument in favor of embracing technological advances
that will likely increase our lifespans, our intelligence, allow us
greater control over our mind states, and allow us to communicate
brain-to-brain. The book is so cogent, even arch technophobe Bill
McKibben offered these words of praise: "Ramez Naam provides a
reliable and informed cook's tour of the world we might choose if we
decide that we should fast-forward evolution. I disagree with
virtually all his enthusiasms, but I think he has made his case
cogently and well."
I chatted with Ramez by email and, in a (literally) fevered state,
ribbed him a bit about his seemingly unqualified optimism.
NEOFILES: Describe your personal evolution. How did you come to
realize that you were in favor of more-than-humanism? Also, do you
call yourself a transhumanist and what are some of your thoughts on
that movement or memeplex?
RAMEZ NAAM: I'm a geek. I've always been a geek.
Growing up I loved science fiction. In particular I loved stories that
showed characters that were more than human in some way super powers,
super brains, immortality, etc. ... I also love science. I subscribe
to scientific journals for the fun of it. I'll happily while away an
evening reading Science or Nature and just soaking up all this
incredible research that's going on. One day in 1999 I saw a paper
that looked more like science fiction than science a group led by
John Chapin and Miguel Nicolelis had put electrodes into the brain
of a live rat, and through that, had given the rat control over a
robot arm. I was floored. I had thought that sort of integration of
brains and computers was the realm of science fiction, not science
fact. That was my first conscious realization that science was
starting to sound a lot like science fiction.
I suppose I've always been in favor of humans enhancing themselves I
just didn't consider it a real possibility until that time.
Does that make me a transhumanist? Yes, it does. But I think the term
itself is a bit empty. In my mind, most of the citizens of the western
world are transhumanists. Every woman who uses a birth control pill is
altering her biology in fundamental ways to get the result she wants.
Every person wearing glasses or contact lenses, everyone who puts a
cell phone to their ear, everyone who pops a multi-vitamin, or drinks
a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning or stay awake on a long
drive they're all transhumanists. We are, as a rule, interested in
products and technologies that expand our capabilities, that give us
control over our world and minds and bodies.
The only thing that separates self-identified transhumanists from the
rest of consumer society is their enthusiasm about technologies that
are still speculative. The self-identified folks are the enthusiasts
and early adopters. The rest of society will follow when the benefits
are more concrete, the safety's there, and the price is right.
NF: There have been numbers of books written around the themes of life
extension and transhumanism over the last few years. You seem to have
organized a lot of details on activity and research in a lot of
different areas. Would you describe the three developments or projects
that you find the most exciting?
RN:Only three? There are so many! But if I have to ...
First, I'd say, is our growing power to alter our minds chemically and
genetically. Back in 1999, Joe Tsien from Princeton made the cover of
Time magazine with his Doogie mice. These were mice he'd
genetically engineered to have a slightly different structure of a
particular chemical receptor in the brain. The gene he tweaked is
called NR2B. Basically he gave them an extra copy of NR2B, which meant
that their neurons were more sensitive to certain signals involved in
learning, and would learn things more quickly.
They were testing this as a potential technique against Alzheimer's
disease or other age-related memory loss, thinking that doing this in
older people could keep their memories from decaying. But what they
found is that these mice didn't just stay mentally sharp to a greater
age. They actually ended up smarter or at least able to learn more
quickly than normal mice. And it was by a large margin. In some tests,
like navigating a maze, the Doogie mice would learn the task in half
the time it took the normal mice.
Since '99, a lot of other teams have produced similar results,
including one led by Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel prize in
Medicine in 2000 for his work on memory. At least half a dozen
companies including Kandel's are trying to bring this technology to
market now, in the form of a pill that you can swallow. They'll target
use in people with memory problems, but you can pretty well assume
that there will be off-label use among people just looking to improve
Second, I'd say, is the tremendous progress being made in extending
lifespans. Until about 1990, if you asked geneticists about altering
aging, they'd tell you that you'd have to make thousands of genetic
changes to see any extension of creature's lifespan. Then in '90, a
professor at the University of Colorado Tom Johnson published a
paper where he showed that by tweaking one gene, he could double the
life span of a species of worm. Well, the scientific community did not
take well to that. Johnson was called a charlatan and people whispered
that he was faking his data. Then a few years later, a more famous
researcher named Cynthia Kenyon discovered a second gene that had a
similar effect in the same species. Since then, researchers have found
dozens of these genes that can slow aging, in everything from yeast to
worms to fruit flies to mice. The amazing thing is that pretty much
the same genes have the same effect in all these species. You and I
are much more genetically similar to mice than mice are to yeasts. And
since the same genes can extend life in both mice and yeast, there's a
good chance they'll work for humans as well.
Third, I'll say, is the whole field of brain computer interfaces.
Today there are human trials going on of brain implants that allow
paralyzed people to control computers or robot arms just by thinking
about it. There are blind patients receiving retinal implants and
visual cortex implants that take signals from a video camera and feed
them into the brain, and the patients can actually see out of these
things. DARPA has invested 10s of millions of dollars in this
field. They're after technologies that can let fighter pilots control
their planes by thinking about it, that can let commanders on the
battlefield beam 3D maps into the minds of their soldiers real
cyberpunk sort of stuff.
To me that's incredibly exciting because these are actually
communication scenarios. They're ways to get information in and out of
our brains or from one person's brain to another more quickly or
efficiently or with greater clarity. What if, instead of using a
drawing program, I could just hold an image in my mind and beam it to
What if we could hold that in a shared mental space on a computer,
perhaps and work on it together? What if you could record the feeling
of writing a book, or seeing a fantastic band, or having an incredible
erotic experience, and let people play it back for themselves? Some of
the most revolutionary technologies have been communication
technologies the printing press, radio, the internet. Brain-computer
interfaces just might be the ultimate communication tech.
NF: You focus quite a bit on population and the tendency of technology
to "trickle down." I thought your analysis was pretty on target. Can
you give our readers a brief synopsis of your view of why
post-humanity will be more distributed and less likely to create
population problems than many people suspect?
RN: Sure. I think the socioeconomic issues are quite important, which
is why I spend two whole chapters on them in the book. There are
really two specific questions that come up frequently: "Who will be
able to afford these technologies?" and "Won't the population explode
if we lengthen human life?"
On the population question, it turns out that the major driver of
population growth is really fertility rather than the death rate. If
you look around the world, the countries with the longest life
expectancies Japan, Sweden are actually shrinking in population. As
these countries have gotten rich, people particularly women have
decided that they want fewer children. On the other hand, the
countries that are rapidly grown Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan have
relatively low life expectancies. People die early there, but those
who survive have big families. On the other hand, over the next 50
years, the UN projects that 3.7 billion people are going to die on
this planet, while another 6.6 billion will be born. That'll take
global population to about 9 billion people. Of the 3.7 billion who
are projected to die in in the next 50 years, less than 2 billion of
them will die of age-related causes. So even if we cured aging
completely tomorrow, and magically delivered the cure to the entire
world, the largest possible impact would be about 2 billion lives over
50 years. That would increase global population in 2050 from about 9
billion to about 11 billion a big change, but not as radical as the
more than doubling that happened between 1950 and 2000.
In any case, aging isn't going to be cured tomorrow. I walk through
some calculations that if you could raise global life expectancy to
120 years by 2050 almost twice what it is today you would raise the
2050 population from the current projection of 8.9 billion people to
9.4 billion people. That's a good sized increase, but as a percentage
of population, it's actually smaller than the change that occurred
between 1970 and 1973.
The takeaway, for me, is that life extension isn't going to have any
radical effect on population in the next few decades.
The question of economic access is a little more complex. People do
worry that when these enhancement technologies come out, only the rich
will have access to them. And they're right at the very beginning,
only the rich will be able to afford some of these techniques. What it
helps to realize, though, is that most of these enhancement techniques
are really information goods. They cost a huge amount to develop, but
almost nothing to manufacture. The same thing is true in general of
pharmaceuticals today. Viagra costs about $15 per pill, but only a few
cents of that is production cost. Mostly it's Pfizer bringing in
profit or paying off the $1 billion price tag of developing a new
drug. Pfizer can charge that much because the drug is patented. By
law, no one else can manufacture it without Pfizer's consent. But in
2012, the patent expires. At that point, any generic manufacturer can
make the drug. The more suppliers you have, the more price competition
sets in. The more consumers you have, the more incentive there is for
suppliers to enter the market. The net effect is that, the more
desired any information good is, the cheaper it will be to acquire.
You can see this when you look at drugs that are commonly used today.
Penicillin was absolutely priceless when first introduced to the
market. But now it costs less than one cent per dose. The same
inverted supply and demand even applies to non-drug techniques. LASIK
cost $5,000 per eye when it first came out now you can get it for
$299. As more and more people wanted LASIK, more doctors started
offering it. And the more doctors there are offering it, the most they
have to compete with each other on price.
The absolute worst thing you can do if you want these technologies
equally available to poor and rich is to ban them. Prohibition would
create a black market with worse safety, higher prices, and no
scientific tracking of what's going on. Viagra and cocaine cost
roughly the same per gram at the moment. In a decade, Viagra will be
much cheaper but cocaine will be the same price it is now. I think
we'd rather our enhancements follow prescription drug economics rather
than illegal drug economics.
And even if governments could implement perfect bans, that wouldn't
stop people from using these technologies. Asia is much more receptive
to biotech than the US and Europe. If a rich couple can't get the
genetic treatments they want here, they can absolutely fly to
Singapore or Thailand and have it done there. The poor or middle class
couple doesn't have the same options.
If anything, where I'd like to see government intervene is in the
opposite direction investing in those who can't afford these
technologies themselves. We already spend a large amount of money
enhancing our children. We have free grade schools and high schools,
free vaccinations for poor children, guaranteed student loans.
And those things pay dividends. Every 1% decrease in health care costs
saves the country $10 Billion a year. Every 1% increase in
productivity makes the country $100 Billion richer in a year, or a $1
Trillion richer over a decade. That money comes from innovation
architects designing better buildings, engineers making better cars,
coders putting out better software, scientists inventing entirely new
things we haven't conceived of. And that's why we invest in things
like education because we know they pay dividends later on. Biotech
enhancements have the same potential. Maybe someday we'll have
government personal enhancement loans and scholarships. I can dream.
NF: You mention that Asian countries have less of a prejudice against
genetic manipulation than Americans do. On the downside, could that be
because they have less of a sense of individual autonomy? In other
words, a human born with her germ-line engineered to produce certain
qualities has no choice in the matter. Do you see a line between
biological manipulation and personal autonomy?
RN: Of all the ethical issues I talk about in the book equality,
safety, 'playing god," and so on the issues of parents and children
are the hardest for me. Most parents really want what's best for their
kids, and parents are also generally pretty cautious they look for
safety above all else. So I think for the most part, parents will make
OK choices. And those choices are in many ways similar to choices they
have to make today how to raise their child, what school to send her
to, whether to let her watch TV, and what and how much. Parents make a
huge number of choices today, and by and large we trust them to do so.
Even so, it makes me uncomfortable if I think about, for example,
highly religious parents genetically engineering their own children to
be more religious. There's an aspect of parents wanting to control the
behavior of their kids that is very tough to deal with.
The good news is that it's likely to be extremely hard to do that.
Most personality traits are between one half and one third correlated
with a person's genes. And the remainder is typically what geneticists
call "non-shared" environmental effects. The "non-shared" part means
that it's not shared by two children growing up in the same household.
It's something very unique about what happens to them when growing up,
rather than something that parents can control environmentally. So
even if you attempt to make your child more religious, for instance,
an awful lot of how she turns out is going to depend on chance. You
can make it more likely that she'll behave a certain way, but you will
also runs the risk of overshooting. If you try to produce a kid who's
more assertive, you might end up with an aggressive monster. If you
try to alter your child to be more polite, you might get a doormat.
Put these points together, and it's going to be hard for parents to
really control the personality of their children. Individuality is
going to be around for a long time. And a lot of these kids, by the
time they're 20, are going to find that there are effective
they can make to themselves that are much more effective than those
that were available to their parents before they were born. So
whatever starting personality you may try to instill in a child,
they're going to grow up to find a world full of options for altering
NF: You focus on the future brought about by biological enhancement.
Do you think that evolutions in nanotechnology might alter this
picture? If not, why not? If so, how?
RN: Nanotech is such a big word it means a lot of things to a lot of
people. The kind people most frequently bring up in this context is
the model of tiny nano-robots that can precisely re-organize matter on
a molecular scale. Given that technology, we would be able to augment
human abilities in amazing ways making far bigger changes than the
ones I write about in the book.
But I suspect general purpose nanotech of that sort is still a long
ways off. There are lots of questions no one has answered to my
satisfaction about how you build these devices, let alone how to
program and control them. I don't mean to be downbeat. There are great
thinking going on in the field, but I suspect that what we'll really
see in the next few decades are more narrow applications of nanotech
in areas like chip design, sensors, materials, and relevant to human
enhancement areas of biotech like drug delivery, genetic engineering,
and gene sequencing.
Biology already is nanotechnology, after all. Every cell in your body
is an incredibly complex nanomachine. The small-molecule drugs we use
to treat disease plug into interfaces that already exist on these
nanomachines. The viruses we use to deliver new genes are their own
kind of nanomachine, evolved to this specific purpose. So while there
are a lot of ideas on how to build new classes of machines from
scratch, I suspect things will progress much faster in areas where
people take these existing designs our genome and cell biology and
neural architecture and make incremental changes to them with the best
tools at hand.
NF: Referring back to your first answer, lots of transgeeks reference
superheroes in comics and SF. But one of the aspects of comic
superheroes that appeal to young imaginations is the fact that the
superheroes have powers that everybody else doesn't have! What about
the possibility that individuals and societies might try to sabotage
the enhancements of the enemy? In other words, what about criminal
social competition and war?
In 10 years, instead of worrying about the North Koreans getting the
nuke, we might be worrying about them getting the latest upgrade of
RN: To the extent that this technology is employed by the military,
you're sure to see one side try to one-up the other. The US military
wants to have the most capable soldiers possible, which means having
the best training, best gear, and the best enhancements. They're going
to try to keep that edge through a combination of outspending the
competition, keeping some technologies secret or restricted, and
trying to deny competitors their capabilities on the battlefield.
At the same time, we're never going to be as worried about souped up
soldiers as we are about nukes or infectious bio-weapons. The scale of
the damage you can do is different by orders of magnitude.
All told though, I think the majority of investment into these
technologies is going to be consumer driven first in the medical realm
and then in the self-improvement realm. If you think about it, the US
military spends a huge amount on computers, physical fitness, and
skills training for its soldiers. But that's still a drop in the
bucket compared to the overall size of the computer industry, the
amount consumers spend on gym memberships and exercise videos, or the
total education spending in this country.
NF: I guess what I'm trying to do is get underneath your apparently
unfailingly bright view of the human species (just 'cause I'm in a
mood). I'm generally trans-positive, but in the light of human
history, nightmare scenarios seem at least as plausible. So what makes
you so damn upbeat, Ramez?
RN: You know, these technologies will definitely cause problems.
There's just no way around that. Every technology that's really
mattered has had some sort of unexpected consequence on society. Cars
lead to highway fatalities and smog. Antibiotics contributed to the
population explosion of the last century. The internet makes it easier
to transmit child porn.
And every really powerful technology is employed for violent military
uses. Trains, automobiles, and planes civilian transport technologies
make armies more powerful and more deadly. Radio allows the
coordination of larger groups of violent men. Even agriculture one of
the most basic technologies we have helped usher in organized warfare
by increasing population densities and allowing the creation of a
So I'm not blind to the fact that there will be problems. But when I
follow the course of human history, even with the period atrocities
and downturns, the world seems to be steadily becoming a better place.
At the turn of the 20th century, average life expectancy was less than
40 years. Today it's 66. It's 66 years in India one of the poorest
nations on earth. That's twice the life expectancy that the Romans
enjoyed at the height of their empire. And the developing world is
actually catching up with the rich world in life expectancy. The gap
is closing every year.
You can see the same thing in the amount of violence in society. We
have this romantic notion of peaceful life among the hunter-gatherers,
but anthropologists have documented that in hunter-gatherer tribes,
warfare routinely accounted for twenty, thirty, forty percent of all
male deaths. In the 20th century, by contrast, less than one percent
of male deaths have come from warfare, even when you include the world
And then there's personal freedom. Even as recently as a couple
decades ago, people's choices were narrower. We live in a world where
more and more people are being educated, more are able to choose how
they spend their lives, more people have access to a wider variety of
information and goods than ever before. People around the world on
average have a higher standard of living than ever before.
I don't think those trends are just coincidental. I think they're an
emergent property of human societies particularly free human
societies. When you put millions or billions of people together and
give them freedom to choose how they'll spend their time, energy, and
money, a higher level intelligent behavior emerges from the whole. I'm
not saying this in any sort of mystical way just a pragmatic one. Many
people working together seem to make far better choices than any
individual even the smartest individual could possibly make. And one
of the fundamental trends I see in the world is this movement towards
increasing the ability of individuals to interact, share information,
and communicate with one another.
Or maybe everything I just said is a rationalization, and I'm actually
upbeat because of some random variation in my serotonin receptor
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