[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 [2]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
    [3]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 [4]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 [5]Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel prize in
    Medicine in 2000 for his work on memory. At least half a dozen
    companies [6]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
    their memories.

    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 [7]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. [8]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
    personality alterations
    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 [9]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
    soldier class.

    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


    1. http://www.morethanhuman.org/
    2. http://www.life-enhancement.com/le/neofiles/default.asp?ID=13
    3. http://www.downstate.edu/pharmacology/chapin.htm
    4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/435816.stm
    5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_R._Kandel
    6. http://www.memorypharma.com/a_advisoryboard.html
    7. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/08/04/health/main566593.shtml
    8. http://www.darpa.mil/
    9. http://www.life-enhancement.com/le/neofiles/default.asp?ID=20

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