Sarah Spiekermann, Ph.D.   –   Business Informatics Professor and Thinker

Why Transhumanism is deeply problematic

“Neue Züricher Zeitung” (NZZ) published the Anti-Transhumanist Manifesto that I completed together with a number of leading-edge colleagues holding professorships in such diverse academic disciplines as psychology, business informatics, philosophy, architecture and theology. The English text document is available here.

What is Transhumanism?

As the term suggests Transhumanism is a way of thinking about ourselves; a thinking that is marked by the aspiration to go beyond the human nature we are born with and “trans”cend our species. At first sight this sounds pretty interesting; if not encouraging. Transcending something is often necessary to get on with life, develop and flourish. Everyone of us wants to grow and progress, become better at what we are doing and transcending our present status that is sometimes marked by misery. Unfortunately, by our very nature, this transcending is not always easy. We are born unique; gifted and cursed with a given mix of talents and shortcomings, which our life asks us to develop and work on. Transcending ourselves and flourishing means “Know thyself”! if you ask the Oracle of Delphi (having written this on its entry portal). A message that puts great hope into us people understanding and developing our individual humanity.

We are born unique; gifted and cursed with a given mix of talents and shortcomings, which our life asks us to develop and work on. Transcending ourselves and flourishing means “Know thyself”! if you ask the Oracle of Delphi (having written this on its entry portal).

Transhumanists, in contrast, don’t have this benevolent faith and patience with humanity. For Transhumanists, normal human beings like you and me are just “resources”, “preference bundles”, “DAUs”, “wetware” or “moshs”; a kind of unpredictable, suboptimal, irrational, mortal and failable liquid mass that draws its main justification and hope of existence from its brain. Transhumanists argue that this misery must be transcended with technology and drugs.

Ray Kurzweil, one of the main show-offs of the movement and role model as product-engineering director at Google is said to take some 200 pills a day to prolong his life. His books on you and my future and identity are bestsellers promoting what he openly calls the “GNR Revolution”, which stands for Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics. Just get a new breast here and there if you have an > X% genetic probability to get breast cancer. A little chip in your brain and you’ll have the perfect memory. Just put a little chip in your kid’s arm and you can be sure he or she is safely surveyed at any time. Or even replace your healthy arms and knees to become physically stronger; (as now seems to become fashionable in the UK that is advertising its countries’ guts – desperately? – with a vision of humans as cyborgs; see figure below).

In the Manifesto we therefore describe Transhumanists’ bizarre idea of man as follows: “

Transhumanism is a negative perspective on human nature coupled with a techno-scientific vision of how we should improve.

This perspective is best recognized by a superstitious belief in science as saviour and a distanced contempt for our human nature: our fragility, our mortality, our sentience, our self-awareness, and our embodied sense of ‘who’ we are (as distinct from a ‘what’).”

Why should we care about this crazy Transhumanists and their idea of man?

Normally I would not care about this kind of thinking that in my personal view is simply a mental shortcoming and a lamentable lack of emotional intelligence to recognize and “be in the world” in the Heideggerian sense. It is ok if – in the interest of diversity and freedom of speech – some people hold such views.

But unfortunately, Transhumanism has turned into a kind of ideological movement that benefits from exorbitant economic backing, unpredictably dangerous power and infiltrates academic institutions and funding bodies to an extent where they threaten to marginalize other views. Due to major donations, transhumanists are associated with highly respected universities; a placement that allows them to promote their crazy ideas of “super-intelligence”, “singularity”, “cyborgs”, ‘rational calculability of life’, ‘transcendence of humanity’, etc. as “scientific” or even “ethical”.

If they don’t get into the ivy-leagues directly, they simply build their own university and think-tanks: such as the Singularity University in Silicon Valley that churns out a class of well-funded brainwashed entrepreneurs each year to build the technologies needed for the Transhumanists’ visions. And from thereon governments and institutions (such as the United Nations) are influenced to embrace this future as well; which Transhumanists esoterically describe as something inevitable that “will” be the case.

Unfortunately politicians often don’t know much about technology. They just listen to some very established smart-looking entrepreneurs, well-paid lobbyists and funding-dependent academics (or well disguised fanatics) who embrace the transhumanists’ vision; people who themselves often don’t fully understand or challenge the destructive vision they actually promote. It seems as if the world around them, all this money, this success, this elitism and hype with all this speed and fame would proof them right and give them justice to move ahead.

bionic da vinci

Fame and success comes with money. And for an outsider these money sources are actually pretty easy to spot by just asking what industries are benefiting from transhumanists visions. Naturally, this will be the IT industry and the pharma industry. For the money makers it would be so cool to have chips in every single human body, to sell implants and sensor infrastructure, ubiquitous Internet to survey all of these chipped humans, robots to look after them (keep them in check) and Artificial Intelligence that advice them on how to behave (and nudge a bit from while to while). Just imagine the data processing capacity one could sell, databases, networked infrastructure, and ubiquitous Internet technology that would need to be installed everywhere! Not to think about the energy-drugs, anti-depressives, gene-tests, gene-manipulation, etc. etc. A gigantic money-making machine is standing in the starting gates with Transhumanism; with VCs and start-uppers as well as established players embracing the vision that could make them rich.

It is this vicious mix of money, interests and power coupled with a graceless ideology that worries me most. And for this reason I think society must have a debate on the phenomenon and manifestos of the kind we wrote. Politicians and university heads must become aware for transhumanism and learn to discern scientists from ideologists and from money-makers and funding-desperates.

Why Transhumanists will fail

Being an economist, I am fortunately believing to some extent in the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith that he predicted to reign markets in the end. That is, I am pretty sure that all the exaggerated tech-promises of Transhumanists will be disillusioned at some point. There is no more security with a chip and no true protection against death or illness. Consumers will realize this and turn away. Already now, the number of people who Transhumanists contemptuously call “bio-conservatives” are raising; as does the number of people who bring some spirituality into their lives (i.e. through yoga, meditation, religion, etc.) or recognize for themselves what counts and what doesn’t.

There is no more security with a chip and no true protection against death or illness. Consumers will realize this and turn away.

From an academic perspective, I am particularly faithful that consumers’ disillusioning will happen, because transhumanists base their understanding of nature on a positivist and simplistic, model-driven, conceptual and analytic perspective on reality. And as a scientist I know that such models – despite their usefulness, elegance and rigor! – lack one crucial essence: that is a truly holistic and hence realistic grasp of our complex reality. Models are always full of assumptions. And hence the technologies, which build on them will always come with the caveats that reign in the margins of probability distributions.

One of such questionable concepts is the idea that there is something in this world, which we call ‘information’. And yes, perhaps our eager minds need this concept of information to make this world’s functioning understandable to us. Many transhumanists have a background in computer science and here the concept of information is particular easy-to-understand; sounding like a cookbook: Simply take some data, aggregate it and you get information. Put data and information together, ideally lots of it and then run some AI over it. What you get is “intelligence” that is magically like human intelligence. This intelligence you can then upload and download as you like. With this kind of simple science, transhumanists fall into a pitfall trap; that is that they seem to truly believe that human beings are information objects whose brains work like computer processors. In fact, it is funny, but when I meet these people in podiums or meetings, they often say things like “In the end we are all bots”.

But by putting such faith into digital information, transhumanists seem to have completely forgotten that ‘information’ is nothing more than a useful concept for us to make sense of our world in scientific terms. It is not anything ‘material’ that we would really be able to observe. The idea that data aggregates to information is very neat to build computers, but it does not scale to re-build humans and transcend their reality. Even the most prominent scholar of ‘information philosophy’, Luciano Floridi, is therefore turning openly against transhumanism (although by using the word ‘information’ he is actually accused of being the philosophical path-maker to their movement). In our manifesto we go into more detail on this ‘information’ issue. Especially the long version, which we hope to discuss in the journal ‘Minds and Machines’ will challenge the notion of information and its usefulness to describe life.

Again: Why should we care?

Is all of this not really an academic debate? Why should ordinary people, journalists, politicians or anyone care about this potentially transitional phenomenon called ‘Transhumanism’? I think it is because of our vulnerability; our incredibly rich, unique, but also fragile and highly sensitive human nature. In all of this craze and speed, fame and dance on global volcanoes, I fear we lose sight and sensitivity for what it means to be human. And if – in this craze – we embrace Transhumanists and their technologies I fear that many lives will be lost.

Just consider this one example: Start-uppers and even IEEE Spectrum now promote a technology called “Transcranial Direct Stimulation” coming in the form of caps you can put on your head to stimulate your brain. They sell it as a way to get rid of depression; perhaps increase your mental capabilities. A typical transhumanistic technology. In truth, 39 scientists have been warning of this technology in the Annals of Neurology (Vol. 80, Issue 1, 2016) saying that there is little evidence on the effects of this technology that can be detrimental for users and lead to unpredictable emotional or intellectual outcomes. I think there is no doubt about who to believe is right here. The money-makers or the scientists? But not everyone is reading the Annals of Neurolgy and so many innocent and perhaps desperate people riding the wave of tech-craze will fall prey to false promises of this kind. It is the unpredictably large number of human victims of Transhumanism that I am concerned about; the vulnerability of our species that we should not play around with.

(Sarah Spiekermann, July 6th, 2017)

Sarah Spiekermann, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2018 Sarah Spiekermann