Billions of dollars are currently being spent by a suite of private firms, mostly in Silicon Valley, pursuing radical research to enhance human capacities. These companies want to put off, or even defeat, aging, upload our minds to computers and give humans new abilities. Is this simply the next frontier for science and something to be welcomed, or should Christians hesitate to endorse research which appears to target our very created selves? What is the difference between using technology to tackle cancer versus tackling the aging process itself? And what is driving tech billionaires to spend their fortunes in this way?
Once you’ve listened, feel free to read some additional notes on this podcast below, or download them as a PDF for future reference.
Podcast notes and links
Transhumanism is a philosophical movement which argues for the enhancement and improvement of the human body and mind, in order to achieve levels of human functioning and longevity which are far beyond current limitations.
The idea of using advanced technology to try to overcome many of the fundamental problems and limitations of the human body is an idea whose time has arrived.
It fits it with the technological focus and preoccupations of our society. Whenever we confront a serious problem or obstacle that seems to restrict or threaten our lives then our natural instinct is to say – “let’s find a technological solution to overcome it.”
Silicon Valley has become a focus for research into ageing and life extension. It seems there are a number of ageing tech entrepreneurs who have accumulated enormous wealth, but who are frightened of their own ageing and impending death. Their natural instinct is to throw large sums of their own money into advanced scientific and technological research in order to solve ‘the problem of ageing’.
Once example of this is the Silicon Valley company Calico funded and owned by Alphabet, the owners of Google. It’s goal is to ‘tackle ageing’ so that people can live ‘longer and healthier lives’. This seems to be a technological version of the ancient and potent dream of ‘the elixir of life’. It is significant that Calico is a private company funded by the enormous profits of a Big Tech company. Anti-ageing research is not a mainstream university science activity.
Entrepreneurs argue that there is an common acceptance and complacency about ageing and death. They describe this as ‘deathist’.
The Fable of the Dragon by Nick Bostrom
“Stories about aging have traditionally focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigour and impending death was resignation coupled with an effort to achieve closure in practical affairs and personal relationships. Given that nothing could be done to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, one could aim for peace of mind.
Today we face a different situation. While we still lack effective and acceptable means for slowing the aging process, we can identify research directions that might lead to the development of such means in the foreseeable future. “Deathist” stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are fatal barriers to urgently needed action.”
We do invest huge resources into using scientific knowledge to overcome life-threatening diseases. Once example is the transformation in paediatric mortality over the last 100 years.
Child (under 5 years) mortality in UK in 1920 was 141 per 1000, in 2020 it was 4 per 1000 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1041714/united-kingdom-all-time-child-mortality-rate/
Neuralink is company founded and supported by Elon Musk. Its aim is to create brain-machine interfaces. Elon Musk has outlined his science fiction inspired vision for Neuralink on many occasions https://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html
He claims that the technology will seamlessly blend the human brain with AI, and will ultimately become an added human function, just like speech itself. Neuralink could also allow us to incorporate cloud-based AI computing directly into our minds. It would represent a completely new stage in human evolution.
Mind-brain interfaces have obvious applications for people with severe neurological conditions and paralysis. They will enable people to control machinery by the power of thought alone. Not surprisingly there is a great deal of interest in this from military strategists. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is actively funding research into this technology. The obvious military goal is to create highly enhanced soldiers who will interface with military technology.
The ethical, philosophical and theological issues raised by the possibility of human technological enhancement seem genuinely new and problematic. It is not immediately obvious what a Christian response to these technological possibilities might be.
Why should we not use technology not only to improve our environment but also improve our bodies ‘under the skin’.
What might be called ‘Low-tech transhumanism’ is already becoming part of contemporary culture: for example cosmetic surgery, gender-reassignment surgery, recreational pharmaceuticals, anabolic steroids and ‘gene doping’ to enhance sporting ability.
In the second part of the podcast we will look at some of the fundamental philosophical and theological issues raised by human enhancement and transhumanism.
Read more elsewhere on my website:
Article: Ethical issues within emerging medical technologies
Are we going about making humans better, or making better humans?
Essay: How technology changes the way we understand ourselves
First clockwork machines, then hydraulics, followed by the telegraph, and finally computers. But what are we really?