Exponential growth in key technologies could help us live longer, beat disease and become superintelligent. But can we keep our humanity in the process? By Peter Griffin.
One of the last overseas trips I undertook before Covid-19 shut our borders was to San Francisco to watch a supercomputer take on one of the world's top debaters.
Hundreds of us sat in an auditorium watching on as debate champion Harish Natarajan took to the stage across from a rectangular blue screen, IBM's Project Debater. Both human and machine were given 15 minutes to prepare to debate whether preschool education should be subsidised.
While Natarajan scribbled down some notes, Project Debater's massive brain trawled millions of newspaper articles and Wikipedia entries related to the topic. The machine's comments in favour of the resolution, delivered in a measured female voice, were coherent, factual and compelling.
Natarajan ultimately won the debate by audience vote, with a more, well, human performance. His wit and emotion beat out logic and facts. But the spectacle was a reminder of how far artificial intelligence has come since IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer outplayed Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in May 1997.
In research labs around the world, teams of scientists are making important advances towards developing artificial general intelligence (AGI). If achieved, this wouldn't just make it easier for us to converse with information-dispensing machines, a sort of supercharged Siri or Alexa, but allow AI systems to think like we do, tackling complex, wide-ranging problems, learning as they go.
With the advent of AGI, it becomes more efficient to outsource much of our problem-solving to the machines, as our human capabilities are rendered increasingly inferior. A parallel field of research in brain-machine interfaces could allow us to use that superintelligence to augment our own brain functions.
Elon Musk, the world's richest man, is best known for his electric car company Tesla and aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, which seeks to facilitate the eventual colonisation of Mars. But yet another of his projects, the small, tightly held company Neuralink, could have more profound consequences for humanity, if it manages to deliver on its ambitious aims. Neuralink this year hopes to undertake human trials of a coin-sized brain implant that, once embedded in the skull of a patient, will use hundreds of hair-like fibres to connect to neurons in the brain.
The initial goal is to treat people with conditions such as tinnitus, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and depression, by sending electronic pulses into the areas of the brain responsible for their symptoms. But that's just the start. Eventually, Musk says, the technology could be used to augment our intelligence and memory and even allow us to download our brain to a computer.
When AI supersedes our own intelligence, a Neuralink-type implant may be what allows us to keep up with the machines.
It has to be said that Musk has a reputation for overhyping the timelines of his projects. But the idea is not entirely fanciful. Synchron, a Neuralink rival, earlier this month started a trial of its Stentrode brain implant with six patients who are severely paralysed. The aim is to let them use the implant to control digital devices through their thoughts, allowing them to do simple tasks such as sending a text message or browsing the web.
Event horizon looming
Musk, although he doesn't refer to himself as such, is a transhumanist. He's part of a movement of technologists, philosophers and entrepreneurs who argue that humans merging with technology is the logical next step in our evolutionary path, no different from the emergence of DNA or multicellular life.
"In the transhuman era, either our ape-brains go, to be replaced by something smarter, or we will fail to solve the growing number of global sustainability challenges we face," writes Dr Elise Bohan in her new book, Future Superhuman: Our transhuman lives in a make-or-break century.
An Australian by birth, Bohan is a fresh new voice in the transhumanist movement. She completed her PhD at Macquarie University in "evolutionary macrohistory". In October, she joined the University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute as a senior research scholar. The institute, a hotbed of futurism, is headed by Nick Bostrom, the philosopher and theoretical physicist who is one of the world's leading public intellectuals on AI and was an early evangelist of transhumanism.
"The people that I work with, who have spent their lifetimes thinking about the future of technology and where it's going to take us, see the next 10 years as an event horizon," Bohan tells me over a Zoom call from Sydney. "It's like, after that, we've got nothing."
AI's rapid march forward, possibly backed by advances in quantum computing, will also accelerate the biotech revolution. Dozens of start-ups, many of them backed by the fortunes of Silicon Valley elites such as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, are pushing forward with gene-editing technologies, aiming to tackle diseases and extend the human lifespan.
The American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that the exponential advances in these technologies, powered by AI, will eventually lead to the singularity, when machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. Kurzweil suggests that could happen by 2045.
Bohan is more or less of the same view. "If we don't have AGI in the 21st century, something really bad will have happened to our species," she says. "It means we've had a nuclear war or a deadly pandemic."
She's less bullish on the life-extension therapies aimed at upgrading our "meat sack" bodies. "This is a really hard machine to hack," she says, pointing at herself. "But you don't have those kinds of problems if you're purely in the silicon world."
Wall of opposition
While Musk is plotting human-led missions to Mars, it could actually be digital humans that brave the hostile environment of the red planet and venture further out into the universe, leaving our fragile meat sacks on Earth.
This is how transhumanists think and it can be bewildering listening to them. But this "status quo bias" is only natural. The next few decades will be difficult and unsettling, says Bohan, as these new technologies start to pervade our lives.
"People say we haven't cured cancer yet; we don't have self-driving cars," Bohan acknowledges. "Often it's not the technology that is the impediment, it is the need for it to be as minimally regulated as possible so that it can go out into the world, iterate and be tested properly."
Here's where transhumanists run into a brick wall of opposition. They move too fast for most of us and their willingness to let a small group of techno oligarchs plot the upgrade of the species with minimal intervention from regulators has the potential to turn into the plot of a dystopian sci-fi movie.
But as Bohan points out, we are "unfit custodians of the future, a world of profound discord". She gives humanity a C- for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the coming decades, we will have to deal with the impacts of climate change, as well as the elevated threat of pandemics and nuclear war. The next virus to sweep the globe could be unleashed as a bioweapon by someone tinkering in their basement with a gene-editing kit. AI itself will threaten us, if we aren't careful. But we will also need these emerging technologies to survive what is ahead. "The genies are out of the bottle," says Bohan.
There's no option but to embrace them and evolve. This utilitarian take on the world isn't helped by the fact that characters such as Musk, the unofficial poster child for transhumanism, aren't sympathetic figures. "They tend to be high IQ, disagreeable, skewed somewhat on the spectrum. Those are not the candidates you typically see winning elections," says Bohan. "But if we're just mired in our own petty partisan politics and our class struggles, all the biggest threats that we are eminently capable of tackling are going to go unsolved."
Japan's Human focus
If there's one place in the world you might expect to be a bastion of transhumanist thinking, it's Japan. The country's neon-tinged cityscapes inspired the sci-fi epic Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, which was made into a Hollywood movie shot around the streets of Wellington in 2016. It's just one of many sci-fi comic book (manga) series that imagine a mid-21st-century world of superhumans with augmented brains and prosthetic bodies.
Japan has the oldest population in the world, with one-third of Japanese expected to be aged 65 or older by 2035. The country will need to lean heavily on automation technologies to maintain the productivity of its key industries in the next few decades.
It is a world leader in robotics and has invested heavily in AI research with that looming labour shortage partly in mind. But rather than augmenting humans to any great degree, its scientists have instead turned their attention to making robots more lifelike companions for humans.
Mechanical baby seals purr away, keeping the elderly company, and cutesy assistant robots greet customers entering banks and supermarkets.
"I went there 10 or 15 years ago looking for transhumanists and couldn't find any except for a handful who were reading Ray Kurzweil," says Dr Grant Otsuki, an anthropologist and lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, who studied Japanese scientists who were building human-machine interfaces and robots and, in the process, re-evaluating what it is to be "human".
"What I found there, instead of people talking about human bodies being augmented by genetics or cyborg enhancements, was a focus on technologies that help people better relate with one another. They want connection, to belong, to be loved," says Otsuki, who has also spent time exploring the cryonics movement in Canada, where transhumanists are planning to have their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen when they die, in the hope they can be resurrected.
The Japanese robotics pioneer Hiroshi Ishiguro, who famously created an uncannily lifelike robotic replica of himself, believes there's something unique about the Japanese that makes them more accepting of having robots in their lives.
Japan, he points out, is a small series of islands with a homogenous society that has been ruled by the same royal family for almost 2000 years. "We are like one big family and rather than forming a hierarchical society, we prefer to help each other find a role within it. Therefore, we aren't concerned with distinguishing between robots and humans. We co-exist with one another," he said in a Q&A at London's Barbican Centre in 2019.
Ishiguro admits that advances in technology could make the differences between humans and robots irrelevant anyway. But Otsuki suggests the Japanese approach to developing humanoid robots puts a different spin on these rapidly evolving technologies. "It's not about changing human beings so that they can be better, it's about activating the potential that we have but might not be able to recognise or use without the help of technology," he says.
Ultimately, he argues, technology is "human all the way down". If we are going to have the ability to plug in neural implants and undergo life-enhancing gene therapies, it will still require people to make decisions at every step of the process, from how new genetic therapies are researched and trialled, to what information is used to train machine-learning systems to whether we will actually sign up for a Neuralink implant.
Otsuki considers New Zealand's "precautionary" approach to developing new technologies to be similar to that of many European countries and more conservative than the permissive environments for innovation that exist in the US and China. "I don't think one is necessarily better than the other. Do you want to move forward quickly, but maybe have to deal with a whole lot of unintended consequences and harms that nobody expected? Or do you want regulators and the government to take a more careful approach?"
That's the dilemma politicians face in the transhuman age, although with few of them able to truly understand the technology and its potential to change society, they too often treat it as a curious sideshow.
That's what led to the dominance of Big Tech in our lives. Lax regulation and an infatuation with the brilliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs allowed the likes of Google and Facebook to develop their digital platforms largely unhindered, letting them to scoop up masses of behavioural data about billions of people. The resulting disruption to entire industries, and even the democratic process, has been profound – and not always in a good way.
Unintended consequences in the form of misinformation, hate speech, monopolistic practices and worsening inequality have regulators scrambling to catch up with the innovators. "Facebook had the opportunity to change their algorithms, to incite less harm," Otsuki says. "They chose not to do anything about it. They made the decision to rile people up because that helped engagement."
With the next wave of technologies able to literally get inside our heads and manipulate our biology, the guardrails may need to be much stronger, Otsuki argues. At the very least, we will need a greater level of accountability and transparency on the part of the companies and entrepreneurs commercialising these futuristic technologies.
Otsuki is sceptical of letting the benevolent tech oligarchs get on with it on our behalf. "I would not want Elon Musk running things. He might know technology well, but I think he probably knows very little about society or has a very narrow view of what society is."
Musk's attempt to buy Twitter for US$44 billion, delisting it from the New York Stock Exchange in the process, Otsuki says, "speaks to his mindset. Some of his moves feel like he's trying to avoid accountability for making big decisions."
In the early 19th century, angry English textile workers rampaged through cotton factories, smashing the mechanised looms that had been introduced. The technology represented a threat to their artisanal ways of working. But while they turned their hammers on the new looms, their anger was really directed at the mill owners aiming to hire unskilled workers to run the machines – and churn out what the textile workers considered to be inferior products.
The loom smashing became so disruptive that Parliament passed a law imposing the death penalty for those guilty of the destruction and sent troops into mills to maintain order. "The Luddites only started sabotaging the machines when they weren't allowed to organise, they weren't allowed to have a voice through other means," says Otsuki. "If they'd had a way to speak back to the people putting those technologies in place, there might have been a different way forward."
There's a lesson there for the transhuman age. Today, someone who eschews owning a mobile phone or doesn't use a computer is considered a Luddite. But with millions of jobs likely to be displaced due to robotics and AI-powered automation in the coming decades, it's only natural that new technologies will face similar opposition.
"Some people are going to lose out here for a time, but overall, things are going to get much better," Elise Bohan maintains.
Technologists should be honest about the downsides of augmenting and improving humans through technology, but putting a handbrake on progress is futile. Social acceptance of transhumanism will come about as people realise the technology makes for easier living.
Bohan thinks that will particularly apply to advances in biotechnology that reduce disease, ageing and some of the more uncomfortable processes of being human. Artificial wombs, which have already been used to nurture and grow baby lambs outside of their mothers' wombs, would be like the "iPhone of biotechnology", Bohan says. "You are getting rid of the thing women absolutely hate about having children, which is being a walking incubator for nine months."
The same goes for the holy grail of human health, which is life-extension technologies. "When you ask people whether they want to live to 150, they say no, they'd be terribly bored," says Bohan. "But if I can age at a slower rate with more good years and be sprightly for longer, people want that."
The most radical technologies may not arrive in a rapid rush, but gradually, just as mobile phones and social media crept up on us and, over a 20-year period, became part of the modern world. Transhumanists see this as just the natural evolutionary progression of the human race. Our intelligence has brought us to a point in human history where we can write our own biological future.
"It feels to us like such a miraculous thing, that these tiny single-celled organisms go on to build these giant cities, spaceships and light up the face of the planet," says Bohan. "It just seems so obvious that more knowledge and more discovery and more complexity, more joy, more experience, would be a great thing."
But what is it all in aid of? Where is the evolutionary road map taking us? "The only intent of evolution has ever been survival and reproduction. I think that's very frightening for people because we want a sense of anthropomorphised meaning. We want a sense of spirituality and greater cosmic significance."
There's no obvious endgame for this anti-entropic force that drives species to adapt to their changing environment. "If there's no objective value to that, so be it," says Bohan. "But there is subjective value to that and intelligent life can do cool things. Maybe, just maybe, there is some higher meaning somewhere that if we were smart enough, we could figure it out. That'd be cool, too."
Future Superhuman: Our transhuman lives in a make-or-break century, Elise Bohan, Hachette Aotearoa, $34.99