Transhumanist Innovation and the Future of Work, Health, and Personhood

by Andy Heikkila


“Transhumanism” isn’t a word that many people are familiar with. At least not yet. Just as “The Internet of Things” and “Automation” have begun to creep into the popular english lexicon, “Transhumanism” will also see its day at the forefront of our zeitgeist–perhaps sooner rather than later.

The more popular and perhaps crude term for a “transhuman” might actually be “cyborg,” a word that conveys sci-fi overtones and the radical mashing of man and machine. While the connotations presented are more rooted in hyperbole than the subtle transhuman reality that is actually emerging, the concept of combining human tissue and synthetic hardware is indeed at the root of transhumanism.

Even if transhumanist innovation hasn’t quite permeated the popular cultural veil quite yet, the philosophy–the movement, even–is already changing the world. Neil Harbisson is perhaps the most recognizable transhuman, brandishing an antenna implanted in his skull that extends into a receiver hovering above his crown. He explains the function of this device in his TED Talk, “I Listen to Color”.

While the idea of hearing color is awesome, synesthesia is just the beginning of the transhuman adventure for our species. The worlds of work, health, and even the idea of “personhood” may be irrevocably altered by a future in which transhumanist innovation is allowed to blossom.

Work, Capitalism, and Subtle Transhumanism

Writing for the London School of Economics and Political Science’s LSE Business Review, Steve Fuller is the author of an article titled “Transhumanism and the Future of Capitalism: The Next Meaning of Life”. He argues that transhumanism is following the subtle model mentioned above, and that the one of the first places that we’re seeing it is in Capitalist societies:

“…as computers mediate both the work and non-work aspects of life, many of the phenomenological markers that created distance between the ‘worlds’ of work and non-work are rapidly disappearing,” says Fuller. “An obvious case in point is the idea of ‘working from home’. People who operate this way typically shift back and forth between performing work and non-work activities on screen in an open-ended and relatively unstructured day.”

workplace-1616459_960_720His paper centers around exploitation, and the ways in which our increasing connection to technology is often driven by capitalist ventures. This point is presented front and center in the particular blog post you’re reading because it shouldn’t ever be forgotten that, while we find a sense of meaning in creating cyber-selves, for example, our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram avatars and personas, that these platforms are owned by third parties. In a sense, we have already entered the world of transhumanism because we spend so much time online, and have even transferred a bit of ourselves to that online world. The phenomenon is such that those who haven’t created a “cyberself” are often not trusted by others in society–more on that in the upcoming section on “personhood”.

Hopefully, our plunge into a transhumanist future is driven more by our want to explore, adventure, heal, and grow, but it is more likely that we will be driven by the desire to make a dollar. This is not necessarily a bad thing–but the idea of “transcending humanity” being tied to such base and material gains seems a bit ironic.

Health, CRISPR, and Nanobots

While the nuances concerning transhumanism and the future of work are often more subtle and uncertain (because who knows what the future of “work” looks like, especially when technology may one day do away with the concept of work altogether), the future of healthcare is often more visceral and tangible. This still doesn’t necessarily point to a future where wearables are implanted en masse, or where you get “robot leg surgery” a la grandma’s boy, thought the effects may be just as profound.

Two areas in which human beings are already beginning to radically alter the human composition are in CRISPR genome sequencing, and the eventuality of nanobots.

See, the medical field is experiencing unprecedented growth as is, with job outlook of 22% through 2022 for medical assistants, in general, but also with high rates for Medical Laboratory Technologists as well. This is because of the above-mentioned technologies, and the recent success of CRISPR.

CRISPR-Cas9 is essentially a tool that allows doctors to “take a scalpel”, so to speak, on a genetic sequence, and has allowed us to fight prostate, bladder, mesothelioma cancers with extremely high success rates, and has even produced tuberculosis-resistant cows. In the future, we may be able to genetically alter children before they are born so that they’ll never have to worry about the genetic diseases of their predecessors. This, however, raises ethical concerns of its own.

“Given that the issues of being able to modify a genome, especially an embryo, are now much more immediate and more concerning, that’s why a number of groups have raised the alarm that it’s now time. It’s no longer science fiction,” said stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical Center, Dr. George Daley, Ph.D., in an article on Healthline.

Nanorobotics therapy is closely related to CRISPR initiatives, though it is still much more experimental. This method relies on introducing robots, about a nanometer in size, into the bloodstream to repair genes and even perhaps to act as T cells fighting off foreign invaders. Either way, the process of dealing with “imperfections in human DNA” is at the very core of the current transhumanist reality.

Changing the Idea of Personhood

When you combine the ideology and biology of transhumanism, you’ll quickly realize that innovation in this space has the potential to redefine what it means to be a person. One of the best examples of this comes from the bioethicists call to carefully scrutinize genetic tampering, especially in relationship to “designer babies”.

robot-507811_960_720Disparity in human “worth” could arise between children whose parents decide that they will receive gene-therapy or other implants and those who do not. By no choice of their own, these children might be deemed unequal, lesser than those “advanced” transhumans who have received the “right” genes over the “wrong” ones. Eugenics did not serve humanity well in the 20th century, and has the potential to undo it further in the 21st.

On the other hand, transhumanism makes bold claims that every human could benefit from, chiefly among them a remedy for death by uploading consciousness to a computer. This would absolutely require, however, a redefining of personhood–as what is a person without a body at all? Would the person’s consciousness be anything more than just a computer program?

An Uncertain Future

While certain aspects of transhumanism seem inescapable, especially pertaining to “cyber-identity” and our already-seemingly-symbiotic relationship with technology (how naked do you feel without your phone?), others are not yet certain.

There are still fundamental flaws associated with hardware implantation, for example, that raise questions such as: “what do I do when my hardware is outdated?” and “Is surgical implantation the only way to become transhuman?” Nanobots solve the above quandaries, but this technology is still out of reach at the beginning of 2017.

Nevertheless, genetic modification is a current reality, and the experts all agree that this technology has opened doors that can never be closed again.

Additionally, advances in A.I. and robotics are helping us learn more about the human brain than we’ve ever known in the entire history of the human species. Interfacing and integrating with technology at the level of consciousness is perhaps even further “out there” than nanobots, but the implications of said concepts are astounding.

Nobody knows for sure exactly how the future will play out. The only thing that’s certain is a future ripe with possibilities, including that where an individual can transcend his or her own humanity. That’s what “transhuman” means anyway, isn’t it?

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Andrew HeikkilaAndrew Heikkila, a tech enthusiast and writer from Boise, Idaho, and a frequent contributor to Innovation Excellence. He also writes for Tech Crunch. You can follow him @AndyO_TheHammer

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