The message of transhumanism is very simple: thanks to science and technology, people will become beings far superior to modern humans and will live forever. Although there is quite a lot of science fiction in the most enthusiastic transhumanist predictions, its advocates talk about things that are already happening. We know, for example, that antidepressants have been used in people who are clinically healthy, but who want to modify their personality; or treatments with growth hormone to achieve greater height in people who are within the normal range.
Juan Pedro Nuñez, a psychologist and professor at Comillas Pontifical University, analysed the proposals of this transhumanist trend at the Inter-university Congress New Frontiers in Neuroethics organized by the Bioethics Observatory of the UCV. An experienced researcher in the functioning of the brain, Nuñez says that the great asset of transhumanism is that “it aims to offer salvation to man through technology”.
Renowned American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has said that transhumanism is “the most dangerous idea in the world”. What do you think?
I tend to agree with that statement. The development of these technologies carries many risks that we will not be able to avoid; we’re going to face them. It is inevitable that this should happen. I wish we could say “this is very dangerous, let’s not get involved there” and halt certain research, but, just as has happened with any other scientific advance throughout history, this technology is going to be developed, whether we like it or not”.
Genetic manipulation is already a reality, as are chips that interact directly with the brain to improve psychological functions. Although they are not innocuous, these technologies will continue to grow and — given what we know about human nature and the way people behave — we can anticipate (without making great speculations) that we will run risks, some of them difficult to predict.
In addition to the risks, these developments will also have their advantages, won’t they?
Yes, without a doubt the direct interaction of artificial intelligence (AI) with the brain will have many positive aspects, which will drive the development of this technology at an unprecedented speed. AI is the high-speed train of today’s science. It has advanced faster – and in an unpredictable way before it emerged – than any other branch of science and technology throughout history. Its progression is unstoppable, dizzying. Imagine that you had a child who was born deaf and blind, and who would be able to hear and see with a couple of chips implanted in their brain. Wouldn’t you buy them? Of course you would!
We will further develop these technologies and become a new species, in which a significant portion of our brain will be directly interacting with devices that will improve its performance. That’s as long as they work, of course.
A new species? Do you mean the cyborgs that transhumanism talks about, those beings made up of living matter and electronic devices?
Cyborg brains already exist. In fact, there is a human being legally recognized as such, and an association of cyborgs, people who have chips inserted into their heads to be able to develop certain psychological functions it’s not science fiction.
It’s a little scary to hear this
It is what it is… We can’t bury our heads in the sand. Personally, I don’t think we’ll be able to control the progress of this artificial technology until we crash into a reality that forces society to rethink the issue, as happened with nuclear weapons. Until he stumbles and falls, man will not rethink whether the path he is following is the right one. But it will have to be a hard blow.
Meanwhile, these devices will evolve and there will be a lot of humans with very well assisted brains (which is not the same as developed), which is what they’re trying to sell us.
Yes. Most transhumanists are computer entrepreneurs who have become wealthy and own multi-million dollar companies that are selling us a dream, which is part reality, and they do so fantastically. But they only tell us the good part. As we know, the small print in the contract, the possible side effects, do not appear in the advertising of any product.
They say we’ll be better, but it’s not true. Travelling by car does not make us faster; the fast thing is the vehicle. When I get out of the car, I’m just as slow as before. In fact, if I drive a lot, my muscle capacity will be reduced and I will be slower. That’s what we’re forgetting. Our brain function will not grow with the incorporation of those systems. The advantages of this technology will make us dependent on it, and that will mean the inhibition or atrophy of functions that we would have to exercise every day without those artificial crutches.
What a paradox. We will be both more powerful and weaker than ever
Of course! Imagine someone whose arms have been atrophied by a disease. One day they implant some chips and once again he can perform all the functions he had lost. Great! This is a very positive effect of technological progress. But if I, who don’t have any disease, see that these devices have multiplied the physical strength of that person tenfold, I will also want to implant them. If I can afford them, I will. And everyone who can will do so.
What if your financial situation changes and you can’t afford another chip?
I will discover that my arms, which were functionally fit and strong before I implanted the chips — although not at the level permitted by the artificial system — will be very similar to yours, which were atrophied, because my muscles will not have developed and my original nerve endings will probably be destroyed, useless. People will pay whatever it takes to not stay that way.
Thus, the original biological nature will diminish greatly and will not be ours, that of the humans of 2023, just as we are much inferior physically to the Cro-Magnons or Neanderthals, whose survival depended on strength.
Those chips implanted in the brain touch on a key issue for man and that you, moreover, have studied a lot: consciousness
And that will have consequences, possibly very serious. Imagine that one of these chips has a language translator inserted. Thanks to it, you will be able to understand a Chinese, a Russian or a Maori person, and they you. That is, these chips will generate conscious experiences through stimulations in certain neurological centres and you will understand Finnish, you will say words in German, in Swahili, etc. But, in the medium or long term, what will it mean for our brain that a device makes conscious experiences, when it has always been the brain itself that did it?
Personally, I defend the idea that the brain is somewhat or largely organized around conscious activity and, if I am right, that structure built around the enormously exceptional and very rare activity that is consciousness, would begin to be diminished, to be inhibited because it is supported by artificial systems, just like the muscles and nerves we talked about before.
What effects will this have?
If we understand the person as a package of the biological and the artificial, we can continue to believe that we will have a better human being, as the transhumanists claim. In my opinion, that is very questionable, because it is neutral in terms.
The highly developed system will be the artificial part, which can fail, which can be fitted and removed. The other part, the biological and psychological, which is innate to us, will atrophy in one of the mainstays of its raison d’être: conscious experience. I think it is an indisputable possibility as such. Thus, we would become organisms whose brain would no longer operate around that structure at the same level as it does now. The consequences would be devastating for human nature.
Tell us that there is some hope of avoiding it
There will be if the debate that takes place discusses the ethical aspects, not just the scientific ones; however, we are not an ethical world but one that is driven, above all, by the market. Some small restrictions can be placed on the market in this area, as is already the case with genetic manipulation, but it is a fight between David and Goliath in which Goliath will win the battle most times, although from time to time David’s sling may achieve a small victory, imposing a sensible limit.
I would like to believe that, in something like transhumanism, which so drastically, if not dramatically, affects our nature, ethical reflection predominates over the market. Hopefully… but when has that happened in human history? Of course, when the market takes us to the brink, all the ethical reflection that we have been able to do during the process will help us.