Bruce Sterling on Thu, 31 Jul 2003 07:42:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Mostly Original Substrate Humans

*"Why should the noodlings of a relative handful of futurists matter?"
Whoa, hey, good question there, better ask nettime -- bruces

Inside the Movement for Posthuman Rights
Cyborg Liberation Front
by Erik Baard

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

Yeats's wish, expressed in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium," was a
governing principle for those attending the World Transhumanist
Association conference at Yale University in late June. International
academics and activists, they met to lay the groundwork for a society that
would admit as citizens and companions intelligent robots, cyborgs made
from a free mixing of human and machine parts, and fully organic,
genetically engineered people who aren't necessarily human at all. A good
many of these 160 thinkers aspire to immortality and omniscience through
uploading human consciousness into ever evolving machines.

The three-day gathering was hosted by an entity no less reputable than the
Yale Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project's Working Research Group on
Technology and Ethics; the World Transhumanist Association chairman and
co-founder is Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom. Dismiss it as a
Star Trek convention by another name, and you could miss out on the
culmination of the Western experiment in rights and reason.

The opening debate, "Should Humans Welcome or Resist Becoming Posthuman?,"
raised a question that seems impossibly far over the horizon in an era
when the idea of reproductive cloning remains controversial. Yet the
back-and-forth felt oddly perfunctory. Boston University bioethicist
George Annas denounced the urge to alter the species, but the response
from the audience revealed a community of people who feel the
inevitability of revolution in their bones.

"It's like arguing in favor of the plough. You know some people are going
to argue against it, but you also know it's going to exist," says James
Hughes, secretary of the Transhumanist Association and a sociologist
teaching at Trinity College in Connecticut. "We used to be a subculture
and now we're becoming a movement."

A movement taken seriously enough that it's already under attack. Hughes
cites the anti-technologist Unabomber as a member of the "bio-Luddite"
camp, though an extremist one. "I think that if, in the future, the
technology of human enhancement is forbidden by bio-Luddites through
government legislation, or if they terrorize people into having no access
to those technologies, that becomes a fundamental civil rights struggle.
Then there might come a time for the legitimate use of violence in
self-defense," he says. "But long before that there will be a black market
and underground network in place."

Should a fully realized form of artificial intelligence become in some
manner enslaved, Hughes adds, "that would call for liberation acts -- not
breaking into labs, but whatever we can do."

But beyond the violent zealots, who are these supposed bio-Luddites? From
the right, Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, rails
against transhumanism in his book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of
Dignity, and Francis Fukuyama weighs in with his fearful exploration, Our
Posthuman Future. From the left, environmentalist Bill McKibben fires
Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, a book that reads like a
227-page-long helpless screech of brakes on a train steaming ahead at full

They have a case for being somewhat apocalyptic about the convergence of
genetics, computer science, nanotechnology, and bioengineering. The
outcome is almost guaranteed to strain our ancient sensibilities and
definitions of personhood.

For now, though, the dialogue sounds like a space-age parlor game. Why
should the noodlings of a relative handful of futurists matter? The easy
answer, and that's not to say it isn't a true one: As with science
fiction, the scenarios we imagine reflect and reveal who we are as a
society today. For example, how can we continue to exploit animals when we
fear the same treatment from some imagined superior race in the future?

But the purpose of the Yale conference was direct, with no feinting at
other agendas. The crowd there wanted to shape what they see as a coming
reality. From the first walking stick to bionic eyes, neural chips, and
Stephen Hawking's synthesized voice, they would argue we've long been in
the process of becoming cyborgs. A "hybrot," a robot governed by neurons
from a rat brain, is now drawing pictures. Dolly the sheep broke the
barrier on cloning, and new transgenic organisms are routinely created.
The transhumanists gathered because supercomputers are besting human chess
masters, and they expect a new intelligence to pole-vault over humanityin
this century.

"All one has to do is read the science journals to know these issues are
on the table today," says Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, who
serves as a bioethics adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
and has, along with other dignitaries, discussed the posthuman prospect
with French president Jacques Chirac. "One thing I can say with certainty
from my experience is that the wheels of law, of the legislative process,
grind very slowly within nations and slower still internationally. The
progress of science, on the other hand, is ever accelerating. If anything,
we've been surprised at how quickly technology has progressed. It's worth
taking on these issues intellectually now, rather than in crisis later."

Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil argues we should clean our ethical house
so our technologically derived descendants inherit compassionate values,
but he predicts the transition to posthumanity will be smooth. "We already
have neural implants for things like Parkinson's disease," he says. "By
the time machines make a case for themselves in a convincing way and have
all the subtle cues indicative of emotional reaction, there won't be a
clear distinction between machine and human."

Natasha Vita-More, a founder of the trans-humanist movement, says there's
cause for vigilance now. "To relinquish the rights of a future being
merely because he, she, or it has a higher percentage of machine parts
than biological cell structure would be racist toward all humans who have
prosthetic parts," argues the activist, whose adopted name reflects her
aspirations. She has already laid out a conceptual design for an optimized
human, called Primo, featuring add-ons like sonar, a fiber-optic cable
down the spine, and a head crammed with nanotech data storage.

But progress toward these new beings is often overestimated by the
transhumanist crowd, applied scientists caution. "Some of these
transhumanists are pretty far out of touch with what's going on in the
labs. When I tell them that, I feel like I'm smashing their dreams," says
Steve Potter, the Georgia Tech neuroscientist behind the hybrot.

A leading creator of "sociable robots," Cynthia Breazeal of M.I.T., says a
chief worry is that we might try to extend rights to beings who aren't
prepared for them. Breazeal assiduously avoids calling her robots by
gendered pronouns. That even she occasionally slips when faced with the
large, beseeching eyes of one of her creations means nothing, she says.
But it must mean something. No one accidentally calls a toaster "he" or

Two news stories from the past month offer a window into the bizarre
inconsistencies of human empathy. In one instance, Sinafasi Makelo, who
represents Mbuti Pygmies, appealed to the UN's Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Issues to save his people from cannibalism during the civil war
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soldiers on both sides of the war
are said to view that ethnic group as "subhuman." Meanwhile, the iRobot
company reported that more than half of the owners of its Roomba
vacuum-cleaning robots name their machines, and some even take them on

Indeed, a good many of the transhumanists and extropians (a libertarian
subset concerned with improving human nature through technology) are
feverishly anticipating what they call the Singularity, the moment when
technologies meld and an exponentially advancing intelligence is
unleashed. To critics, that millennialism can seem like irrational

"I go straight to the question of why on earth we would want to do this in
first place. I've been unable to come up with an answer," McKibben says.
"All of this enhancing and souping up presupposes a goal or an aim. What
is that goal? What is it we're not intelligent enough to do now? It's not
to feed the hungrythat has to do with how we share things. Fighting
disease? We're making steady progress in conventional medical science with
the brains that we have right now. There are a thousand reasons not to
trade in people, as we have known them throughout human history, for
something else."

Except that human history may be brief without the Singularity. This is
the core argument for the entire movement, the reason that hall at Yale
was packed: A posthuman future may be our species' only chance for any
legacy at all.

Talk to transhumanists about the nightmares of a blitzkrieg of nanites
turning the world into "gray goo," the dark vision of human mutants in
rebellion, or the specter of killer robots on the loose, and they'll
calmly remind you the earth has an expiration date. Climate change,
natural or not, could break civilization in mere thousands of years;
cosmic catastrophes will snuff out the survivors later. If anything is to
remain of us, we'll need to settle around other stars.

Us. We. Here's where vanity finds its end. The humanity -- the us, wethat
strode out of Africa and braved the Pacific Ocean in outrigger canoes and
the Arctic in longboats cannot and never will be able to make that final
journey. We're too delicate and too dumb. But new forms of being might be
able to stake out an interstellar future. They could view us as kin,
carrying some essence of our ideals, a memory of Shakespeare secure in
their vast webs of intelligence. Transhumanists are asking whether we'll
embrace the kinds of life that come next as a necessary extension of
ourselves or shun them as monstrosities.

Simply deciding against their existencewilling them into a shadowy corner
of the imagination or legislating against themwon't work. Every law ever
made has been broken, observes Kirby. "Detailed regulation is not possible
and probably not desirable," asserts Kirby. "This is not defeatism or
resignation. It is realism."

If he's right, we can't afford to renounce a role in a new intelligence's
emergence or cede the chance to imprint it with cultural values. One day,
that first cybernetic, genetically spliced, or wholly artificially created
being will step into the town square of democracy. What then of the
seminal words of our society: "We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and
the pursuit of Happiness."

"Men," or even "human beings," won't be adequate labels anymore. Life will
have been radically redefined, along with the fundamental events of birth
and death that bracket it. Equality will be moot, and enforcing it could
reasonably be seen as unjust to beings with categorically different or
greater abilities. Blake's words ring here: "One Law for the Lion & the Ox
is Oppression."

The potential great unifier, however, is Thomas Jefferson's notion of
"happiness." For the Enlightenment thinker, the concept hardly equated to
sanguinity. Instead, he was echoing Aristotle's term eudaimonia, for which
"happiness" is merely a common translation. But the Sinclair version of
The Politics makes clear that what we now hold as a synonym for
contentment, in fact refers to the fulfillment of potential -- "the state 
well-being which consists in living in the exercise of all, especially the
highest (i.e., rational and ethical) faculties of man."

If anything, the newcomers envisioned by transhumanists will be better
equipped to pursue that kind of happiness. Kurzweil argues the newcomers
will likely protect our rights by grandfathering into their society those
of us who'd prefer not to be enhanced. Those people, the MOSH (Mostly
Original Substrate Humans), would be free to live and love as before, to
the best of their limited abilities.

Today, though, we're still in control, so posthuman rights depend on us,
on how freely we let researchers work and how freely we can use and even
alter our bodies and minds. Transhumanists look for inspiration to civil
rights battles, most recently to the transgender and gay push for

"The whole thrust of the liberal democratic movement of the last 400 years
has been to allow people to use reason and science to control their own
lives, free from the authority of church and state," Hughes says. "That
insight and thrust has had ramifications in movements all across the

But transhumanists' embrace of other minorities isn't always returned.
Hughes says rights groups traditionally keep a narrow focus on immediate
goals and sometimes resent any cause they fear will dilute their
resources. With abortion clinic workers still under siege, he says, some
who advocate reproductive freedom shun the transhumanists. Gay couples who
simply want to start families have already been demonized by Senator Rick
Santorum as opening the way to legalized bestiality. They might not
particularly like being associated with imagined cyborgs and human-animal

One operative of the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a secretive
technology group that provides robots and other gear to protesters, eyes
the civil rights landscape and doesn't see many friends for the newcomers.
"Most of the folks you'd normally go to are really suspicious of a lot of
this technology," says this person, noting that much of the cutting-edge
development in artificial intelligence has been for military and
law-enforcement purposes. "You're writing this against the backdrop of a
growing police-surveillance state, so it's not surprising that many folks
are a bit skittish."

The key to building allies, to making the cause too important to be
ignored, might be to differentiate between the relatively narrow category
of humanity and the more sweeping status of personhood. But a vague mantra
like "sentience freedom" won't easily supplant the primacy of "human

For another approach, a metaphor drawn from Judaism may be instructive.
The Torah requires that Jews carry nothing in a public place on the
Sabbath. However, the Talmud allows a shared symbolic home for the Jewish
community to be constructed by stringing a wire or thread around a
neighborhood. Might we now expand just such an eruv for the house of
humanity and human rights?

Here again, transhumanists run up against present-day obstacles, for
religion itself could be used to bar the recognition of the newcomers'
humanity. The language of soulfulness isn't predisposed to accepting
machines. It's sensual and organic, fluid and global -- ghost, spirit, waug,
piuts, nephesh, nefsall deriving from words for "breath."

More practically, the memory of the role of religious leaders in the civil
rights movement of the last century has faded. The Yale event, the
Transhumanist Association's first North American gathering, was
overwhelmingly secular. Moreover, the biotech needed for posthuman
advancement runs afoul of prohibitions against destroying fetuses. Yet
there's surprising receptiveness among the religious intelligentsia.

"I would say if a creature is both sentient and intelligent, and has a
moral sense, then that creature should be considered a human being
irrespective of the genesis of that person," says Rabbi Norman Lamm,
chancellor of Yeshiva University.

He finds agreement at the Catholic-run Georgetown Medical Center. "To err
on the side of inclusion is the loving thing to do," concludes Kevin
FitzGerald, a Jesuit priest who happens to be a molecular geneticist and

But they, along with an Islamic scholar interviewed for this article, hold
strong reservations about the necessity and good of the transhumanist
aims. Such qualms are natural. The transhumanists are forcing, with
microchips and DNA, a debate on ancient and unanswerable questions, says
Bonnie Kaplan, chair of Yale's Technology and Ethics Working Group,
co-sponsor of the conference.

"My gut says we'll never have the answer to that question we first raised
thousands of years ago: Who are we?"

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