Trans- und posthumanist fantasies

By Edwin Hübner, December 2017

The transhumanists are telling a kind of religious salvation story in the guise of IT concepts. The question what it means to be human is taking on an existential dimension. In Waldorf education we have to confront the abolition of the human being.

Photo: © Colorbox

Promethean discrepancy

Technical developments are accelerating so fast that it is hard to keep up. The developmental periods of human beings and of technology are increasingly diverging. Human beings live in the regular rhythms of their organism. Their heart beats in the same way today as it did a hundred years ago at an average frequency of 72 beats per minute. Human abilities require long periods for their development. That cannot be accelerated.

What a difference with technology. Take chip technology, for example: here there is an ever increasing tempo of development. Gordon Moore’s forecast in the mid-1960s that the number of transistors incorporated in a chip would approximately double every 18 to 24 months (Moore’s Law) has turned out to be the case with astonishing accuracy.

When something doubles in the same period of time then we have an exponential development. This widening division in the speed of development could already be observed many decades ago. The philosopher of technology Günther Anders described it as long ago as the 1950s. He spoke about our inability “to  keep up emotionally … with our products”. He described this lack of synchronicity between human beings and their product world as “Promethean discrepancy”.

Human redundancy

This Promethean discrepancy is growing and is displacing people from the economic process. Recent studies predict that within a few years more than half of all jobs will have been lost. In the long term we are heading for a 20/80 society in which only 20 percent of people will still have to work to supply all the other people with food and goods.

For the current generation of pupils very little will be left of the current model of a wage-earning society. Then each person will be faced with the question as to how to give meaning to their life when gainful employment falls away as the factor which provides such meaning. If people do not manage this, then they might in future spend their lives “feeling guilty about their redundancy” or, indeed, loiter among their machines like bewildered dinosaurs, as Günther Anders pithily puts it. What is the meaning of my existence? What is the meaning of life? The old religions might still be able to provide an answer for the occasional person but their power, which once defined cultures, has ebbed away.

Transhumanism: the new techno-religion

Instead, a new religion is appearing on the horizon: the techno-religion of transhumanism. Currently it has very few adherents in terms of numbers but the adherents it does have occupy key positions in technological research and development in Silicon Valley and are very effective communicators. Supporters of transhumanism do not want to be seen as religious believers but in essence it is nevertheless a doctrine of salvation. What is it about?

It is about an image of the human being which sees people as mere information-processing machines. Hence we can combine this biological machine with technically produced machines. The brain is seen as hardware on which the software of “human consciousness” runs. This could also be simulated in technical machines in that the existing consciousness is transferred to computers. Since, in contrast to the brain, computers keep improving their performance, transhumanists believe that they can achieve the unlimited enhancement of intellectual performance through linking technical with human intelligence: “Human-like intelligence combined with the speed, precision and communicative ability inherent to computers will lead to an unbeatable combination,” says the director of engineering at Google, Raymond Kurzweil.

For such transhumanists, cosmic evolution is not one of human beings but of intelligence in which humans only pay an intermediate role. Transhumanism will turn into posthumanism.

The developmental dynamic of technology is projected by the transhumanists into the future. They take it for granted that it will continue unchecked. Since every exponential development grows explosively from a certain point onwards, they assume the same will happen in technological development. This leads to be belief that a point of development will be reached in the near future at which artificial intelligence will overtake that of humans or merge with it. The transhumanists expect this to occur in 2045. They call it the “singularity”.

The “2045 Initiative”

Starting from such thinking, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov in 2011 founded the “2045 Initiative”. In the founding appeal it says: “We need a new paradigm for human evolution. We need a new ideology and new ethics. Our lives are limited by biology and our earthbound existence. […] But for the first time evolution has become controllable. […] Developments in some connected technologies have made possible the creation of self-organising systems which are in a position to replicate the life and consciousness of biological systems in non-biological carriers. That is the path of transhumanist transformation: replacing biological evolution by cybernetic evolution”.

The initiative aims to reach this goal in four large steps:

  • By 2020 people are to be able to control robotic avatars with their thoughts.
  • In 2025 it is to be possible to transplant the brain of a person into a robot at the end of their life so that the person can continue to live in the robot.
  • In 2035 the aim is to have reached the stage at which a brain transplant will no longer be necessary. The human personality will be transferred into the artificial brain of a robot shortly before death so that it can continue to live in the machine.
  • In 2045 ultimate immortality on earth is to have been achieved in that human consciousness enters an artificial brain from which it can appear in the world as a hologram-like avatar.
  • The aspiration is creative omnipotence:
  • The ageing process is to be overcome and death vanquished.
  • Human consciousness is to be given access to different bodies and virtual realities.
  • Humans are to be enabled to shape matter through the power of thoughts. They are also to be made capable of creating their own personal universe which they can control as they wish.
  • Attainment of full control over space and time, conquering space in that intelligence separates itself from the earth and pervades all matter and energy in the cosmos. The ultimate goal of development has thereby been achieved, the evolution of the universe has come to an end.

The cosmic evolution of intelligence

These goals are embedded in an overall picture of evolution. Trans- und posthumanism divides evolution into six great epochs.

  • The first epoch starts with the Big Bang. The atoms are created and the physical constants and chemical laws are formed.
  • In the second epoch, simple biological life arises on the basis of which the “data processing mechanisms of the third epoch (nervous system and brain)” develop.
  • In the fourth epoch, technology arises through the brain in combination with the human hands. It develops at an exponential rate.
  • In the fifth epoch, which will start in 2045, human and machine intelligence merge. “The fifth epoch will enable our human-machine civilisation to transcend the human brain’s limitations of a mere hundred trillion extremely slow connections,” forecasts Kurzweil.
  • In the sixth epoch the universe then awakens. The intelligence separates itself from the machine-human and pervades all matter and energy. “In any event the ‘dumb’ matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence, which will constitute the sixth epoch in the evolution of patterns of information. This is the ultimate destiny of the Singularity and of the universe,” to quote Kurzweil again.

It is hard not to see that such thoughts possess a spiritual and theological dimension. Dressed up as concepts of information technology, a kind of religious salvation story is told.

Realisation of transhumanist ideas

Now, we might think that such ideas are something for weird science fiction fans who do not have to be taken seriously. On the contrary, transhumanist ideas are taken very seriously in the software houses of Silicon Valley. Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis founded the “Singularity University” in 2008 for example. The primary aim of this small university is to train elite managers, but in the spirit of transhumanist ideology.

One of the main sponsors of this university is Google. Google is a corporation which wants to realise the Singularity. From the beginning, the founders of Google had the aim of developing artificial intelligence with their search engine. Google continues today to work intensively on the realisation of artificial intelligence and has already come quite close to this goal. A series of company takeovers has meanwhile turned Google into the largest manufacturer of robots worldwide. The work on the self-driving Google car should also be seen in this context: the aim is to design a robot car with independent technical intelligence.

“Nothing less is at stake than the idea of uploading humans to the Cloud and giving them a life beyond their mortal body,” says Christoph Keese in his book Silicon Valley. What that might look like in practical terms is set out in Jens Lubbadeh’s recent science fiction novel Unsterblich (Immortal).

On the way there, the search is on for processes which link humans ever closer to machines. On the one hand, the aim is to connect the human brain directly to the Internet. Google co-founder Sergey Brin: “We want to turn Google into the third half of your brain.” On the other hand, it is to make it possible for humans to control machines directly and solely through their thinking.

Astonishing results have so far been achieved in this respect. Thus in 2012 a paralysed woman deftly controlled a robotic arm with her thoughts after having electrodes implanted in her brain (see YouTube).

Desertion to the camp of the machines?

What such technologies are endeavouring to achieve might be described in Günther Anders’ words  as the “desertion” of human beings to the camp of the machines. Since humans feel hopelessly inferior to their own machine creations and cannot keep up with their exponential rate of development, they are now starting to convert themselves into machines, cyborgs. They turn themselves into a co-machine in the globally networked world of appliances. They want to achieve immortality within the Internet of Things while killing themselves off as a soul and spiritual being with eternal life.

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard once aptly said: “In aiming for virtual (technical) immortality and ensuring its exclusive perpetuation by a projection into artefacts, the human species is precisely losing its own immunity and specificity and becoming immortalised as an inhuman species; it is abolishing in itself the mortality of the living in favour of the immortality of the dead.”

Transhumanist ideologies are a challenge to reflect on the nature of the human being. They turn the question as to the meaning of human beings into an existential one. Waldorf teachers have to confront these attempts to make the human being redundant.

The reductionist errors of transhumanist thinking can be used to show what the nature of the human being really is and the contribution education can make to giving school a human timeframe so that children can develop in a way worthy of human beings.

About the author: Prof. Dr Edwin Hübner was a teacher of mathematics, physics and religion at the Frankfurt/Main Free Waldorf School. Since 2001 he has been a research fellow at the Institut für Pädagogik, Sinnes- und Medienökologie (IPSUM) in Stuttgart. He is currently a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. Author of several books on the subject of media education.