All Too Human


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Recently, at a wedding reception, I polled some friends about immortality. Suppose you could upload  your brain  tomorrow and live forever as a human-machine hybrid, I asked an overeducated couple from San Francisco, parents of two young daughters. Would you do it? The husband, a 42-year-old M.D.-Ph.D., didn’t hesitate before answering yes. His current research, he said, would likely bear  fruit  over thenext severalcenturies, and  he wanted  to see what would come of it. “Plus, I want to see what the world is like

10,000 years from now.” The wife, a 39-year-old with an art history doctorate, was also unequivocal. “No way,” she said. “Death is part of life. I want to know what dying is like.”

I wondered if his wife’s decision might give the hus- band pause,  but  I diplomatically decided todrop  it. Still,  the  whole  thing was  more  than simply  dinner- party fodder. If you believe the claims of some futurists, we’ll sooner or later need to grapple with these types of questions because, according to some  experts, we are heading toward a postbiological world  in which  death is passé—or at least very much  under our control.


The most fanciful version of this transcendent fu- ture  is Ray Kurzweil’s. Inhis2005  best-selling book The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil  predicted that arti- ficial intelligence would  soon“encompass all human knowledge and   proficiency.”   Nanoscalebrain-scan- ning  technology will ultimately enable “ourgradual transfer of our  intelligence, personality, and  skillsto the  nonbiological portion of ourintelligence.” Mean- whilebillions  of nanobots inside  ourbodies  will “de- stroypathogens, correct DNA errors, eliminate tox- ins,  and  perform many  other tasks  toenhance our physical well-being. As a result, we will be able to live indefinitely without aging.” These  nanobots will cre- ate“virtual  reality  from  within the  nervous system.” Increasingly, we will live in thevirtual realm, which will be indistinguishable from  that anemic universe we might call “real reality.”

Based on progress in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics and  on theexponential rate  of technological change, Kurzweil set the  date   for  the  singularity— when  nonbiological intelligence so far exceedsall hu- man  intelligence that there is “a profound and disrup- tive transformation in human capability”—at 2045. To- day a handful of singulatarians still hold to that date, and progress in  an  aspect of  artificialintelligence known as deep learning has only encouraged them.

Most scientists, however,  think that any manifes- tation of ourcyborgdestiny is much,  much  farther away. Sebastian Seung,  a neuroscientist and  artificial


intelligence researcher at Princeton University, has argued that uploading the  brain may never  be possi- ble. Brains  aremade  up of 100 billion  neurons, con- nected by synapses; the entirety of those  connections make  upthe  connectome, which  some  neuroscien- tists  believe  holds  the  key to our  identities. Evenby Kurzweilian standards of technological progress, that is a whole lot of connections to mapand  upload. And the  connectome might beonly  the  beginning: neu- rons  can  also  interact with  one  anotheroutside of synapses, and such “extrasynaptic interactions” could turn out  to  beessential to  brain function. If so, as Seung  argued in his 2012 book Connectome:  How the Brain’s Wiring Makes  Us Who We Are, a brain upload might also have to include notjust every connection, or every neuron, butevery atom.  The computational power  required for that, he wrote,  “is completely out of the  question unless  yourremote descendants sur- vive for galactic timescales.”

Still, the very possibility of a cyborg future, howev- er remote or implausible, raises  concerns important enough that legitimate philosophers are  debating it in earnest. Even if our technology fails to achieve  the fullKurzwelian vision,  augmentation of our  minds and  our  bodies  maytake  us part of the  way there— raising questions about what makes  us human.

I ask David Chalmers, a philosopher and  co-direc- tor  of the  Center  for Mind,  Brain  and  Consciousness at NewYork University who  has  written about the best way to upload yourbrain to preserve yourself- identity, whether he expects he will have the opportu- nity  to  live  forever.   Chalmers, who  is  50,  says  he doesn’t think so—but that “absolutely these  issues are going  to  become  practical possibilities sometime in the next century or so.”

Ronald Sandler, an environmental ethicist and chair of the department of philosophy and religion at North- eastern University, says talking about our cyborg future 

“puts a lot of issuesin sharp relief. Thinking about the limit case can teach you about the near-term case.”

And, of course,  if there is even the remote possibili- ty that those  of us alive today  might ultimately get to choose   between death  or  immortality as  a  cyborg, maybe it’s best to start mulling it over now. So putting aside  the question of feasibility, it is worth pausing to consider more  fundamental questions. Is it desirable? If my brain and my consciousness were uploaded into a cyborg, who would I be? Would I still love my family and  friends? Would  they  stilllove me? Would  I, ulti- mately,  still be human?


One  of the issues philosophers think about is how we treat one another. Wouldwe still have the Golden Rule in a posthuman world?  A few years ago Sandler co-authored a paper, “Transhumanism, Human Dig- nity, and  Moral  Status,”  arguing that “enhanced” hu- mans  would  retain a moral obligation to regular hu- mans.  “Even  if youbecome  enhanced in  some  way, youstill  have  to  care  about me,” is how  he  puts  it. Which  seems  hard to argue  with—and harder still to believe would come to pass.

Other   philosophers make  a  case  for  “moral  en- hancement”—using  medical or  biomedical means to give our principles an upgrade. If we’re going to have massive  intelligence and  power  at ourdisposal, we need  to ensure Dr. Evil won’t be at the  controls. Our scientific  knowledge “is beginning to enable us to directly  affect the  biological or  physiological bases  of human motivation, either through drugs,  or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using  external devices that affect the brain or the learning process,” philosophers JulianSavulescu and  Ingmar Persson wrote recently. “Wecould  use  these techniques to overcome themoral and  psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.”

In an op-edthis  past May in theWashington Post entitled “Soon We’ll Use Science to Make People More Moral,”  James  Hughes, a  bioethicist and   associate provost at the University of Massachusetts Boston, argued  for  moral enhancement, saying  itneeds  to  be voluntary rather than coercive.  “Withthe  aid  of science, we will all be able to discover our own paths to technologically enabled happiness and  virtue,”  wrote Hughes,  who  directsthe Institute for  Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a progressive transhumanist think tank.  (Forhis part,  Hughes, 55, a former Buddhist monk,  says in our  interview that he would  like to stay alive long enough to achieve enlightenment.)

There  is also the  question of how we might treat the planet.  Living forever,   in   whatever  capacity, would  change our relationship not just to one anoth- er but to the world around us. Would it make us more or less concerned about the environment? Would the natural world be better or worse for it?

The  singularity, Sandler pointed out  tome,  de- scribes  an end  state.  To get there will involvea huge amount of technological change, and “nothing changes our relationship with  nature more  quickly  and  robustly  than technology.” If we are at the  point where we can upload human consciousness and move seamlessly between virtual and non–virtual reality,  we will already be engineering nearly  everything else in significant ways. “By the  time  the  singularity would  occur,  our  relationship with  nature would  be radically transformed already,”  Sandler said.

Although we would like to believe otherwise, in our current mere  mortal state  we remain hugely  dependent  on—and  vulnerable to—natural systems.  But in this  future world,  those  dependencies would  change. If we didn’t need to breathe through lungs, why would we care about air pollution? If we didn’t need  to grow food, we would  become  fundamentally disconnected from the land around us.

Similarly,  in a world  where  the  real  wasindistin- guishable from the virtual, we might derive equal ben- efit from digitally created nature as from the great out- doors.  Our relationship to nature would  be altered. It would  no longer  be sensory, physical.  That shift could have  profound impacts onour  brains, perhaps even the silicon versions. A growing  body of research shows that interacting with nature affects us deeply—for the better. A connection to nature, even at an unconscious level, may be a fundamental quality of being human.

Ifour  dependence on  nature falls  away,  and  our physical ability  tocommune with  nature diminishes, then “the  basis  for  environmental concern willshift much  more  strongly to these  responsibilities to nature for its own sake,” Sandler says. Our capacity for solving environmental  problems—engineering the  climate, say—will be beyond what we can imagine today. But will we still feel that nature has intrinsic value? If so, ecosys- tems might fare better. If not, other species and the eco- systems they would still rely on might be in trouble.

Our relationship to the environment also depends onthe  question of timescales. From  a geologic  per- spective,  the extinction crisis we are witnessing today might not  matter. But it doesmatter from  the  time- line  of a current human life. Howmight vastly  ex- tended life spans “change  the perspective from which we ask questions and  think about the nonhuman en- vironment?” Sandler asks. “The timescales really mat- ter to what reasonable answers are.” Will we become more  concerned about the  environment because we will be around for so long?  Or will we care  lessbecause we will take a broader, more  geologic view?

“It’s almost impossible to imagine what it will be like,” Sandler says,  “but  we can  know  that the  per- spective  will be very, very different.”

Talk to experts about this  stuff  for  long  enough, and you fall down a rabbit hole; you find yourself hav- ing  seemingly normal conversations about absurd things. “If there weresomething like an X-Men gene therapy, where  they can shoot  lasers  out of their eyes ortake  over  your  mind,”  Hughes saystome  at one point,  then people  who want  those  traits should have to complete special  training and obtain a license.

“Are you using  those  examples to make  a point,  or arethey  actual things you believe  arecoming?”  I ask him. “In terms of how much  transhumanists talk about these things, most of us try not to freak out newbies too much,” he replies obliquely. “But once you’re past shock level 4, you can start talking about when  we’re all just nanobots.”

When  we’re all just nanobots, what will we worry about? Angst,  after  all,  is arguably one  our  defining qualities ashumans. Does  immortality render angst obsolete? If I no  longer  had  tostress  about staying healthy, paying  the  bills, and  howI’ll support myself when I’m too old and frail to travel around writing arti- cles, would I still be me? Or would I simply be a placid, overly contented … robot?  For that matter, what would I daydream about? WouldI lose my ambition, such as it is? I mean,  if I live forever,  surely  that Great Ameri- can Novel can wait until  next century, right?

Would I still be me? Chalmers believes  this“is go- ing  tobecome  an  extremely pressing practical, not just philosophical, question.”

On a gut  level, it seems  implausible that I would remain myselfif my brain was uploaded—even if, as Chalmers has  prescribed, I didit neuron by neuron, staying conscious throughout, becoming gradually 1 percent silicon, then 5, then 10 and onward to 100. It’s the  old saw about Theseus’s  ship—replaced board by board with  newer,  stronger wood.  Is it or isn’t it the same  afterward? If it’s not  the  same,  at what point does the balance tip?

“A big  problem,”  Hughes says,  “is you  live  long enough and you'll go through so many changes that there's no loner any meaning to having lived longer. Am I really the same person when I was five? If I live for another 5,000 years am I really the same as now? In the future, we will be able to share our memories, so there will be an erosion of the importance of personal identity and continuity." That sounds like kind of a drag. 

Despite the singularity's utopian rhetoric, it carries a tinge of fatalism; this is the only route available to us; merge with machines or fade away - or worse. What if I don't want to become a cyborg? Kurzweil might say that it's only my currently flawed and limited biological brain that prevents me from seeing true allure and potential of this future. And that the choices available to me - ay type of body, any experience in virtual reality, limitless possibilities for creative expression, the chance to colonize space - will make my current biological existence seem almost comically trivial. And anyway, what's more fatalistic than certain death? 


Nevertheless, I really like being human. I like knowing that I'm fundamentally made of the same stuff as all the other life on Earth. I'm even sort of attached to my human frailty. I like being warm and cuddly and not hard and indestructible like some action-film super-robot. I like the warm blood that runs through my veins, and I'm not sure I really want it replaced by nanobots. 

Some ethicists argue that human happiness relies n the fact that our lives are fleeting, that we are vulnerable, interdependent creatures. How, in a human-machine future, would we find value and meaning in life? 

"To me, the essence of being human is not our's our ability to reach beyond our limitations," Kurzweil writes. It's an appealing point of view. Death has always fundamentally been one of those limitations, so perhaps reaching beyond death makes us deeply human?

But once we transcend it, I'm not convinced our humanity remains. Death itself doesn't define us, of course - all living things die - but our awareness and understanding of death and our quest to make meaning of life in the interim, are surely part of the human spirit. 


September 2016, Scientific American.