The enthusiasm around the conversational agent ChatGPT fuels the debate on the role of emerging technologies in the evolution of humanity. Should they help transcend human limitations? What social project does this imply? These questions once again put the transhumanist ideals in the front of the scene.
The last two decades have indeed seen a editorial proliferation around the notion of “transhumanism”. However, this term is still the subject of many misunderstandings, as evidenced by the heated debates to which it gives rise. The sociological survey conducted as part of my doctoral thesis shows, among other things, that there are several meanings of this term. The diversity of transhumanist approaches prevents us from summarizing it in a single definition.
Especially since it is in constant motion, appropriating technoscientific breakthroughs, philosophical theories and a revisited cultural and humanist heritage.
Indeed, transhumanists recognize in the humanism of the Enlightenment the seeds of a new philosophy. She would hear increase human not only symbolically, but also physically and morally.
The definition of transhumanism which gives rise to a semblance of consensus among the 20 transhumanists studied is that proposed by Wikipedia :
“Transhumanism is an international cultural and intellectual movement advocating the use of science and technology to improve the human condition, in particular by increasing the physical and mental capacities of human beings.”
Transhumanism is therefore not simply a group of scientists working on the manufacture of a technological future. Rather, it is a movement of thought carrying a certain narrative about the convergence of NBIC technologies (nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer science, cognitive sciences) and their future impact on humanity. According to Nick Bostroman important figure of the movement, transhumanism is:
“A way of thinking about the future that assumes that the human species, in its present form, does not represent the end of our development, but rather a relatively early phase.”
Thus, transhumanism is more a discourse, even a new technocentric “grand narrative”, than a very precise technoscientific practice.
A diversity of representatives
The plural nature of transhumanism also feeds on the diversity of its representatives, and vice versa. As Marc Roux, president of theFrench association transhumanist technoprog (AFT), “there are as many transhumanisms as there are transhumanists”.
“Transhumanists” are actors organized in groups to develop theories, communicate with interlocutors, publish writings, etc. Their main missions are to make transhumanism known; establish themselves as legitimate interlocutors; promote a certain type of discourse on emerging technologies and the future of humanity.
Chronologically, the “extropians” were the first transhumanists organized around the Extropy Institute (1988) under the aegis of Max Morean English philosopher and futurist living in the United States, where he currently heads the largest organization cryonist ALCOR. It’s about cryopreserving human bodies (and brains) after they die, in hopes of resuscitating them with future resuscitation technologies.
If theentropy represents disorder and uncertainty in a system, extropy (also called negentropy) is a transhumanist neologism that aims to produce order and complexity despite the inevitable increase in entropy. So the extropian movement, the first transhumanist vein, believes in the possibility of increasing order and complexity through the development of technosciences (for example, reducing the risk of disease by developing electronic chips warning in advance of their arrival). Extropy becomes a revolutionary emblem against limiting and disorganizing forces.
In the “Extropian Principles”, More argues that humanity is “a transitional phase in the evolutionary development of intelligence” and not its culmination. This movement ceased all activity from 2006, declaring its mission as “substantially accomplished”for the benefit of a more global organization: the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce in 1998.
Formerly the main organ of the transhumanist movement, the WTA has changed its name to Humanity+ (H+), thus getting rid of the negative connotation associated with “transhumanism”. The new name puts more emphasis on the idea of positively improving humanity through technology. H+’s mission is of :
“to provide a more inclusive transhumanist vision compared to other earlier transhumanist visions like Extropianism and to better engage with scholars.”
It is today the representative body of the different transhumanist sensitivities on an international scale.
The advent of the “technological singularity”
Although H+ aims to be inclusive, there are discrepancies between different transhumanist perspectives. Singularitarians, for example, are transhumanists who believe in the advent of “technological singularity”, a term borrowed from mathematics and astrophysics and which marks a break between before and after the advent of a “superintelligence”, also called “artificial general intelligence”.
The notion of “technological singularity” was popularized by Ray Kurzweil, nicknamed “Pope of transhumanism”in his book “The Singularity is Near” (2005), describing it as an explosion of intelligence bringing about a world beyond current human understanding : “that moment in history when technological acceleration becomes so rapid that all our current predictive models become obsolete.”
One of the singularitarian creeds is “exponential” or “technological acceleration” in which all hopes are bet to bring humanity out of its biological condition. Singularitarianism draws the contours of a new humanity which would probably no longer be limited by its biological yoke. In this sense, singularitarianism is post-humanism.
An anthropological continuity
More balanced in their discourse and explorations, the “technoprogressive” transhumanists advocate anthropological continuity. That is to say, they are more favorable to the maintenance of certain human characteristics, to their gradual improvement rather than a radical break with them. They criticize singularitarian predictions and defend democratic values and social justice. Initially, the term “technoprogressisme” was coined by the French transhumanists of the AFT.
In 2004, the American transhumanist James Hughes co-founded with Bostrom theInstitute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), a techno-progressive think tank that believes that:
“Technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development, provided we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed. We call this a ‘technoprogressive’ orientation.”
There are other transhumanist sensitivities such as religious transhumanism represented by the Turing Church chaired by the Italian Giulio Prisco. He considers that compatibility is possible between religious texts and technological development, drawing on the work of Teilhard de Chardinamong others.
Despite different approaches, transhumanists share common points: a passion for longevity or amortality, that is to say the fact of “delaying death indefinitely (but not infinitely)”, according to Edgar Morin ; a technophilia cultivated by an imagination imbued with science-fictional productions; and increased awareness of risks (existential) related to technological development and advances in artificial intelligence, etc.
Finally, transhumanism challenges international civil society on the issues of technosciences which allow possibilities for the radical transformation of humanity, for the questioning of our traditional understanding of life, death and human nature. Moreover, it raises questions about the ethical and social implications of technosciences that promise to modify the body, reverse aging and potentially bring death closer to home. Whether we adhere to their ideas or not, transhumanists fuel an essential debate on the technoscientific issues of the 21st century.e century.
Marouane JaouatResearch professor – UFR Health – University of Caen Normandy, University of Caen Normandy
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.