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Articles : Essays

The Ethics of Ambition

1/25/2016 12:00:00 AM 
Calvin & Hobbes: Cerebral Enhancement

The Transhuman prospect has been the topic of intrigue and discussion for at least several decades, although for a long time it remained almost exclusively within the circles of Academia and Science Fiction. Its presentation to the general public has mainly occurred through the latter, in books, television, and pop-culture films. As a result, Transhumanism and its inseparable counterpart, The Singularity, have largely been placed on the same level as Mister Spock and Doctor Who: considered by most as mere fantasy.

The possibility of a Posthuman future has begun to be accepted as viable only within the last ten to fifteen years. In just the last few years, it has gained unexpected popularity and support, making it the focus of news stories, countless blogs, and even social documentaries. Momentum is gaining, as is technology. If the event of a human singularity is truly on the horizon, the time to consider the ethical implications is now.

But who are these Transhumanists, and why are they so compelled by human self-enhancement?

There exist a number of noteworthy entities and persons that are expressly dedicated to advancing Transhumanism. A short list includes the following:

Humanity+ (Formerly the World Transhumanist Association). An international organization working toward the recognition of Transhumanism as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry and public policy. The group prints the quarterly periodical H+ Magazine.

Ray Kurzweil. Inventor, entrepreneur and author, is probably the most renowned Transhumanist. His groundbreaking work, "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology" was a U.S. national bestseller in 2005.

Prominent philosophers such as Nick Bostrom and David Pearce have advocated and written widely on the topic.

The Transhumanist Party. An American political party founded in 2014 to promote Transhumanism. The group intends to place a Presidential candidate on the 2016 ballot.[1]

In addition, there are significant Singularitarian organizations and Technology companies to keep an eye on. Most experts foresee the Posthuman as the merging of human and machine intelligence[2], so these efforts are vital to the crucial to the Transhuman cause.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science. Founded by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, has undertaken the endeavor to reverse-engineer the brain.[3]

Numenta. A research company co-founded by computer scientist Jeff Hawkins. Its mission, "to lead a new era of machine intelligence."[4]

Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). A firm primarily devoted to building Artificial Intelligence intended to be friendly, by "Aligning Superintelligence with Human Interests."[5]

Google is also working towards Artificial Intelligence, and may be the closest to achieving it.[6]

Uber is worth mention as well. What started as a ridesharing mobile app is now developing the Driveless Car,[7] which could be a major step in emerging machine intelligence.

These are only a few examples, as there are many other important groups and individuals involved. I simply don't have the space to name them all.

The prospect of Posthumanity certainly has its appeal. If we truly can enhance our bodies, live forever and achieve superintelligence, the pending question becomes, Why not? It is therefore the imperative of ethicists, doomsayers and bioconservatives[†] to defend their positions.
([†] Three separate schools of thought that are not directly related.)

It is not the purpose of this column to judge the Transhuman venture, however, critical ethical inquiry is a necessity. We must give serious thought to any possible unintended consequences.

Many Transhumanists have a keen sense of the related moral issues. Hank Pellissier, distinguished humanist activist and author, has stated that finding the correct approach is not merely ethical, is also pragmatic. "History has shown us that individuals, groups, and communities continually striving to have more power, resources, and 'superiority' over others...has contributed greatly to our species narrative of perpetual war."[8]

Ambition is so often blinded by human emotion. Our race has made mistakes in the past, through sincere efforts to improve our quality of life. Consider pollution, overpopulation, the prospect of global warming, not to mention genocide or the extinction of animal species. Technological nightmares have been created, including the atom bomb and other weapons of mass destruction. For the most part, these were not the deliberate outcome envisioned by inventors, but rather byproducts of the amazing scientific progress we have made in the last few hundred years.

In "Prometheus", the 2012 science fiction thriller by Ridley Scott, the robot David asks why humankind created him. The response given is, "We made you because we could."

It would seem that the driving force behind so many of our accomplishments is simple. We make new things because we can. In western capitalist society, individuals are rewarded by both prestige and monetary gain. But the real thrill for engineers and designers is the remarkable act of creation itself. To see the fulfillment of an idea is an emotion that humans crave. It inspires the artist to paint, the writer to write, and the scientist to explore.

Ambition is a good thing, something to be encouraged and celebrated. It has pushed humanity through many periods of darkness into the enlightenment we enjoy today. Granted, much of the world is still plagued by war and suffering, but because of ambition, we are continually working to solve these problems.

It is not ambition that we should avoid. However, we have the moral duty to ask ourselves the difficult questions before we proceed in our endeavors, even at the cost of slowing progress. Albeit, in the long run, progress comes about more rapidly when negative consequences are anticipated and prevented. We must be cautious.

In future installments of this column, I will explore some of the specific emerging technologies related to human enhancement and propose ethical viewpoints that are worth consideration.◼

[2] "Scientists: Humans and machines will merge in future" CNN July 15, 2008
[3] "Inside Paul Allen's Plan to Reverse-Engineer the Human Brain" Wired October 24, 2013.
[4] Numenta Company
[5] About MIRI
[6] Research at Google, "Machine Intelligence"
[7] IEEE Spectrum, "Uber Could Be First to Test Completely Driverless Cars in Public" September 14, 2015
[8] Hank Pellissier, (Personal communication, January 24, 2016)

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