Just over 200 years after the publication of the iconic science fiction novel, Boston’s Museum of Science hosted a discussion of future technology not so far from that of “Frankenstein.”
On March 28, Dr. Marcelo Gleiser, director of Dartmouth’s Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement, brought together Mark O’Connell and Ed Boyden for “Cyborgs, Futurists & Transhumanism: A Conversation.”
O’Connell, a journalist and author, wrote “To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.” His book studies the transhumanist movement, an obscure group of pioneering futurists who, according to O’Connell, hope to utilize technologies to “push the boundaries of the human condition.”
Boyden, co-director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, is a researcher on “the cutting edge” of brain science technology, according to Gleiser.
During the event, the two experts brought together two sides of futurist thought: the scientific considerations concerning the augmentation of the human brain and humanist aspects, concerned with the “whys” and “hows” of the ideology.
“A lot of the ideas that transhumanists are talking about come initially from sci-fi,” O’Connell told The Daily Free Press. “Then actual science starts to address these issues, and some of the technologies become feasible.”
In the panel, O’Connell said the bulk of transhumanist ideology lies within the gap between what futurists hope for and what they can actually realistically achieve. It’s possible that “today would look like a transhumanist world to somebody a hundred years back,” Boyden said.
According to Boyden, things like penicillin, an antibiotic that we take for granted in the present day, would seem “almost magical” to someone living in the early 20th century for its capability to “wipe out” bacteria in the human body.
Though science is a long way away from being able to upload human consciousness to a computer, present day transhumanist ideologies force scientists, other intellectuals and the general public to consider the inevitable ethical dilemmas that could come with their implementation.
In a transhumanist world, O’Connell said, it could be difficult to distinguish between what constitutes a cognitive enhancement versus medical therapy. For scientists like Boyden, this distinction is critical.
Boyden said he worries that “in our current language about the brain, people feel it’s dehumanizing” to utilize cognitive enhancement medicine, such as stimulants or antidepressants, because it carries the stigma of “removing ourselves from our agency and identity.”
As cognitive enhancement technology becomes more commonplace, the dividing line between necessary treatments and transhumanist accessories could become blurred in the same manner, forcing patients away from crucial treatments for fear of falling prey to futuristic trends.
Boyden also said he’s concerned about the transhumanist movement potentially encouraging individuals to experiment with bodily enhancements that could have unforeseen side effects.
“Augmenting what one doesn’t understand can backfire,” he said.
Some experimental medical technologies, such as neural implants to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s, aren’t fully understood, Boyden said. Without a complete map of the brain’s trillions of neural connections, scientists cannot rule out unintended side-effects such as changes in emotion and cognition.
Christian Hatch, 25, of Somerville, said he attended the conversation on a whim, worried about who would regulate the augmentation industry once science catches up with transhumanism.
“Take glasses or hearing aids [for example]. Who decides who gets those?” Hatch asked. “At the end of the day, it’s who can afford it. I wonder as these enhancements get crazier and crazier than just some optical lenses in front of our eyeballs, how will we decide?”
O’Connell, who expressed Hatch’s same concerns in the panel, said his experience studying transhumanists forced him toward a “contrarian” belief.
“I know it’s all just metaphors, but I feel like an animal,” O’Connell told The Daily Free Press. “I wrote about that a lot in the book — my son, my wife, being a human and love. All those things to me feel like very animal phenomena.”
In an interview with The Daily Free Press, Boyden, characteristically, took a more scientific approach to defining what humanity means to him. In the face of increasingly intelligent artificial intelligence, Boyden said he believes that what is left to define humanity “is the fact that we have feelings.”
Ultimately, O’Connell said, “if you wear glasses, if you have a pacemaker, or some sort of attachment to your face that makes your voice louder,” you are already a member of the transhumanist movement.
“We are already posthuman,” he said. “Part of the definition of humanity is transcending in that way.”