The thing that makes people attracted to transhumanism is often the longing for their loved ones or the fear to lose them, says Ada Florentyna Pawlak in conversation with Monika Redzisz

Monika Redzisz: There’s been much confusion about transhumanism. It is associated with eccentric ideas and eccentric people like Martine Rothblatt, who created Bina 48 in the image of her wife or Elon Musk, who decided to name his child “X Æ A-Xii”. I guess we should start with a definition of transhumanism.

Ada Florentyna Pawlak*: The transhumanism project began 70 years ago. It was developed right after World War II. It was then when UNESCO was founded. The organization was headed by Julian Huxley, Aldous’s brother, who coined the term “transhumanism”. The goal of transhumanism is to ensure our physical and mental well-being which can be achieved by shaping our body and mind with biotechnological intervention. In a transhumanism discourse, the body is also conceptualized in the context of sexuality – if we’re not happy about it, we should have the right to change it. Transhumanism enthusiasts include many transgender people, for example Martine Rothblatt.

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Martine Rothblatt talking to Bin 48, which she has created in the image of her wife.
Source: The LifeNaut Project / YouTube

One of the biggest dreams of transhumanism is to extend our life expectancy by replacing our organs with artificial ones, modifying our genome or using nanorobots. However, it’s not only about improving our body, but also about enhancing our cognitive capacities. It’s a project of a new, better human. The fact that Elon Musk named his child they way he did is very characteristic for transhumanism. Transhumanists believe that we shouldn’t inherit names from our ancestors because they are relicts of the culture which has failed and which must be rejected.

The idea of making better humans and “improving” the evolution has been with humans since the beginning of the mankind.

Yes, those hopes and myths are as old as hills but in the last century science showed us how many things were and would be possible. With the development of medicine and hygiene and with better economic conditions our life expectancy has doubled over the last century! We have also seen constant development of technology, including prosthetics and robotics. That’s very inspirational. The success of SpaceX and the dreams of colonizing Mars are part of one of transhumanism trends – cosmism. It’s a great desire to not only go beyond the limits of your body but also to leave our planet and to explore the universe. It’s important to note that religious promises of living in other worlds are not as appealing as they used to be.

And yet we cannot escape from death, diseases and suffering… Is transhumanism a sort of a new religion that gives us hope?

I think it does have a certain number of religious aspects. Let us not forget that Huxley thought about transhumanism as salvation for the whole mankind. And he said it after the Holocaust, in the times of lost hopes and “silent God”, which resulted in spiritual, moral emptiness. He knew that we would have to fill it in with something. Transhumanism offers a vision of an eternal kingdom here, on Earth, a kingdom that we can build ourselves with science. We can only be proud of that; it’s something that lays the groundwork for our self-esteem as humans. Interestingly, this narrative can integrate radically different groups.

In 2013, the transhumanism Global Future 2045 conference in New York was attended by Ray Kurzweil, who is Google’s director of engineering, Dalai Lama, and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Dalai Lama explained that transhumanism was similar to nirvana – evolution of awareness and human spirit leading to breaking free from the body. Culturally speaking, today, the role of ideas like an artificial body to which you could transfer your mind (project Avatar 2045) is the same as the role of ancient heroes or statues of the saints. Technological environment replaces natural environment; we’re witnessing a reactivation of mythological thinking, which I refer to as “technoanimism”. Similarly to our ancestors who projected the “spirit” in trees and streams, we are now projecting the “spirit” in machines. Transhumanism is a new mythology of modern times that accompanies technological revolution.

Transhumanism offers a vision of an eternal kingdom here, on Earth, a kingdom that we can build ourselves with science

But I’m still under the impression that, as far as this topic is concerned, you can say virtually everything and promise whatever people want to hear. Transhumanists do not account for their words, they do not refer to psychological or social consequences of their ideas. In their opinion they don’t create any fiction, they don’t write a screenplay for a sci-fi series; they believe in their ideas.

That is true. Series like “Black Mirror” are a perfect way to introduce people to aporias that become more apparent when we start treating transhumanists’ ideas seriously. Let me illustrate that with an example. What could it mean if I told you that it would be possible to replicate our consciousness in silicon? Would that result in any number of our silicon clones? Another example: people want to break free from their bodies and at the same time they want to cure them at all costs. A myth is neither true nor false; it’s a story that uses metaphors and that is based on coincidentia oppositorum – the unity of opposites. In a consumerist culture, some people may perceive the concept of immortality as a vision justifying their investing in the body and giving meaning to the efforts they put in making their body more perfect. If I say that a person who is expected to live for one thousand years was already born, I can’t be accused of spreading fake news. You see, it’s safe to make statements about the future even if they seem counterintuitive and counterfactual.

But that entails some very specific behaviors. If someone convinced me that a particular technology could extend my life and improve my well-being, I would probably want to buy it.

Of course. Transhumanism is also a fantastic project of capitalism and global cultural industry aiming at colonizing broad markets. This regards especially the generation of digital natives who have been immersed in virtual reality since their childhood. The youth are being accustomed to the artificial by modifying their image in social media, wearable technology, conversations with bots or living in a body of an avatar, for example in computer games.

Ada Florentyna Pawlak

It’s an extremely complex network of relationships. Kurzweil’s Singularity Institute, which covers the costs of scientific research and internships, is co-financed by numerous businessmen from Silicon Valley as well as by Google and NASA, which made it possible for Elon Musk to launch his SpaceX project. Cosmic technologies have also been developed by Martine Rothblatt, who not only builds androids but also invests in medicine and bioengineering, which are to extend life expectancy.

Due to unprecedented economic disparities, the desires of the wealthiest are completely out of tune with everyday needs of common people who still see hope in such desires. Transhumanism aficionados include both technology experts and marketing narrative specialists helping with the sale of gadgets used to measure body parameters. It’s a great business although profits generated from data trading are not very high. At least for now.

They should act as supervisors and regulators instead of leaving everything in the hands of big tech companies. But how can they do that? It’s a fight between David and Goliath. Nowadays, many countries are preparing artificial intelligence development strategies and establishing commissions responsible for legal, ethical and technological affairs. But that’s not enough. We need transnational solutions which are extremely hard to agree on due to the conflict of interests. The European Union has already taken steps in that direction but for example the World Trade Organization, which has a significant impact on politics and economy, hasn’t taken any position.

Is someone equipped with leg and arm prostheses, a radar, a microscope and a telescope still a human?Of course!

Let’s analyze what happened during the pandemic. Google, Amazon and SpeceX received considerable funds from Trump’s administration even though the value of their assets exceeds GDP of many countries, which contributes to the destruction of democracy in many corners of the world – for example Facebook makes it possible for dictators to efficiently exercise their power. Developing countries see big technology companies as their saviors but corporations treat them as a laboratory for testing their products. In Rwanda the company called Babyl offers cheap smartphones with an app for telemedicine services on a large scale.

Is that bad? Telemedicine may prove very helpful, especially when there are not enough doctors.

It’s true, there are no simple answers. You cannot clearly identify it as bad in a country where access to healthcare service is limited. However, it’s important to note that we’re becoming a corporate laboratory. It affects us too. For example, Microsoft technological solutions allowed universities to hold online classes. Even China could be put in a good light: millions of people have been saved from starvation. They sure are monitored but they don’t have to stand knee-deep in water on rice fields and they don’t die after they turn thirty. We can discuss whether monitoring is a good or bad thing but at the same time we can’t stop the capital flow. Business is business. Technologies are being traded as we speak. Note that technologies, despite being political and having a massive influence on the life of entire societies, are never openly discussed in any society. Nobody bothers to raise such issues in any election campaign or to propose any referendum.

I have to admit that some ideas presented by transhumanists are sometimes fascinating; for example the project of an implant that is being developed by the Neuralink team. The question is if we are ready to emotionally accept it even if it proves feasible to create it. Wouldn’t even bigger amount of information and stimuli be overwhelming? Emotionally speaking, we’re still living in the past – somewhere on a savannah we all originate from.

I’d rather say that we are living simultaneously in many worlds. Although India is getting computerized, Indian youngest daughters still have to leave their own family to help their sick parents. The pace of technological changes is enormous; we use technologies we don’t understand and at the same time we still have the same reflexes we had when we lived on the savannah: fight or flee. During FutureTalks organized by Planet Partners in Kraków the audience were asked a question: “If cognitive enhancement technologies like Neuralink were available today, would you use them?”. To my surprise, almost 80 percent of attendees said that they would. They weren’t thinking about dangers, complications or unforeseeable consequences! The biggest threat they could see was the fact that they might be eliminated from the market by their competitors acting faster than they would. “Threats? They’re unavoidable in business,” they said.

But, in fact, only the privileged would be able to improve their body and to enhance their cognitive opportunities. The masses will never have enough money to participate in the technology evolution race.

That’s true, but we could see the matter from a completely different perspective: what if the point was to have the masses use certain technologies and to make it possible for the chosen ones not to use them? Maybe the whole idea is perverted and corrupted. According to the official narrative, any piece of information is good and laptops and iPads should be provided to everyone to help them and support them in their life. However, tech companies owners, that are perfectly aware of all consequences, protect not only their privacy but also the minds of their children. In many elite schools in Silicon Valley, one of which is Elon Musk’s private school Ad Astra, kids are not allowed to use any digital technologies before they are 12. They are immersed in reading and writing, focused on developing their manual skills, solving logical and mathematical problems, and doing critical thinking. They are learning their emotions to be resistant to technology.

Does this mean that the Ministry of Digital Affairs should protect our children against computerization?

Against its disastrous consequences and misuse. You have to be competent enough to use a technology but also to put it aside at a given moment. Today, kids are almost born with smartphones in their hands. They prefer staying at home in front of their computer screens to going out and meeting their friends in the real world. The popularity of artificial influencers is on the rise too. Lila Mikela is a virtual young girl who tells teenagers how to live – she talks about politics, culture, and recommends books. She has Instagram and Facebook accounts, she replies to comments. And she’s got a whole raft of young followers.

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YouTube channel of artificial influencer Miquela subscribed by 240 thousand people.
Source: Miquela / YouTube

Our generation perceives such tools as mere prostheses but our children will be symbiotically connected to them. I think that the promise of transhumanist projects appeals more to them than to the older generation; they experience immersion in virtual worlds much more often and their virtual body is the gateway to practice transhumanism. Many games promote transhumanism to the same extent as TV series and movies do. “Cyberpunk 2077”, which has been developed by Polish company CD Project, is advertised by Keanu Reeves, who played the leading in role in “The Matrix”. Pop culture is a distributor of a transhumanist myth because it stirs emotions and it sells well. It’s an old mythology in modern disguise.

Are such close relations with virtual beings or robots commonplace or are they still rather unusual? There’s no doubt that the area we’re ready to accept is constantly expanding but how extended can it get?

In the countries where technology developed several decades earlier it is slowly becoming natural. Although incidents like marrying a hologram or a doll are rare, in Japan there exist dedicated wedding houses where you can marry artificial beings or yourself, which on the one hand is funny and shows how the culture of narcissism has evolved, but on the other hand is a dramatic proof showing how lonely people in a technopole world can actually be. There are a lot of people aged 40 who are not interested in starting a family. 40 percent of the Japanese aged 18 to 40 have never had sex and express no desire for an intercourse. It’s interesting to analyze those discourses by layers: the last layer is very strange and very rare but its presence causes that the layers that once seemed unacceptable are now nothing unusual.

We know that such things happen in Japan but what about us? “Her”, a Spike Jonze’s movie in which the main character falls in love with a voice assistant, is striking also because it shows a human that is similar to us, living in the same cultural area.

It may be that our generation of digital natives will follow the path chosen by the Japanese. There are more and more applications. Some of them, like Replika, have become very popular. When I was testing it, I had a lot of doubts about it. It works like a digital spy; the app tried to glean a whole lot of sensitive information about me. If I was 15 or 16, I would’ve probably answered its questions. Our mind is very easy to manipulate when we suffer from the emotional deficit.

Bearing in mind the fact that technology is mainly created by and for men, wouldn’t you say that technological development is bringing back conservatism? Sexrobots are mostly women.

That’s true. A lot of arguments support this theory. Humanizing artificial bodies imitating women will certainly affect the way true women are perceived. Transhumanism answers to that phenomenon through a current called postgenderism. It’s deeply rooted in feminist concepts of gender liberation dating back to 1980s which originated from “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway. Inequality is caused by gender, bodily differences – women have to concentrate not only on their work but also pregnancy, motherhood and constant efforts to achieve aesthetic standards set by patriarchal culture.

Ada Florentyna Pawlak with a robot called Sophia

Postgenderists claim that artificial methods of reproduction should be allowed; unless that happens, true emancipation of women will not be possible. Representatives of the current believe that in a highly developed technological culture gender will become irrelevant. Most women, who come back to a highly competitive working environment after their maternity leave and, as a consequence, are extremely stressed, may find this idea appealing. To some, maternity in capitalism may become a “risk”. Satisfying this desire is transferred to the “risk management” area, as in the case of women who choose surrogacy.

So we will all be having our organs transplanted and chips fitted in our brains. Where does it all lead to? What’s a delineation between a human and a robot?

Has there ever been any? Is someone equipped with leg and arm prostheses, a radar, a microscope and a telescope still a human? Of course they are. In 1940s. the term “cyborg” was coined. Anthropologists like Marcel Mauss or Maurice Merleau-Ponty studied humans through the lens of their technological expansions and found we were cyborg-like. It’s in our nature to create extensions and prostheses to make up for any deficit. Would it be even possible for mathematics to exist if there was no piece of paper on which a human being could write down a string of numbers? The phone extended our vocal channel, the plane has extend our ability to travel, the glasses and contact lenses extended our ability to see. Whether a supporting tool is outside or inside our body is less important than our autonomy and self-guidance. To enslave the body and mind, no implant is needed – a sophisticated technical system of which we are part is enough; one day, we may lose our confidence in humanity after the system asks us to authenticate it online and to tick the “I’m not a robot” box.

There’s something melancholic about transhumanists struggling to overcome death.

Yes. The thing that makes people attracted to transhumanism is often the longing for their loved ones or the fear to lose them. Nobody wants to die or lose anyone they hold dear. The fear of death and loss is included in most religious systems which comfort us with a promise of “life beyond the grave” and rejoining our kith and kin in another world. In 19th century, Nikolai Fyodorov, a Russian transhumanist known as Muscovite Socrates, sparked the minds with the vision of resurrection of the ancestors.

What does science have to say to that? Narratives start mixing orders from different levels. There are sensational reports that Harvard University professor George Church intends to revive an extinct mammoth species within a few years.

They are however difficult to combine with the Ray Kurzweil’s idée fixe of bringing his father back to life, a loss he has never come to terms with. Immortality is a mankind’s great dream, which can be found in the epic of Gilgamesh, the myths about the Olympic gods, and the resurrection of Christ. It’s difficult to give up this idea just as it’s difficult to stand the pain after losing your loved ones. But that problem may soon be solved by corporations offering digital “resurrection”. Surely, the offer will not interest everyone but many might want to chat with a post-mortem avatar of a person they once loved. One day digital natives will become digital immortals. But the only immortality that awaits us is the immortality of our own image and of a corporation that will be willing to provide it to us.

*Ada Florentyna Pawlaklawyer and technology anthropologist. She’s a Vice-President of the Association for Technology Ethics and Philosophy (TEFT), an academic lecturer (University of Warsaw, Kozminski University) and a speaker of Digital University. She conducts anthropology research on technological development of culture and social consequences of artificial intelligence in the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Lodz. Her PhD thesis focuses on the body in the discourse of artificial intelligence and transhumanism. She’s the manager of the company EverMind.

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