I continue to be astonished - though I know I shouldn't be - by the pace at which scientists are dreaming up the bizarre and potentially humanity-ending technologies of transhumanism. But before I get to that, a word about how I tend to see transhumanism. It will be evident from the title of the book which I co-authored with my friend of many years, Dr. Scott D de Hart, that he and I see it not only as an alchemical process but as an alchemical strategy. The implicit philosophical premise of transhumanism is that mankindis the Philosophers' Stone, an essence - so to speak - to be transformed by a variety of techniques and technologies, introduced or induced in him at the right time, in order to effect a transformation of consciousness, and with it, a transformation of human culture and civilization.
With this in mind, I found in my email boxes over the course of a few days this article, and similar ones like it, being sent to me:
Well, this one conjured justall sorts of possibilities in my mind, so I did a little more surfing and found this one at phys.org:
Merging bioengineering and electronics: Scientists grow artificial tissues with embedded nanoscale sensors Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-merging-bioengineering-electronics-scientists-artificial.html#jCp
Behind all the bland "not-to-worry-nothing-to-see-here-move-along" prose of the phys.org article, there are a numbers of things that disturbed me, as I allowed my mind for a moment to "think like an (power-crazed power hungry insane) western oligarch" (no need to mention any names, you know who they are). What touched off this frenzy of transhumanist thought was this statement in the phys.org article:
"'In the body, the autonomic nervous system keeps track of pH, chemistry, oxygen and other factors, and triggers responses as needed,' Kohane explained. 'We need to be able to mimic the kind of intrinsic feedback loops the body has evolved in order to maintain fine control at the cellular and tissue level.'"
"'Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.'"
"This makes them half living cells, half electronics and jolly confused. The cells think that they are normal but the electronic side actually acts as a sensor network, allowing a computer to interface directly with them
"For example the researchers have already used the embedded nanowires to measure the contractions (heart rate) of the cells."
Now, I don't know about you, but in reading these articles, my mind immediately went to two places. Place number one: suppose this technique were perfected to the point that scientists could literally grow a cyborg-robot, sort of a a sophisticated Frankenstein creature from Percy Shelley's novel of the same name (and yes, folks, I said Percy Shelley's novel, not Mary Shelley's!...another case for another time, but suffice it to say, my friend Dr de Hart disabused me of the standard academic line there!). Suppose this cyborg-robot (whatever would one call it?) were to become unruly? Why, one could perhaps just send out a convenient EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) of a certain frequency, and shut it (and perhaps, all "models" synchronized to that frequency) down. OK...cool...the ultimate method of oligarchical crowd control (and besides, they can probably do that already anyway).
Place number two, however, is for me the more interesting, and urgent one, and is evidenced by my own difficulties in describing such an entity (and recall, Shelley in his genius foresaw the same difficulty in his novel): what is this creation? Is it human? Or something else? The achievement of the scientists at Harvard, in other words, opens up again the need for a profound and deep philosophical discussion over what "humanity" is. As I've blogged here before about this topic, there is in our society a group of people - predominantly dangerous in my opinion - who would on the basis of some fundamentalism of the left or right, on pseudo-religious or pseudo-scientific grounds (take your pick) - define this creation as being less than human, and ipso facto, a kind of slave, with limited rights. IN my view, the world technology is opening up is a world fraught with moral and ethical dangers... I am not, far from it, sanctioning the use utility or creation of such entities. But rest assured, someone, somewhere, will do this, sooner or later.
The real question is, how will we as a society respond to it? My personal view, at the moment anyway, is that we must err on the side of maximum ethical caution: treat such things as human until proven otherwise... and there, of course, is the rub: what would constitute proof? Proof requires an implicit understanding, and a deep philosophical understanding, of that mysterious thing we call human nature (and yes, I am using "nature" here in the technical sense connoted by the Greek word "physis").
All philosophical musings aside, however, the cyborg is coming. It may not be tomorrow or even in our generation. But it is coming. Rest assured of that, for scientists have now taking the first step towards its confection.
See you on the flip side...