[Cross-posted from Humanity + Magazine.]
Emergent technologies often inspire great excitement attended by utopic visions of how they will transform our lives for the better. Yet all innovations introduce risk and the likelihood of unforeseen consequences. The transhumanity stack of technologies – life extension, medical & genetic modification, brain-computer & brain-machine interface, and virtual & augmented realities – offer great opportunities for human enhancement but pose profound risks for all aspects of humanity & civilization. It is critical to confront these dangers and temper the enthusiasm of tranhumanism with diligent risk assessment and thorough scenario modeling for possible outcomes.
To wit, here are 5 scenarios that explore the possible dangers embedded within transhumanism. This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive list but is simply intended to encourage further risk analysis. Most or all have probably been addressed by others elsewhere, and this list is not intended as a criticism of those presently active in the transhumanity community.
1. Population growth from longevity & senescence studies
Life extension looks great from an individual or group perspective but it’s a resource nightmare from a national and global angle. Current human population is about 6.8 billion with most linear estimates projecting somewhere around 9 billion by 2050. If life extension is designed to be readily available to anyone & everyone, we can expect two outcomes: considerable population growth as longevity outpaces mortality, and a rise in global GDP and its commensurate resource consumption as working age extends towards the centenarian. People living longer means people will consume more in the course of their lifetimes. Consider the competition for resources & ecological carrying capacity we currently face in 2010 and roll that forward 40 years with a massive global population and members of the workforce that can potentially stay employed for 70 years….
2. Inequity of technology distribution — the Transhuman Gap
The flip-side of the resource consumption issue arises if we admit that transhuman technologies will not be evenly available to all; that socio-economic factors will gate who has access to technologies that extend human capabilities. In this context, population dynamics will not be appreciably influenced by human life extension as only a small subset of the populace will have access to such enhancement. Indeed, genetic modification, brain-computer interface, advanced prosthesis, and access to virtual & augmented realities are all presently gated by economic barriers to entry that are not likely to diminish any time soon. AR & VW’s may become ubiquitous & cheap but real human enhancement through interventionary technologies will mostly fall along class lines, giving rise to a wealthy tier of augmented & enhanced individuals. If only the wealthy are most able to afford enhancement, the socioeconomic divide will be reinforced by the Transhuman Gap, further disenfranchising those already at a competitive disadvantage by their class circumstances. From such economic disparity, reinforced by the inevitable moralizing and judgments from both sides of the gap, social cohesion will be further challenged and class distinctions will begin to take on a biomechanical & genetic aspect with the threat of technology-enabled superiority.
3. Techno-elitism, civil discord, and eugenics
Throughout history elite classes have used their status & abilities to influence the control systems that govern those beneath them. Likewise, the underclass has looked at elites with both admiration & disdain, occasionally rising to join their ranks but, more often, rising up to knock them down. Civil strife is a common outcome of disparity, driven by inequities in access to resources, opportunities, and power. A class of techno-elite transhumans would pose a profound existential threat to the underclass who might very well perceive themselves as being forever cut-out from the Democratic ideal that “all humans are created equal”, no longer able to compete in any capacity without transhuman enhancements. The anger and victimization from such an outlook would very quickly translate into moralizing against the crimes of human augmentation and stigmatizing those who pursue such “un-natural” and “un-holy” enhancement. In turn, the techno-elite may feel inclined to judge the underclass as “unfit” or “un-evolved” – two distinctions that have historically led to great atrocities.
4. Co-option of transhumanity by fascists, oligarchs, and super-empowered individuals
The slippery slope of this scenario posits the rise of a transhuman ruling class who, when challenged by the underclass, recede into their own sense of authority & enhanced intelligence to determine that the only appropriate course of action is to subjugate the masses and shepherd the rise of transhuman governance. If transhuman enhancement is truly advantageous, yet remains available only to an elite class, then in all likelihood those elites will embrace the technology to their competitive advantage. Since it would be folly to assume that human technological enhancement will remediate our most basest evolutionary program of survival of the fittest, the likelihood of enhanced predatory elites seizing global power is not so small. The darkest scenario might see transhuman governance requiring control & tracking implants in all newborns – perhaps a bit hyperbolic but not inconceivable if the type of global predators that currently traverse societies gained access to advanced transhuman technologies.
5. Fractured reality
Virtual worlds and augmented reality offer many compelling experiences across the spectrum of entertainment, socialization, marketing & advertising, collaboration, and modern knowledge work. At their core, these technologies intermediate our experience of the world, giving third parties access to program our sensorium. Brain-computer interface technologies are working to extend this access to the core structures of our brain, kicking off a wave of neurotechnologies able to more specifically & accurately influencing the mind-brain interface. The opt-in path through designer reality gives us the ability to modify the way we interface with the phenomenal world, electing to commit more of our selves to virtual experiences & relationships, or to overlay our environments with the images of our choosing rather than confront the physical world solely on its terms. While affinity groups will accrete around specific worlds & layers the barriers between differing experiences of objective reality will multiply when the world I experience is markedly different than yours. As the Transhuman Gap threatens social cohesion through class, reality design threatens cohesion across all classes by erecting virtual constructions between adjacent-but-unrelated digital worlds. While we may feel a sense of agency in creating such personalized experiences we do so in digital layers most likely owned by 3rd parties or accessible through public APIs. We may inadvertently wall ourselves off from each other but we’ll become even richer targets for profilers, influencers, and governors. The slippery slope in this scenario suggests that governance might enforce realities onto subjects or that dangerous identity groups might create monstrous, all-encompassing layers as indoctrination tools & neuro-propaganda towards the engineering of social movements. Considering how supremely the television has been used to influence the masses with only basic access to eyes and ears, it’s not unlikely that greater access into the transhuman will yield a greater ability to influence and manipulate.
Again, these scenarios are not meant as accusations or designed to arouse a fear of transhumanism but, rather, to encourage critical thinking along the dystopic possibilities of the future transhuman phase space, as it were, in order to better control for such outcomes. As the saying goes, all technology is inherently neutral. But this glib statement does not acknowledge that all technology is born of humanity and wielded by our hands alone. To paraphrase a great modern philosopher, all of the animals are capably murderous.