THEgeing cured. Death conquered. Work ended. The human brain reverse-engineered by AI. Babies born outside of the womb. Virtual children, non-human partners. The future of humanity could be virtually unrecognizable by the end of the 21st century, according to Elise Bohan – and that’s if we get the transition right. If we get it wrong, well.
“The future is wildly scary,” says the young philosopher-macrohistorian-futurist with a smile. “I can’t lie to you about that. In ten years time it’s all going to look pretty different, and in another ten years that’s a total event horizon for me … I think it’s eminently plausible at that point that the game has changed in some very fundamental way, whether for good or bad. ”
Bohan, 31, is speaking from a sunny Mosman apartment, where she is house-sitting and looking after the plants. It’s a distance away from the Hawkesbury river on the outskirts of Sydney where she grew up; a place with pretty spots but where it was tough to be a smart kid. And it is a half world away from Oxford University where she forms part of the Future of Humanity Institute.
She’s in Sydney seeing family and promoting her new book Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-or-Break Century. The subtitle is not a gambit. “I believe that,” she says. “We are in the century that defines the future of humanity like no other.”
Transhumanism is a movement that aims to address – or end – what Bohan calls the “tragedies of reality”: ageing, sickness and involuntary death. It is, she writes, “a philosophy and a project that aims to make us more than human”.
Whether we recognize or understand it, that project has already begun, she says, and it will transform our world – and minds and bodies – within our lifetimes. Not only is it happening, she says, but this transition is necessary if humanity is to survive in perpetuity.
For Bohan, it is no great to leap to imagine that a baby born in 2030 may have its entire genome mapped to birth, that data uploaded to a central health record and cross-referenced at any medical appointment throughout its life. It is no great stretch to think that AI will become the most powerful intellectual force of the century. That human consciousness might be transferred from our meat sacks (bodies) into a technological sphere. That the rise of AI and automation might render great swathes of redundant human labor, and that maybe – if we get it right – that could leave more time for leisure, big thinking, meditation, connection.
Experiments are already underway in the realm of artificial wombs, and Bohan is sure – when viable – women will be “clamouring” to be freed from the shackles of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
The book, she writes, is a “love letter to humanity”, but hers is a “tough love”. A love which sees a future for humanity, but not necessarily for human beings as we know it.
‘We love, we lose, we die’
When Bohan first encountered transhumanism, at around the age of 21, her first reaction was, “It’s crazy. It’s science fiction. It’s so far out. How weird,” she says. “But also – how interesting.”
Her brother had bound down the stairs and insisted they watch the documentary Transcendent Man, about godfather of transhumanism Ray Kurzweil. He thought they’d find it hilarious – “which we did” – but it introduced Bohan to the idea of rapid acceleration of growth in computer technology, technological singularity (the theoretical point at which the force of technological change becomes out of human control and can shape human civilization), and the idea that there was a future for humanity beyond what she calls our “ape-brained meat sacks”.
At the time she was an English literature undergrad, obsessed with poetry and the written word.
“It was a point of sadness for me as a young person, recognizing that there were so many wonderful things that had already been written – forgetting all the things that would be written in the future – that I would never live long enough to encounter, to explore, and to put all these things together,” she says.
Fiction began to bore her as her interest in transhumanism increased. If fiction was all about exploring the human experience, it became evident that there was a tragic repetition. “We work, we learn, we love, we lose, we die,” she writes. Transhumanism offered something better.
By the age of 28, she had written the world’s first book-length history of transhumanism for her PhD. It’s ironic, she says, to have cleaved to this – she’s always had an aversion to “isms”. They have a “ring of cult-like fascination” to them.
‘We’re building God, you know?’
Transhumanism is perhaps best known for concern with achieving human immortality. A deathless life, however, is a confronting concept. As scarcity determines value, does not the fact that our time on earth is finite give that time its value? What exactly is tragic about death?
“For me, it is the loss of everything that matters. It’s a loss of all things of value,” she says.
On the contrary, she says, “if humans could go on in a state of robust health, could keep learning, you’d have this cumulative effect where our experiences and knowledge would accumulate much faster. The things that our species could do with that! The mysteries of the universe that we could unlock. The problems we could solve. And the depths of each other souls that we could explore.”
Souls, she admits, is a loaded word. But without an alternative vocabulary for what makes consciousness, she is not averse to using spiritual language.
“Is transhumanism encroaching on domains that religion has traditionally held? I think yes.”
When Bohan was a PhD student, she gave her first big paper at a conference. Afterwards, the biologist came up to her and congratulated her on her work.
“Then looked at me in the eye and he whispered to me: ‘We’re building God, you know,’” she chuckles. “I looked back at him and I said: ‘Yeah, I know.’”
They knew they didn’t mean it as religion, she says. “But a lot of what has been talked about knowing about in religion – omniscience, omnipotence, hopefully omni-benevolence – we are at least getting closer to that all seeing, all, all exploring [force].”
Who controls that force or those forces is, of course, a critical question. The early 21st century’s rapid growth in technology has seen power and wealth accumulate and concentrate among a small number of predominantly white men. The criticism leveled at transhumanists is that they never quite stopped clinging to the sci-fi that fascinated them as young boys.
“There is a degree to which many of them are probably still little boy fantasists,” says Bohan. “But they happen to be very, very clever little boy fantasists who also have engineering degrees and are very capable at building reusable rockets and what have you. I don’t think we can dismiss the real tangible, species-advancing projects they’re actually at the helm of.”
Regulating technology during this transhuman transition, argues Bohan, is not a good idea.
“All things being equal, would I rather a politician or cluster politicians ruling the nuclear powers of the nation states, or would I rather someone with a PhD from MIT who’s really really smart and understands the technological systems as best as a human being can? ” she asks. “I’d rather it be the tech geek.”
“But that said, I’d rather it not be a human at all.” A technological solution to regulation would free decision-making from human biases, short-termism and tribalism – if done right, she says. “It might not go like that.”
best case, worst case
The worst case scenario she imagines sounds drawn from the pages of science fiction dystopias. A future where ruling AI does not share the values of human beings, nor value human beings at all.
The best case scenario for the end of the century? Bohan fully expects to still be alive (she’d be 110). “My honest answer is that I think the best case scenario is that by the end of the century… humans are done. But humanity is not done, right? So intelligence goes on,” she says.
“There is a utopianism associated with that ideal of just being incredibly intelligent, being able to see farther than any intelligent human being has ever seen, to know more, to experience more, to feel more, to discover more.”
But this imagining, she has come to believe, is beyond the capacity of most mortals. For them, there are the Cliff’s Notes.
“I think the comfortable version is: we have really good health care and everyone’s rich. And there’s lots of equality,” she laughs.
“But, 2100 – I don’t think that’s where we’re going to be. I think we’re going to be much farther ahead in the game.”