Transhumanism is a movement that advocates for the use of technology to enhance the abilities of the human mind and body. The goal of transhumanists is to transcend our natural bodily limitations, extend our lifespans and ultimately achieve immortality.
What Is Transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a movement that advocates for the use of technology to augment human capabilities in an effort to improve the human condition. The idea is to develop beyond biological limitations using technological advancements that enhance cognition and promote longevity.
Transhumanism is often associated with stuff that sounds like science fiction, like using brain chips to download our thoughts, or cryogenically freezing ourselves with the hope of post-mortem regeneration. But we already see glimpses of transhumanist tech in hearing aids, pacemakers, anti-aging creams and nootropic supplements. We even have bionic arms that restore function to people who are missing limbs.
Some view transhumanism as the next logical step in evolution, leading to the creation of a posthuman society. And they wouldn’t be far off.
Characteristics of Transhumanism
Transhumanism is a diverse movement that holds a range of perspectives, but there are several common themes associated with it:
Transhumanism emphasizes the use of technology and science to enhance human capabilities. Breakthroughs in fields such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and robotics are correlated with transhumanist tech.
A large part of the techno-humanist movement advocates for the deliberate enhancement of human physical and cognitive abilities. This could involve genetic engineering, cybernetic implants, nootropics and other applications designed for enhancement.
Transhumanists are interested in extending human lifespan and improving overall health. Through a transhumanist lens, these efforts look a lot like anti-aging therapies, regenerative medicine and any tech-based interventions that attempt to defy biological aging processes — even death itself.
Evolving beyond our current biological form is a core tenet of transhumanism. In a transhumanist future, humans merge with machines in a number of ways, from mechanized cyborgs to digital avatars that live on in virtual realities.
While ethical dilemmas are thoroughly discussed, transhumanists are generally optimistic in their outlook of tomorrow’s technologies. Not only do most consider transhumanist progress and the post-human future a significant improvement to the human condition, they are also certain it will happen.
Transhumanism emphasizes individual choice and the freedom to choose enhancements. It often advocates for a future where individuals have the right to control their own bodies and minds, making decisions about the use of technology for personal improvement.
History and Origins of Transhumanism
The origins of transhumanism can be traced back to the 1957 article “Transhumanism” by Julian Huxley, a biologist who proposed that “the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically … but in its entirety as humanity.”
Just a few years later, futurologist Fereidoun Esfandiary, who legally changed his name to FM-2030, led talks that promoted death- and age-defying research toward non-biological bodies, reconceptualizing tech as an evolutionary tool. From here, modern concepts of posthumanism and transhumanism were born, shortly followed by the world’s first fleet of frozen cryonauts at the Cryonic Institute in 1976.
Several manifestos and one space race later, Eric Drexler introduced the advent of nanotechnology — proposing a promising biotech hack to human enhancement — before transhumanist philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce established the World Transhumanist Association (later renamed Humanity Plus) in 1998.
“Transhumanists want to know what technology effectively means in the context of being human."
These days, transhumanism is less about modifying the human condition to create superhumans, and more about embracing the ways in which technology already does modify and augment our behavior.
From a purist point of view, a car could be considered a type of transhumanist tech — a prosthesis that allows us to carry heavy loads and passengers at far distances and high speeds, according to James Dalby, senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Gloucestershire and author of Transmedia Selves. “In this reading, we are the machines we make,” Dalby told Built In.
Other transhumanist camps specifically look at how technology objectively alters human abilities through software and hardware adaptations. Either way, each takes it in turn as an evolutionary stage. “Transhumanists want to know what technology effectively means in the context of being human,” Dalby added.
Regardless of where that line between man and machine is drawn, transhumanism aims to blur it. Any way you cut it, the idea is that technology will merge with humans and become one.
Examples of Transhumanist Technology
Mind uploading is a conceptual application that would make it possible to digitally scan a human brain and upload its contents to an external device. Also known as whole-brain emulation, this computerized replica would be able to back up memories and artificially recreate thought processes. But before researchers can achieve this, they must first be able to map neural pathway intricacies shared between billions of neurons and trillions of synapses to an exact degree.
For transhumanists, mind uploading offers a pathway to one of transhumanism’s main objectives — living forever — by way of digital immortality. Eternally existing in a simulation means that uploaded minds would be able to contribute to the physical world after death or be regenerated as a carbon copy.
Cryogenic freezing, or cryonics, is the practice of deep freezing human remains after clinical death in hopes of being revived by future scientific advances. This procedure entails storing the human body — or just the head — in low-grade temperatures using liquid nitrogen and cryoprotectants to preserve biological tissues. Conceptually speaking, if the structure of the brain is intact, then it’s possible to recover its contents. There are currently 500 bodies of “cryonauts” in storage, including James Bedford, the first man who elected to be cryopreserved in 1967.
Genetic engineering is the deliberate modification of an organism’s genetic material, like its DNA, to introduce desired traits or characteristics. In other words, it’s a way to manipulate genes in order to achieve specific outcomes. There are several types of genetic engineering, some of which are banned and some of which are regularly practiced. The type that programs a human embryo — while it’s available today — is off limits for practical and ethical purposes (although it has been done). This has to do with its unpredictability and the fact that it could permanently influence the gene pool in irreversible, inheritable ways that could alter every succeeding generation. Other types, such as somatic therapies that have been used to treat sickle cell and HIV diseases in patients, may become available in the next 10 years.
Transhumanists argue that it should be up to an individual to decide if they want to undergo genetic engineering, and see it as a way to permanently eliminate genetic diseases, heighten innate intelligence and manually introduce traits that go beyond the natural human spectrum.
Artificial superintelligence refers to an advanced level of artificial intelligence that enables computers to acquire cognitive abilities that far surpass humans. In fact, this inflection point, known as the technological singularity, onsets a hypothetical moment in time where superintelligent systems become capable of building better versions of themselves at rapid rates beyond human comprehension and control.
In the context of transhumanism, a superintelligence refers more to a symbiosis between man and machines, where humans continue to augment their daily lives and offload cognitive responsibilities via machines as they merge as one. And, while most other singularity theories predict bleak outcomes, where humans are pretty much pawns at the mercy of god-like, all-powerful machines, every algorithm and scrap of data that AI has learned from has been coded by a human — so there may be a bias in our favor when and if the time comes.
Cyborgs, short for cybernetic organisms, are beings composed of both biological and artificial parts. They’re arguably the most literal example of transhumanist technology, as these humanoids typically start out as one of us, then trade in parts for a bionic upgrade. As cyborgs, humans maintain parts of what make us human, like aesthetics and emotionality, while curbing natural biological decay and enhancing natural abilities via robotic augmentation.
In his book The Singularity Is Near, futurist Ray Kurzweil went as far as predicting a rough sequence in which we will seek out bodily replacements, starting with our digestive and gland systems, then our blood vessels and heart, followed by skeleton, skin and brain.
Neil Harbisson became the world’s first legally recognized cyborg. Born colorblind, the artist and trans-species activist hears color through an electromagnetic antenna implanted in his skull, which relays frequencies of light into vibrations. He considers his ‘eyeborg’ antenna an extension of himself, like an organ or appendage. This specialized device even ventures beyond the visual spectrum, allowing Harbisson to see ultraviolet and infrared lights, invisible to the human eye.
Hive-mind technology refers to an integration of interconnected individuals to create a decentralized, collective intelligence or consciousness. This can be done through information-sharing systems, like implanted brain-computer interfaces that are already being tested in human trials. Once linked, humans would be able to share dreams, emotions and thoughts telepathically as well as multiply their abilities by the numbers, analogous to bees building honeycomb colonies or migratory birds taking synchronized flight.
The closest thing we have predating such a network may be Swarm AI, an AI-enhanced feedback loop system that enables networked groups of people to “think together,” collectively sharing insights or engaging decision making in real-time. The platform, hosted by Unanimous AI, connects users globally and is moderated by AI. Meanwhile, companies like Neuralink, Braingate and Neurable are pioneering invasive and non-invasive hardware solutions that interpret brain waves in order to turn thought into action.
Nanotechnology is an area of science that manipulates matter at the nanoscale. By altering an object’s molecular structure, these materials exhibit unique and unusual properties — a physical change in color or sudden conductivity — compared to their life-sized counterparts on the macroscopic scale. This tech is ripe to change the face of medicine, and, in regards to transhumanism, revolutionize human enhancement. Researchers are currently exploring working toward targeted drug delivery, regenerative therapies that reverse the effects of damage or age on soft tissues and in vivo nanobots programmed to internally diagnose or treat patients.
Biotech startup Magforce, which is using targeted thermal ablation to kill cancer cells and spare healthy surrounding tissue, is the first to receive European approval for a medical device that uses nanoparticles. Nanoagents, such as nanosilver and colloidal gold, have a long history in regulating immune responses, combating bacterial infections and treating rheumatoid arthritis, respectively.
How Close Are We to Transhumanism?
Transhumanism isn’t exactly a singular point in time. It’s more of a slow rollout of techno-humanist applications across the fields of biotech, data science, AI, robotics and nanotechnology. Any type of “arrival” would exist somewhere at the intersection of these converging technologies.
“Whether consciously acknowledged or not ... we are all, in essence, transhumanists already.”
Many point to 2030, as the coming decade is anticipated to be a significant turning point for AI-enhanced tech. Others, including futurist Avinash Singh, who lectures on neuroadaptive brain-computer interfaces at the University of Technology Sydney, would argue that transhumanism is already here, as its proof-of-concept can be found in everyday solutions.
Phones and laptops extend our memory and supplement knowledge recall. Artificial body parts, like pacemakers, cochlear implants and bionic prosthesis, are routine medical procedures similar to gene-edited vaccines and medications that enhance our memory, attention and sleep.
“Whether consciously acknowledged or not,” Singh said, “we are all, in essence, transhumanists already.”
Concerns and Problems With Transhumanism
The leading critique of transhumanism is that it treats certain aspects of humanity — aging and death, to be specific — as diseases that need to be cured. And while the notion to save lives and promote human health is a noble pursuit, denying inevitable truths is where transhumanism can veer into extremist territory.
“Transhumanists see humankind as a bridge to another place, in this way creating an imagined bright future while disparaging the present as inferior,” said Brian Green, director of technology ethics at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Green, who approaches transhumanism as a religious issue, said that transhumanism is fundamentally about putting faith in technology to solve humanity's problems.
While it’s important to note that the movement is ideologically diverse, “some transhumanists — not all — are thus anti-human in a lot of ways,” Green said, “which is a critical weakness.”
In practice, if transhumanism made its way into the status quo, it’s likely that access to technological enhancement would not be evenly dispersed. Some may not be able to afford artificial augmentation or simply choose to opt out. This inequitable access could exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and lead to a sort of “bio prejudice” techno-aristocracy, noted Michal Valčo, professor of philosophy and religion at Comenius University in Bratislava. The ability to edit human characteristics positions individuals to ‘play God’ and, over time, this may inadvertently eliminate formative aspects of personhood — empathy, solidarity, love and care — that bond us together.
“Human vulnerability and the wisdom of living within limitations are not weaknesses but rather invaluable facets of our existence,” Valčo, who explores the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and transhumanism in his work, said. “The pitfalls emerge when technologies overshadow or diminish our personhood, reducing us to mere nodes in a network or cogs in a machine.”
There is, of course, the possibility that augmented human capabilities can actually deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. Transhumanist advocate and member of venture studio Transhumanism Australia Singh sees transhumanism as an exercise of autonomy, affording individuals an opportunity to decide their own fate, especially as they age or face disease.
Sticking around longer than biologically possible would mean that someone could acquire access to options currently unavailable. Extending a lifespan could allow people to explore space, encounter uncharted habitats and meet new species. People may even opt to ditch their physical form altogether for an entirely digitized lifestyle, or reset their memory bank to start anew.
Frequently Asked Questions
How close are we to transhumanism?
It depends on who you ask. Some would argue that transhumanism tech is already here, while others point to 2030 as a significant turning point for AI-enhanced tech.
What is an example of transhumanism?
Mind uploading, cryogenic freezing, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering and bionic limbs that essentially turn us into robots and cyborgs are some common examples of transhumanist tech in the making.
Is Elon Musk a transhumanist?
Widely described as more of a futurist, Elon Musk has not self-declared as a transhumanist. Musk has, however, developed several technologies, like Neuralink’s brain-computer-interface, that fit into a transhumanist agenda and claimed that “to avoid becoming like monkeys, humans must merge with machines,” in an interview with Axios.