If, through biotechnology, we could drastically enhance ourselves—such that our ability to absorb and manipulate information was unlimited, we experienced no disquiet, and we did not age—would we? Should we? For advocates of radical enhancement, or “transhumanism,” answering “yes” is a no-brainer. Accordingly, they press for the development of technologies that, by manipulating genes and the brain, would create beings fundamentally superior to us.
Transhumanism is far from a household term, but, whether or not they use the word publicly, its adherents are in places of power, especially in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, is devoted to boosting “cognition” and co-founded the company Neuralink toward that end. Having raised more than $200 million in new funding in 2021, in January, Neuralink proclaimed its readiness to start human trials of brain-implantable computer chips for therapeutic purposes, to help those with spinal-cord injuries walk again. But Musk’s ultimate target in exploring brain-computer connections is “superhuman,” or “radically enhanced,” cognition—a top transhumanist priority. Those with radically heightened cognitive ability would be so advanced that they wouldn’t even really be human anymore but, instead, “posthuman.”
In transhumanist fantasy, posthumans could, philosopher Nick Bostrom assures us, “read, with perfect recollection and understanding, every book in the Library of Congress.” Similarly, according to futurist and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil—who has worked at Google since 2012—they would rapidly absorb the entire contents of the World Wide Web. Pleasure would be pervasive and boundless: Posthumans will “sprinkle it in [their] tea.” On the flip side, suffering wouldn’t exist, as posthumans would have “Godlike” control of their moods and emotions. Of course, posthuman bliss would not be supreme absent immortality. This last facet, the quest to conquer aging, already garners substantial backing from Silicon Valley. In 2013, Larry Page, Google’s co-founder—and CEO of its parent company, Alphabet, until December 2019—announced the launch of Calico Labs, whose mission is to understand aging and subvert it. A growing list of startups and investors, dedicated to the “reprogramming” of human biology with the defeat of aging in view, has entered the mix. This list now includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who, in January, contributed to the $3 billion that launched Altos Labs.
Today, transhumanism’s name recognition has spread beyond Silicon Valley and academia. In 2019, an opinion piece in the Washington Post stated that “the transhumanism movement is making progress.” And a 2020 essay in the Wall Street Journal suggested that, by making “our biological fragility more obvious than ever,” COVID-19 may be “just the kind of crisis needed to turbocharge efforts” to achieve transhumanists’ goal of immortality.
You’re probably already familiar with certain enhancements—like athletes using steroids to gain a competitive advantage, or individuals using ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall off label in search of a cognitive boost. But a chasm separates such enhancements from transhumanism, whose devotees would have us engineer a species-level upgrade of humanity into posthumanity. And key to all of transhumanism’s planned advancements, mental and physical, is a specific understanding of “information” and its causal dominance in relation to features that advocates prize. This focus on information is also transhumanism’s fatal flaw.