Bruno Reynell discusses a talk given by David Pearce on transhumanism and the future of our species
Transhumanism is a word that makes a lot of people feel uneasy. Many have a science fiction fuelled image crop up in their head of renegade scientists gradually turning themselves into cyborgs, scheming domination and just generally losing touch with reality.
On Monday evening, David Pearce addressed a packed Cruciform lecture theatre to provide a clearer picture of this oft-misunderstood movement. Pearce is co-founder of Humanity+, an organisation advocating ‘the ethical use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, to expand human capacities’, and he is credited with being a public figurehead of transhumanism.
His ninety-minute talk, entitled 24 Predictions for the Year 3000, started with an explanation of his first prediction: superhuman bliss. This is ‘superhappiness’, the branch of transhumanism that is Pearce’s main focus. His project The Hedonistic Imperative has the ambitious vision of abolishing suffering in all sentient life through the development and application of biotechnology, and a resulting elevation of hedonic set points (fixed levels of happiness).
Audience participation was strongly encouraged throughout and, understandably, this lead to a wide variety of questions being raised. Many of the issues raised revolved around the concern that unprecedented levels of happiness might negatively impact other aspects of our lives and societies. Could we still live with purpose? Would we stop striving to make the world a better place? And where does free will come into all of this?
Pearce’s general response to these questions was to refute the preconceived idea that being happier makes humans docile. Instead, he claimed that it would be possible to enjoy a heightened state of euphoria while still maintaining a keen sense of notions such as empathy and compassion, allowing us to have an active and meaningful life to an extent not feasible today.
As much as the continuous stream of questions generated a thought-provoking, almost hour-long discussion on this topic, it also put paid to any intention of making it through Pearce’s remaining 23 slides. Therefore, the decision was taken to pick and choose certain slides according to the direction that the general discussion was taking. This meant missing out on tantalisingly-named slides such as ‘The Effectively Unlimited Material Abundance’ and ‘Plans for Galactic Domination’, but there was still plenty of interesting ground covered.
For example, Pearce discussed a potential ‘reproductive revolution’, which would manifest itself in several ways. First, people might come to view having children ‘the natural way’ as reckless genetic experimentation, leading to the acceptance of tools such as the gene editing CRISPR-Cas9 to form babies born with certain advantages. Another idea offered was the development of technologies allowing prenatal development to take place outside of a human body, something that would considerably alter the structure of our societies.
Another slide was entitled ‘The Anti-Speciesist Revolution’. Here, the main question raised by Pearce was whether genetic differences between species are a morally relevant factor when attempts are made to justify humans’ treatment of other animals. A vegan himself, he offered an unsettling image of us in decades’ time, having to explain to grandchildren how we ignored the slaughter of innumerable farm animals all holding the mental capacities of human toddlers.
As Pearce continued to field questions on subjects such as the relationship between transhumanism and religion, and the inequality that might be engendered by transhumanism, time constraints meant that the event had to conclude.
In his introduction, the chair of the evening, David Wood (himself Chair of London Futurists) described Pearce as someone who ‘challenges us to think big thoughts’. He certainly did that here, and his willingness to engage with the audience at every possible occasion made this an even more intriguing and accessible event than it might have otherwise been. While it only scratched the surface of what is an immensely broad movement, the event was certainly valuable in that it gave a measure of the type of questions that transhumanism will force us to consider in both the near and far future.
David Pearce’s talk was co-hosted by LSESU Neuroscience Society and UCL Artificial Intelligence Society.
Picture Credit: Ahish Kaushik