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  • Gregor Wolbring
    http://www.montrealmirror.com/ARCHIVES/2004/070104/news3.html Jul 1-7.2004 Vol. 20 No. 2 Cyborgs in the city Though bioethicists have their doubts, Justice de
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      http://www.montrealmirror.com/ARCHIVES/2004/070104/news3.html

      Jul 1-7.2004 Vol. 20 No. 2

      Cyborgs in the city

      Though bioethicists have their doubts, Justice de Thézier and his fellow
      transhumanists want to build a supertechnological you

      by KRISTIAN GRAVENOR

      At a public square on the Lower Main a belligerent drunk in an electric
      wheelchair shouts obscenities at a police officer whose attempts to grab
      him are befuddled by the man's oversized vehicle. The cop, befuddled by
      the prospects of getting the drunk into the paddy wagon, awkwardly tries
      to grab the man again. Eventually the cop gives up and drives off.

      The disabled man in the big wheeled machine has transformed disability
      into his advantage - the technology has turned him from a cripple to a
      space pod commander invulnerable to arrest. Body technology had kept the
      well-oiled man-machine from the backseat of the cop van.

      It's a suitable image just prior to a meeting with Justice de Thézier,
      the local leader of Montreal's transhumanist movement, a recently formed
      gang of about 15 hardcore techno-utopians who seek to lobby and curry
      public enthusiasm for the improvements that technology can have for the
      human condition.

      I was keeping a contacted-lensed eye out for a futuristic übermensch
      clad in exoskeletal scaffolding with a wearable computer and an
      integrated Webcam. But the chief local enthusiast of cyborgs and the
      gatekeeper of the cryptadia of the full-throttle human tech agenda comes
      equipped only with a cool name - Justice de Thézier, apparently his real
      moniker, and his physical form looked more metrosexual than technofutural.

      Life extension, human gills

      Sitting over a frosty ice drink, the UQÀM student articulately recounts
      how he discovered and embraced transhumanism while researching a script
      for an experimental movie, and has since embraced the possibilities of
      repairing and improving the human condition through cutting-edge
      scientific innovation. "Right now the public discourse on these issues
      is dominated by neo-Luddites and technophobes who are so afraid that
      they're even pushing for laws banning technologies that don't even exist
      yet," he says.

      Thézier's mission is to get the world ready and receptive for massive
      scientific inroads which will give us unprecedented choices in altering
      our human form. Some stuff he foresees: germline engineering to remove
      diseases, giving ourselves gills to breathe underwater or animal
      feathers, or changing the colour of one's skin. "It'll take 20 to 50
      years for most of this stuff to be safe," he says. Plus there is, of
      course, cryogenic revival and life extension on their agenda.

      Transhumanists credit the birth of their movement to F.M. Esfandiary
      (aka FM-2030), an Iranian-American futurist who first laid the receptive
      groundwork between a future marriage of man and machine in 1966; in
      1998, the World Transhumanist Association was founded, according to
      Thézier, "to defend the right of individuals in free and democratic
      societies to use new technologies that overcome the limitations of the
      human body."

      Thézier says that our local gang is a thoughtful bunch whose only true
      eccentric is a vice-president who wears a voice-activated tape recorder
      around his neck at all times. "He's recording everything morning to
      night so he can be ready for when we download our consciousnesses."

      The local group busies itself with the challenge of making government
      more receptive to the techno-future, translating documents into French
      and hoping to ensure that the poor also benefit from future innovations.
      "What people really want to know is whether human enhancement is only
      going to benefit the Donald Trumps of the world," says Thézier, who
      wants to bring superintelligent brain implants and other innovations to
      the all social strata by "guaranteeing safe, universal and voluntary
      access to them. Because for me, ultimately, it's all about the little
      guy finally having a chance to not only overcome the biological
      limitations we all have as human beings but also the social limitations
      imposed on him."

      The future is now

      Transhumanists believe that amazing technological advances will hit us
      quite suddenly, possibly in a magical moment called "singularity," when
      an advanced artificial intelligence unit will offer a host of
      technological advances all at once, at which point "the progress curve
      becomes nearly vertical," says Thézier.

      Some improvements have already arrived, such as the improved method of
      cryogenic freezing called vitrefication, which he enthusiastically
      reports "turns a body into something like glass, thereby leaving tissues
      undamaged."

      Perhaps the most heralded upcoming innovation is also the most
      controversial: germline engineering, which would see a defective or
      undesirable gene removed from one's genetic structure, ensuring that the
      trait would not be passed on. It's rife with controversy, but these guys
      are all for it.

      Thézier wants people to overcome their apprehensions to what could be an
      unrecognizable human future. "There's too much technophobia out there.
      When the VCR flashes 12:00, what prevents people from adjusting it is
      the assumption that it's complicated, but in fact it's quite simple. So
      much technology now is ubiquitous and fundamentally integrated, and it's
      becoming more so, with the visual phone, the Segway - the list goes on."

      Human 2.0

      I later got McGill University bioethicist Margaret Somerville on the
      blower and it turns out she's abuzz with caveat emptor vis-à-vis
      transhumanism. "One of the things I'm interested in researching is the
      importance of the basic presumption in favour of the natural. It doesn't
      mean you can't change nature, but you must be sure that you are
      justified when doing it. The transhumanists have the opposite
      presumption. They think it's fine to do what you can. I feel that
      they've got an unbalanced optimism about what they can use science for,"
      she says.

      Somerville, who had a high-profile debate last year with Toronto
      transhumanists, says she's concerned that two tiers of humanity could
      evolve from techno-tinkering. "They think they will engineer the
      transition from human to post-human, to make a vastly superior model. In
      fact it would be so different from what we know as human, that what we
      consider human would be so inferior that it'd be a subspecies.

      "The stated goal is to create humans that have superintelligence,
      superemotions, that you won't have to worry about wars and conflict
      because we'll be so well-programmed. That has an ultra-humanist base but
      I think it fails to understand the complexities and values of what we are."

      Somerville also believes that efforts at immortality are also a dodgy
      goal. "We won't be wear-outable, they say, because we'll be made of
      replaceable computer bits. But once you start talking about immortality
      you're getting close to advocating a secular religion because that's
      what religions deal with - why we're here, what we're doing and how long
      we'll be here."

      Somerville also worries about the vaunted germline engineering that
      would simply deprogram unwanted traits in an embryo. "That's really
      designing humans. The basis of democracy is that we are all free and
      equal and what that would mean is that the designed person is not free
      because they've been designed. It's not a free thing that happened to
      them, it's the ultimate form of slavery - genetic slavery."

      Enhancement for everyone!

      Nor is she persuaded by the idea that once somebody does it, it's
      full-speed ahead for the rest. "It's like using drugs in the Olympics.
      You're supposed to work out whether that's what you really should be
      doing in the first place."

      One scenario Somerville suggests might come involves slowed ageing. "You
      go into the embryo and alter the ageing gene, so you wouldn't reach
      puberty until 25 or 30, you'd hit middle age at 60 and wouldn't actually
      get old until you were like 150. Is it acceptable to do that? Who will
      be the first to make their kid go through that?"

      When told of this criticism, Thézier seems delighted that such debates
      are evolving, but he tosses suspicions back. "Bioethicists hide a
      conservative agenda and don't look at both sides; we're not a cult or
      religion. We don't have a cult hero," he says. "Nor do we all have
      shared values. Some transhumanists care about space colonization, for
      example, others don't. We have no dogmas. We're a humanist movement. We
      want to explain the benefits of funding research and development of
      enhancement technologies but also guarantee safe, universal and
      voluntary access to them through modernized health-care plans.

      "Rather than banning these technologies for fear that they might
      increase social inequalities, they should be seen as tools for the poor
      and disenfranchised to gain not only better health but social mobility."


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      --
      Dr. Gregor Wolbring
      webpage: http://www.bioethicsanddisability.org
      Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO

      Biochemist at the Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Faculty of
      Medicine University of Calgary, Canada

      Adjunct Assistant Professor for bioethical issues at the Dept. of
      Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies Faculty of Education
      University of Calgary, Canada

      Adjunct Assistant Professor with the John Dossetor Health Ethic Center,
      University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

      Founder and Executive director of the International Center for
      Bioethics, Culture and Disability Founder and Coordinator of the
      International Network on Bioethics and Disability
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Bioethics/join

      Phone 1-403-2108710
      Fax 1-403-283-4740
      e-mail gwolbrin@...
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