[Fwd: [wta-talk] Fab article on transhumanism in Montreal]
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
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
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
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."
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,"
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
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