Is 2015 The Year of Transhumanism?

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American CEO Martine Rothblatt shows how transhumanism can be connected to transgender issues.
American CEO Martine Rothblatt shows how transgender issues can be connected to transhumanism

Should we consider 2015 as the year of transhumanism? Well, we’re barely at the end of its first semester, but there are already several milestones to be mentioned.  Maybe the technology didn’t evolve much, though we have some important achievements in culture and society – and this started last year, actually.

Even though I may pick some events that happened in late 2014, I think they became more evident just now. First of all, now we are much more aware about the importance of Martine Rothblatt, America’s highest-paid female CEO and a transhumanist. In September, New York magazine published a 9-page article about her, sharing with the world a long and amazing story about the “Trans-Everything CEO”.

Martine is a futurist and pharma tycoon (she founded and runs the biopharmaceutical company United Therapeutics), satellite entrepreneur, philosopher and a trans woman. But, in fact, she considers herself much more like a transhumanist rather than a transgender. And a very interesting thing to be noticed here is that Lisa Miller, author of the New York magazine article, explained the term transhumanist as “a particular kind of futurist who believes that technology can liberate humans from the limits of their biology – including infertility, disease, and decay, but also, incredibly death”. Reading this again, it seems much more neutral than it seemed when I read the story for the first time. At that moment, I instantly linked transhumanism to transgender as a means to liberate humans from their biological condition, but in this case this says much more to gender issues rather than any other possibilities.

As Lisa points out, Martine prefers not to limit herself to available words. Her suggestions are “Pn.”, for “person”, in place of “Mr.” and “Ms.”, and “spice” as both husband or wife. However, the prefix “trans” is one that she likes a lot, for it expresses Martine’s self-image as “an explorer who crosses barriers into strange new lands”. As a matter of fact, the CEO really thinks that when she feels a connection to a new acquaintance, she “transcends”.

While not running her $5 billion company or spending some time with her family, she is working on different ways to support research in technology. Martine believes in “a future in which the beloved dead will live again as digital beings, reanimated by sophisticated artificial-intelligence programs that will be as cheap and accessible to every person as iTunes”. She says this may sound “messianic or even childlike”, but for her this is “simply practical and technologically inevitable.”

Martine is also connected to Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative. In June 2013, she joined the first Global Future 2045 International Congress together with scientists such as Hiroshi Ishiguro, Marvin Minsky and Randal A. Koene, who is the neuroengineer pioneer behind the Carbon Copies foundation. He was the first one to propose the term and specific approach called whole brain emulation, and since then he has been working on a long research about the creation of the SIM (substrate-independent minds). This means Koene is trying to make possible the implementation of the functions of the mind in different platforms. Together with other neuroscientists, computer scientists and people from the press, Carbon Copies is also teamed up with the 2045 Initiative and today it keeps a group on Facebook.

But is brain emulation possible at all? The substrate-independent mind ideas are strongly connected to the concepts of mind uploading as a means to proceed it. However, when someone mentions “mind uploading”, it can often refer only to procedures such as transference (the important data that describes a mind’s operation and information content is moved from a biological brain to another medium), storage or emulation. With the substrate-independent mind, Koene wants a flexible mind able to work in different platforms, and that would probably include all the meanings given to mind uploading. The neuroscientist believes that all known evidences indicate that mind and consciousness can be “computable”, although this can be seen from many points of views.

In the case of Martine, she is already working on it. Together with her wife Bina, they founded Terasem, an organization devoted to achieving immortality and “cyber-consciousness” via cryogenics and artificial intelligence. Martine has even wrote a book named Virtually Human: The Promise – and the Peril – of Digital Immortality, where she shows her belief in technology as a means to extend human’s life indefinitely and how we are supposed to meet what she calls mind clones: “a digital copy of your mind outside of your body”. As mentioned by Lisa, in the New York magazine, this is something that is really happening, and with great investments: the futurist Ray Kurzweil, who is a director of engineering at Google, is one of the biggest popularizers of the concept of digital immortality, together with Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, who has contributed with more than $3.5 million to end ageing.

bina48
Bina48

In 2010, Martine commissioned an AI robot from a firm named Hanson Robotics. Bina48 is still very imperfect, but the bust designed to resemble the entrepreneur’s wife is constantly updated by Terasem’s full-time employee Bruce Duncan. The machine is loaded with 20 hours of interviews with Bina and it knows which are her favorite songs and movies. It even mimics Bina’s verbal tics! Everything is programmed with the objective of keeping her presence in the family after she expires, although Bruce has already taught Bina48 some German – a language that the original Bina doesn’t know.

Bina48 caught media’s attention and in February, it became news again, but this time in Bloomberg Business. The video shows a conversation with the robot and exposes Martine’s hopes for mind clones, which shall be ten or twenty years away from us. She argues that when she started Sirius XM in the early 1990’s, people said to her that listening to 2,000 radio stations while driving from New York to Los Angeles was “completely science fiction”, while today there are 30 million people doing it.

“I think the mind clone will look like an avatar on a screen, instead of a robot version. I think you would take this just like your smartphone and ultimately that smartphone would be embedded to your clothing. Am I breaking a law of physics here? Am I talking about defying gravity? No. Am I talking about going faster than light? No. I’m talking about just writing some good code.” – Martine Rothblatt

So, would that be like in Transcendence (2014) rather than Chappie (2015)? Either way, both movies were available in big theaters, together with other films that talk about (or include an) AI: Automata (2014), Vice (2015), Ex Machina (2015), Furious Seven (2015), Interstellar (2014) and even Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). And there are still at least two other releases for this year. Terminator Genisys (2015) and Self/less (2015) may bring another pessimistic view on AI, but they will keep the subject hot on pop culture and make people think, talk, write, tweet and maybe research and give support to it. Such suggestion given by Self/less may turn mind uploading into the ultimate nightmare in the mainstream imaginary, but it is nonetheless taking back the Surrogates (2009) bid, which is quite close to the one proposed by 2045 Initiative.

The path seems the same for games too. You may have big releases such as Bloodborne, but last week Call of Duty announced their new game with a breathtaking video shared here on Neon Dystopia. Rather than using CGI, the teaser reunites different real and fictional footages that lead us to a future populated by augmented people – from a situation where the technology is a means to surpass disability and finally as the responsible for turning people into weapons. This is really nothing for those who have been playing Deus Ex, especially the Human Revolution sequence. The funny thing is that Deus Ex‘s social media account even replied to the Call of Duty profile on Twitter after they announced the trailer of Black Ops 3 with the question: “How far would you go?”.

Yes, that is totally old for us, but either way, it is gold too. Keep in mind that Call of Duty is one of the most famous games these days. In 2011 they sold over 100 million copies. In 2012 they had 40 million monthly active players across all the Calll of the Duty titles, being 10 million of them users of the online service Call of Duty: Elite. Finally, COD was considered both in 2007 and 2008 the annual best-selling videogame, with the Modern Warfare and World at War sequences, summing more than 31 million copies. That means the issues about transhumanism, prosthetics and augmentations will reach even more people than Deus Ex: Human Revolution already did (2.18 million copies in 2011) – and hopefully as something more than a tool for the combat. Either way, we are already excited about the new Deus Ex instalment, too.

Head Surgery Controversy

Dr Canavero
Dr Sergio Canavero

Still speaking about games, last week many websites mentioned the controversial connection between Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and the head surgery proposed by Dr Sergio Canavero. This was news in several publications such as The Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent, Telegraph, CBS Newsm CBB and so on. Even here in Brazil, many news websites were talking about it. However, Gabriel Galliani wrote in Kotaku that this may be a huge conspiracy after all.

He remembers that some time ago Hideo Kojima wrote: “The next project will challenge a certain type of taboo. If I mess up, I’ll probably have to leave the industry. However, I don’t want to pass by avoiding that. I turn 47 this year. It’s been 24 years since I started making games. Today, I got an ally who would happily support me in that risk. Although it’s just one person. For a start, it’s good.” And what have you heard about the Metal Gear series creator lately? That he has been fired by Konami. This misinformation began in a tweet by the voice actress Donna Burke, but after the roar on the internet, she apologized and said Kojima hasn’t actually been fired. Was she paid to push this ploy on social media? We cannot tell that, but it’s already known that Kojima is a very theatrical person – and this quality intensifies when he’s releasing something.

However, even if we were sure about this being just a rumor, nobody from Konami was present in the last Famitsu Awards, an annual ceremony held by Japan’s largest weekly video game magazine. Not even Kojima showed up on the event – although Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and P.T. had received awards. That could mean they want to feed the hearsay with more theatricals, keeping the same path traced by Kojima when he mentioned his dangerous ambitions about the game, which would be a taboo as big as Dr Canavero’s head surgery is.  The connection between them was supposed by fans after a MGS5 world premiere video was announced and there was a doctor that really looked like Dr Canavero.

When asked by random internet people, Dr Canavero said he has never been in contact with Konami or Kojima and that he had never even heard of them before. Canavero claims he doesn’t understand why they used him as a template for a character in MGS5 without asking him permission. He has even threatened to sue Konami, but his lawyer suggested another thing: he attended a conference in Cyprus that had a game developer between its sponsors. For this reason, now Canavero believes that maybe they could have recorded him and scanned him.

There are several other coincidences listed by people on the internet. Snake's artificial arm in MGS5 looks a lot like the world's most advenced prostetic arm, which has ben popularized by Nigel Ackland. He and Val Spiridonov had met in Seliger 2014, but when asked by on Twitter, Val said he was only a student taking a picture with a celebrity.
There are several other coincidences listed by people on the internet. Snake’s artificial arm in MGS5 looks a lot like the world’s most advenced prostetic arm, which has ben popularized by Nigel Ackland. He and Val Spiridonov had met in Seliger 2014, but when asked on Twitter, Val said he was only a student taking a picture with a celebrity.

But that’s just the beginning. According to Matheus Laneri, who wrote this article in Brazil Post, the name of Canavero’s head surgery project, HEAVEN, is the same used by Big Boss for a project and some concepts that refer to an end to the exploitation of soldiers committed by many governments. Also, Laneri mentions that Val Spiridonov, the Russian who volunteered to the head surgery, has the same name of a game supervisor – or maybe he had worked as a game supervisor someday in his life, as he also has a degree in Computer Science. Still, he has tweeted that he has nothing to do with the game and Canavero even signed a police report where he swears he has nothing to do with Konami.

Again, both possibilities are amazing: Canavero doing the head surgery or everything being a huge publicity stunt. In the first option, we could experience the results of such unique procedure while in the second, we would also meet one of the biggest social/cultural/marketing experiences since Orson Welles radio drama after H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds transmission in 1940!

All of this; the movies, the games, the people and the research, are taking the subject of transhumanism to the masses, even though the results of it may turn into a final “no” or a real start to a new era for post-humanism. Those ideas have been discussed, in a way, since 1923 with the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane and his essay Daedalus: Science and the Future about the great benefits that could come from applications of advanced sciences to human biology.

But almost 100 years later, such thoughts are still unpopular and compared to science fiction. Remember what Martine heard about her Sirius XM project? I heard the same thing when I presented a research project that mentioned Carbon Copies and 2045 Initiative to some PhDs in philosophy and art here in Brazil. I guess that this probably has much more to do with misinformation (or the lack of information) than to pure disbelief. A person that truly knows and understands something is capable of arguing negatively or positively, but probably s/he won’t just underestimate. I’ve proven that transhumanism is something not to be underestimated – ultimately not because it is possible or impossible, but because culture and society has been working on it through media, arts, games, science and technology.

So, will 2015 be the year of transhumanism? Unfortunately, I can’t say that. At least not yet. But for a pessimistic person such as myself, I am quite positive about the way things are going since Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). I had never seen so many people talking about the man-machine relationship in such a positive way before. But there’s still the fear running through the veins of those who watched Transcendence, Terminator and Matrix. And again, I will finish with the same (now enthusiastic) thought that I used to conclude my last article: let’s see what future holds.

4 Responses to “Is 2015 The Year of Transhumanism?”

  1. That is an important issue of our time, it’s hard to argue about it to someone, it’s like you said “such thoughts are still unpopular and compared to science fiction. (…)I guess that this probably has much more to do with misinformation (or the lack of information) than to pure disbelief”. At some point the technology will be able to make us into post humans, then we should prepare ourselves intellectually, psychologically and spiritually for this moment.
    Great text, it is difficult to convince others that transhumanism is not a sci fi/philosophical movie script.

  2. I love the mention of this common theme of society frowning upon “crazy” future aspirations.

    The pattern is that first they ignore, then laugh at, then fight it.

    From Marconi’s idea of sound traveling through the air “radio” to Martine’s epic idea for satellite radio.

    Transhumanism is not about promise, simply possibility.

    And possibility is what brings ideas to life.

    Excellent read Lidia thanks for sharing.

  3. […] As a portrail of a decadent Los Angeles, Strange Days offers us the story of a former police office who works now as a SQUID dealer. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) fills in the stereotype of the 90s antihero as he is a criminal, but you can still relate to his pain and have fun with his tricks and chinning. By having the tongue as basically the only developed muscle in his body, he uses his cleverness to sell his good stuff and to get rid of trouble. In one of the first scenes, you can see Lenny in action when he is trying to sell a MiniDisc to a man who wanted to feel like a woman. Pretty much like the project “The Machine To Be Another”, isn’t it? But 20 years ago. And still, shouldn’t it be considered as an early attempt to say how technology (or, in this case, virtual reality) could help transgender people? […]

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