The World Transhumanist Association conference was held in June 2003 at Yale University. Its goal was to define the future rights of the cyborgs, intelligent robots made from human and machine parts. It also raised the question of whether or not humans should admit these coming cyborgs as citizens.
Erik Baard reports about the conference in the latest issue of the Village Voice. His story is aptly subtitled "Inside the Movement for Posthuman Rights." Here are some highlights of the three-day event which gathered 160 academics and other thinkers aspiring to immortality by adding human consciousness into machines.
The opening debate, "Should Humans Welcome or Resist Becoming Posthuman?," raised a question that seems impossibly far over the horizon in an era when the idea of reproductive cloning remains controversial. Yet the back-and-forth felt oddly perfunctory. Boston University bioethicist George Annas denounced the urge to alter the species, but the response from the audience revealed a community of people who feel the inevitability of revolution in their bones.
"It's like arguing in favor of the plough. You know some people are going to argue against it, but you also know it's going to exist," says James Hughes, secretary of the Transhumanist Association and a sociologist teaching at Trinity College in Connecticut. "We used to be a subculture and now we're becoming a movement."
As usual, Ray Kurzweil was somewhat optimistic.
Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil argues we should clean our ethical house so our technologically derived descendants inherit compassionate values, but he predicts the transition to posthumanity will be smooth. "We already have neural implants for things like Parkinson's disease," he says. "By the time machines make a case for themselves in a convincing way and have all the subtle cues indicative of emotional reaction, there won't be a clear distinction between machine and human."
Before this time comes, we'll see optimized humans.
Natasha Vita-More, a founder of the trans-humanist movement, says there's cause for vigilance now. "To relinquish the rights of a future being merely because he, she, or it has a higher percentage of machine parts than biological cell structure would be racist toward all humans who have prosthetic parts," argues the activist, whose adopted name reflects her aspirations. She has already laid out a conceptual design for an optimized human, called Primo, featuring add-ons like sonar, a fiber-optic cable down the spine, and a head crammed with nanotech data storage.
Here are two more quotes from famous scientists in the field.
Progress toward these new beings is often overestimated by the transhumanist crowd, applied scientists caution. "Some of these transhumanists are pretty far out of touch with what's going on in the labs. When I tell them that, I feel like I'm smashing their dreams," says Steve Potter, the Georgia Tech neuroscientist behind the hybrot.
A leading creator of "sociable robots," Cynthia Breazeal of M.I.T., says a chief worry is that we might try to extend rights to beings who aren't prepared for them. Breazeal assiduously avoids calling her robots by gendered pronouns. That even she occasionally slips when faced with the large, beseeching eyes of one of her creations means nothing, she says. But it must mean something. No one accidentally calls a toaster "he" or "she."
By now, you know that this article is an absolute must-read. But because it's quite long and tackles philosophical concepts, print yourself a copy -- or buy the magazine -- and keep it for the coming weekend.
Source: Erik Baard, The Village Voice, July 30 - August 5, 2003 Issue
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