Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Contact stage, July 8 2017.
You come to Bluedot for music, sure, and maybe a few fun science experiments with plastic bottles and ping-pong balls. But you also come here to wrestle with some of humankind’s most fundamental and ethically demanding questions. On the table today is a simple one: want to live forever? Professor Steve Fuller from the University of Warwick seems a little startled at the sheer numbers of festival-goers who have crammed themselves into the Contact tent ready and willing to tackle this troubling question. It is the issue of transhumanism. The very real scientific movement theorising and driving the possibility of extending human life beyond our eighty-odd years into something much longer, perhaps unending. The prospect is as scintillating as it is terrifying and Professor Fuller does an astonishingly good job of charting the huge benefits and cavernous pitfalls of making longevity a reality.
He first explains that we are already living in a proto-state of transhumanism having invented vaccines and pharmaceuticals that have considerably upped our life expectancy since the smoky days of the industrial revolution. And yet even this has us perched in peril on the precipice of overpopulation and environmental disaster. There is already a sense that the project of transhumanism is in a frantic race against the melting ice caps.
Our options now are two-fold. Tinker with our genome to make stop our bodies decaying or junk this fleshy realm entirely and upload our consciousness to some server in the sky to become nothing but floating thought in a neural highway. Or, Fuller suggests, there is perhaps a half-way house: the fusion of biology and robotics which science-fiction has long been anxious about. So: superhumans, websites or cyborgs. Fuller is convinced, given the trajectory of human progress so far, that one or more of these are our manifest destiny.
But there are questions. Oh mankind, are there questions. Too many in the audience for Fuller to get through. What if people say no? As Fuller explains, many transhumanists work on the assumption that as soon as this technology is available everyone will want it. But a quick show of hands in the Contact tent suggests otherwise. Only a quarter are confident in their desire to live forever, the rest are unconvinced.
And think of the social and cultural implications. A race of humans living forever hardly has need of children, and it is the young who bring fresh insight and innovation. And what of the urgency which drives progress? If we stand down the grim reaper, why bother trying to achieve ambitions? And do we run the risk of a sudden and painful eugenics if this technology is only available to the rich and powerful?
Ultimately, transhumanism rests on the assumption of special status of human beings in the schema of life, making it distinct from ‘posthumanism’ which sees us more on an equal footing with the animals we share the planet with. It is this idea which snags for me. Much of the damage we do to ourselves and our world comes, I believe, from this assumption of human superiority – an assumption we stoically stand by even when presented with so much evidence to the contrary. Whatever happens, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.