The recent BBC dramatic series Years and Years opens with a British family gathering in the final hours of 2019, then fast-forwards them through the upheavals of the next decade. The 2020s, it appears, will be like the 2010s on steroids: economic uncertainty, concentration camps, refugees, people holding conversations with their technology, sundry climate-related disasters and the rise of a charismatic, foul-mouthed and defiantly ignorant demagogue, played by Emma Thompson. She seems to enjoy the role but never quite projects a suitable degree of malice. Perhaps the United States cornered the world’s supply: Donald Trump drops an atomic bomb on Chinese territory and still gets re-elected, as does President Pence.
All of which counts as dystopian if not especially futuristic. The exception concerns the family’s youngest member, whose parents have done enough snooping to determine that she identifies as trans. When she indicates there’s something they need to discuss, the parents ready themselves to feign surprise and express unconditional acceptance. They are not as prepared as they think, however: she identifies as transhuman.
Miserable at being confined to the carbon-based, off-line, analog vehicle she was born into, she would like to be able to upload herself to the cloud. In the meantime, she augments biology with technology through surgical procedures that connect her more and more directly with the digitalized human environment. She need never worry about losing her phone, for example, since she can always call someone by talking into her hand. The implants also serve, quite literally, as plot devices.
Viewers may find this aspect of the story intriguing or preposterous, but most will assume that transhumanism is a product of the screenwriter’s imagination. In fact it has been around for a while — even before Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 best-seller The Age of Spiritual Machines popularized his concept of “the singularity”: a moment when the exponential growth of computing power makes artificial intelligence not just possible but capable of improving itself and developing beyond anything humans might accomplish. Also emerging in the 1990s was a movement called the Extropians that saw the merger of human neural circuitry and digital technology as not just desirable or inevitable but also the next step in evolution. In the meantime, they were into smart drugs, virtual reality and writing manifestos on Usenet that sounded like mash-ups of Ayn Rand and Philip K. Dick.
The transhumanism informing Susan Schneider’s Artificial You: AI and the Future of Your Mind ( Princeton University Press ) is not cut off entirely from its nerd-utopian roots, but it is more cautious than even the anxious imaginings of Years and Years would suggest. The author mentions being an Extropian during her undergraduate days; she is the director of the AI, Mind and Society Group at the University of Connecticut. Schneider did a two-year study of superintelligent AI for NASA, and she has also worked at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton to develop tests for determining whether or not an artificial intelligence system possesses consciousness.
The lines of thought she explores now all take Kurzweil’s singularity as more or less a given. We should expect the future to bring us superintelligent technology capable, in her words, of “outperforming humans in every cognitive and perceptual domain.” It is not a question of if but of when. She writes that the fastest computer in the world, the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, can perform 200 million billion calculations per second. And while reassuring the reader that neurons in the human brain “are organized in a massively parallel fashion that still leaves modern AI systems in the dust,” Schneider acknowledges the open possibility of “reverse engineering the brain and improving on its algorithms or devising new algorithms that aren’t based on the brain’s workings at all.”
Some potentials — the offloading of human consciousness from the brain to silicon, for example — may lie beyond our capacity to engineer. But the drive to develop them is real enough, and ” The Transhumanist Declaration ” that Schneider reprints as an appendix finds room for technological improvement in most aspects of the human condition: “the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering and our confinement to the planet earth.”
The declaration goes on to identify “technophobia and unnecessary prohibitions” as dangers to “the moral right for those who wish to do so to use technology … to improve their control over their own lives,” while admitting that “intelligent life [going] extinct because of some disaster or war involving advanced technologies” would also be bad.
While identifying herself as a transhumanist, Schneider seems less interested in the strain of libertarian advocacy exhibited in the declaration than she is in the problems that flow from the technological potentials under development. Early in the book, she refers to Elon Musk’s company Neuralink, which among other things is seeking to develop “neural lace” that can be inserted into the brain and establish a connection between it and whatever new digital appliances or databases have the same Wi-Fi access. It’s also easy to imagine that within a couple of decades, parts of the brain that are damaged or failing could be fitted with “neural prostheses” to improve their functioning.
If faced with a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, I, at least, would consider giving Musk more money to be the lesser evil. Be that as it may, Schneider emphasizes the conceptual and moral problems that take shape around the edges of such “enhancements,” given the minefield of questions about the relationship between the brain, on the one hand, and consciousness, on the other. Only fictional characters will face the enigmas of existing as a mass of highly integrated bits of data no longer associated with a body — at least for some time yet. But Schneider’s book makes me suspect that some of you reading now will one day face the question of which memories and skills defining your personality you have to part with, given a spike in storage fees.