Saturday, 6 February 2016

Strategies for Growing the Transhumanism Movement

Future Transhumanist City -- Image by Sam Howzit

Transhumanism--the international movement that aims to use science and technology to improve the human being--has been growing quickly in the last few years. Everywhere one looks, there seems to be more and more people embracing radical technology that is already dramatically changing lives. Ideas that seemed science fiction just a decade ago are now here. 

Later this year, I'll be speaking at RAAD, a one-of-a-kind life extension and transhumanism festival in San Diego where thought-leaders like Ray Kurzweil, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, and Dr. Joseph Mercola will be sharing their ideas on our future. With so much radical tech growth and science innovation occurring in the last few years, the question has been asked: What are the best strategies for the transhumanism movement moving forward? Of course, as the 2016 US Presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, I have my own ideas--and naturally they're quite politically oriented. 

2016-02-05-1454642421-1811629-demonstration.jpg  Transhumanist Party supporters protesting against existential risk -- Photo by Daniel Sollinger

When I created the Transhumanist Party, I felt a major missing element of transhumanism was the lack of any political force and agenda operating in the movement. Without a foothold in politics and national governments, it's simply unlikely transhumanism could grow as large as is possible. Eventually, transhumanist politics will not only be the next great civil rights conversation and battleground, but also the philosophical fountainhead of evolution for our species. With robotic hearts, cerebral implants, bionic limbs, and genetic manipulation already here, the transhumanist age has begun. Now it's time to shape the destiny of that exciting era.

I've mentioned my three goals for transhumanism before in my presidential candidacy declaration article:
In addition to upholding American values, prosperity, and security, the three primary goals of my political agenda are as follows:

  1. Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country's amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 20 years--a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.
  2. Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and creating radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.
  3. Create national and planetary safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible global perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

Fusion video of Zoltan Istvan 2016 US Presidential campaign

But beyond those three goals, there are three other strategies that I am pursuing at full speed.

They are:

  1. Presenting transhumanism in the media in engaging ways that emphasize health, wellbeing, democracy and and the upholding of humanitarian values. For example, we can preserve the health of our loved ones through incredible transhumanist medicine. Or religious people can get to know God better through technology (full disclosure: I'm an atheist). Or transhumanist science and industry can help lift underprivileged people out of poverty, giving them a stronger voice.
  2. A second main goal of mine it to challenge other major political candidates--like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein--to ask transhumanist-minded questions: How shall America handle coming "designer baby" technology? If robotic hearts can wipe out heart disease, should governments allocate many billions of dollars to it (since heart disease is the #1 killer in many countries, including America). Will there be a global arms race for militaries around the world to develop a superintelligent AI?
  3. A third major goal of mine is to unite the transhumanists, singularitarians, cyborgists, biohackers (grinders), cryonicists, roboticists, longevity advocates, futurists, and all tech and science-minded groups out there under one banner. Currently, many pro-technology and science people don't get along with one another. And even in the transhumanist community, there many factions, including those that appear to work to undermine the efforts of other transhumanists. The transhumanism movement is becoming so popular, that it must try to find common ground and a single optimistic vision of the future, irrespective of differences in politics, age, and ideologies. This is partially why I formed the Transhumanist Party with overwhelmingly centric policies, to cast as wide a net as possible so that it could incorporate as many people into its mission.
  4. In the future, I anticipate transhumanism growing much larger with billions of people embracing the radical science and technology that will make the planet a far better and more interesting place.
2 minute video of transhumanist Immortality Bus visiting University of Mississippi -- Video created by Jac Bedrossian

Zoltan Istvan US Presidential candidate of Transhumanist Party; Creator of Immortality Bus; Author of novel 'The Transhumanist Wager' 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Innovation has changed the meaning of rehabilitation

What has changed on the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities 

This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. This Convention is the first universal and effective human rights treaty in the field of disability. It covers all relevant fields of life affecting persons with disabilities. What makes it important is that more than 150 countries have already ratified it. 

As a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), I am–together with other 17 members–responsible for following the implementation of the UN Convention in the States, which has ratified it. In my mind, however, it is not my job to extend or modify it, but I feel the need to raise issues that may become relevant in the future. 

However, we now observe new issues that no-one could have ever anticipated 10 years ago, which are currently not treated by the Convention. It is essential to take into account the developments brought by incredible technologies, which change the entire meaning of (re)habilitations, as they open the door to enhancing capabilities beyond that of any person without disabilities.

Tech shift

Numerous articles and commentaries have now appeared in magazines such as Nature, The Economist, Popular Science, Newsweek and Scientific American about the so-called fourth industrial revolution. It leads to progress linked to DNA-related research, applied robotics breakthroughs, robotics breakthroughs and machine ethics. As in any emerging field, experts have diverging opinions on the moral and legal implications of these new technologies. Only one thing appears to be certain: nothing will be impossible in the near future. As some of you may already know, I am myself almost profoundly deaf. However, I can, to some extend, enjoy listening to music. I also sense that the music I can hear in a limited way, must be more beautiful to those without a hearing impairment. It is an ability I sometimes regret not possessing. However, I learned to adapt to this situation and I know I can live a full life with this limitation.

Like many others in the same situation, human rights as a tool helped me protect and defend my quality of life when confronted with obstacles stemming from my disabilities in society. The reality is that human rights is an ever changing concept, tied to the circumstances and technological development in any given society.

Bespoke abilities on-demand

But what would happen should our abilities go beyond what we currently know? This is no fiction, according to a 2015 TED talk by neuroscientist David Eagleman, titled ‘Can we create new senses for humans?‘. He believes that our brain can learn and understand any kind of information regardless of its source. 

This could mean that, thanks to new biotechnological innovations and solutions, we may soon be biologically able to deal with new types of information that are currently only available to animals. We might be able to have even the navigation skills of a bat. Or the eyesight of a hawk. In other words, humanity is on the verge of being able to re-design itself and enhance its capabilities. 

At the same time, we are already capable of harnessing the power of machines by engineering new generations of smart software replacing the skills of hundreds or even thousands of people. These are able to learn from and teach each other as featured in a recent Scientific American article entitled ‘Machines that teach themselves.’

Re-enabling solutions 

This phenomenon will indeed help persons with disabilities lead a more independent life. In addition, the so-called 3D printing technology is expected to bring an entirely new way of rehabilitating people with disabilities.

This suggests that a disabled person may routinely receive missing–and stronger–body parts. What’s more, the replacement parts might even be better than the original in many respects. The case of Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius speaks for itself. He had to be tested by experts to check that he was not gaining an unjustifiable advantage over non-disabled athletes. 

These examples show that new developments to enhance the abilities of all humans are likely to stem from innovation. This is why the UN Convention, in its article four, supports greater innovations and research in the following words: “States Parties undertake …to promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities … to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities.”

In this new technology-enabled era, (re)habilitation could be interpreted in an entirely different way. In this context, the UN convention itself is not about preserving a right to remain disabled. Instead, it is about providing choices and opportunities which science can provide by respecting individual identity and free choice, as well as by maintaining an anti-discriminatory approach regardless of anybody’s disability when it comes to services and the environment in which we evolve. 

by László Gábor Lovászy 

László is a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), responsible for following the implementation of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

So You Wanna Buy a Fake Leg?

An ancient prosthesis found in China is an old reminder of just how far things have come in the technology for fake body parts.  Excavations of an ancient tomb near Turpan, China, have uncovered the 2,200-year-old remains of a man buried with a hoof-tipped prosthetic limb. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Chinese Archeology, researchers wrote that the man’s natural leg had become deformed so that the bones were fused together at an angle of 80 degrees and could not be straightened. The unusual poplar wood prosthesis allowed the wearer to walk and, perhaps, even ride a horse. The discovery offers a rare glimpse into the technology of prosthesis in the ancient world. The lack of antibiotics in the pre-modern world meant that numerous infections and accidents resulted in amputation. While as many people died during treatment as did from their initial injury, this meant that many people lived their lives absent a hand, leg, or foot. 

For the wealthy, there were prosthetic options. The Roman historian Pliny tells us that the hero M. Sergius Silus lost his right hand in battle and replaced it with an iron hand before proceeding with his glittering military career. And at least one example of an elaborate bronze prosthetic leg—known as the Capua leg—has survived from antiquity. But for the majority of people, the only options were peg-legs and crutches. Even the wheelchair is associated with the wealthy: the first recorded example was constructed for Philip II of Spain.

One of the wealthiest men in the American colonies, George Washington, was able to build his famed dentures from teeth bought from African slaves. The technology of prosthesis has developed rapidly in the past 200 years. Amputations performed as the result of injuries in the Civil War propelled the prosthetics industry forward. The government’s commitment to providing prostheses for all veterans led to a very particular kind of “arms race.” The introduction of rubber in the manufacturing of hands in 1863 and the use of hinges by veteran confederate soldier turned entrepreneur Edward Hanger, led to light, more useful prostheses. By the 1960s, artificial limbs were operated by carbon dioxide cylinders. Today, companies like Altimate Medical manufacture “standers” to assist wheelchair users with standing and “gliding”; and the i-limb, a bionic prosthetic arm, almost perfectly replicates the function of biological hands. Each finger operates independently and the thumb is rotatable through 90 degrees. It is controlled by electrical impulses created by contracting muscles. Recent candidates for its use include those who had lost the use of a hand and elected to have their hand amputated and replaced by this bionic version. There are now even functional bionic penises.

That people are electing to have their hands removed in favor of bionic alternatives raises interesting questions about the purpose of prosthesis and the differences between remedying functional impairments and producing super-abilities. If the purpose of prosthesis is to improve bodily functionality, can we think of Viagra as a kind of prosthesis? Prosthesis is valorized by Iron Man, but raises anxiety about man ceding control to machine in Robocop. Even biological prostheses like organ transplants cause anxieties about identity and “interfering” in the divine plan. There’s no shortage of B-movies in which transplanted limbs take on a murderous life of their own (full disclosure: I’m a kidney transplant recipient. My kidney has not killed anyone, yet). 

Then there’s the larger question of whether or not prosthesis is about functionality at all. Many modern prostheses—wheelchairs, ventilators, artificial limbs, iphones, etc.—are about improving functionality, but others are about aesthetics. This was the case even in the ancient world. While some ancient prosthetics—like the recently discovered prosthetic from China or a papier-mâché toe from ancient Egypt—show signs of wear and tear, others, like the ancient artificial bronze leg from Capua, Italy, seem to have been constructed purely for show. And there’s no shortage of medical bodily modifications today that are about aesthetics. Breast augmentation is, medically speaking, unnecessary. It can be enormously positive for those who undergo it, but in terms of functionality it is rarely about enabling a person to accomplish a task that was previously impossible. Rather, it is about reassurance, individual comfort, and conforming the body to a socially constructed “norm.” 

These are critically important things for those who elect to undergo the surgery, but they also raise questions. Are silicone implants about the patient or society? The same thing can be said about those in the ancient world who used non-functioning prostheses or those today who have ocular implants to replace damaged eyeballs. Is what disables these people their own bodies or a broader culturally derived sense of what a normal body should be? It seems to me that it’s often the latter.

This might all seem abstract or remote. After all, for the majority of us the world of prosthesis might seem far away—a sort of curiosity or exercise in human ingenuity. The unsettling reality is that we are all dependent on technology in ways that we weren’t 20 years ago. Take smartphones, Fitbits, and other technological devices that render us more knowledgeable and “hooked in.” Skills like map-reading, memorization, accumulation of knowledge, and so forth are rendered moot through the combined powers of Google and unlimited data plans. 

There’s no shortage of those of us who say, somewhat flippantly, that we “can’t live” without our phones. The existential angst caused by lost Fitbit steps is not to be underestimated. And there’s an unsettling truth to the memes that rank WiFi and battery life alongside oxygen as a basic need. Ultimately, maybe we live in the age of prostheses.