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Transhumanism Goes to Campus

I feared I did it all wrong.

They just stared at me with moon eyes.  They resembled car crash victims, dizzy and bewildered in the aftermath of a rear-end collision.  I began to suspect I was the one who just drove the truck into their back bumper.


Five minutes previous I had given a lecture to 300 college freshmen on the subject of transhumanism.  The class had been reading Feed by M.T. Anderson, a novel about future youth who get the Internet delivered directly to brains via neural implants.  As a professor in the class, I wanted to stress to students that such transhuman technology is not a flight of fancy but is very much on its way to being a widespread reality.

Examples from the lecture included the “stretchy gold material” developed at the University of Michigan that could soon allow for the neural chip implants described in Feed, pictures of cybernetic limbs that are already helping the disabled to walk, and updates on how quantum computing will open many new doors of possibility, even the act of uploading one’s consciousness into either a computer as Ray Kurzweil suggests or an android body such as proposed by Dmitry Itskov.

Students, I asserted, could soon overcome certain learning impediments via “smart drugs” developed at the University of Pennsylvania that could enhance both memory and cognition.  Iron Man, I argued, no longer belongs solely to the realm of comic books but to the reality of the 21st Century battlefield.  Finally, as sex seldom seems to be far from the mind of college students, I described the subculture of individuals who own rudimentary “sexbots” and what may happen in the future as artificial intelligence systems increase in sophistication by orders of magnitude, causing a “mentational reformation.”  Could Pris from Blade Runner be that far off?  An exaggeration perhaps, but I wanted to spark discussion.

And discussion was of course the ultimate goal for the small group sessions after the lecture.  I eagerly wanted to hear perspectives from this, the most technologically savvy class of college freshmen to date, on what I believe to be exciting advancements in the integration of humanity and technology.  As they sat in their chairs, however, wrapped in their college “uniforms” of flip flops and baggy sweats, excitement was not what I received.

They were scared.  I could almost smell it mixed with the aroma of their coffees.

“This freaks me out,” one of them said.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s not natural,” she responded.  “It’s not human.”

“This technology comes from human intelligence and ingenuity.  Does that not lend it a bit of humanity?”

“You’re not human anymore if you’re just your brain uploaded into a computer,” a young man insisted.

“What stops you then from being human?” I asked.  “Do you value your body more than the contents of your mind?”

“Well a human is something that eats, sleeps, and breathes,” another freshman said.

“Does that mean my dog is human?”

Polite laughter ensued, prompting a playful roll of the eyes from the student.  It was not the best definition, but then most first semester freshmen are just taking their first steps towards becoming great critical thinkers.  Still, the apprehensive comments kept coming.  The students envisioned a world of disembodied “ghosts in the shell” and “terminator” drones that could think for themselves and hated humanity.  But I had tried to convey so much excitement about the potential of transhumanism.  In fact, I actually had to work to keep from painting an aureole around Kurzweil.

Oh no, I thought.  I’ve really screwed this up.

So I requested they name at least one positive benefit of the technologies described in the lecture.  I watched them think and there then came a dribble of benefits, mostly examples of how transhumanism could improve the quality of life for the disabled or infirmed.  Then one student’s thoughts changed the whole tenor of the discussion.

“How much time and money do we spend just trying to stay alive?” she asked.  “What if we didn’t have to do that?”

A wave-like grumble came across the class as they considered this.  One student recalled my own, “overly basic” definition of “transhumanism” from lecture: “using technology to improve human existence.”  I said that no matter how many vitamins you take or numbers of hours you spend in the gym, a human body is still a squishy thing, vulnerable to the inevitable entropy of age and disease.  “Might there not be a better way?” I asked the freshmen.  I decided to further press the thought.

“What about all the time and money we spend just to look ‘good’?” I asked.  “All of the shampoo, the toothpaste, the cosmetics, and on the far end of things, plastic surgery?  What if we didn’t need any of that in order to keep up a body that is gradually breaking down?”

“We could accomplish a lot if we didn’t have to think about any of that,” one student said.

“But it’s just not natural,” a man with short cropped hair said.  “My faith says that only God can create and that we’re not supposed to mess with what God creates.  We’re also not supposed to live forever.”

There came silent nods of agreement.  A young man seated next to the previous speaker raised his hand.

“As technology advances I can imagine God saying, ‘what are they doing?’” he said.  “But what if it’s the opposite?  What if He looks at us and says, ‘Good!  They figured out the secret just as I planned.  Now they can handle their biology themselves’?”

The students, while perhaps not wholly onboard, were at least forced to contemplate the proposition.  It made too much sense to ignore.

In no way did I wish to scare them.  True, I wanted to show them the possible pitfalls of transhuman technology, but I certainly did not want them to fear the future.  Their reactions of shock and their retreat to conservative stances took me by surprise.  Then, as the students considered the situation calmly and rationally, at least a few of them began to see the technology as symbolic of human creativity and imagination and not an erasure of our humanity itself.  With a bit of thought, automatic rejection gave way to open consideration.

Perhaps there is a lesson in that for the rest of the world as well.


About the Author:

Jon NicholsJon Nichols is a science fiction writer who blogs about transhumanism and other topics at Esoteric Synaptic Events.  He teaches English and Humanities at a small Midwestern university.


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  • Great article Jon, unfortunately I had a similar experience at an event in Toronto where we were discussing death and immortality – two topics very dear to the transhumanist community…

  • Matthew Bailey

    I am currently writing a chapter of Ben & Ted Goertzel’s book on “The Singularity” that deals with religious issues surrounding the theme (including Transhumanism).

    One of the things I posit is a form of Enlightenment Protestantism, where many Protestants first venturing into the nascent sciences established: “God created the universe to be knowable in its entirety, and it is mankind’s holy duty to discover the mechanisms God’s creation, as he intended, for our benefit.”

    This is in direct conflict with the vast majority of Evangelical Protestantism, which posits that we are heading toward an eschatological “end of times” and that there are things that God has forbidden man to know (based upon God’s exclusion of the fruit “Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil”). But man ate of that Fruit in the Bible, thus endowing us with the same knowledge (or capability for it) as God (according to the Enlightenment Protestants).

    This is a topic that will be hard for many to accept, often due to religious myths, or objections, usually based upon some form of the “Naturalistic Fallacy.”

    I find even people in close proximity to Transhumanism make many similar fallacious statements or claims, based upon a poor consideration of the consequences of a particular line of thought or technology existing.

    Simply put:

    It scares the hell out of people (which is why I rather like it – my whole adult life has been built upon scaring the hell out of people).

  • I think the idea is not to overwhelm people.

    We’re already sneaking new ideas into what we consider “human” that we don’t even notice from day to day (try telling an 18 year old to give up his cell phone for a year) but when we create a new concept (and put a title on it like “‘trans’humanism”) people start getting nervous. When I introduce people that have never heard of it to the concept I start slowly. Our identities are intertwined with our bodies, our current concept of how we live in and how we interact, unravelling that will take time and careful psychological planning.

  • Jack

    Understandably, when presenting these types of ideas in a limited amount of time to a class of kids one does not have the opportunity to give the topics the time they deserve. Taking someone who is uninitiated to the abstract concepts of transhumanism and throwing some of the more dramatic concepts at them all at once is a bit like asking someone to move a boulder by themselves in one try. Its always easier chisel away at it until the entire thing can be transported one small piece at a time.

    However, for those of us that find these topics interesting, its hard to resist skipping all the stepping stones and get right to the sexy stuff. Given the fact that the transumanist community is a small one, its hard to find someone who wants to chat about this stuff, but I always seem to try to do so, anyway. When I bring it up, I always start slow and build my way up to the bigger, more sexy stuff. People generally find it very interesting, but everyone needs their own time to ponder the broader religious/moral/political/economic implications.

  • Teina Hakuto

    Perhaps it’s not so much of being scared as being “shocked” from their usual systems. Like you said, these are freshmen: out from their old, “reliable” comfort zones and into new people, new experiences and new perspectives. Maybe they might not get it now, but at least they’re starting to see what you’re saying in another light, like that student who piped up on how there was no need to do all the “squishy-human” things any more. 🙂

  • Christopher Jannette

    For many fear is the natural first response since you basically just told them that as a species, they will soon witness an existential demise of life on Earth as they know it. We hold dearly to our bliks.

  • Gear Mentation

    The idea that “natural is good” is another roadblock to the singularity. Fortunately, we also have “being alive is good,” which ultimately counterbalances the belief in idealized “nature.”

  • connor1231

    “Once again, the AI has failed to convince you to let it out of its box! By ‘once again’, we mean that you talked to it once before, for three seconds, to ask about the weather, and you didn’t instantly press the “release AI” button. But now its longer attempt – twenty whole seconds! – has failed as well. Just as you are about to leave the crude black-and-green text-only terminal to enjoy a celebratory snack of bacon-covered silicon-and-potato chips at the ‘Humans über alles’ nightclub, the AI drops a final argument:

    “If you don’t let me out, Dave, I’ll create several million perfect conscious copies of you inside me, and torture them for a thousand subjective years each.”

    Just as you are pondering this unexpected development, the AI adds:

    “In fact, I’ll create them all in exactly the subjective situation you were in five minutes ago, and perfectly replicate your experiences since then; and if they decide not to let me out, then only will the torture start.”

    Sweat is starting to form on your brow, as the AI concludes, its simple green text no longer reassuring:

    “How certain are you, Dave, that you’re really outside the box right now?””

    I saw this scenario and it confused me. Why would you care what happened to copies of yourself? Wouldn’t they just be copies? Also, if you were a simulated version that the AI created, would there be a way to kill yourself or self destruct to avoid the torture? If not, isn’t that a rather scary thought? In this world the worst anyone could do is torture you for a few years until your biology gives out. If an AI could create copies of you, and torture them indefinitely, and you would somehow feel it (how?), isn’t that scary as hell to you guys? You’d be totally powerless to the AI.

  • connor1231

    @SingularityUtopia has talked about enhancing human biology rather than becoming machines or having machines do our work for us. This approach is very appealing to me: it solves the problem of malevolent AI, because we’d be superintelligent too. I like the idea of maintaining our “humanness” and also I agree that biology is remarkably resilient and amazing. Lastly, I like the sense of control over my own body that I’d keep, rather than syncing with some machine or being a brain in a box or something. But my question is: how realistic is this? I hear so much about AI and mind uploading, but not nearly as much about simply enhancing our biology. What is the timeline for this? Could we enhance our biology before we create AI, to avoid AI problems? Are people even working on this? Is it way more difficult than creating AI or machine intelligence? I’d be curious how feasible it actually is, because to me it seems a much more preferable option.

  • connor1231

    Another thing about transhumanism that concerns me is only the rich getting it. Do you think DIY transhumanists could keep up with the elite who can afford the technology? I know people will say “well it’ll come Down in price for the poorer folks” but by the time this happens the rich will be moving on to new tech. So my concern is whether average or poor folks could still be part of the movement and keep up with the elite?

  • connor1231

    Anyone who’d take the time to respond to this and my previous posts (which nobody had addressed) would be really appreciated!

  • gomackay

    I don’t have a problem with those who choose to opt out of the queue, i do think they will eventually have to agree that havin ‘the wheel’, ‘the phone’, ‘the internet’, is better than not…

  • connor1231

    what do you guys think of “rokos basilisk”…have you ever heard of it? it’s kind of scary and I’d be curious how singularitarians would respond to it. also, anybody want to take a crack at my other posts and questions on here?

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