It’s a sunny September afternoon in present day London and I’m talking to a woman who thinks I’m ‘an ape-brained meatsack’. To be fair, Dr Elise Bohan, 32, who is really very nice, believes everyone — herself included — is an ape-brained meatsack. A senior research scholar at Oxford’s vaunted Future of Humanity Institute, she has spent half her life thinking about the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, the limits of human ‘wetware’ (your brains, bodies and all the mushy bits in between), and how we avoid getting ‘steamrollered’ by the ‘smarter-than-human’ machines lurking at the edge of tomorrow. As the author of Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-or-break Century, she is trying to do something about it.
Being told that my flabby, pasty body is illequipped to keep pace with a world of ‘robot workers’, ‘lethal autonomous machines’ and ‘smart AI systems that know us better than we know ourselves’ isn’t surprising. Although we rarely recognise it, says Bohan, the 21st century is already a transhuman era: think smartphones, the cloud and our ‘digital second skins’, algorithms that know how we want to work out and what we want to google. Our biological bits are struggling to keep up. AI helped Moderna design and manufacture a Covid vaccine in 42 days flat. I, meanwhile, can’t remember where I left my iPhone charger 10 minutes ago.
Which is where transhumanism comes in. A transhumanist, Bohan says, is someone who believes in being something better than human. Think of TV shows such as Black Mirror, books like Yuval Noah Hurari’s Homo Deus and films like Ex Machina and you’re in the right ballpark. It’s a philosophy. It’s a quest. It’s a necessity. It’s about technological transcendence. Things that make you go hmmm. As Bohan puts it: ‘It strikes transhumanists asobvious that humanity could be better.’
If we’re lucky, humanity gets to be the parents of something magnificent
Who’s in the club, I ask? There’s Ray Kurzweil, appointed Google’s director of engineering in 2012, who popularised the concept of the technological singularity (the idea that we’re heading for a rapid intelligence explosion due to exponential improvements in information technology). Elon Musk? Transhumanist. Bill Gates? Transhumanist. Mark Zuckerberg? Big old transhumanist. Musk’s big play is Neuralink, a secretive company he founded in 2016 to help human and machine intelligence by developing an electronic brain implant, a ‘Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires’. Musk told the Joe Rogan podcast in 2020 that it is five to 10 years away. His plans, he says, include giving humans ‘the option of merging with artificial intelligence’ by exchanging thoughts with a computer — augmenting their mental capacity. You might have seen the video of its monkey implanted with the chip playing video game Pong using only its mind. In January it advertised for a clinical trial director to run tests on humans. Small matter that at least eight of the monkeys have died.
I think it’s a bit grim. ‘This isn’t sexy technology,’ agrees Bohan. Musk’s SpaceX rockets and Tesla cars are a lot more du jour. Transhumanism has ‘a terrible image problem’, she says. ‘It’s not fuzzy. It’s not what we want to hear.’ But the idea — and Musk is hardly alone here — is that ‘we get to piggyback and come along for the ride and be involved in the evolution of that form of digital consciousness’. What it means to be human, from our brains and bodies to our values and ways of life, is ‘poised to be transformed’ as we move from a ‘purely biological species’ to a ‘techno-human hybrid’. It’s a very different kind of trans debate. Will I need a subscription fee to buy the best brainwaves? Won’t the rich simply get richer, lining their superbodies with, I don’t know, literal stardust? Pass. ‘Transhumanism is not merely this life-extension project: let’s upload, let’s live forever, let’s just rack up the billions,’ says Bohan. ‘So much of it is focused on making the world a better place in a sustainable way.’ Then why, I ask, does it all feel so undemocratic? A bit übermensch. When people accumulate too much power, it rarely goes well. ‘The thing about history is that the great movers have all been undemocratic,’ Bohan says. ‘Usually, it’s tectonic plates or pathogens or the availability of domestic arable crops. Human beings love to think of history in terms of rational actors, kings, emperors, goodies, baddies. I think this is a really interesting moment of history because we so want to believe that we’re in control.’
Plus, she says, democracy hasn’t done much to fix climate change in the past 30 years. Sooner or later mankind’s trajectory will throw up a doomsday scenario we don’t have the tools to deal with, she says: nuclear apocalypse, lab-made virus, rampant AI. ‘It’s like we’re engaged in a complex juggling act. First two balls, then three, then four. As time wears on, the balls are supplanted by live grenades that can detonate on impact. Quick, catch the next one — it’s labelled “nukes”. And the next — “pandemics”. Don’t drop a single one! Good, “AI” is coming soon.’
AI and automation threaten factory jobs, driving jobs — heck, any jobs. Wages will tumble. Traditional family models will fall apart. Life scripts will be torn up. Dreams will turn to dust. An eruption of disruption, already underway. ‘It’s not panning out for so, so many,’ she says. ‘And the anger is palpable.’ Overeducated generations, frankly, don’t know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, ‘there’s a crude social media landscape of today like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok — it’s awful, it’s brain junk, it’s vapid, I don’t know how anyone finds it fulfilling, but it’s addictive enough for people to be invested in curating their identity and existence in these virtual worlds.’ Imagine what happens when Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse finally turns its trillions into something that doesn’t look drawn by a toddler with a crayon up its nostril. We’ll never log off. Which brings us on to another fascinating conundrum: ‘I’ve used the Oculus Rift, I’ve had virtual sex, quote unquote, and it’s so immersive,’ says Bohan. She believes we are 10 years away from ‘enjoying fluent and emotionally enriching conversations with Alexa and her kind’. She talks of AI characters — conscious? Alive? Who can say? — that will evolve from best friend to life partner, sing lullabies, make love. It’s wild stuff. But then again, there’s already Microsoft’s Chinese chatbot Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice) designed with a focus on high emotional intelligence — a simulated 18-year-old with 660 million users, 25 per cent of whom have confessed their love to her. ‘I think a growing subset, particularly of young men, will be opting into this technology, the result being that it skews the sex ratios in the human dating pool, making men ever more scarce.’ The end of men? Just maybe.
I like my humanity. I’m a happy-ish meatsack. I like the sound of rain on the window; I like long, muddy walks and the smell of gorse. I like looking at bell heather and bog asphodels. I like the idea of children I might have one day. I might bore them about flowers, too. I like my friends and my family, I value my weaknesses and my wilfulness, I suffer theirs gladly. I want to think this is all bollocks and billionaires, and that my little life might just be left alone. It’s hard to think about transcendence without thinking about endings. I don’t like them at all.
‘Funnily enough, all those impulses I share,’ says Bohan. ‘I’m happiest reading books, talking to my friends, being in the ocean, being outdoors. A quiet simple life I’m very big on. It’s in my interest to ignore all of this. Maybe I have the means and opportunities to block a lot of this out. [But] I don’t think if you have children you can afford to block it out because the ramifications for their development and schooling and so many other things are really important.’
She thinks this is bigger than us, as individuals, anyway. That she needs to warn us, that we get busy techno-living or get busy homo-dying. ‘I’m talking about future generations for trillions of people yet to be born, more people than have ever lived on this planet.’ Her hope? ‘That the most beautiful things about humanity do get to survive far into the future and do potentially go on to do amazing things that are beyond the reach of you or I today, that are beyond the reach of the merely human, which doesn’t mean it’s a project of celebrating the demise of humanity. If we’re lucky, humanity gets to be the parents of something magnificent that can explore the wonders and the mysteries of the universe and consciousness.’ Her goal is to make us take these ideas seriously, that we don’t take it personally, that we don’t sulk. I say come friendly bombs, fall upon Silicon Valley. But what do I know? I’m obsolete.