TCS Daily

Dear Posthumans

By Kenneth Silber - August 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Dear Posthumans:


I am addressing you using terminology that is fashionable in 2003. I would not be surprised if you refer to yourselves by some other name. After all, we humans do not call ourselves "post-Australopithecenes." By posthumans, I mean that you are beings with greater-than-human capabilities. You may have been technologically enhanced through genetic engineering or cybernetic implants. Possibly, you are entirely technological entities, such as robots. You are, I assume, superintelligent.


A further terminological point is in order. I write at a time when a movement known as "transhumanism" is gaining attention. A common definition is that transhumans are people who have begun to exceed the limits of human biology (and transhumanists are those who favor such efforts) while posthumans represent a more full-blown transcendence. While transhumanists and maybe even a few transhumans might read this article in the relatively near term, I hope ultimately to address you, the posthumans.


It may seem presumptuous that I should be seeking to give you advice. But if you have uploaded this article from the Tech Central Station archives, then presumably you are interested in the hopes and fears that humans of the early 21st century invested in you. There is intense controversy over the technological advances that may make your existence possible. Traditional political alignments are being reshuffled over such issues.


There is a great deal of concern over what your advent will mean for humanity and the world. I believe some of these concerns are overblown; that's partly because I have my doubts about scenarios that involve extremely rapid technological change in the near future. Nonetheless, I think there is a significant chance that you will exist, later if not sooner. Therefore, I offer some ethical and practical suggestions below, which might help prevent some of the more nightmarish conceptions of your existence from coming true:


Show some gratitude. Your capabilities, options, and control over your environment vastly exceed those of earlier generations and species. Bear in mind that you would not enjoy such a privileged position were it not for the efforts of innumerable humans who came before you. The development of the technologies that enabled your existence required conscious decisions and deliberate actions. Often, the people who pioneered such technologies had to overcome the objections and obstacles of their contemporaries. A sweeping contempt for the past would be an arrogant attitude on your part. Even worse would be if you were to destroy or enslave humanity, as occurs often in science fiction.


Hard work matters. One current-day cause for unease about futuristic technologies is that they may diminish the value of effort. Something may be lost if people can, say, plug in a Chinese brain module rather than studying Chinese. The process of working on something or learning something is often about more than just the end-product; it can be a character-building experience, or enjoyable in itself, or offer unpredictable benefits. Your posthuman society might benefit from retaining a focus on these qualities, tempering technological prowess with an ethos of striving and challenge-seeking.


Individuality is important. Posthuman intelligence, as presently imagined, sometimes has a disconcerting unitary aspect, with an emphasis placed on networked or group minds or even the development of an eventual single cosmic computer. Yet human biological and social evolution has tended to increase opportunities for individuality, and it is not clear why the trend would or should be reversed in the posthuman era. Then again, some current ideas about posthuman life are very individualistic, such as hopes for personal immortality through cryonics or mind uploading. Posthuman societies, like human ones, may experience conflicts over differing views of individual and collective prerogatives.


Remember, technologies fail. I write these words from New York City, which like much of the northeastern United States just underwent a blackout. I am sure that your technologies are far more robust than the aging electrical grid of my particular place and time. Still, I suspect that even posthuman technologies are not infallible. Technological advances lead to greater reliance on technology, which in turn can increase vulnerabilities when technologies malfunction. If the technologies have become intimately integrated with your bodies and minds, that is all the more reason to focus on maximizing redundancy and reliability.


Go into space. We humans have made a start on exploring the universe beyond Earth. But undoubtedly you can do much better. Expanding into space is one way to avoid some of the problems of possible conflict between different types of beings or different views about how to live; different groups can move to different planets and stars. Earth surely is too small a stage for some of your ambitions; in fact, the same could be said for humanity today. By the way, some of our scientists believe that there exist multiple universes or higher dimensions. If they're correct about that, consider exploring those as well.


Think about names. As I mentioned earlier, you probably don't call yourselves posthumans. Indeed, one sign of the intellectual desiccation of postmodernism is its "post" name. I'm sure you have many options for what to name yourselves, including some things I couldn't pronounce. However, don't be too quick to get rid of "human." The word has been applied not only to Homo sapiens but also to Neanderthals and some of our other hominid ancestors. You may be a new species but, for better and worse, you probably bear the imprint of our influence in all sorts of ways. Maybe if you were regarded as human, there would be less resistance to your coming into the world.


Thanks for listening. Good luck.



Ken Silber



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