Discussing Transhumanism on Al-Jazeera

Posted by Pete Shanks April 5, 2012
Biopolitical Times

Al Jazeera, the global TV and multimedia news organization, recently aired a discussion of transhumanism. "Engineering human evolution" featured three guests: one avowed transhumanist, one utilitarian economist who claims unconvincingly to be neutral, and one strong critic, whose contributions made it worth watching. The show is The Stream, a combination social-media community, TV program and webcast that's an interesting technological experiment, to which viewers can tweet in real time, and sometimes be put on air.

The critic was Ari Schulman of The New Atlantis and the Futurisms blog (recently quoted here). The transhumanist was George Dvorsky, a Canadian secular Buddhist and animal-rights activist who advocates "biologically uplifting nonhuman animals" [pdf] because it "would be negligent of us to leave animals behind to fend for themselves in the state of nature." And the self-proclaimed neutral was Robin Hanson, a polymath who began as a physicist, migrated to economics and is both a professor at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford; he's an advocate of cryonics, but thinks it's really too soon to discuss transhumanism, since we don't know how the future will turn out.

The whole thing is online, and the website includes some interesting — largely transhumanist — background material. A few items from the video are of particular interest:

  • At around 8 minutes there is an excerpt from the movie Fixed, including a penetrating comment about misplaced priorities from one-time CGS staffer Patricia Berne.
  • At 10:30, Schulman raises the comparison with eugenics. Dvorsky pushes back, on the grounds that eugenics was a top-down phenomenon and transhumanism is bottom-up, and Hanson agrees, citing eyeglasses as enhancements and the rich as no more than early adopters.
  • At 14:00 Schulman responds, citing recent proposals to compel people to take morality pills, and at 15 brings up sex selection — which, as Schulman knew, bothers Hanson not at all. Hanson admitted that he takes a free-market approach and has actually written:

One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have more lives that are more pleasant?

There is also some discussion of brain-uploading ("it's up to the individual," said Dvorsky), future war machines ("I think we all know which side would have the technology," noted Schulman), and in the web-only aftershow Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity.

Afterwards, Hanson picked up some severe criticism from transhumanists for his sex-selection comments, which "made us look bad." Dvorsky was reasonably happy with his appearance. Schulman follows up on sex selection here, and his colleague Adam Keiper was convinced that Schulman "clearly had the better of the conversation." Those were essentially my takes, too, but it's worth checking out for yourself.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: