Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 10:56 UK

Where tech and philosophy collide

By Iain Mackenzie
Reporter, BBC News

Marvin Minsky (SPL)
The famous MIT Media Lab academic Marvin Minsky is a transhumanist

There's a debate raging at the Assembly House pub in North London.

Laurie thinks the future will see a class divide between those who can afford the latest technology and those who can't.

Jay reckons computers will eventually become incorporated into the human brain.

Brett is suggesting he would be able to share Terry's holiday experience if he were to wear a head-mounted camera.

Terry looks alarmed.

It's the inaugural meeting of the London Futurist and Transhumanist Group.

While futurism involves trying to predict how technology will evolve over time, transhumanism is concerned with how that technology will change the fundamental nature human beings and the way we live.

The six people who have turned up all responded to an internet advert, brought together by Richie Arnold, who also happens to be the pub's chef.

"We're looking at new technologies that are coming out," he said.

Technology is affordable only by the wealthy when it doesn't work very well. By the time it is perfected it ends up being extremely inexpensive.
Ray Kurzweil

"I am particularly interested in artificial intelligence and the ramifications of that.

"I'm just a normal guy, at the end of the day. I don't really have a lot of scientific background.

"I think you need to be prepared for what is going on. Some of the things I have found out about are, in a way, quite scary and you don't want to be the last person to hear about it."

Trend spotting

In contrast to an informal pub-based discussion, a few days later, members of the UK Transhumanist Association are attending a talk entitled "Extreme Simulation Scenarios".

The audience at Birkbeck College appear to revel in speculative talk of "virtual autonomous zones" and a "utility fog".

Afterwards, speaker, cognitive scientist and artist Amon Twyman explains the group's core philosophy.

"At the moment, people live longer, healthier and for the most part happier lives than they used to because of medical technology.

"Particularly in the Western world they've got medical technology, transport, access to the internet. The whole idea is you look at those trends and extend them further.

"Whatever health problems are going to come along because of your genes, genetic therapy can change that.

"Some people imagine more far flung technologies, like nanotechnology, that you can use to change your body," Dr Twyman said.

Among the futures envisaged is a world where human consciousness can be uploaded onto storage devices to live inside virtual environments.

Charles Lindbergh (AP)
Charles Lindbergh was among the first famous transhumanists

The real world, they speculate, will also be enhanced with nano-robots, which live in the air and swarm together to form solid objects on demand.

Yet transhumanism is only part science. Those who engage in it spend much of their time debating the philosophical implications of their predictions.

There is a great deal of talk about whether possible futures would actually be desirable.

But despite its occasional moral hand-wringing, transhumanism is a controversial field.

The term itself was coined by the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in his 1957 essay of the same name.

Huxley was also a leading proponent of eugenics - social engineering through selective breeding.

To this day, critics maintain that transhumanism will lead to a world where the wealthy have access to life extending and enhancing innovations, while the poor languish with unmodified, "Mark 1" human bodies.

Dr Steven Novella presents a weekly podcast, "The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe".

"There's one end of the spectrum where transhumanist enthusiasts don't really see any ethical limits or ethical problems with pursuing whatever they want to pursue," he said.

"You could make a reasonable ethical argument for the freedom of individuals to do whatever they want with their own consciousness and their own bodies. It gets trickier when you start dealing with children and people other than oneself."

Singular purpose

Such criticism holds no water with the renowned futurist and unofficial head of the transhumanist movement, Ray Kurzweil.

"Technology is affordable only by the wealthy when it doesn't work very well. By the time it is perfected it ends up being extremely inexpensive.

"Consider mobile phones; only the wealthy could afford them when they didn't work. Now they work extremely well and are much more than phones, three billion people have them and six billion will have them in a couple of years," he said.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil predicts that computers will outdo humans by 2029

He should know about scientific development. One of the pioneers of the synthesiser and optical scanning technologies, he holds around 70 patents and has been awarded 16 honorary degrees.

Ray Kurzweil is also the author of "The Singularity is Near", in which he speculates about a time when machines surpass human intelligence and use that advanced learning to continually improve themselves.

His latest venture is the establishment of Singularity University, an academic institution based in California's Silicon Valley.

It was set up in collaboration with Google, the International Space University and the X-Prize foundation, among others.

Its first semester began in June 2009, with 40 students. Numbers are expected to treble next year.

Although not explicitly a transhumanist project, "SingularityU" is being seen as an attempt to formalise and develop the movement's ideas.

"The purpose of Singularity University is to understand the implications of all these exponentially growing information technologies," Mr Kurzweil explained, "and to actually find solutions to major global challenges like the environment and energy, poverty and disease - which are found at the intersection of these diverse fields.

"All of them are illuminated by the same phenomena - a doubling in power every year of every form of information technology."

While SingularityU aims to bridge the gap between abstract predictions and real-world technology companies, the ideas it is dealing with are increasingly filtering out to regular society.

Back at the Assembly House Pub, electronics worker Jay Diamond says, for him, transhumanism is as much an intellectual exercise as anything else.

He concedes the chances of stumbling upon mankind's next evolutionary stage in a North London boozer are slim.

"Probably not," Mr Diamond said. "But it couldn't hurt. And over a nice cold pint on a hot day, it's not a bad way to spend your time."

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