It’s obvious that there’s a close connection between the transhumanist movement and the idea of radical nanotechnology. Transhumanism is a creed which believes that human nature can and should be transcended with the aid of technological change, effectively leading to salvation both for individuals and society. Together with an expectation of the forthcoming singularity, a trust in cryonics (preservation of corpses at very low temperatures to await future revival) and an enthusiasm for radical life extension, the Drexlerian view of nanotechnology forms part of a belief package held by many transhumanists. The two main organisations devoted to promoting the radical view of nanotechnology, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Foresight Institute, are explicitly listed in a directory of transhumanist organisations from Michael Anissimov, of the Singularity Institute, who has also written a helpful overview of the transhumanist movement in his blog here.
Is this connection any cause for concern? Transhumanism as a movement has a fairly low profile generally, though blogger John Bruce has recently been exploring the movement and some of its supporters from a critical perspective (this link via TNTlog). But a very negative view of this relationship is presented by Joachim Schummer, a German philosopher now working at the University of South Carolina’s centre for nanoScience & Technology Studies: in an article “”Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology”: Meanings, Interest Groups, and Social Dynamics in the journal Techné.
Schummer, at the outset, insists on the quasi-religious character of transhumanism, characterising its creed as a belief in “futuristic technological change of human nature for the achievement of certain goals, such as freedom from suffering and from bodily and material constraints, immortality, and “super-intelligence.” He summarises its dependence on the Drexler vision of nanotechnology as follows:
“First, they foresee the development of Drexler’s “assemblers” that should manufacture abundant materials and products of any kind to be made available for everybody, so that material needs will disappear. Second, they expect “assemblers” to become programmable tool-making machines that build robots at the nanoscale for various other transhumanist aspirations—a vision that has essentially fuelled the idea of “singularity”. Thus, they thirdly hope for nanorobots that can be injected into the human body to cure diseases and to stop (or reverse) aging, thereby achieving disease-free longevity or even immortality. Fourth on their nanotechnology wish list are nano-robots that can step by step redesign the human body according to their ideas of “posthuman” perfection. Other nano-robots shall, fifth, make “atom-by-atom copies of the brain”, sixth, implement brain-computer-interfaces for “mind uploading”, seventh, build ultra-small and ultra-fast computers for “mindperfection” and “superintelligence”, and, eighth, revive today’s cryonics patients to let them participate in the bright future.”
Because of the central role to be played by nanotechnology in achieving personal and/or societal salvation, Schummer argues that transhumanists have an existential interest in nanotechnology; and are thus likely to much more accepting of the risks that nanotechnology might bring, on the grounds that the rewards are so great. He singles out the writing of Nick Bostrom, Chairman of the World Transhumanist Association, whose views he summarises thus: “In that mixture of radical utilitarianism and apocalyptic admonition, risks are perceived only for humanity as a whole, are either recoverable for humanity or existential for humanity, and only the existential ones really count. The risks of individuals, to their health and lives, are less important because their risks can be outweighed by steps towards transhumanist salvation of humanity.” Schummer comments that it is this “relative disregard for individual human dignity in risk assessments, i.e. the willingness to sacrifice individuals for the sake of global salvation, that makes transhumanism so inhumane.” Not that advanced nanotechnology is without risks; on the contrary, in the wrong hands it has the potential to destroy all intelligent life on earth. But since in the technologically deterministic view of transhumanists the development of nanotechnology is unavoidable, responsible people must rush to develop it first. Thus, “advancing nanotechnology is not only required for Salvation, but also a moral obligation to avoid Armageddon. “
It’s not surprising that transhumanists find it difficult to take an objective view of nanotechnology and the debates that surround it – to them, it is a matter whose importance, quite literally, transcends life and death.