By / Sep 7

Elon Musk has become a household name in the last few years. From the rise and popularity of Tesla to the commercialization of space travel through SpaceX, Musk is a man on a mission to revolutionize our society. According to Forbes, Musk is worth over $86.1 billion dollars, making him one of the wealthiest and most recognizable names in the world. A few years ago, I read a fascinating biography of Musk by Ashlee Vance with a fitting subtitle of “Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” Vance describes Musk’s pursuit well, but the question of whether his vision of the future is fantastic is heavily debated today.

A couple weeks back, Musk held a press conference with his lesser known startup company called Neuralink, which is an American neurotechnology company founded in July 2016. Neuralink specializes in the development of brain computer interfaces (BCI) that it hopes will be able to help cure neurological diseases such as memory loss, hearing loss, depression, and insomnia—which are noble desires—as well as potentially enhance healthy human beings with abilities ranging from typing with your thoughts, hailing a self-driving car, or even extending your memory.

It’s like “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said during the product demo which showcased the technology implanted over two months ago in the head of a pig named Gertrude. The Neuralink BCI is a device about the size of a quarter and is connected by thousands of electrodes tied into the brain. This device measures “the electrical signals emitted by neurons” because “the speed and patterns of those signals are ultimately a basis for movement, thoughts, and recall of memories.” Musk and the talented team at Neuralink hope this demo propels the technology to future trials on human beings. The company also announced that the device had received “breakthrough device status” from the FDA, which it hopes will speed up trials on humans. 

Regardless of the future of Neuralink’s BCI, technologists have long sought to push the envelope on innovation mainly focusing on the question of “Can this be done?” rather than “Should it be done?” This lack of deep ethical reflection on technology can be seen throughout our world today with issues ranging from bias to debates over digital privacy. This drive has helped produce some of the most beneficial technologies that we use each day but has also given rise to dangerous abuses and misuses of technology that has led to the dehumanization of our neighbors and, in this particular case, of ourselves.

Transhumanist dreams and human nature

Transhumanism is a concept that has been around for a number of years. Known as the father of transhumanism, Julian Huxley, brother of the famed writer Aldous Huxley, describes this concept in a 1957 essay saying “the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirely, as humanity.”

Musk has long sought to upgrade humanity claiming that “to avoid becoming like monkeys, humans must merge with machines.” This argument is based on a materialistic and in some cases an evolutionary worldview that concludes we must improve upon evolution’s current iteration of humanity or be left behind by the rise of sophisticated machines. Musk, along with many other transhumanists, seek to transcend our frail humanity through the use of technological upgrades or even ultimately by the uploading of minds and discarding of the body. 

This is often portrayed in the framework of a mind/body dualism, where the mind is seen as software and the body is seen as hardware. The real you is your mind, thoughts, and emotions, and your body is simply a container that can be altered at will or even discarded as desired. This is a form of Cartesian dualism. In this line of thinking, the mind and body are severed from one another as the mind is elevated above the body in terms of value and worth. Certain streams of transhumanism can aptly be described as a revival of the old Gnostic heresy that denigrates the body due to the belief that it is part of the evil material world and has no lasting value. 

According to this logic, our bodies can and should be upgraded in order to keep from going out of date or commission. In the face of this rising threat to human exceptionalism, Musk said during the press conference that the applications of this BCI technology could one day extend to “some kind of AI symbiosis where you have an AI extension of yourself.” 

A call for Christian ethical reflection

Transhumanist dreams of upgrading or going beyond our humanity reveal a massive assumption in the nature and essence of what it means to be human. Nick Bostrom, a leading transhumanist and author of the influential book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues that our human nature is “a work in progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” But as author Nancy Pearcey points out, who gets to decide what is desirable, and does that actually align with the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God?

One of the great opportunities for the faith community in this age of innovation is to proclaim a richer and more cohesive worldview and ethical framework that holds high the dignity and respect of every human being, not based on their perceived worth or usefulness in our society but based on the transcendent reality of being created by God in his own likeness.

Outside of the more obvious ethical concerns surrounding this reductionist view of humanity as a disjointed mind and body—where the body is usually dimished—there is a growing concern about what these upgrades may do to our social order when some humans have implants or upgrades and others do not. The potential for inequality and designer humans are enormous. 

This technology would fundamentally change the nature of our relationships with one another because one group would be enhanced beyond typical humanity. We risk devaluing our fellow neighbors as they fail to live up to the ubiquitous ethical frameworks of utilitarianism. In an age fixated on human rights, this should lead to deep reflection in terms of the worth of all people, especially the least of these.

One of the great opportunities for the faith community in this age of innovation is to proclaim a richer and more cohesive worldview and ethical framework that holds high the dignity and respect of every human being, not based on their perceived worth or usefulness in our society but based on the transcendent reality of being created by God in his own likeness. Our status as human beings, as well as our human limitations, mean that our bodies are not something to be disparaged as if they don’t have the abilities that we need to flourish the way we would like in this life. If that were the case, then our embodied Savior was either not fully human (Phil. 2:7), or his resurrection body was incomplete (1 Cor. 15:12-19). And the Bible makes clear that neither are the case. 

The Christian view of human nature is fixed. We are embodied souls who, when belonging to Christ, will get the ultimate upgrade—redemption in the fullness of time by God’s power (1 Cor. 15:20-24). We have no need to keep up with the machines as Musk proclaims, because they will never catch us. We are fundamentally different and nothing, not even our own ingenuity or creations, will be able to change that.

By / Aug 18

In the wee hours on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we were all sleeping soundly. At 3:45 AM, my husband’s phone sounded the text alarm. He shushed it. Within seconds, my cell phone gave off its incoming text signal. Then we heard one of our sons attend to his phone upstairs. Another son awakened about that time, not sure what had happened. Had someone in the family died? Was there a weather emergency? Had some catastrophe occurred? No, no, and no. Our cellular phone company was alerting us that our data usage was 75 percent complete, and we have a few more days left in the month. For an additional sum, however, we could add more data usage to our plan. Artificial intelligence strikes again.

This morning, I might have been at least temporarily pleased to merge my particular machine with the great outdoors. Others, though, are not so inclined. A number of philosophers, bioethicists, and other thinkers have been talking for a while about the merging of man with machine. Indeed, a number of luminaries are quite enthusiastic about the project of a human/machine interface.

Dmitry Itskov became a multimillionaire through his web publishing company, New Media Stars. In February 2011, he founded the 2045 Strategic Social Initiative, and is president of the Global Future 2045 Congress. Itskov wrote to the Forbes list of billionaires in the summer of 2012, to encourage them to embrace his vision: “Such research has the potential to free you, as well as the majority of all people on our planet, from disease, old age and even death.”

What exactly do the principals involved with the 2045 Initiative intend? Their website lists the main goals of the 2045 Initiative: the creation and realization of a new strategy for the development of humanity which meets global civilization challenges; the creation of optimal conditions promoting the spiritual enlightenment of humanity; and the realization of a new futuristic reality based on 5 principles: high spirituality, high culture, high ethics, high science and high technologies. Specifically, they intend “to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.”

Here is no new desire. It is as old as the Garden, and yet as fresh as each New Year. Who doesn’t want to live forever? The question is usually, under whose terms? We tend to like ourselves, and prefer our tastes to those of others. We typically do not really care for unsolicited advice, and certainly do not wish for someone else to tell us what to do. We cloak ourselves in autonomy (“self-law”), and prefer a cafeteria plan, where we can pick and choose what we wish in our lives. Can we really choose our future—our immortal future?

Itskov and the Global Future 2045 principals seem to think so. They sent an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in March 2013, outlining humankind’s current difficulties as they see them, as well as proposed solutions:

1. The construction of anthropomorphic avatar robots—artificial bodies.

2. The creation of telepresence robotic systems for long-distance control of an avatar.

3. The development of brain-computer interfaces for direct mental control  of an avatar.
Applications:
—rehabilitation of the disabled;
—replacement of people working in hazardous conditions, or those tasked with cleaning up during peacekeeping missions, etc.;
—telepresence technologies for personal and business communications, as well as tourism.

The successful further development of the above three studies is expected to lead to further breakthroughs, including:

4. Development of life-extension technologies involving life-support systems for the human brain integrated with an artificial Avatar body.

(Note: Per the Global Trends 2030 forecast of the US National Intelligence Council, using replacement limb technology advances, people may choose to enhance their physical selves as they do with cosmetic surgery today.)
Application: the significant extension of the lives of individuals whose biological bodies have exhausted their resources.

5. A study of the main principles of the functioning of the human brain, and the creation of a functional model.

6. Development of prostheses for parts of the human brain.

7. Creation of a fully artificial equivalent of the human brain.

8. A study of human consciousness and the possibilities for its future embodiment in a non-biological substrate.
Applications:
—treatment of degenerative diseases and traumas of the brain;
—exploration of regions of outer space hostile to biological human life;
—radical extension of human life to the point of immortality.

Why did Itskov and company write to the UN? It is because they believe that the UN will soon be advising the various nations regarding ways to “realize the strategy for the transition to neo-humanity.”

This sounds less like choosing our own future, and more like a consortium of governments buying into the goals of a self-selected group. While there are some important possible applications for portions of the work, the overall goal seems the vision of a few for a utopia for the masses—usually a recipe for disaster. After all, to save humanity, we are being told that we need to fundamentally alter it. Saving humanity by becoming less human is flawed thinking.

In his Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control, Paul Ramsey described actions of “man’s radical self-modification and control of his evolutionary future.” He had another name for such: “a project for the suicide of the species,” and discerned its momentum as “despair over man as he is.” (159)

Man as he is—male and female bodies, minds, wills, and emotions. The Book of Genesis reveals humans as the crown of creation. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, wrote tellingly of our nature when he wrote

To be human is to be made in the image of God, and there is nothing higher to which we can aspire. For to be made in the image of God is to be made as much like God as someone who is not God could ever be. This amazing dignity, which attaches to human nature wherever it is found, is finally proved to us in Jesus Christ, since in the incarnation God took to himself the mode of existence which is also ours. And having once taken it to himself, he has not laid it down. Then and today and for all eternity, human existence is dignified by the astonishing fact that the God who created it has made it his own. (Complete in Christ, 113)

Is the 2045 Initiative offering humankind a new genesis? Perhaps. One photo of Itskov shows him confronting an anthropomorphic avatar. Astonishingly (or not), the avatar looks very like Mr. Itskov. Another photo shows the founder of Hanson Robotics, David Hanson, with his robotic model of Dimitry Itskov’s head. To reproduce Mr. Itskov’s voice and facial expressions, Hanson will need to use 36 motors.

Genesis 1 and 2 were aptly juxtaposed by Paul Ramsey. He wrote

In the first genesis, men with expectation high savored knowledge and God-head, death following. In the second genesis men with expectation high savor death to the species, of man as he is, God-head following. (160)

2045 may seem far in the future, but we need to spend some time thinking, talking, and, hopefully, modifying these ideas and goals while we have it—time, that is.

Bibliography

Cameron, Nigel M. de S. Complete in Christ: Rediscovering Jesus and Ourselves. London: Paternoster Press, 1989, 1997.

Ramsey, Paul. Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970.

Note:  Portions of this article have been previously published in electronic newsletter form by D. Joy Riley of The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture; used by permission.