Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been in the news quite a bit recently—and not just because of developments related to his global social network. In December he announced, through an open letter to his newborn daughter, that he and wife Priscilla Chan were dedicating 99 percent of their Facebook stock to philanthropic causes that would, among other things, advance human potential.
“Advancing human potential is about pushing the boundaries on how great a human life can be,” the letter read. “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today? Can our generation cure disease so you live much longer and healthier lives?”
Zuckerberg’s new year’s resolution was to build an artificial intelligence system in his home, complete with voice and facial recognition, to do everything from adjusting temperature and lighting to automatically reordering supplies and monitoring his baby.
Then, in late February, he introduced journalists at the Mobile World Congress in Spain to his virtual reality technology. An image of a satisfied Zuckerberg walking by hundreds of plugged-in, unaware humans caused some to comment that he looked like an all-powerful overlord in a dystopian tech future.
These may seem like no more than the fanciful hobbies of the eighth-richest person on the planet. But Zuckerberg’s gadgets reflect a worldview that has captivated many of our scientific and technological elites: humans will become the best versions of ourselves through the augmentation of technology.
Stronger, healthier, smarter
Such faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans is referred to as transhumanism. Along with Zuckerberg, other wealthy and influential adherents to transhumanism include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. These Silicon Valley titans have already revolutionized the way we access information and build relationships. Their next goal is to create technologies that will remake Homo sapiens into a stronger, healthier, and smarter species than our physical bodies alone could allow.
They are dedicating billions of dollars and the greatest minds in science and engineering to develop a range of human-enhancing innovations. Virtual reality promises to transport us anywhere. Wearable devices put us closer to connecting the human brain to the digital cloud. Genome editing allows us to design our babies and cure any disease or disability, up to and including death itself.
Such ideas may seem distant, over our heads, or irrelevant. But many of the devices we cling to, and the new technologies we await, come out of a culture that’s increasingly shaped by this philosophy.
Transhumanists would argue that we already demand and depend upon technology to increase our capabilities: Excel spreadsheets do our math; the Internet widely expands our knowledge base; gene therapy treats cancer and other diseases. For them, the vision of human existence becoming fully integrated with machines is just the next iteration of our current reality.
“We will increasingly become non-biological,” predicts renowned inventor and leading transhumanist Ray Kurzweil. “Our thinking will be a hybrid of our biological brains and the cloud.” Kurzweil expects humans’ minds to be “fully backed up” and our bodies essentially immortal by as soon as 2045. (Kurzweil, age 67, takes 150 supplements a day in hopes of living long enough to benefit from life-extending technologies. If he dies, he plans to be cryogenically frozen so he can be reanimated in the future.)