What Ever Happened to the Transhumanists?

The once-vibrant transhumanist movement doesn’t capture as much attention as it used to, but as an idea it’s far from dead.

The internet most certainly gave rise to the vibrant transhumanist subculture, but the emergence of tantalizing, impactful scientific and technological concepts is what gave the movement its substance. Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned animal, was born in 1996, and in the following year Garry Kasparov became the first chess grandmaster to lose to a supercomputer. The Human Genome Project finally released a complete human genome sequence in 2003, in a project that took 13 years to complete. The internet itself gave birth to a host of futuristic concepts, including online virtual worlds and the prospect of uploading one’s consciousness into a computer, but it also suggested a possible substrate for the Noösphere—a kind of global mind envisioned by the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Key cheerleaders contributed to the proliferation of far-flung futurist-minded ideas. Eric Drexler’s seminal book Engines of Creation (1986) demonstrated the startling potential for (and peril of) molecular nanotechnology, while the work of Hans Moravec and Kevin Warwick did the same for robotics and cybernetics, respectively. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, through his “law of accelerating returns” and fetishization of Moore’s Law, convinced many that a radical future was at hand; in his popular books, The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005), Kurzweil predicted that human intelligence was on the cusp of merging with its technology. In his telling, this meant that we could expect a Technological Singularity (the emergence of greater-than-human artificial intelligence) by the mid-point of the 21st century (as an idea, the Singularity—another transhumanist staple—has been around since the 1960s and was formalized in a 1993 essay by futurist and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge). In 2006, an NSF-funded report, titled “Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society,” showed that the U.S. government was starting to pay attention to transhumanist ideas.

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