Talk of artificial intelligence often revolves around what machines can do for us. But machine learning is just one branch of artificial intelligence--dealing with the predictions that can be gleaned from constructing artificial neural networks. There's another camp in the AI community that puts its faith in a philosophy called transhumanism--that is, in short, how human minds can be preserved, enhanced, or replicated via artificial means. Transhumanism is both a movement and belief that that humans should use technology and science to redesign ourselves beyond the limits of our biological constraints. It is beginning to seem inevitable, though whether that's a good thing remains up for debate.
If, through biotechnology, we could drastically enhance ourselves--such that our ability to absorb and manipulate information was unlimited, we experienced no disquiet, and we did not age--would we? For advocates of radical enhancement, or "transhumanism," answering "yes" is a no-brainer. Accordingly, they press for the development of technologies that, by manipulating genes and the brain, would create beings fundamentally superior to us. Transhumanism is far from a household term, but, whether or not they use the word publicly, its adherents are in places of power, especially in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the world's richest person, is devoted to boosting "cognition" and co-founded the company Neuralink toward that end.
I have a four-foot-tall robot in my house that plays with my kids. Both my daughters, aged 5 and 9, are so enamored with Jethro that they have each asked to marry it. For fun, my wife and I put on mock weddings. Despite the robot being mainly for entertainment, its very basic artificial intelligence can perform thousands of functions, including dance and teach karate, which my kids love. The most important thing Jethro has taught my kids is that it's totally normal to have a walking, talking machine around the house that you can hang out with whenever you want to.
What has improved American lives most in the last 50 years? According to a Pew Research study reported this month, it's not civil rights (10 percent) or politics (2 percent): it's technology (42 percent). And yet, according to other studies, most Americans are wary of technology, especially in areas of automation (72 percent), or robotic caregivers (59 percent), or riding in driverless vehicles (56 percent), and even in using brain chip implants to augment the capabilities of healthy people (69 percent). Science fiction, however, is quickly becoming science fact--the future is the machine. This is leading many to argue that we need to anticipate the ethical questions now, rather than when it is too late.
Maitreya One, a black futurist and hip-hop artist living in Harlem, steps off the Greyhound bus on a warm morning in Montgomery, Alabama. I walk up to him and give him a hug. Maitreya is a civil rights link from the past to the future--and one of the few African-American transhumanists I know. He is stepping off one bus in Montgomery--whose roots are tied to the spectacular Freedom Riders who challenged segregation laws in the early 1960s--and onto another: the Immortality Bus, whose mission is to spread radical science and promote transhumanist rights. Like others in the burgeoning transhumanism movement, Maitreya supports becoming a cyborg in the future, and he knows the coming controversy over such aims may end up as challenging as the civil rights era battles over racism.