How do we define a human? Is it our body? Our genome? Our behaviors? Our self-awareness, our compassion? Our minds? Perhaps all of these and then something else? What now may be obvious to most people will become less so as we become progressively more integrated with technology both inside and outside our bodies.

Transhumanism, according to the American English dictionary, is defined as “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” It sounds very much like something from a sci-fi movie—people flying with purple wings, or with translucent skin, or able to lift cars with one hand, or having prodigious memories.

If you have a purist definition of what it means to be human, just the old flesh and blood without any intervention from outside gadgets, it’s time to come to terms with reality: apart from isolated communities, few of us in modern society are purely human.

Our integration with technology is evolving us into something else.

Consider, for starters, medication. If we take a drug that changes our chemistry, for example, for depression or high blood pressure, we are not the same. We are who we were before plus the medication. That’s not quite the same as going beyond our current human state, but it is a change, in this case one that can help millions of people. Ritalin, meanwhile, does change things in a more transformative way. Created to help people with ADHD, it’s also a powerful stimulant; that’s why it’s such a prize among college students, as it enhances cognitive faculties that supposedly help during exams. The movie Limitless, with its fictional drug NZT-48, takes this to the extreme. Transhumanism is no longer in the realm of the fictional.

Vitamins, superfoods, protein powders, and steroids are doing the same at a more physical level, enhancing performance (sometimes illicitly, as in the sad case of cyclist Lance Armstrong and so many other elite athletes), the immune system, improving memory, boosting sexual energy, etc.

And what about prosthetic implants? They have transformed the lives of millions with disabilities, opening their lives to amazing possibilities. I have witnessed this directly in obstacle course races and in long running races that I participate in. But what happens when they provide more than normal human power output? Should an athlete with carbon fiber prosthetic legs, designed to give extra propulsion, compete with others that don’t have the same technology? At the 2012 Olympics, South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius became the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympics, prompting discussion about whether his prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage . . . or not. (Pistorius is currently in prison for murdering his girlfriend in 2013; he will not be released until at least 2023.)

We are already living in the transhuman era. If it isn’t vitamins or performance-inducing drugs, who can be without a cell phone? This device is now an extension of who we are, indispensable in our everyday life. Forgetting one at home brings out a sense of loss and disconnection: no memory, no schedule, no music, no camera, no news, no email, no maps, no GPS, Facebook, Twitter, games. Every app, especially if it is functionality-enhancing, is an extension of our mental faculties, part of who we are.

A couple of decades ago, when you visited someone’s home, you’d check out their records and books to get a feel for the person. Now, it’s all in the apps, essentially a digital fingerprint of who you are, reflecting your choices and modes of engagement with the world of social media. (I wrote about screen addictions recently here.)

Digital transcendence

In an era defined by the gathering and dissemination of information, where we get linked to huge amounts of data with a couple of commands and connect by video to people across the planet, cellular devices are a means of extending our presence, of redefining the reality we live in. Our brain is no longer just the grey mass inside our head; through its digital tentacles it now extends itself—and you—out into the world. This is quite different from a tool, or a pair of glasses.

This is the era of digital transcendence.

The future? Transhumanism will only grow. We ‘ve long had pacemakers and artificial joints, and now we have exoskeletal devices to help paralyzed people walk again, “smart” contact lenses, brain-computer interfaces, and more. Bioengineered organs are on the horizon.

Technological and biotech devices will be implanted into our heads and bodies, or used peripherally, changing our senses and cognitive abilities. Some will have spectacular medical applications, for example, enhancing sight in people with macular degeneration. Others will change our sensorial range. Why see only in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum? Let’s go ultraviolet! Infrared! Let’s extend our hearing range, our memory capacity, our immune defenses, our life span, our brainpower.

The question that no one has answered, though, is what will this do to our species? Will we simply reinvent ourselves, taking evolution into our own hands?

Are we then become less human? It seems that we are, although “less” may be the wrong qualifier. We are becoming something else. We are becoming a new species, and it’s hard to predict where this will go without some kind of hype.

Let us hope that whatever we become, or some of us become, we will be wise enough to deal with the unavoidable inequalities that will surely follow. Brave New World is not a good model for our future.

(Image from Ex Machina, 2015, Universal Pictures)

 

Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.