A post-nature, post-human world?
The self-styled 'Avatar Project', championed by Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov, prophesizes that by the year 2045 scientists will have the ability to transfer human consciousness and personality to non-biological carriers, thus facilitating a kind of immortality. As a mark of its progress, Avatar contributed the main attraction for the June 2013 '2045 Global Future Congress': 'The Dmitry Avatar-A head', an exact robotic replica of its sponsor's head, promoting it as the "world's most human-like android head." The organizers of the Congress, heralded it as a breakthrough that will usher in an era of global peace and prosperity, in which civilization will be technologized to an unprecedented level.
'Dmitry Avatar' aside, scientists and futurists argue that 'technological singularity,' a greater-than-human intelligence created through artificial means, will soon be a reality. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University asserts the emergence of a new type of "post-human" life, populated by beings that possess such advanced qualities and skills that they can no longer be defined "simply as humans." "Unlike other technologies," Bostrom argues," artificial intelligences are not merely tools. They are potentially independent agents." Likewise, Ray Kurzeweil, the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines and currently Director of Engineering at Google, has written that, "The only way to keep pace will be for... [the human] species to merge with its technology... There is too little nature left to return to, and there are too many human beings. For better or worse, we're stuck with technology." Kurzeweil imagines androids who not only surpass humans in intelligence, but also possess free will and emotion. Thus they become, "spiritual machines... machines derived from human thinking and surpassing humans in their capacity for experience, will claim to be conscious, and thus to be spiritual." In a 2008 interview in Scientific American, computer pioneer David Levy also predicted sex and even marriage between humans and robots by 2050.
In the wake of such surreal imaginings, profound questions arise. Is the dualism between life and lifelessness an outmoded construct of anthropocentric thinking? What would it mean to be 'human' in a world where the traits and practices associated with 'humanity' are no longer the sole mandate of human beings? Even if we don't have answers to these epistemological questions, what is apparent is that the potential for self-replication in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics technologies could lead to unforeseen and dangerous situations beyond human control. In an article entitled "Why the Future Does not Need Us," Bill Joy, former Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, warned that GNR technologies are "threatening to make human beings an endangered species" and that, "We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be...surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions." Indeed, is the world just one "great laboratory of life" and is nature to be reduced to its component parts and reintegrated and dominated through technology and the market as envisaged by the likes of Thomas Bacon and Rene Descartes? Should there be nothing left to life outside the market and technology?
Current ideologies--conservatism, liberalism, authoritarianism and certain forms of religious fundamentalism-- all seek limited, piecemeal solutions to global problems within the dominant paradigm of unbridled economic growth and the scientific conquest of nature. The materialist conception of life, both the capitalist and the communist variants, approaches nature as an inanimate object to be technologically conquered and exploited for purposes of economic growth.
Undoubtedly, the manipulation and redesign of nature has implications for nearly every aspect of life. If we go so far as to accept that our intellectual and even emotional primacy as humans might be disappearing, must we also entertain the idea of our own extinction as a species in nature? As earth-based indigenous people are extinguished from the face of the Earth, it has become increasingly clear that human extinction is an issue we must address in all contexts: moral, philosophical, and scientific. We must ask ourselves if we are ready or willing to become extensions of our own technological creations. For technological advancement and global economics are not the problems per se. Rather, we are forced to question the essential values and motivations that have steered us in this direction.
Are the deeper causes of the ecological and social crises rooted in human greed, ego, and ultimately the fear of death and attachment to self? If so, then the challenges we face are not only moral and scientific but also psychological and existential. Ecological and human sustainability calls for conscious efforts to balance human inner development with technological and material advancement. The Avatar Project, then, is on the one hand just a single step on the irreversible path towards our dazzlingly metallic future. Yet it is also a moment that asks us to think deeply on what being human means: if our post-human future is desirable or even avoidable, and if we are willing to reform and refabricate our sense of selfhood to preserve our species as part of the organic world.
(Sources for quotations available in Asoka Bandarage, Sustainability and Well-Being [Palgrave, 2013])
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