"Transcendent Man": Us, Robots?

Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man...What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever...Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness.
-CS Lewis

Have you ever asked yourself, looking back on the exponential explosion of computers, cell phones, and the internet in the past thirty years: Where is all this technology headed? What's the "end game"?

According to inventor Ray Kurzweil, subject of the documentary Transcendent Man (now available for instant watch on Netflix), technology is headed right toward us - into us, in fact. Kurzweil has said that by the year 2029, an exponential increase in nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics will result in a brave new world known as "the singularity," in which man and his machines are no longer distinguishable, because machines will become human, and humans will become machines - free from all traces of disease, deficiency, and death.

Lest our readers scoff at Kurzweil's predictions, bear in mind that in a 1990 book called The Age of Intelligent Machines, Kurzweil accurately predicated the demise of the Soviet Union due in part to decentralized electronic communication, the defeat of a world chess champion to an IBM computer, and the explosion of the internet in the mid-1990s. And, when you compare the power, price, and size of the modern smart phone to say, the UNIVAC of the 1950s, Kurzweil's predictions are not at all unfathomable. Unlike talk of hovercrafts in years past, the exponential growth in computer technology is proven fact.

Graphic representation of
nanobots attacking cancer cells
While films such as Blade Runner, AI, and I, Robot have dealt at length with the philosophical and moral problems of artificial intelligence, the creeping reality of human beings becoming robotic has been largely ignored. Mankind willingly transforming itself, for the sake of power, health, communication, knowledge, or any number of benefits, into a technological and robotic hybrid that looks less and less like a human being, is arguably the more profound problem, and deserves some exploration in the arts.

But how could this happen? Why would men and women integrate computers into their bodies, even their brains, in just 20 years?

According to Kurzweil, these predictions fit several modern paradigms very neatly. First, they conform to the reality of evolutionary progress - "the singularity" will be a final sweeping step in the history of natural selection, the zenith of increasing biological complexity and adaptability. Second, our culture exalts the rapid computation of information far above metaphysical or ethical "hangups," and we firmly believe the solution to all of our problems is greater intelligence and innovation. Third, Kurzweil sees in the dwindling religious stories of humanity a longing for what "the singularity" will provide - immortality, restoration, peace. (Kurzweil's response to the question "does God exist" is, "not yet.")

If and when religious faith is all but eradicated, Kurzweil, like Hugh Jackman's character in The Fountain, is convinced that we will come to see death as a disease, not a result of an aboriginal catastrophe or fall from the grace of divine life - it is a problem we can apply intellect to just like any other problem. In fact, there are many parallels between The Fountain and Kurzweil's hope for cybernetic immortality (Aronofsky himself mentions Kurzweil in an interview) - and the most heartbreaking and human portion of Transcendent Man is the parallel story of Kurzweil's loss of his father. It may have, in part, been the impetus of Kurzweil's strange and futuristic work - but it no doubt stems from the loss of a great love.

Along with Kurzweil, professor Kevin Warwick lauds the idea of the singularity in the film - he even, as seen below, takes the extra step of implanting electrodes and chips into his arm:

There are, gratefully, voices of dissent in Transcendent Man to counter the "transhumanism" of Kurzweil and Warwick - most notably William B. Hurlbut, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford, who reminds us that the net result of the singularity might be singularly tragic. In fact, if history is any indicator (eugenics, sterilization, genocide, etc.), it will result in some tragedy - according to another scientist in the film, the greatest war the world has ever seen. (Let's not forget the deep regret of Einstein after the development of the atomic bomb.)

Whether or not the application of nanotechnology and genetic manipulation results in great peace or great war, the integration of computers into the human body pose grave dangers to the dignity of the human person. We should ask ourselves: Could some human beings be trampled on or neglected as others are empowered? Will we forsake something to become infinitely smarter and faster? Will our fetishistic visions of futurism, omniscience, and wholeness sprout something heinous, even deadly, like the Weimar republic? Are there some things infinitely more important than intelligence, speed, power, and information? Should the march of science be constricted by anything external to it? Could we lose our humanity?

Our answer to all of these questions, I fear, is still a resounding, collective "no." Even though commercials like the one below purport to "save us" from our computers and phones, the solution is never thinking of answering "yes" to these questions - but always computers and phones. Only a culture on the fast track to the singularity (or something like it) would see the solution to a slavish reliance on time-consuming computers to be better and faster computers that consume even more of our time, and make us even more reliant on them to think and act.

In the 2030s, if and when Kurzweil's singularity has arrived, I think we'll look back on this period with great sadness and regret - we'll upload commercials like this to our minds, not to chuckle at the quaint silliness of the past, but to pause the video at :38 seconds, scratch our nanobot-filled heads, and wonder why we didn't think of answering "yes" to any of the above questions (especially the first) when we had the chance.


  1. Interesting and timely post Matt. Just recently, I found myself reflecting on the dizzying proliferation of technology and how it's becoming more and more difficult to "keep up" with it. I was also struck by how the many unintended consequences of technological advancements have begun to take a negative toll on the average persons' life. While we chuckle at the utter absurdity of the cell phone users in the Windows commercial, I'm sure that we have all had moments where we see these scenes play out in "real" life in a much less entertaining fashion. In our vain attempt to be "connected" (24/7) to the rest of the world with the internet and cell phones, we are increasingly becoming disconnected from the individuals right in front of us. Sadly the answer to the question posed in the cell phone commercial "Really?" is and will continue to be "Yes"...

  2. I absolutely love your quote by C.S. Lewis. The other day I sat in front of a couple on a bus and they were discussing how the new technology baffles them, and how they couldn't believe that their six year old knew more about technolgy than they did. Also, seeing kids listening to their ipods at restaurants made me realize how disconnected the human race is in person, for we seem to only be able to communicate confidently via text or chat. (why break up with someone in person when you could text them instead?..leading to avoidance)
    Interesting topic! Love your blog.

  3. @J L Thanks for your comment! You're exactly right about the commercial reflecting reality - which is why I froze the image of the neglected boy at the dinner table with his family, all of them distracted by technology. I see this sort of thing all time. The dazzling distractions of computer technology remove of us from the immediacy and mystery of being, the put the cultivation and formation of the soul, the family, and the community on the back burner. For that reason, I'm pretty convinced that, for my 20-something generation, computer technology will result in the some of the greatest moral and metaphysical problems of our lifetimes. As you said, we're already seeing the profound effects now.

  4. @Jamie Carol Thanks! That particular quote is from "Abolition of Man," a very frightening book actually, and very relevant to this topic. You're quite right about texting or chatting being our only confident means of communication - I wrote my thesis for my BA about this very issue, using Kierkegaard's "Two Ages" as a lens. Digital (or "disembodied") communication, by definition, creates great temptations to irresponsible, immoral, and impersonal behavior. Just look at any YouTube comments section for proof!

  5. I'm sincerely heartened by the fact that you are able to see through the intoxicating veneer of modern technology and can see the impending moral and metaphysical problems which lay ahead for so many of your generation. I have been fortunate in that I experienced life "BT" (Before Technology) and, while I thoroughly enjoy the many entertaining "benefits" afforded modern society by the proliferation of such things as the iPhone and digitized music, etc. etc., I find myself pining for the old days (or, at the very least remembering them fondly) when I would spend time sitting on my parents' front porch with my friends dreaming up new and creative ways to spend our days without cell phones, the internet, or any of the technological trappings upon which we have become so dependent as a modern society. Truth be told, I would gladly trade my iPhone and 24/7 access to the world wide web, for one more of those days on my parents' porch...we've lost much more than we've gained I'm afraid.

  6. @J L Thanks for sharing - I agree wholeheartedly. With every increase in technical knowledge, there is an equal decrease in intuitive knowledge. You can't "know" the universe, God, another person, or even your own self like you "know" facts after you google them. Since mysteries cannot be googled, they are ignored or forgotten - an eddy of "forgetfulness of being." We're so dazzled by speed and information that we're not seeing the simultaneous bulldozing of wisdom, creativity, poetry, and passion.