Many prominent people in the tech industry have talked about the increasing convergence between humans and machines in coming decades. For example, Elon Musk has reportedly said he wants humans to merge with AI “to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence”.
His company Neuralink aims to facilitate this convergence so that humans won’t be “left behind” as technology advances in the future. While people with disabilities would be near-term recipients of these innovations, some believe technologies like this could be used to enhance abilities in everyone.
These aims are inspired by an idea called transhumanism, the belief that we should use science and technology to radically enhance human capabilities and seek to direct our own evolutionary path. Disease, aging and death are all realities transhumanists wish to end, alongside dramatically increasing our cognitive, emotional and physical capacities.
Transhumanists often advocate for the three “supers” of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness, the last referring to ways of achieving lasting happiness. There are many different views among the transhumanist community of what our ongoing evolution should look like.
For example, some advocate uploading the mind into digital form and settling the cosmos. Others think we should remain organic beings but rewire or upgrade our biology through genetic engineering and other methods. A future of designer babies, artificial wombs and anti-aging therapies appeal to these thinkers.
This may all sound futuristic and fantastical, but rapid developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology have led some to argue we are on the cusp of creating such possibilities.
Creating so-called artificial general intelligence (AGI) – that is, an AI system that can do all the cognitive tasks a human can do and more – is a current focus within Silicon Valley. AGI is seen as vital to enabling us to take on the God-like role of designing our own evolutionary futures.
That is why companies like OpenAI, DeepMind and Anthropic are racing towards the development of AGI, despite some experts warning that it could lead to human extinction.
In the short term, the promises and the perils are probably overstated. After all, these companies have a lot to gain by making us think they are on the verge of engineering a divine power that can create utopia or destroy the world. Meanwhile, AI has played a role in fuelling our polarised political landscape, with disinformation and more complex forms of manipulation made more effective by generative AI.
Indeed, AI systems are already causing many other forms of social and environmental harm. AI companies rarely wish to address these harms though. If they can make governments focus on long-term potential “safety” issues relating to possible existential risks instead of actual social and environmental injustices, they stand to benefit from the resulting regulatory framework.