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/ Albert Cortina

Albert Cortina: What’s at stake is our future as people

"What’s at stake is our future as people"

Four years ago, Albert Cortina, a lawyer and town planner, was invited to participate in an international seminar in Poblet on the convergence of emerging technologies and human beings. “As town planners, we are concerned with smart cities and the application of technologies in the home, territory, landscape and for citizens”: which is exactly what he went to talk about. Yet perhaps due to the location –in a thought-provoking monastic setting– or the topics actually discussed, Cortina’s professional career took a radical change in direction. “I discovered Transhumanism and its goal of ‘human enhancement’, and what social sciences, ethics and law had to say on the matter”.


Transhuman: a human being in transformation, with physical and cognitive powers and abilities beyond those of a normal human; an intermediary between humans and posthumans: a natural-artificial being with capabilities far exceeding those of contemporary humans. “This superiority”, reflects Cortina, “would be such that there would be absolutely no ambiguity between humans and posthumans: completely different and more perfect”. A great deal of money has been invested –billions of dollars– in the pursuit of “technological singularity”, also known simply as “the Singularity”. The aim of Calico, for instance, one of Google’s most cryptic companies, is to stamp out ageing. According to Ray Kurzweil, the search engine’s director of engineering, our brains will eventually be linked to a cloud-connected exocortex, which will exponentially increase our capabilities. When that happens, assures Kurzweil, “having a body will become anachronistic”. This will occur in 2045, the year the Singularity will become a reality. In 2008, on founding Singularity University, Larry Page, CEO of Google, proclaimed: “We need to shape people to change the world”.


When you read these things, it’s hard to tell if it’s science fiction or reality…


Well, Calico, by itself, was founded in 2013 with a budget of over $1.4 billion, twice that of the CSIC’s annual budget: does that look like they think it’s science fiction?


…; that said: while much has changed as the result of science, it can’t replace people; do the Transhumanists agree?


Though they claim to be heirs to humanism, it is actually an anti-humanist ideology, because their aim is not to improve the human project but surpass it: to radically change the condition and nature of human beings. The ultimate goal is for human beings to make way for cybernetic posthumans, be them technologically advanced organisms or cyborgs that are so synthetic that biology and nature are no longer decisive factors in evolution.


You’re taking about “human enhancement”…


Yes, human enhancement refers to the goal of creating a “new humanity” of transhumans and/or posthumans. This is often represented by the symbol H+, or Human Plus. Obviously, technological development and innovation can be positive forces, but only when they serve to empower people and help assuage their needs and disabilities, not eliminate them. While transhumanists are technoptimists, they are most certainly humanpessimists. They view illness, vulnerability, suffering and even mortality as evils that must be eradicated at all costs. That’s why I prefer the symbol of advanced humanism: +H, or More Human.


What does that mean?


That’s the subject of my book Humanismo avanzado para una sociedad biotecnológica [Advanced Humanism for a Biotechnological Society]; advanced humanism based on universal ethics which incorporate the values humanity has developed over the centuries through ageless wisdom, religious and spiritual traditions and currents of humanist thought. The key to my idea is connecting the brain to the heart.


In what sense?


Transhumanism and the technocratic paradigm focus solely on the brain, the mind, on certain reductionist aspects of intelligence. As a result, they believe that, with the prophesied advent of the Singularity, artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and we will all be replaced by technological entities or this posthuman species we’ve been talking about. My idea is quite different. It focuses on integral human development, open to transcendence; on people, with their capabilities and vulnerabilities, on multiple types of intelligence, including spiritual intelligence, the most genuinely human dimension.


According to transhumanists, are we no more than a body? Is there no room for a spiritual dimension?


Like I said, they talk about the mind, about intelligence, more than body or an interior world. Some think that consciousness will emerge among these new posthumans, as it did among humans at some point during our evolution. It’s a kind of new age spirituality that some people, when talking about these subjects, confuse with energy, universal consciousness, etc., rather than the immortal soul of Christianity. Of course, their vision is the antithesis of the Catholic concept of the resurrection of the flesh… Just like the followers of new age spirituality, transhumanists are the new agnostics of the 21st century.


Ok, so we improve and live longer, as long as we want, but… then what?


Then comes “cybernetic immortality”. According to Ray Kurzweil, president of Singularity University, a transhumanist research centre in Silicon Valley financed, among others, by Google, when we become supercentenarians, in the penultimate stage, nanobots will link our brains to a cloud-connected exocortex, which will exponentially increase our capabilities. Having a biological body will become anachronistic. Our brain will be given an artificial support made from silica or simply a hologram. Afterwards, according to transhumanist philosopher Max More, in the last stage of this technological evolution, life will move beyond the confines of the Earth, and we will inhabit the cosmos.


Is it safe to say that only the rich will have access to this technology?


Definitely! All indications suggest that “human enhancement” will create a new system of “biotechnological castes”. In fact, this inequality could severely divide humanity into the “enhanced” –a new technocratic elite that, in addition to being rich, as goes without saying, would be willing to hybridise with emerging technologies– and the rest of humanity, which would experience a steady decline in their organic and cognitive capabilities in comparison to these trans- or posthumans: they would either lack the resources necessary to acquire this biotechnology or would be unwilling to hybridise for moral, religious, ideological or cultural reasons, generating greater inequality and a severe risk of social fragmentation.


A new industrial revolution…


You could certainly call it that, yes. The development of artificial intelligence, the convergence of emerging technologies –nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, information technologies, cognitive technologies, robotics, quantum computing– will no doubt have a direct impact on our essence as human beings. A fourth industrial revolution you could also call the “intelligence revolution”. What will humans turn into and what effects will this transformation have on our individual and collective consciousness?


But, are we really aware of everything we’ve talked about?


I don’t think so. We’re testimonies to the most crucial time in human history, and we don’t fully grasp how such disruptive and exponential changes could affect us. Look at it like this: what’s really at stake with “human enhancement” is our future as people.


Are there limits?


Of course there are…; or at least there should be. I’m a firm believer in the right to innovation, the desire to push the boundaries, to be creative and keep ahead of the curve, to improve and increase our physical and cognitive capacities, to improve our surroundings, the human habit and our landscape. I naturally believe the human project needs improving, but we must realise that it isn’t always in our best interest to do everything our intelligence and freedom allow us to do. There are limits, ethical constraints, moral principles and a personal and social responsibility that modulate the right to innovation. There are red lines that should not be crossed.


And where are these red lines?


That is the question, as Hamlet would say. The question lies in what makes a scientist stop. These lines are established by the scientific community in the form of action protocols and codes of ethics. But, what happens when someone wants to breach these limits? Bear in mind that, according to the most radical transhumanists, there are no red lines; just the opposite: these lines are meant be overstepped. In reality, these lines have always existed, and we can’t just scrap them from one day to the next. My concept of advanced humanism allows us to take a closer look at these issues from the point of view of Humanities and Social Sciences and adequately adjust to the new human frontiers of the 21st century.


The problem is that the two visions are at odds, aren’t they?


Yes. What we have are two highly incompatible paradigms: the fast-emerging “technological” paradigm, based on innovation and the limitless biotechnological design of people, and the paradigm of environmental, social and economic sustainability, which we have been trying to implement at a global level for decades and which recognises that limits do exist. The first proposes hyper-modernity and a radical neoliberal system, and the other, integral ecology, a concept developed magnificently by Pope Francis in the Laudato Si’. However, we must find fora, procedures and institutions that open up avenues for dialogue between the different sides and facilitate the construction of a common denominator that forms the basis of a universal set of ethics which helps us approach the complexity, uncertainty and challenges of the future in a globalised and hyper-connected world.


It won’t be easy…


No, but it’s essential that we engage in dialogue and work together. The blue planet and human family concern everybody. To resolve conflict and create opportunities in this new era of civilisation, we will need genuine shared leadership between the humanities and sciences.


Should we take the ideas posed by transhumanists seriously?


Of course we should! We must be aware of the agenda transhumanist thought is pushing around the world and take a critical view of their approaches and proposals. It is an ideology whose origins lie in cultural relativism, in self-serving individualism, emotivism, in cyborg and single-gender theory, in techno-nihilism, ecomodernism, posthumanism, etc.


Does transhumanism have political undertones?


Right from the start, it naturally conjoined with the neoliberal ideology and neocapitalism of California’s Silicon Valley, though it also has an extremely powerful influence on other ways of understanding the economy and socio-political organisation. It would be interesting to track the extent to which transhumanist ideology is being introduced into techno-progressivist views, into ecomodernism or environmental modernism, into gender ideology and the communitarianist and social innovation initiatives of certain “new politics” parties.


Given all this, do we have reason to fear the “machines”?


We shouldn’t fear anything. We should be aware of the risks and social and ethical challenges the expansion of the “machines”, as you call them, poses, but that doesn’t mean fear them. We must also foresee the risks artificial intelligence could pose to humans: the “machines” may surpass us in terms of rational logical intelligence, but they’ll never have the wisdom of our hearts. Along with my good friend Miquel Àngel Serra, a distinguished scientist, we have sparked debate in this country around these issues, and I think we’re making progress. This is a challenge, and it’s our duty to put forward the scientific criteria, ethical principles and legal regulations necessary to prevent the undesirable and undesired effects of the convergence of emerging technologies on human beings and life on this planet.


In other words, you’re optimistic.


Of course: Why shouldn’t I be? I believe in human beings. That’s why I ended my last book with a chapter entitled “Don’t be afraid!”. I think the vision of advanced humanism –which ultimately mirrors that of Christianity to a large extent– is essentially optimistic. And given the choice, I’d rather have eternity that simple cybernetic immortality. Wouldn’t you?