In 1945 an American military airplane crashed in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. Three of the passengers, including one woman, survived the crash. Deep in the jungle, the three Americans soon came into contact with a native tribe. The savages, as they called them, moved naked through the forest in packs and yipped like wild dogs. Bones pierced their noses. These were stone-age humans, previously unknown and uncontacted by the modern world.
The tribal people reacted to the Americans as if they were supernatural creatures, not because of the color of their complexion or the texture of their hair, but because of their bizarre “removable skin.” It was their clothes.
These naked tribal people had no concept, nothing relatable in their imagination, for these types of materials. To the natives, the Americans seemed unhuman, maybe gods, or maybe ghosts, depending on their own mythology.
On the morning of March 1st, 2011, I was just an ordinary young man when I walked into an ordinary two-story office building in a Denver suburb. The waiting room was a calm and comforting place. An electric water fountain created the soothing sound of trickling water. Framed images of natural serenity adorned the walls.
The receptionist was also very calm and comforting. She welcomed me with a soft and reassuring voice and a very pleasant hand shake. Then she gave me a magic pill, a valium, to calm my mind and make me even more comfortable before leading me into a small dark room with a very comfortable reclining chair.
I sank into that chair while a machine descended from above and sliced off a piece of each of my eyeballs.
In a matter of minutes, not only was my near-sightedness and astigmatism corrected, I ended up with “better than perfect” 20/15 vision. I could now see slightly better than is naturally possible in a human being. Through laser eye surgery I had become a transhuman. I was bio-technologically improved.
But, was this really my first “biological enhancement?” Perhaps I had already become a transhuman years earlier when I received my first tooth filling. Or, maybe it was earlier still, as a newborn baby, when a doctor injected magic serums into my body and thereby protected me from polio. And measles.
Of course, I don’t think of myself as some sort of cyborg or transhuman. Neither did those American soldiers trapped in the jungle in 1945. But, from the perspective of an original “savage” human, we would indeed seem to be something else. We would seem human-like, but human-enhanced.
The idea of transhumanism is all the buzz among today’s futurists. I recently wrote an article about how to prepare our kids for their transhuman future, as if there will be a single point in time, maybe a few decades from now, when all humans become cyborgs overnight.
As we look to our technological future it’s easy to forget that, as a species, we embarked on our transhuman journey a very long time ago. And, indeed, we are already quite far into this adventure.
At first the going was slow. The official starting line is debatable, but let’s assume it began with the invention of agriculture somewhere between 10,000 and 23,000 BC depending on who you ask. Now, this was a monumental leap in transhuman destiny. This is when we first acquired a god-like capability. We became the deliberate creators of mutant life forms, shaping and guiding the evolution of plant and animal species to meet our own needs and desires.
My dog, Codee the Corgi, looks nothing like anything in the wild. He is a human-engineered mutant specimen, bred to be both functional as a cattle herder and adorable as a pet. The Queen of England loves him.
The delicious yellow banana looks nothing like its tough, bitter-tasting, and shriveled ancestor. Humans created the banana we know and love today, using simply the raw materials of nature to create something better to enhance our health, nutrition, culinary satisfaction, and mass production potential.
A few thousand years after the beginning of agriculture and animal breeding, some true geniuses figured out how to turn their thoughts into little symbols scratched into rock. These were the first coders and they had invented the written language.
The vaporware of thought could now be visually represented, saved, replicated, and transported across not only territory (space) but time.
Other humans in other locations and future times could then read and understand the thoughts of the original author—a person they need not have ever met. They could then build on the original author’s ideas.
Written language was a quantum leap on our transhuman journey. We had set forth the beginning of a continuous acceleration in the accumulation and sharing of knowledge. This transformed human thought into an exponential trajectory of technological progress, each generation building on the knowledge of the last through the use and continued accumulation of the written record.
As time went on, we began to understand the stars. We started to solve the mysteries of the human body. And, eventually, we began to create machines. The ocean-going vessel. The printing press. The steam engine. We manipulated matter in all sorts of ways to take on new shapes, textures, and functions. Totally new human-made substances, like plastic, infiltrated our world. Things were rapidly accelerating, and humans became increasingly dependent on their own inventions like mechanized personal transportation, the harnessing of electricity, and the channeling of radio waves. We created the Turing Machine. And, then the Internet. This trajectory continues to accelerate exponentially.
All of this stuff has already created a human-shaped world in which magic is commonplace.
Imagine if the stone-age people in Papua New Guinea suddenly found themselves in the middle of New York City in 2018. Never mind the really magical stuff around them for now. Just start with cement. Here is a man-made material that gives us the ability to create and shape the very rock of Earth. It is a material that we no longer even wonder about—so primitive and low-tech—and, yet, it would be so totally otherworldly to stone-age man.
Then show the tribe a lightbulb. Like a mini-sun, the lightbulb turns night into day practically whenever and wherever we want. Put stone-age man into an automobile and let him be transported through the world at frightening speed, seemingly floating within a strange enclosure made of materials he’s never seen nor fathomed. Play a radio and turn on a television set and let him hear voices out of thin air and see moving images dance across a glossy flat rock. Try to explain the internet to him. Impossible.
One of the fears of our continued trajectory further into a state of transhumanism is that we will lose our humanity. What does it mean to be human in a transhuman world? But, all of those examples above from our past and present represent some level of human technological augmentation that has become integral to every day modern life. And, yet few would seriously argue that we have lost our humanity, that we are somehow no longer human.
We forget how far we have already separated ourselves from a savage existence and how much we already depend on the manipulation of both nature and ourselves. Have we maintained our humanity thus far?
Do we still feel love and pain and joy? Do we still exercise free will? Do we still smell the flowers and drink the water? Do we still wonder about the mystery when we look out over the ocean and up to the stars?
Yes, we do. Perhaps, this can give us some solace as we continue on our journey further into a technological world. Perhaps, somehow, all along that path, our humanity will persist as we relentlessly find ways to transform our world and ourselves through technology. Our humanity will persist as we 3D-print replacement organs and bones. As we augment human thought with machine intelligence. As we possibly extend human lifespan through the reversal of aging.
Let’s assume that humanity can continue its current technological trajectory for another 200 years (some would say that’s a very bold assumption). If we were to be transported to the year 2218, what would it be like? It would be at least as bizarre and unfathomable to us as our present world would be to a stone-age human. But, it would be completely normal to the 2218 human. I believe the technologically augmented humans of 2218, like us today, will still be human. They will still drink the water and gaze upon the blue ocean with wonder.