Do transhumanists need a bill of rights?

Looking into the past of human identity, scientists have been studying how much homo sapiens (that’s us) interbred with homo neanderthalensis (about 2% of our DNA). Looking into the future, how much of our humanity will be artificial?

While this might seem like science fiction, about 4000 Swedes are already “cyborgs”, part human and part machine. Implanted in their hands is a tiny identity chip which they can use instead of ID cards or credit cards. The device was developed by a Swedish company,  Biohax International, which plans to set up offices in London, as well.

Add to this the technology for making designer babies by modifying their genome with rapidly developing gene-editing tools and it seems that an age of transhumanism is dawning.

Of course, grand predictions have a way of fading into irrelevance, so the arrival of an improved version of humanity is far from certain.

However, just in case it happens, transhumanist sympathisers have been busy drafting a bill of rights to protect themselves against the hostility of ordinary mortals.

The is an interesting development. The Magna Carta was the first in a long series of ancient bills of rights for citizens, great and small, in jurisdictions stretching from Ireland to France to Poland. They were tremendously varied, but one element was common: they all were related to homo sapiens 1.0.

A bill of rights for all “sentient entities” is a tall order considering that some of these entities do not yet exist and no state currently has the slightest interest in enforcing them.   

Who are they? Human beings, including genetically modified humans; cyborgs, digital intelligences, intellectually enhanced, previously non-sapient animals, enhanced plants or animals which possess the capacity for intelligent thought; and “other advanced sapient life forms”. As often happens in such discussions, it appears that severely-brain damaged humans and babies would not be included.

The Transhumanist Bill of Rights is the brainchild of Zoltan Istvan, a one-time candidate for US President for the Transhumanist Party. He wrote the first version, which has subsequently been improved by his colleagues.

A few highlights follow.

The Transhumanist Bill of Rights incorporates all the rights in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although reconciling the two documents will probably provide lots of work for lawyers.

All sentient entities have both a right to life (Article III) and a right to ending it. They also have a right to enhance themselves as they please and a right to an indefinite lifespan (Article IV).

Articles VI and VII might lead a country which adopts the Bill of Rights to bankruptcy in short order: “Involuntary aging shall be classified as a disease” and “All sentient entities should be the beneficiaries of a system of universal health care.” And since there will be no need for work in a society dominated by technology Article XIX also guarantees a universal basic income.

Morphological freedom is guaranteed by Article X. You can do whatever you like to your body.

Article XII deals with reproductive rights: “All sentient entities are entitled to reproductive freedom, including through novel means such as the creation of mind clones, monoparent children, or benevolent artificial general intelligence.”

However, a prominent feature of the Bill of Rights is a concern for privacy. No one may clone another person without his permission. The powers of the state to surveille citizens must be limited.

Forget about water and food: Article XV guarantees something far more life-sustaining: “private internet access” for all sentient entities (dolphins?)

It’s hard to understand what Article XXI guarantees, but it sounds momentous. “All sentient entities are entitled to join their psyches to a collective noosphere in an effort to preserve self-consciousness in perpetuity.”

Finally, all governments are exhorted to avoid fake news (Article XXIV). Lies and fear-mongering should be harshly punished.

I don’t know whether it is due to reading too much science fiction or not reading enough of it, but I find it impossible to take the transhumanist movement seriously. Some of its ideas about self-definition have seeped into mainstream culture, like transgenderism. Even contraception is a kind of cyborg bio-hack, because it uses technology to suppress natural bodily functions.

However, transhumanism’s vision of a future in which homo sapiens has evolved into Morlocks and Eloi (as H.G. Wells foresaw in The Time Machine) seems preposterous, at least to me.

One thing that I can never quite grasp about their feverish predictions is whether they really care whether their schemes are practical or not. Uploading one’s consciousness to the internet sounds super but the obstacles in its path are more like the Himalayas than parking lot speedbumps – apart from all the ethical issues.

And, returning to the transhumanist bill of rights, I’m also puzzled by why they need one. The dream of the more ambitious transhumanists is to become like gods – the Greek sort, who live forever and have superpowers. But they won’t need a bill of rights to protect them against us; we’ll need a bill of right to protect ourselves against them. If you had lessons in classical mythology, you will recall that the main leisure activity of Zeus, Hera & Co was creating miseries for mankind.

Perhaps the transhumanist bill of rights is meant to create a protected environment (free healthcare and free internet for ever and ever, no media criticism) for superior sentient beings until the moment comes for them to shake off the fetters of unimproved homo sapiens 1.0 and obliterate us.   

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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