"The purpose of life is to S.M.I^2.L.E.: Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension." -Timothy Leary
Transhumanism is the doctrine that we can and should become "more than human". A typical transhumanist wishlist might include: physical immortality; a superior mind and body; access to the universe. These desires are hardly unique to the 20th century; but the transhumanists argue that for the first time they have become realistic prospects, because of our new technologies.

The number-one item in the transhumanist toolbox is nanotechnology, or molecular engineering: the design and manufacture of devices to atomic-scale precision (the size of atoms is measured in nanometers, hence the name). One molecule could act as a bearing, another as a motor or a memory register... It would be the ultimate form of miniaturization.

Nanotechnology first hit the big time in 1986, with the publication of Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler. Drexler, who coined the term, argues that eventually we will be able to create almost any arrangement of atoms consistent with natural law, through the use of "assemblers", molecular machines specialized for manufacturing. The ribosome of a cell, in which proteins are put together, is already a sort of assembler, and the existence of nature's own biotechnology is the best argument for the feasibility of nanotech. A cell is just a membrane filled with molecular machinery, say the nanotechnologists; if evolution can do it, why can't we?

The ability to put atoms where you want to has major consequences. These include materials stronger and lighter than anything known, supercomputers smaller than sand grains ("nanocomputers"), "cell repair machines" that can enter a cell and fix its DNA, "Santa Claus machines" which will make anything possible upon request (growing an android or a starship in your backyard from a soup of molecular components) ... These in turn could lead to abundance and long life for all, do-it-yourself space colonization, superhuman artificial intelligence, and dangers worse than nuclear warfare.

Already chemists can make pictures pushing atoms around on a surface, arranging them into stick figures or messages for world peace; and new drugs are designed through the use of molecular simulation software. Molecular technology and computer science will stimulate each other's advance: improved micromanufacturing techniques will mean smaller components and more powerful computers, which will accelerate the design of nanotechnology.

When computers become smarter still, even the design process will be automated. Fast enough computers could do a million human-years of design work in a month, and use existing assemblers to build better assemblers ... Drexler anticipates a period of rapid change in which all the indicators of technological progress climb superexponentially, culminating in a leap to the absolute technological limits. This process has been dubbed the "Singularity": a sort of overnight Industrial Revolution, an event marked essentially by the realization of new technologies, but accompanied by the endless ramifications of that change.

Very quickly we would find ourselves in a world where all the possibilities listed above could be realized. Drexler's book is probably still the best attempt to prepare for such a time, and has something to say about all of them. Here I shall focus on just one possibility, Life Extension. One of the most basic spin-offs is expected to be radical longevity. Complete rejuvenation should be possible, by using and augmenting the cell's own capacity for renewal. Ageing would no longer be synonymous with physical decline.

For now, life extension is best achieved by diet and lifestyle modifications. But more powerful methods seem imminent. For decades it has been known that ordinary cells, taken from the body and grown in culture, will only reproduce for a finite number of generations. Beyond this point, a cell can't reproduce, and eventually dies without being replaced. The Hayflick limit (named for gerontologist Leonard Hayflick, its discoverer) places an upper bound on lifespan: even if you avoid other causes of death, your cells will one day reach the limit, and begin dying off.

Molecular biologists may now have found the reason that the Hayflick limit exists. At the ends of each chromosome is a region called the telomere, which holds together the two strands of the DNA double helix. At each cellular division, the telomere becomes shorter. After thirty generations, the telomere is gone, and the double helix can unravel.

If it truly is this simple, all we need is a form of telomere repair, and this particular form of ageing can be eliminated. In fact, cancer cells are believed to derive their proliferative powers from a mutation which permits telomere repair. So if this mechanism can be harnessed safely, those who are now at risk of degenerative disease might make it into the 21st century (and here I paraphrase Judith Milhoun of MONDO 2000) "to die of something more interesting".

Or never to die at all. Suppose life extension methods add twenty years to your life; you will then have access to another two decades' worth of progress in life extension. How many years will that add? And the process can repeat.

"If you are around in 2010, you will have an excellent chance to live to the year 2030. If you are around in 2030 - regardless of your age - you will be able to live indefinitely into the future." -F.M. Esfandiary, Are You a Transhuman?
Even if you aren't going to be around in 2010, you might be around in 2030, if you sign with a cryonics organization who will freeze you at death. The cryonicists are vowed to keep you on ice until such time as there are cell-repair machines to thaw you out and heal you of whatever killed you (and to grow you a new body, if you went economy-class and just froze your head, as some people do).

Immortality has been an unrealized dream long enough for people to think of all sorts of reason why it shouldn't happen. Who's going to do the work, and support all the old people? Won't there be stagnation? Won't there be overpopulation? But the transhumanists have their rejoinders: the "old people" will be physically and mentally vigorous, perhaps even more so than the undeveloped young, and so they'll be able to take care of themselves; and abundance and automation will do away with wage-slavery anyway. As for overpopulation, people will spread out across the solar system and beyond.

These nanotechnologies will make possible not just self-preservation, but also self-transformation. With unlimited time, would you remain as you are? Think of the experiments one could conduct. Not just elementary ones like switching skin color or gender, but radical ones like adding an echo-location sense, or trying out a cephalopod body-type ...

People can already switch between social milieus; in the 21st century and beyond, this will include increasing numbers of space habitats, free-floating colonies throughout the solar system and beyond. Every ideological and social group can have its own colony; a million experiments of life-style will be possible.

All this suggests that after the Singularity comes the Swarming: the spread of posthumanity in its many forms across the stars. Perhaps a wave of fast-moving, self-reproducing robot probes would spread out first, mapping the galaxy and establishing communications relay stations. Their work might be done in a million years. Behind them, a slower second wave of settlers and explorers, heading out to meet whatever's there to be found.

Autoevolution opens so many possibilities of self-transformation that it's unlikely that any starfaring species would remain close to its original form for long. A few groups would no doubt do so, but the majority would be busy exploring new modes of being. What are the limits of such self-transformation?

One of the most radical transhumanist concepts is that of the intelligent superobject, colloquially known as a "Jupiter brain", a "brain the size of a planet": the product of a million years of growth and self-modification on the part of some intelligence. If there's already intelligent life out there, I would expect it to be more like this than like the humanoid aliens of popular culture.

According to one modern myth, there was a Big Bang, a beginning to time and space, creating a universe of atoms which coalesced into stars, and dead planets warmed by their radiation. On at least one, chemical soup yielded replicators, which brought forth after their own kind, and replenished the earth, and subdued it. And after billions of years, amongst their progeny we find ourselves. Is this the end of the story?

I think not. I think we're midway in the chain of being from microbe to megamind, a turning point but not an endpoint. We are a turning point, among other reasons, because of our technology: we are the first organisms to leave the planet, to discover fundamental laws, to tinker with our brains and genes. But this is surely only the start of the autoevolutionary process. I would not expect it to stabilize until we arrived at, say, a galaxy full of Jupiter-brains, all bent on projects that would mostly be incomprehensible to us. The best portrayals we have of such futures might be found in certain science fiction, like that of Olaf Stapledon and David Zindell.

Although most of their purposes would be opaque to us, one thing we certainly can understand: the question of their survival. According to our present cosmology, the universe will end either in Heat Death or Big Crunch. Are the future superintelligences doomed? Rather remarkably, scenarios have already been advanced (by the mere human physicists Freeman Dyson and Frank Tipler) whereby intelligent life might last indefinitely in either sort of universe.

"And for what may be beyond, the eyesight of Lilith is too short. It is enough that there is a beyond." -Lilith, Back to Methuselah
We are of course not beyond death yet; we are still residents of a dangerous, primitive planet. And sheer increase of technological power does not exactly guarantee utopia. It does, however, open possibilities, some of which may be desirable.

Focusing on these ideas now rather than later may determine whether the Singularity occurs within a century or within a decade. The Singularity marks the historical division between the last terrestrial mortals and the first cosmic immortals; when will it be? And which side will you be on?

"The future exists first in Imagination, then in Will, then in Reality." -Barbara Marx Hubbard

Transhumanism on the World Wide Web:

Mitchell Porter

This article originally appeared in Semper Floreat, October 1995. Anti-copyright (@) Mitchell Porter, 1995, 1996.