Reports of stunning advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) are widespread, and with them debate ensues on the pros and cons of these new technological advancements. These reports inspired me to read “The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us” by Adam Kirsch.
In his book, Kirsch quotes dozens of respected thinkers (engineers, philosophers, political activists, scientists, etc.) regarding the future of humanity and divides them into two distinct camps. His first group believes in “Anthropocene antihumanism” and is “inspired by revulsion at humanity’s destruction of the natural environment.” Kirsch’s second group believes in “transhumanism,” a philosophical and scientific movement that advocates the use of current and emerging technologies — such as genetic engineering, cryonics, AI and nanotechnology — to augment human capabilities and improve the human condition. Both groups are predicting the end of humanity as we know it but have very different conclusions about what this means.
“Anthropocene” is a term describing our current geological age, the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Followers of Anthropocene antihumanism believe “humanity is essentially a destroyer, and has been from the very beginning of its appearance on the planet.” Antihumanists espouse the idea that we’ve shattered the planet beyond repair and that it’s too late to turn things around. The only question is how soon this human-caused apocalypse will come: “the end of humanity’s reign on Earth is imminent, and … we should welcome it … as a sentence we have justly passed on ourselves.”
Examples of our precarious situation obviously include climate change, which Kirsch calls “a second, deadlier Holocaust” and will result in not only rising sea levels but also a refugee crisis and wars as hundreds of millions of people flee equatorial zones and crop failures, as well as mass death from heat exposure. Kirsch writes, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction,” the sixth great extinction in the history of planet earth. Kirsch calls nuclear war “the ultimate evil” but considers destroying the earth as we pursue so-called justice — such as prosperity, comfort and human population growth — to be more “radically unsettling.” Humans have been in “a zero-sum competition that pits the gratification of human desires against the well-being of all nature.” Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival “of what is most useful to human beings.” Human fingerprints are now on everything on earth.
Antihumanists are discussing a “revolt against humanity,” which Kirsch claims is a real and significant phenomenon, even if just an idea. He points to recent polls that show over 90 percent of respondents believing that our future will be worse than the present, which Kirsch sees as evidence that Anthropocene antihumanism is already more than an “avant-garde phenomenon.” But given what antihumanists are calling for, including the cessation of all human reproduction, I find it hard to imagine that this movement will ever be viewed as anything other than extremism at its most extreme.
On the other side of this debate are transhumanists, who also believe “human life can’t continue the way it is now” and that “our world is on the brink of a fundamental transformation.” But their view of the needed transformation involves using technology to create new intelligent life that will no longer be human. They are excited about creating AI infinitely superior to our own. Transhumanists believe that technology can “transform human bodies and minds” and create “posthuman successors” that can survive and prosper on a degraded planet. They insist that technology will allow humans to overcome “aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering and our confinement to planet Earth.” Kirsch writes for them, “We will be able to redesign our bodies to make them more efficient or simply more aesthetically appealing.” Human senses will be refined, and through genetic modification, nanotechnology and robotics, “brains will be supercharged, so that the average person will think more rapidly and deeply than Einstein.” We will be able to engage in “mind-uploading” and “interstellar exploration.” Humans can develop a “brain-emulating computer,” which will effectively be a virtual human mind. With these enhancements, humans will become immortal, eradicating death from old age.
Transhumanists believe that in a relatively short time the entire human brain can be scanned into a computer and that computer can be programmed into consciousness. The holy grail for transhumanists is artificial general intelligence (AGI), which includes “a computer mind that can learn about any subject.” This computer could improve itself without limit, “until it became more capable than all human beings put together.” But Kirsch admits that transhumanism tends to overpromise: “big breakthroughs always seem to lie just over the horizon.”
Kirsch also describes many dangers associated with pursuing this technology. What comes with creating AGI as a computer program that is independently conscious? It may become impossible for humans to ensure that AGI will solve the problems that we direct it to focus on. AGI might come up with its own ideas and might determine that the best way to achieve its goals is to exterminate humans. Some scientists believe that this could happen before humans even realize it! Yikes!
In a nutshell, those tied up in the revolt against humanity, including both Anthropocene antihumanists and transhumanists, believe that, in order to save the earth, we need to “forfeit our own existence as a species.” I humbly suggest that these ideas will struggle to be accepted by mainstream society, but Kirsch believes that, even if they don’t come to pass, both philosophies can be important and could inspire a needed revolution. On this, Kirsch may be right. Given humanity’s refusal to take significant action to stop climate change, as well as the scary-fast improvements in AI, it’s not hard to imagine a revolution or two just around the corner.
Read more of the April 12-18, 2023 issue.