Editorial: The new human being

Wikipedia defines transhumanism as a way of thinking “that seeks to expand the limits of human possibilities, whether intellectual, physical or psychological, through the use of technological processes.” There is an enormous range in this vague definition.

One group argues that transhumanism already existed in ancient Egypt because Egyptologists found a leg or arm prostheses during excavations. These were no comparison to our modern prosthetics, but the basic idea was the same. From then to now, there is a direct line to brain-controlled arm prostheses and cochlear implants that reproduce at least parts of people’s hearing. What distinguishes this group from the others is necessarily the point that they want to replace something, a body part, or restore something, the ability to hear. It is, therefore, less an improvement than a restoration.

Another group wants to give people an update, so to speak. Technology, for example, will optimize the brain to store more knowledge, no longer have to learn languages, but merely be able to upload them. So-called exoskeletons, a kind of robot suit, are supposed to give people powers that the superheroes from the comics usually call their own.

And then, of course, there are the visionaries. Like author and researcher Ray Kurzweil, who goes much further with his Google-funded institute. His understanding of transhumanism can indeed be seen in the overcoming of man today, in which he literally wants to make him immortal. But since the human body has an expiration date, it wants to digitize the human mind – or whatever it thinks it is – and upload it to the cloud. It’s not that far yet, though, and whoever keeps all the servers up in line and running as soon as everyone is uploaded, that probably, even Kurzweil hasn’t been thinking about yet.

To the ears of most people, all this may sound like science fiction, but actually, this is only a dream as old as man himself. The creation of a new human being, the overcoming of death – all this is not new.

When most people still believed in God, the legend of the golem was born. A human-like being made of clay, which was brought to life by a human being through the mysticism of letters. The way the golem was brought to life reflects the faith of the people, how they were created themselves. A belief that the Enlightenment wanted to put an end to. The scientists came up with autopsies of corpses which no longer had to be carried out secretly, but the functioning of the human body could be openly explored in the universities. The conclusion one came to be, as expected, was as far away as possible from the old history of creation. The man was degraded to a functioning machine. A machine that at some point failed and had to be scrapped. Didn’t I?

At the same time, researchers discovered electricity during that period. While experimenting, they discovered that dead frogs or fish, for example, were miraculously brought back to life when an electrical voltage was applied to them. So, was it also possible to get the machine-human again up and running?

Mary W. Shelley erected an indicting monument to this delusion. In her narrative, she is more or less silent about the actual act of creation of the creature created by Victor Frankenstein, although she does not forget to mention the factor of electricity.

Mary W. Shelley has found many imitators in today’s science fiction literature. After a brief period of optimism in the 1960s and 1970s, the warning mindset of authors like Philip K. Dick began to prevail. This was a development that continues to this day. Regardless of whether a man is replaced by a kind of mechanical being, or changed by genetic manipulation. However much science may inspire us to do so, literature and with it probably the majority of people as well sees the development towards the new man at least with skepticism, usually with a slight shiver or even pure fear.

I share that skepticism. But I also see that the preoccupation with the new human being, with topics such as transhumanism or digitalization, first of all, raises questions that concern Homo sapiens sapiens itself. For those who ask themselves what is still human about a brain uploaded to the cloud must first answer for themselves what we understand by the term “human.” Ray Kurzweil or all the modern Frankenstein’s in genetic engineering want to overcome something that nobody has really understood yet. The human in itself. Understanding people would be a challenge. And once we’ve done that, we can decide whether it needs a new person or not.

With this in mind
Thomas Matterne