The Transhuman Future

Longing to Forget
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In the movie Johnny Mnemonic, the protagonist is a “data trafficker” with a hard drive device implanted right in his brain. While the implant “enhances” his life by allowing him to make a good living, this “enhancement” costs him his childhood memories, which leaves him distant and aloof—in other words, not quite human.

While the story is science-fiction, the scenario it describes may soon become science fact.

That’s what renowned computer scientist Ray Kurzweil believes. In a recent interview in Hemispheres magazine, Kurzweil predicted that within our lifetimes, human-machine “hybrids” will become commonplace.

Within twenty years, he says, we will have “nonbiological machine intelligence” that is “more powerful than biological intelligence.”

This advance will leave us with only one choice: to merge with the technology. By 2035, Kurzweil claims, “you will be hard-pressed to find a human who doesn’t have substantial nonbiological thinking processes inside his body.” We will combine the “power of human intelligence” with the “strengths of computer intelligence: speed, storage, and memory,” he says.

Before we all line up to get our “upgrades,” though, I would like to point out a few problems with Kurzweil’s scenario. First, he is almost certainly underestimating the difficulty of the task he describes. Ever-more sophisticated mathematical “models” and “simulations” are not the same thing as “reverse engineering the human brain.”

This kind of underestimation is not new. People my age grew up believing that by the twenty-first century flying cars would be commonplace. Every vision of the not-too-distant future included them. Yet, it’s 2007, and flying cars are nowhere in sight.

The difficulties in designing and building a flying car are child’s play compared to the kind of “hybrid” Kurzweil describes. We know how powered flight works—we know little about the workings of the brain and even less about human consciousness.

But even if we can do it, that still leaves the question, “Should we do it?” Philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler has written that for many Americans, the pursuit of happiness increasingly means rejecting “the bodies they have been given by nature.”

Or, to be more precise, we reject the limitations associated with these bodies. In a culture where plastic surgery is commonplace, even among teenagers, it is no surprise that the idea of computer-like recall is attractive.

But, as Lawler reminds us, such enhancements come at a price. Our limitations, including our mortality, are the source of much of what is distinctly human. Art, philosophy, morality all spring from our coming to grips with our limitations. Take them away, and the result is not utopia, but perhaps a numbed dispiritedness.

In addition, the human capacity to forget—or, at least, to blur our memories—makes things like forgiveness and simple coping possible. Would you want to remember everything that ever happened to you with machine-like recall and speed? Would you want every bad experience to be as vivid as when it happened? I don’t think I would. Yet, that is what a hybridized future would hold in store.

Happily, there is still time to raise the important questions that the techno-utopians will not or cannot—before we all wish we were able to forget.


From BreakPoint®, February 26, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. “BreakPoint®” and “Prison Fellowship Ministries®” are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries