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No. 2772:

Today, we change. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I used to find it strange to see someone standing in a corner having an animated conversation with the wall, but not so much anymore. I've gotten used to hands-free telephones. But it's a constant reminder of how technology has altered our lives. Portable media players. Handheld computers. It's easy to feel technology's taking over; that perhaps we should just unplug for a while and enjoy the simple pleasure of being.

Some, however, don't see things that way. Instead, they look at technology as a way of altogether changing what it means to be human. Transhumanists envision a time in the not-so-distant future when technology can so alter a person that the term 'human' is no longer an apt descriptor.

Leonardo da Vinci drawing of Vitruvian Man

Crazy or not, the very idea raises some interesting questions. Mood altering drugs exist that can fundamentally change a person's outlook on life. Many people who take such medications live happier, healthier lives. Does that mean they've actually changed in a non-metaphorical sense? Well, certainly not into something transhuman. But what if brain processes could be enhanced so that, say, people could remember every word they'd uttered in the last year? 

pills picture

The question gets even stickier when we throw computers into the mix. The ability to control physical devices with our thoughts is now real, though still in its infancy. For example, the brains of rhesus monkeys were wired to a computer controlled prosthetic arm, and merely by thinking the monkeys were able to feed themselves with this arm. (The video, by the way, is astonishing). The potential benefit for people who've lost appendages or have spinal column damage is enormous. But what about those who might choose to have healthy limbs replaced with something artificial? Limbs that were stronger and lasted longer than the real thing?

surgeons photograph

And why stop with appendages? Rather than use a clumsy, handheld remote to change TV channels, why not have a chip implanted that allowed a person to channel surf with no more than cogitation?

Some transhumanists see a time when we can outsource our brains; upload our minds onto a computer. That's quite farfetched — nothing remotely like that's been achieved. But the advantages are pretty clear, among them, immortality.

If this sounds like so much science fiction, well, it is. The Matrix. I, Robot. The Thirteenth Floor. Imagined possibilities are the lifeblood of the science fiction writer's trade.

But it's not just science fiction. Transhumanists are right that technology — whether it's chemical, biological, or mechanical — is changing the human experience by changing the human. And it's forcing us to face ever more difficult questions. How far will humans be altered by technology? I'll leave that for you to ponder. For now, I'm just going to go unplug and enjoy the day.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

N. Bostrom. Transhumanist Values. From the website: Accessed February 14, 2012.

Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man picture is from Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are from U.S. government Websites. 

This episode was first aired on February 16, 2012.