Transcending humanity

Humans have evolved so far that we’re capable of taking evolution into our own hands. Enter transhumanism, a movement that believes in technologically enhancing and modifying our bodies in order to achieve an upgrade for our species. This toys with the idea of living forever and this is exactly what Toon Alfrink wants to do. But hold on, what do Zen Buddhism and Skynet have got to do with all of this? 
How did you find out about transhumanism?
“I read an article about it and then I met a guy at university who is really into this. We became friends and I got convinced that this whole thing is one of our biggest priorities. It’s pure logic actually: life is good. Therefore let’s have more of it. So is intelligence and happiness. So let’s have more of those too.”

You also practice Zen.
“I’m actually at Zen River Temple in Groningen right now. I’m living and working from here for a while as an experiment. I went to a retreat and I noticed it was very healthy for me, it sharpened my thoughts a lot. So I’ve been investing in this for 10 years now, going to this temple once every few weeks.”

Is there a connection to transhumanism?
“Transhumanism is about technology and Zen really isn’t, but I don’t care as long as it works. I think that a problem can be engineered away, so in that sense, Zen Buddhism is a very practical religion. It’s like a toolbox, psychological intervention to fix problems that you have mentally or just increase the quality of your mind. To make it more consistent and intelligent.”

Transhumanism is about going beyond the current human limitations. Have you done any enhancements, like RFID chips or brain implants?
“Well, I have no implants. But I do have glasses, those are enhancements too. Also a smartphone, probably a textbook enhancement that everyone has. These are not in my body, but already in our bodies might be plenty of enhancements, like your daily vitamin supplements.’

Let’s explore this topic a bit more. If you could do any kind of technological enhancement, what would it be?
“This is very obvious to me. There’s this technology called CRISPR-Cas. I found out very recently that I have a genetic deficit that increases my risk of heart disease. One of the filters of cholesterol in my liver doesn’t function properly. Basically, you take an injection and it goes through your body and changes the DNA or cells. So I could get rid of this genetic deficit.”

Do you believe that all these kinds of enhancements will become mainstream? What could be the gateway enhancement?
“Most people say they don’t want to do these things, it’s weird for them. It’s always the case when something is new, but they are more likely to do things if it’s about their health. I’ve heard of a medical invention that cleans out the dead cells from our bodies and it makes you feel 5-10 years younger. But I think it’s not about which thing is going to be the most acceptable, people will simply do them if they’re useful enough.”

Cracking the universe

Some see a connection with transhumanism and religions, like the promise of an eternal life. How do you see this?
“I think it is an answer to the same question. If you have transhumanism, you don’t need religion anymore. Religion is a very smart way of accepting your mortality, and of course, the other way to deal with this is to fix the problem.”

One thing beautiful about transhumanism is the question that if you could save a 6 year or a 100 year, which one would you save? The answer is both. It’s not a trick question, you should always save both, age shouldn’t be a factor. But if we keep on enhancing ourselves continuously, is there a limit?
“Well, with our current understanding of physics that would be the death of the universe (laughter). Maybe it is convenient that people die at some point. But it’s not convenient for them. Is there really a difference in not saving someone’s life and letting them die? I think it’s just a natural extension of our ethics.”

What keeps us human then?
“The fact that we’re a featherless biped maybe? (laughter) I don’t really have this sense of humanity. I mean, I do, but I can also imagine not having it. In Buddhism, they talk about sentient beings instead of humans, and it conjures up an image of some kind of awareness, not necessarily having a body. It makes me think of an enlightened being that doesn’t have human emotions that we consider faulty, like sadness or anger. People also talk about uploading your mind. At this point it’s quite clear there’s nothing human about it anymore. Or maybe their mind is still human. But as long as we’re happy, do we have to be human?”

“But as long as we’re happy, do we have to be human?”

If there’s no sadness or anger, then what would happiness be? We define happiness through sadness. If you take away all that, is it still happiness then?
“True. Maybe there is a connection between Buddhism and transhumanism. Right now to me, Buddhism seems to be the best way to get to these states of happiness. But in this state of enlightenment, you still have those negative emotions, all the interesting colors to it but you can switch them off. “

You’re just allowing things to be as they are.
“Yeah exactly. That could be a transhuman entity, too. You could still have those human qualities and still have freedom from them. People ask me if I’m sure that I want to live forever. What if I start hating my life? Well, then I stop. But I don’t wanna stop while I still like it. And the same goes for enhancements, we can choose whatever we want to be. I would still like to feel the full range of human experience and everything outside of it. I can’t really figure out everything in 100 years, so give me 1000 years more. That’s actually one of my biggest motivations.”

You wanna crack life?
“Yeah yeah, I do! I mean it’s beautiful, so yeah.”

To be or not to be

Will becoming transhuman make society happier?
“Yes, we can engineer that. We know which areas of the brain cause happiness and which ones don’t. If every individual is happier, sure the society is happier as well. Maybe unhappiness has its function, keeps things a little under control. But I tend to think that happiness makes people more useful, more in line with society so it would create more peace. Most evil comes from suffering.”

Transhumanism wants to democratize these technologies and make them widely available to everyone. If you think about the society, there’s already so much inequality happening, do you think this is actually plausible?
“Yeah, it scares me too. It scares me a lot actually that this gap is getting bigger and bigger and no end in sight. Markets can make these technologies available but of course, anytime you give people more tools, you need to regulate it to make sure they don’t use it badly. I think it’s important that the government keeps a good eye on this. But also not just close it all down either.”

Transhumanism believes in a right to choose, you can enhance yourself or you can decide against it.” You do you” mentality. How would you imagine this society?
“Exactly, most transhumanists are also libertarian. I think I’m the least libertarian of them, talking about regulations (laughter). I think we underestimate how crazy the world already is. We made a big jump into a society where things are breaking apart because all of a sudden we have this hugely impactful technology called the internet and everything that is connected to it. We have already started on this crazy roller coaster.”

One AI to rule us all?

You have studied artificial intelligence and even started a charity called RAISE,  Road to AI Safety Intelligence. Transhumanism is also closely connected to Singularity, a point in time where technological growth becomes uncontrollable and a superintelligence emerges. Do you think we’re already living in the beginning of Singularity?
“Yeah, we are. You could make an argument that it started with smartphones or even the printing press. The sad thing is, they call it the Singularity for a reason because you cannot look behind the event horizon. We don’t know what is going to happen, simply because the forces that are making the decisions will be more intelligent than we are. According to the Runaway Intelligence hypothesis, if we create something as intelligent as we are, the machine is going to be able to design another one that is even better. Then you get the runaway effect and we don’t know if that process has an end.”

This immediately brings up a Doomsday scenario of Skynet from Terminator. But it could be a very beautiful scenario too?
“Well, it can be either way. In the good outcome, we manage to align this artificial intelligence to our values. In that scenario we get some kind of heaven, we create some kind of God and we can use it to create more intelligence and get transhumans as a result. My version of heaven does include me being alive as long as possible.  The bad outcome is that this machine won’t have our goals in mind. There’s a lot of research being done about this because if we don’t do this research now it will most definitely have the bad outcome and it ends in our destruction.”

Now we’re living in a pandemic. If we would have had these kinds of technologies at hand already, how would you see this pandemic being?
“You could consider transhumanism as healthcare on steroids, a very developed version of it. I think in a sufficient transhumanist world, this pandemic wouldn’t be an issue at all. Like I said, maybe we’re already living in the Singularity. Technological advancement has already made us deal with this pandemic easier. “


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