Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 28 2014 12:54 PM

Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future?

Photo by Vladislav Ociacia/Thinkstock
Robot.

Photo by Vladislav Ociacia/Thinkstock

Singularity. Posthuman. Techno-Optimism, Cyborgism. Humanity+. Immortalist. Machine intelligence. Biohacker. Robotopia. Life extension. Transhumanism.

These are all terms thrown around trying to describe a future in which mind uploading, indefinite lifespans, artificial intelligence, and bionic augmentation may (and I think will) help us to become far more than just human. They are words you hear in a MIT robotics laboratory, or on a launch site of SpaceX, or on Reddit’s Futurology channel. 

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This word war is a clash of intellectual ideals. It goes something like this: The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don't like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don't like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don't like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs. All sides are wary of others, fearing they might lose ground in bringing the future closer in precisely their way.

While there is overlap, each name represents a unique camp of thought, strategy, and possible historical outcome for the people pushing their vision of the future. Whatever wins out will be the buzzword that both the public and history will embrace as we continue to move into a future rife with uncertainty and risk, one where for the first time in history, the human being may no longer be classified as a mammal.

For much of the last 30 years, the battle of the best futurist buzzword was fought in science fiction literature and television. Star Trek popularized borg—which helped give commonly used cyborg its meaning. Various short stories and novels tell tales of posthuman civilizations.

The last 15 years marked a shift toward nonfiction work and following of celebrity scientists. Ray Kurzweil’s classic The Singularity Is Near put the term singularity prominently on the word battle map. Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey’s many public appearances touting medical discoveries to conquer human death did the same for life extension science (also called longevity research).

The word transhumanism has also long been in use, pushed by philosophers like Max More, David Pearce, and Nick Bostrom. However, until recently, it remained mostly a cult word, used by smaller futurist associations, tech blogs, and older male academics interested in describing radical technology revolutionizing the human experience. Two years ago, a Google search of the word transhumanism—which literally means beyond human—brought up about 100,000 pages. What a difference a few years makes. Today, the word transhumanism now returns almost 2 million pages on Google. And dozens of large social media groups on Facebook and Google+—consisting of every type of race, age group, sexual orientation, heritage, religion, and nationality—have transhuman in their titles. It’s also the term that I’m backing, even though I’m not sure it will win out.

Why did this happen so quickly? As with the evolution of most movements and their names, there were numerous moving parts. Dan Brown’s international best-seller novel The Inferno introduced millions of people to transhumanism. So have media celebrities as diverse as Joe Rogan, Glenn Beck, and Jason Silva, host of National Geographic’s Brain Games—all three have discussed transhumanism in their work. A larger reason probably was that both the public and media were ready for an impactful, straightforward word to describe the general flavor of technological existence sweeping over the human race. In case you haven’t noticed, the dead live via saline-cooling suspended animation, the handicapped walk via exoskeleton technology, and the deaf hear via brain microchip implants. The age of frequent, life-altering science is now upon us, and transhumanism is the most functional word to describe it.

Even though the words singularity, cyborg, and life extension generate far more hits on Google than transhumanism, they just don’t feel right describing an ideal and accurate vision of the future. Few people are willing to call themselves a Singularitarian—someone who advocates for a technological event that involves a helpful superintelligence. And Cyborgism is just weird, since the public isn't ready to be merged with machines yet. Life extension isn’t bad, but it’s generally limited only to living longer.

Almost by default, transhumanism has become the overwhelming leader of the name rivalry. Around the world, a quickly growing number of people know what transhumanism is and also subscribe to some of it. It has become the go-to futurist term to express how science and technology are upending the human playing field.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, journalist, and transhumanist. He is the author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager