Can Humanism Survive the Coming Transhumanist Revolution?

Photo © Vitaliy Smolygin |

IF YOU DON’T keep up on your fearmongering Christian commentary, you may have missed this item from the online WorldNetDaily:

Secret experiments now underway in the U.S. and elsewhere are sparking fears of a potential extinction-level event hastening the Second Coming of Jesus … [S]cience fiction of the past could become science fact of our immediate future, with human minds connected wirelessly to computers and bionic bodies outperforming top athletes by leaps and bounds. That prospect has some sounding alarm bells about the fulfillment of End-times Bible prophecy…

Well, why not? For two millennia nothing else has done the trick. Still, the eschatology industry is not alone in worrying about the impending technological revolution. Indeed, for humanists, the urgency may be even greater. Bedrock concepts of humanism—equality, individual autonomy, education, and democracy, among others—face seismic upheavals. The very idea of what it means to be human may be overturned.

No less prominent a figure than cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently joined with three other luminaries to warn that artificial intelligence (AI), rapidly proliferating through our most intimate devices, could evolve into a catastrophe for humankind. In an article that appeared in the Independent in May, Hawking and his coauthors Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek write:

If a superior alien civilization sent us a message saying, “We’ll arrive in a few decades,” would we just reply, “OK, call us when you get here—we’ll leave the lights on”? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI.

But hold on. Before you take down your Luddite ax from over the hearth, consider this: in many ways technology has and is making life better for most people on the planet. Thanks to smartphones and solar panels, impoverished villagers in Africa now have access to news, entertainment, and, most important, markets. This has meant an astonishing one percentage point per year drop in extreme poverty in Africa over the past decade, even without the fundamental reforms and lasting peace that everyone agrees are necessary.

Civilization has been lumbering up a long hill of progress. What happens next may feel like the thrilling moment a rollercoaster goes over the top. It may be like the scene in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon makes the leap to hyperspace. Or, it may be as terrifying as the instant in Jaws when the great white jumps into the back of the boat.

“It will either be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to humanity … or the worst,” says physicist and humanist Tegmark. Everyone agrees that intelligent technology will fundamentally change the course of human history, but there’s much dispute over humankind’s destination. Are we at the threshold of an era of unprecedented prosperity, unbounded knowledge, and universal peace, justice, and fulfillment? Could we be on the brink of a new and permanent feudal era? Or, do we stand in the shadow of an impending catastrophe in which humanity bows down before a vastly superior, conscious, and boundlessly self-improving machine intelligence? No one knows. We can, however, make some informed guesses.


In his 1895 novel, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells envisioned a future in which humanity has divided into two species, the delicate and privileged Eloi and the brutish, laboring Morlocks. He may have been off by about 800,000 years; inequality is here, it’s global, and it may be about to explode.

In the New York Times bestseller published earlier this year titled The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee extol the promise of AI but also provide thoughtful analysis of the inequality that emerges when machines and computers increasingly replace human labor—what they call “spread.” The MIT researchers point out that even in low-wage, high productivity countries like China, automation is killing jobs. We’re not just talking about the death of the “steel-drivin’ man” here (John Henry is so nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution). Foxconn, the Chinese supplier for Apple that gained notoriety for a spate of worker suicides, has a twenty-first-century remedy for that human resources challenge: replacing workers with robots.

Assembly-line displacements are nothing new but AI may imperil a wide swath of occupations. Truck drivers, courtroom interpreters, and physicians alike will soon face competition from intelligent automation that can function 24/7 without bathroom breaks, sick days, or vacations. As Google’s fleet of self-driving vehicles sends ripples of fear through the Transport Workers Union, Watson, the IBM computer that gained fame by besting Jeopardy champions, is moving into the medical field. While no one expects doctors to disappear, it’s possible that various medical specialties could be devalued by expert systems such as Watson. Pharmacists could go extinct. The list of other threatened occupations is startling. For example, an Oxford University study lists real estate appraiser among the top ten most vulnerable jobs. Paralegals are even more imperiled.

As entry-level jobs shrivel, barriers to entry rise. Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out that many firms now use an automated résumé review system to eliminate all candidates who lack a college degree—even for jobs that don’t require such a credential.

In short, the Morlocks of our time aren’t the brutish underground laborers Wells imagined, but rather societal shut-outs with little hope of finding a job or sharing in the fruits of progress.


Those who own enough capital to live on the returns do beautifully in this trend. In just the last year the number of billionaires in the world jumped by more than 15 percent, according to Forbes, while their collective wealth rose by a staggering $1 trillion. The eighty-five richest, a group small enough to fit on a city bus, own more in assets than the lower half of the world’s populace—that is, 3.5 billion of us.

But they’re not done yet. The research arm of banking giant Credit Suisse forecasts that global wealth will increase by another 40 percent in the next five years. Meanwhile, global wage growth is crawling at just over 1 percent a year and slowing.

Wealth is not a bad thing, and, to repeat, extreme poverty has been falling even as the concentration of wealth grows. But humanism embraces liberal democracy, and there can be no liberal democracy when wealth buys the fawning loyalty of elected officials, writes its own legislation, and corrupts the judiciary.

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