Author: Elena Cué
One morning in Paris, I meet with one of the great French intellectuals, philosopher and Minister of Education during the years of Jacques Chirac’s presidency of the French Republic, Luc Ferry (1951). Before delving into the transhumanist movement which led him to study biological science for three years and specialize in genome sequencing in order to write his book The Transhumanist Revolution, we begin by talking about his other books: Learning to Live or The Revolution of love, which has more than a purely reflective role; he describes philosophy as a tool in the search for a good life. “The idea has nothing to do with happiness as we generally understand it, but with the problem of making sense of life. The purpose of life in our historic moment is love”, he says. Happiness would therefore be the satisfaction of ethically fulfilling that which gives purpose to our life. He adds: “Love is both the foundation and at the center of family, it does not only affect our private life but the revolution of love, which is the sacralization of people and transcends to public life. Citizens request that the State protect their private lives because when we help our children, in reality, we are helping the future of humanity."
And now let’s continue by talking about your intellectual journey. Your latest book is titled The Transhumanist Revolution. What is transhumanism?
Transhumanism divides into two different fields: one is to improve and reinforce humankind as much as possible in the fight against old age and death. However, we will remain mortal as long as intelligence is incarnated in a biological body because sooner or later we will die. The other field is directed at posthumanism, the manufacture of a new species, a hybridization of man and machine equipped with a strong intelligence which is autonomous and practically immortal.
So the general concept of transhumanism would be...
It would be the transition from a therapeutic medicine to a medicine which repairs and improves.
What are we improving? What are they fixing?
It is a question of increasing life expectancy, making it possible for people to live longer and in better conditions. Transhumanists want to make people live for a hundred and fifty years, two hundred years, three hundred years, and I think it is great because there are so many women to love, so many books to read, so many languages to learn...To die at the age of one hundred is a premature death. Transhumanism aims to create a humanity that will be young and old at the same time, resulting in a youthful but experienced humanity.
What do you think about a future, like the one radical transhumanists describe, in which natural human inequalities based on genetic causes are eliminated, resulting in the modification of the human genome?
Thanks to biotechnology, the modification of an individual's genetic heritage is advancing. This modification would be one of free choice: “from chance to choice” thus meaning it would aim to correct natural inequalities. In order to correct social and economic inequalities we have created democracy, social protection, welfare and social security, which intend to diminish the differences between rich and poor. Now we have to match the conditions of those who have not been lucky by nature with those who have as they were born with very good natural qualities. In other words, if you have a child who is born with a disability or terrible illness, thanks to the biotechnological advances protected by transhumanism, the child would be able to live longer and in better conditions. Research on transhumanism started with rats at the University of Rochester in the United States and showed that, by modifying their genome, they were able to live longer. Their lifespan increased up to 30%. This proves that the project is possible.
What is your opinion regarding the most extreme type of transhumanism, that being post humanism?
Google’s Singularity University is developing the project of posthumanism by creating strong artificial intelligence. It consists of producing artificial neurons on a carbon-free silicon base. In fact, as the researchers are materialistic in the philosophical sense of the term, they believe that humans are machines, unlike Christians who believe that humans are composed of body and soul. For that reason, one day they will build a non-biological brain as for now it is only a matter of complexity that stands in their way. In doing so, they will create a post-humanity as they produce a technology that is similar to ours, with a conscience, the ability to apply free will, freedom, emotions, anger, fear, jealousy and love. A real brain will have been produced but on an immortal basis as opposed to a biological one. I do not believe in this because in order to have feelings you need to have a body, but post-humanity researchers argue that all feelings are found in the brain.
But how scary, if that were to be the case.
Although I don't believe in posthumanity, Steven Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk do believe it will happen. In July 2015 they signed a petition with eminent scientists and researchers from around the world about the dangers of artificial intelligence becoming too strong. Musk believes it is the greatest threat ever invented by mankind.
I spoke to the most important person in the field, Facebook’s CEO of artificial intelligence, and asked him if he believes we are going to be able to produce this strong artificial intelligence, to which he replied it is only a matter of time.
So for me, there is no reason to fight transhumanism because everyone wants to live longer, have more experiences and a higher level of intelligence. On the other hand, posthumanism will be dangerous to humanity because we will turn into domestic pets, due to the superior capacities these hybrids will possess.
Everything we have discussed from the dangers of genetic manipulation to strong artificial intelligence suggests a need for ethical and political regulation. Are you optimistic in this regard?
I am not a pessimist but we will need regulation which will be difficult for three reasons. Firstly, it is very difficult for politicians to understand due to a lack of scientific knowledge. Secondly, research developments are made too quickly and consistently. And the third reason is globalization. If the regulation is only Spanish, German, French or Italian, it is meaningless as it only prohibits a certain number of things specific to one place and is not applicable to others. For example, insemination with the sperm of a stranger is prohibited in France but permitted in places like Belgium and the UK. This becomes useless and insignificant because it encourages medical tourism, therefore resulting in it being pointless to only restrict it in some countries. In our opinion, regulation should be universal, at least across Europe if not all over the world.
Do you think this research on genetic manipulation is done for altruistic reasons or as a money-making scheme?
Both! Just like the laboratories! I worked with laboratories for a long time and they earn a lot of money. Imagine that instead of an anti-wrinkle cream you can have a pill which destroys what we call senescence or old cells. These cells multiply in our bodies as we reach the age of fifty and cause grey hair, wrinkles and cancer. They make us grow old and get sick. Many biologists are working hard in order to find a way to destroy these senescent cells. Imagine how much money these laboratories and biologists would make if they were to create such a pill!
Absolutely! Instead of buying a cream, millions of women and men would prefer the pill.
It’s true. In addition to generating a lot of money, it will also greatly benefit society. Five years ago the biologist Raymond Schinazi discovered a medicine able cure the worst cases of Hepatitis C with a six-week long treatment with 98% success rate. This treatment was quite expensive and cost about $50,000 but it was wonderful because many people could benefit from it and recover. I believe people still want to live longer and therefore the benefits of investing in biotechnology are enormous. That is the reason why Google invests billions of dollars in biotechnology.
Have you spoken to anyone about the research into cancerous cells in an attempt to make them mortal again?
Yes, of course! It is very interesting. Google's activities are based on the artificial intelligence that deals with the genome or DNA responsible for sequencing cancerous cells. These cells are almost immortal when you try to kill them. Thus, once the DNA of a cancerous cell has been sequenced, it has information about its weaknesses and how to attack them. This method is called precision therapy or personalized therapy. After debating a lot with Google's CEO, he told me that cancer will be defeated in 20 - 30 years’ time thanks to artificial intelligence and advanced technology. Laurent Alexandre also shared that doctors will not be the deciding factor in this fight, but rather the computers. While the human brain takes 40 years to sequence the genome of a cancerous tumor, artificial intelligence does it in a minute. This makes it possible to detect the weaknesses of cancerous cells and attack them using effective medicine. Artificial intelligence has ramifications on collaborative technology and biology as well.
As you said in your book, collaborative economy has been made possible thanks to the infrastructure of the internet and its communication networks, with examples such as Uber, Airbnb, BlaBlaCar... How do you think this new economic organization based on sharing will affect a capitalist system like ours?
This is pure and simple capitalism! The novelty in the collaborative economy is that non-professionals can compete with professionals thanks to the technological infrastructure. It is a question of objects connected within a smartphone by only three things: artificial intelligence, big data and captor. The internet gives non-professionals, non-hoteliers, non-restauranteurs the opportunity to compete with professionals. This is Schumpeterian capitalism! Innovation makes it possible to compete with professionals, like Uber and taxis. In order to understand it further, you have to read Antigone by Sophocles.
What does Sophocles' work teach us about these start-ups?
There is a pattern of conflict between Airbnb and hoteliers, Uber and taxi drivers, or BlablaCar and car rental companies. All conflicts are violent, such as the conflict that confronts Antigone and Creon. Creon, the king of Thebes, says to his niece Antigone: "We cannot have a funeral ceremony for my nephew Polynices, Antigone’s brother, because he betrayed the city.” Antigone replies: "But he is my brother and I love him, so I don't want them to feed him to the dogs or birds, I want a funeral ceremony for him." This is the conflict between Creon and Antígone, who are both right. The Greeks consider this a tragic conflict because it is not between good and evil but between good and good. Airbnb is right! Hotels are right! It is a conflict between equivalent legitimacy. Airbnb's private shareholders say let us put our rooms on the market. While hoteliers say we have more regulations to comply with: security, fire, employees, social charges etc. It is an unfair competition. Both are right, that’s what is interesting.
What do your colleagues think?
French intellectuals are pessimistic regarding transhumanism. They stand against a collaborative economy and the new world that is just around the corner. However, the decrease in poverty in the world was the most notable achievement by the end of the 20th century. The world is much better today than it was before: there are human rights, women’s rights and democracy along with many other things that are improving. However, our intellectuals claim the opposite; they are not in favour of globalization, transhumanism, new technology and anything else in the sector of science and economy. The main objective of philosophy, before being about trying to understand the meaning of life, is in fact to understand the world we live in. There are two things occurring: the first one is globalization and new technology and the second one is revolution; a revolution of love and transhumanism that is changing our world. It is very interesting!
The philosopher Luc Ferry. Photo Elena Cué