Jay Cornell is a writer, editor, web developer, and little-known semi-iconoclast. He is the former managing editor of h+ magazine, and the former associate publisher of Gnosis magazine. He is currently senior web developer at Landkamer Partners, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Lifeboat Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending humanity from existential risks. Email him, but note that spammers and scammers will be found and consumed by swarms of nanobots.
An Interview With Jay Cornell
1. What got you interested in transhumanism?
I’ve read science fiction since I was in elementary school, and both are concerned with technology and the future. The idea that humans can and should use science and technology to improve our bodies and brains and direct our own future evolution, is intriguing and appealing. While science fiction is ultimately fiction, and often not intended to be predictive, transhumanism really is happening now. Scientists are working on synthetic life, self-replicating robots, artificial intelligence as smart as humans, and many other “science fiction” ideas.
2. Is it all really going to happen?
There are no guarantees, but I’m cautiously hopeful. As I said in my introduction, history is filled with great ideas and future plans that didn’t pan out or ended in disaster. In the 1960s, we thought we’d have flying cars and a Moon colony by now. We laugh about it, but some people thought that inventions like the telegraph, dynamite, and the airplane would end war. So when a starry-eyed transhumanist claims that nanotechnology will end scarcity, or that we’ll be able to upload our brains to computers and be happily immortal, it’s only sensible to raise an eyebrow. As promising as these developments are, we should keep in mind the history of similar claims.
3. Which developments do you think will happen soon, and which won’t?
There’s little doubt that materials scientists will turn graphene and related carbon-based materials into amazing things in the near future. Of course computers will continue to get faster and more powerful, though whether we’ll reach the Singularity any time soon is more arguable. Robots are progressing pretty well, so I believe we’ll be seeing those on battlefields and elsewhere. Medical knowledge and breakthroughs continue to accelerate, so we will see cures for diseases and longer lives.
Farther out, while private industry is making strides in getting people into orbit, permanent space colonization is still farther away than I would like, because the economic barriers are so great. Mind-uploading, while a fascinating concept, still seems to me to be either unlikely or far more difficult than some transhumanists think. If that happens within 30 years, I’ll be (pleasantly) surprised.
4. Isn’t a lot of this dangerous, or at least socially disruptive?
There are real dangers, which we don’t ignore, but everyone is already aware of many of them, because we’ve seen the movies! Thanks to Hollywood, when we think of intelligent computers, we think of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intelligent robots? The Terminator. Talk about increasing intelligence, and people think of the movie Charly and maybe Planet of the Apes. Genetic engineering has destroyed civilization or turned people into zombies in more movies than I can count.
Progress is always socially disruptive, but usually the positive effects outweigh the negative ones, or at least balance them out. Take surveillance: government use of computer databases and surveillance cameras to watch citizens can make it seem like 1984 was prescient, but it’s being counteracted by “sousveillance,” citizens using cellphone cameras and the internet to keep track of police.
5. So overall, you’re optimistic.
Yes, and I think it’s important to talk about the positive. Too often we take technology for granted. You see it all the time online: people using their laptops and smartphones to complain about technology. Note that they’re not writing these complaints with a fountain pen in a letter they mail to the newspaper. Focusing too much on problems and potential dangers can be counterproductive when technology can make people in wheelchairs walk again, cure Alzheimer’s, and alleviate poverty around the world.
On balance, I’m a techno-optimist.