The Dream Of Gerontion: Nanotechnology, Biosilicon and Transhuman Augmentation

Marc Demarest


Unlike any other porous biomaterial, silicon can be finely controlled and ‘tuned’ to provide a support matrix with a programmed ‘in-vivo’ life. The key discoveries that make BioSilicon? an enabling platform technology in the pharmaceutical industry are biocompatibility and controllable biodegradability.

PSividia Limited press release, July 2003

The motor is so small that the researchers do not yet know exactly how it behaves. BBC News report on the Berkeley nanomotor, 100 million of which can fit on the head of a pin. We like to talk about new technologies – most recently, information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology – as arriving before we are prepared, socioculturally, to deal with their broad sociotechnical implications, and to lay the blame for the majority of the often-frightening unintended consequences of those technologies on their premature commercialization and deployment. This narrative is convenient and perhaps broadly accurate where the Industrial Revolution is concerned, but in the cases of the electromechanical and silicon revolutions of the last century, as well as the transhuman augmentation revolution of this century, the narrative is a convenient lie.

There has been more than ample foreshadowing of this revolution, in our cultural narratives, since the 1960s. Artists and writers have as it were already seen our transhuman fate, in hundreds of widely-varying scenarios, with on the whole gloomy assessments of ultimate outcomes.

Similarly, public intellectuals have been exploring transhumanism as a (perhaps inevitable) eventuality since Julian Huxley coined the term in the late 1950s. Today, there is a vibrant and strident, if somewhat marginal and self-sabotaging, transhumanist vanguard clustered around entities like the Extropy Institute and the World Transhumanist Association, heralding – as they see it – the rise of a successor species, and – in the process – the re-valuation of all human values by that species.

And counter-revolutionary forces – largely governmental and quasi-governmental agencies – have also taken the field, using the fiat power and exclusionary techniques – as well as their control over research funds – to manage what they take to be the likely source of transhumanist technology: genetic modification of one sort or another.

But — perhaps more to the point — a close reading of our broader cultural narratives — advertising, film and television particularly — indicate pretty clearly that, on the whole, we are more titillated and excited by the impending merger of meat and machine than we are frightened or wary of it.

None of this bodes well, it seems to me, for the species. Given that where demand exists, demand will be satisfied — when and where it occurs, by private or public actors, for free or for fee — it seems incumbent on those of us interested in the ethical dimensions of technology to treat the transhumanists’ claims with seriousness, and perhaps even alarm.

This paper does that, examining three fundamental questions:

  1. Is the transhumanist revolution possible, probable or inevitable? If not, what can thwart the ambitions of transhumanists? If so, why possible? Probable? Inevitable?
  2. If indeed this revolution is at hand, can we expect it to unfold as have previous technological revolutions, or are there fundamental characteristics of the transhumanist revolution that will make it different than those we have seen before?
  3. If, as the transhumanists claim, their revolution is in part the re-valuation of all human values, the creation of a successor species, what are the major ethical dilemmas posed by the revolution, now and in the immediate future?

In the process of answering those questions, this paper will critically examine the following premises:

Where genetic engineering is a matter of understanding the nature of a fundamentally new kind of building material, nanotechnology and biosilicon are relatively simple problems of engineering scale: building smaller machines and smaller computers.

While the human species has have no real positive experience, globally, with the wholesale creation of new life forms, we have several hundred years of accumulated engineering expertise in building machines at increasingly small scale.

Problems of presence – our need to be, in one form or another, in multiple places at once – and problems of sensory bandwidth – our need to process more, and richer, streams of data in each of those multiple places are compelling sociotechnical problems for individuals in first-world economies, will be the key drivers for the adoption of transhuman technology, and are in fact the signposts of some of the key ethical dilemmas posed by transhumanism.

Significant investment capital – private and public – is fueling academic and commercial programs to repurpose, downscale and productize nanotechnological and biosilicon technologies, largely for military, security and inspection applications, re-emphasizing the open boundary between the needs of state power on the one hand and the social good on the other.

Attempts to quarantine commercial transhuman technology, prevent its distribution and sale, or control its repurposing will have as little impact as previous attempts to control the spread, use and repurposing of information technology.

The paper will also characterize the likely shape and source of commercial transhuman technologies that we can expect to see entering commercial markets in the next decade, describe the repurposing phenomenon (prevalent today in the pharmaceutical and medical device fields) that may enable the first several waves of transhuman technology adoption, and suggest lines of inquiry, debate and discussion ethicists interested in the transhuman phenomenon will need to pursue over the next decade to be at least marginally prepared for what may be a truly Foucaultian epistemic shift within the next 10 years.