FTP025: James Hughes - Cyborg Buddha, Transhuman Enlightenment and Basic Income

We are entering an era where increasingly, a single individual can have a major impact on the world. New technologies are constantly being developed. More and more, they are available to everyday people at a lower cost.

On one hand, this is amazing. The Average Joe can go and build a robot in the basement with his kids. On the other hand, it’s dangerous. The Average Joe in his basement can engineer an experimental nanovirus that accidentally gets released into the world. Oops. That was a major lack of foresight.

The human brain has not changed in over 10,000 years. We are 7 billion cavemen living in a technological society. And this is something that the transhumanist movement is concerned with.

Transhumanist Movement: Becoming More Than Human

How can we enhance a human being’s intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities using cutting edge technology? How can we upgrade ourselves for the 21st century and beyond? These are questions that transhumanism aims to answer.

Many present day transhumanists are largely concerned with personal enhancement. Improving cognition, bodyhacking for optimal health and performance, and on the far side – immortality.

Back in his basement, Average Joe may be now a highly enhanced cyborg. But will that prevent him from releasing his nanovirus and destroying the world? Maybe not. After all, being a technologically upgraded superhuman doesn’t necessarily make one more empathetic.

Increasing human empathy is something that certain groups of people have been at for a very, very long time. Namely, Buddhists. Loving-kindness meditation is one way to voluntarily increase empathy, for example. Many spiritual traditions around the world have worked out methods for improving humans and increasing our morality and virtues, particularly interpersonal ones. And this is something the transhumanist movement can borrow from.

Cyborg Buddha: The Future of Moral Enhancement

That is exactly what James Hughes is attempting to do in his upcoming new book, Cyborg Buddha. James Hughes is a bioethicist, transhumanist, and techno-progressive. He is the executive director at the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

In the Cyborg Buddha book, he borrows from his personal experience of studying Buddhism for several decades, briefly being a buddhist monk, and later living as a secular buddhist in USA. James attempts to distil key human virtues, and argues for the possibility of human moral enhancement in the future.

But the need to upgrade ourselves isn’t the only hurdle we will be facing this century. Technological progress in robotics and automation are not so subtly taking over thousands of jobs every year. Technological unemployment is becoming a reality for millions of people worldwide.

Technological Unemployment: Will Robots Take Your Job?

This is nothing new. Machines have been displacing human labour since the time of Aristotle. The only difference is that today, it is happening faster than ever before. Although new jobs are being created in new industry sectors, they are often not enough to replace lost jobs. And in many cases, the industries are changing is so fast that people simply cannot adapt and gain new skills quickly enough to keep up.

This is an area of much debate. Some people believe that the technological unemployment we see today is just temporary. That once robots take all the labour and repetitive jobs, humans could develop a new economy of creative and intrinsically human jobs that cannot be automated. This is an optimistic view.

We can already see that even “creative” jobs like design and newspaper reporting can be performed by software. It’s already happening. Jobs that we think of as distinctly human, like babysitting or caring for the elderly, may also be done by machines in the near future. In Japan, tech companies are currently developing these robots to care for their ageing population. And even highly skilled jobs like lawyers and doctors could eventually be replaced by artificial intelligence. Research has shown, for example, that sophisticated software is better at diagnosing an illness than most human doctors. And this is today.

The reality is, we will likely see mass technological unemployment within our lifetime. This is not a pretty picture, but it is something we have to think about and prepare for, even if it doesn’t end up happening.

Universal Basic Income

So what is the solution? James Hughes talks about introducing universal basic income. This is the idea that every citizen is paid a certain amount of money by the state every month, regardless of their employment status. This is not the same as a welfare system, because universal basic income is meant to be for everyone – not just the poor or the temporarily unemployed. One way of moving into a basic income system would be to introduce a negative income tax for incomes under a certain threshold, while everyone else still pays tax. This system would also eliminate the need for welfare, pensions, food vouchers, or other social benefits.

The idea of universal basic income is not new. It was proposed by Thomas Paine in 1795, and has been considered several times since. Pilot programs have been run in United States and Canada to test the idea in the 1960s and 1970s. Canadian officials have recently announced another pilot program to run in the next few years.

As for results, we will have to wait and see. Speculation is one thing, but getting data from real studies is crucial. We may have to consider basic income as an option sooner or later, so testing it now is an important first step.

In This Episode, We Talk to James Hughes About:

  • The intersection of Buddhism and transhumanism
  • Hedonic happiness vs. self-realization happiness
  • Improving human virtues through technology
  • Can enlightenment be achieved through technology in the future?
  • Why we need to bring transhumanism into the mainstream
  • The interpersonal aspects of transhumanism
  • Singularitarianism vs. Transhumanism
  • The techno-progressive approach: the future of democracy
  • Universal basic income and technological unemployment
  • Why the Venus project is not a plausible future

Mentions and Resources:

Mentioned & Recommended Books:

Quotes From This Episode:

“The Transhumanist approach is how do we make human beings smarter and more capable, so that we are the drivers of technological innovation instead of being victims of it in some apocalyptic scenario” – James Hughes

The transhumanism approach

“The idea that human beings will lose all reason to exist if they don’t have wage slavery is incredibly ahistorical” – James Hughes

"The idea that human beings will lose all reason to exist if they don't have wage slavery is incredibly ahistorical" - James Hughes on basic income in Future Thinkers Podcast interview

More From Future Thinkers:



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