“More Human Than Human”

Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed “Blade Runner,” sprints using carbon-fiber legs. After some controversy the double amputee was allowed to compete in Olympic trials alongside nondisabled athletes. (Associated Press/Adam Davy)

Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed “Blade Runner,” sprints using carbon-fiber legs. After some controversy the double amputee was allowed to compete in Olympic trials alongside nondisabled athletes. (Associated Press/Adam Davy)

In the year 2027 multinational corporations have outstripped governments in their influence over human life. They’ve introduced biomechanical augmentations that allow users to run faster, jump higher, and live longer. But only the rich can afford these enhancements, while the poor, unable to compete, scrape and scrounge to survive. Detroit, newly rejuvenated as the heart of augmentation manufacturing, burns in riots against the emerging regime of haves and have-nots.

This is the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a remarkably philosophical video game exploring the ideas of trans- humanism. (This 2011 prequel to 2000’s much beloved Deus Ex sold over two million copies in its first two weeks on shelves.) With a long history of nebulous definitions, transhumanism today generally refers to a convergence of three technologies: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. These technologies, transhumanists believe, will soon enable human beings to radically remake themselves. Imagine genetic engineering that allows for thousand-year life spans (or even immortality); nanotechnology that instantly alters the environment at the subatomic level; or a world imbued with omnipresent, omniscient artificial intelligence. Such a future would make us reconsider our fundamental notions of what it means to be human.

The protagonist of Deus Ex finds himself dragged into that future. Adam Jensen begins the game as a flesh-and-blood human, an ex-SWAT officer hired to run security for Sarif Industries, the leader in biotech augmentation. When terrorists attack the company, Jensen is nearly killed—saved only by having his body rebuilt.

It’s a common science-fiction trope, from The Six Million Dollar Man to RoboCop: rescued from the brink of death, a man is brought back stronger, faster, smarter. But real-life transhumanists suggest that such augmentation is now closer than ever. Consider the recent advances in medical prostheses: South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed “Blade Runner,” is a double amputee with a pair of carbon-fiber legs. After winning several Paralympics medals, he began taking on able-bodied competitors. Critics argued his legs provided an unfair advantage; scientific tests rebuffed that claim.

Meanwhile, Rick Spence, the “Eyeborg,” replaced his damaged eye with a Wi-Fi–enabled camera that can broadcast everything he sees. Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, has had a chip implanted that allows him to control a robotic arm remotely: the arm moves as he moves. And two Texas doctors, Bud Frazier and Billy Cohn, last year replaced a man’s heart with a pair of turbines. The turbines circulated blood rather than pumping it; the man had no pulse, just a steady flow of vital fluid.

Does a man with no pulse challenge our definition of what is human? Is the body a cage or a temple, incidental or integral to what we consider human? Transhumanists obviously take the former view: our current limitations are challenges to be overcome. Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil argues that we’ve ennobled our limitations only because we had no other choice: to him we’ve always been Homo faber, the human creator, and we’ve always used that creative power on ourselves. In Deus Ex augmentation pioneer David Sarif says, “If we’re going to become more than we are, we can’t be blinded by some misguided morality.”

Back in the real world, industrial ecologist Brad Allenby notes, “The human being is more and more becoming a design space.” Precursors to Deus Ex–style augmentation already exist, and the game is far from a transhumanist utopia. Critics of trans-humanism predict even greater social stratification, as all new technology is likely to be expensive, meaning the rich will be the first to be enhanced. Transhumanists counter that popular technology trickles down: look at how quickly computers became ubiquitous. Of course, commonplace enhancements would establish a new “normal,” isolating those without the means or desire for such modification.

The future presented in Deus Ex, then, doesn’t seem very far away. Some transhumanists, Kurzweil included, imagine a future inflection point called the Singularity. At the Singularity technological change will reach a speed beyond our control. Humans will simply be along for the ride. Until then, though, humanity’s self-directed evolution will continue as it has, piecemeal, in fits and starts. But transhumanists often see an enhanced future as inevitable. “Objections such as those expressed against stem-cell research,” says Kurzweil, “end up being stones in the water: the stream of progress just flows around them.”

In that sense the video-game world of Deus Ex is much like our own: its people grapple with changes already wrought, coping with seismic shifts that seem beyond human control. The future is always arriving, leaving humans to do their best to make sense of it. After all, it’s that need—to make sense, to create meaning—that makes us human.

Jesse Hicks is a freelance writer who has taught in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Pennsylvania State University.