India Future Society

Transhumanism and India – A Mutual Enrichment

by Avinash Singh

May 18, 13 • General1 CommentRead More »

India’s reasons to be confident about the future

1To me, the most striking thing about India was its peoples’ confidence, endless optimism and belief in the future. Many Indians I met expressed the certainty and confidence that India will soon be a top global player. Yes, India has good reasons to be optimistic with an incredible recent track record of economic growth, technological progress and the demographic advantage of millions of well educated, young and dynamic people. India, the world’s largest democracy, has a population of about 1,220,800,360 which makes up for a total of 17% of the world population[1]. In contrast to Europe, the USA and East Asia with their ageing societies, India is a young country where 50% of the population is not older than 25[2].

According to the BBC, around 184,000 engineering students are graduating in India annually, 8 times more than in the UK[3] and according to Indian sources,  500,000 (5 Lakh) engineers are newly entering the workforce each year[4]. However, it needs to be ensured that educational quality goes hand in hand with quantity. Over time India has become very strong in the IT sector as well as in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Recently an Indian court ruled against patents claimed by the large Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis in favor of the continuing availability of low cost generic drugs for cancer and HIV made in India[5]. But India’s biotech and pharmaceutical industry is also steadily moving towards the forefront of genuine innovation which may take the industry from the $1 billion worth in 2005 to $8 billion in 2015[6]. Genetics, proteomics, drug discovery and the merger of IT and biotech are some of the recipes for success. As a reaction to the fierce economic, scientific and political competition with China, the Indian science minister announced plans to double the country’s R&D investments to 2% of the GDP by 2017[7]. India’s investments in science, research and development are regarded as crucial elements for the country’s further rapid economic and societal development. For the end of 2013 India has also planned its first Mars mission[8].

2Despite the recent economic slowdown, India’s annual economic growth rate is still at 6%[9] with a GDP of US$ 1.85 trillion as of 2011[10].  The country has the potential to become one of the largest global economies by 2050. If India manages to tackle its current challenges like infrastructure problems, energy security, distribution inequality between rich and poor (esp. in regard to income, education and health; two thirds of Indians still live in rural areas far away from the fruits of progress), illiteracy (with only 74% of the population being literate, India has the largest illiterate population in the world[11]) and inefficiencies in politics and administration, the country is on a good way to move ahead to the top. Optimism and the belief in the future seem to be characteristic for India and provide strength and encouragement for entrepreneurship, but one needs to be careful not to be blinded by optimism.

Although India has a young population with the median age of 26.7 years (China: 36.3 years, USA: 37.2 years, UK: 40.3 years, Germany: 45.7 years, Japan: 45.8 years)[12], India will also face age-related demographic challenges by 2050 if the status quo situation continues[13]. But right now life expectancy is still comparatively low at an average of 66.5 years and many causes of death are already preventable[14]. Therefore, technologies related public health, to healthy longevity, cancer treatment, neurology and work-place safety are likely to become very important for India. And it is likely that the dynamic and optimistic young generation will especially embrace technologies for longevity and human enhancement.

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Table: Life expectancy and median age of selected countries

Sources: http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/ (LE)  and  https://www.cia.gov/ (MA)

 

The compatibility of transhumanism with India’s cultural traditions

Having outlined some of the facts, I will now turn to a more socio-cultural question: the prospects for transhumanist[15] philosophies in India. While transhumanist philosophies remain to be encountered with skepticism in Europe and the US (although the skepticism seems to fade in face of measurable progress in many areas of science and technology), I initially expected broader support in more tech-savvy countries like Japan, South Korea or Singapore, since factors promoting “bioconservatism[16]” like Western philosophical and religious traditions and the precautionary principle as guideline for decision making are less prominent there. However, within civil society, transhumanism is still not very prominent in these countries. Maybe it’s because there is no need for such organizations as the circumstances for transhumanist ideas are already favorable there, or it is just due to insufficient public relations. But what about India? How well can transhumanist philosophies be integrated into Indian culture and can transhumanist philosophies help India on its road of progress?

India is one of the oldest continuing human civilizations, having shaped and been shaped by many different cultures, traditions, philosophies and religions. Although Hinduism is the major religion in India, the country has also been the birth place of Buddhism, and apparently Buddhism[17] seems to feature rather prominently within the Western transhumanist societies. Unlike Christianity, the major Western religion, neither Buddhism nor Hinduism (the religions of approx. 80% of all Indians) seems to have any major problems with the idea of radically transforming physical and mental aspects of the human condition. Therefore this central element of transhumanist philosophy and practice – the improvement of the human condition by means of science and technology – does not seem to conflict with the beliefs, traditions and worldviews of the majority of Indians. And it is always an advantage if a new idea can be well integrated into the set of existing ones. Especially in Hinduism the boundary between humans and deities can be seamless: humans can become gods and gods can become human. So why not create “human gods”, enhanced beings with the help of cybernetics, biotechnology and other means of human enhancement technologies? The familiarity with Hindu humanoid deities with multiple arms, multiple heads or animal-human chimera is certainly preventing the shock reaction many Westerners would experience upon seeing such entities for real.

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Hindu “humanoid” deities (left to right): Vishnu, Ganesha and Brahma

But also the Indian minority religion of Jainism[18] which emphasizes non-violence, non-injury or absence of desire to harm any life forms[19] may go well together with the transhumanist philosophy of Abolitionism[20]. Thus, from a cultural and religious perspective, transhumanist ideas seem to be far less alien or contradictory to India’s indigenous religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism than it is the case with e.g. Christianity. However, I also wonder how concepts like physical immortality may fit in with the Hindu belief in re-incarnation and the prospect of a better next life, as well as the Hindu tradition of cremation with cryonics. Currently, in regard to existing challenges in logistics and administration, India presently looks like a bad choice for cryonicists.

Nonetheless, the Indian philosophical and religious traditions could even provide an additional dimension to the aims of technological human enhancement and enrich transhumanist philosophy with ideals related to character self improvement and deeper understanding (i.e. enlightenment). I imagine India becoming the birth place of a specific brand of transhumanist philosophy that fuses technological with spiritual advancement.  As it is stated in the transhumanist declaration: “We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized.[21]

India’s enthusiasm about science, technology and innovation
7As for the technological side, India strikes me as a tech-savvy country where education, innovation and technology have a very important role. Especially the people’s optimism about the future stands in stark contrast to the rather skeptical and precautious mindset of many Western countries. In view of the many problems India is still facing the optimism may even look somewhat naïve. But on the other hand, optimism is a great motivating power and possibly also the driving force behind India’s impressive economic, scientific and technological development. India loves technology, values knowledge and science, promotes entrepreneurship and does not hesitate to take on challenges.

These are conditions that could make transhumanist ideas very attractive in India and they can also be considered to be helpful for further progress. Since Western transhumanism has nonetheless been shaped by ideas like risk reduction, environmental concerns and humanism, it could have a positive influence on tackling India’s challenges with environmental problems, safety standards and inequality. While Europe may need to loosen its strict precautionary principle to encourage more innovation, India may need a bit more precaution to achieve a ‘proactionary’[22] stance that is safe and sustainable. Transhumanist philosophy can be seen as the mediator between India’s enthusiasm for science, technology, progress and innovation on the one hand and the European preoccupation with risk reduction, sustainability and progress criticism on the other.

 

New dimensions to transhumanism

What I found remarkable in India was the people’s talent for improvisation. Many things I encountered looked somewhat makeshift in a DIY-fashion with the only thing that seems to count is that they work. This is something that seems to be missing in many “Western” countries where the majority of people buys ready-made products without even bothering about how they work. In India, however, many people need to understand the working of machinery, tools and mechanical processes in order to build their own low-cost versions. This always reminded me on the hacker skills and mentality – it has something of cyberpunk. India could also be one of the places often depicted in “cyberpunk” fiction with makeshift and black-market cybernetic implants, prosthetics, human enhancement technologies, robots, DIY-AIs, life extension medication, synthetic biotech components and self-created HET-4-armed deities with a real Third Eye (anyone interested in exploring this in a SciFi novel?) To know how things work and to be able to build things on your own is important and may proof to be an important advantage in a world increasingly dependent on high tech. If the high tech may break down, India still seems to be capable of shifting to an “improvising mode” – and I regard this as a valuable skill that should be kept alive.

India may also have an important impact on the availability of good quality low cost products and technologies. The country’s role in generic drug production already serves as an example of measures that enable the wide accessibility of important technological products and the ‘democratization of technology’ India could play an important role in developing, building and making widely available technologies crucial to accelerating change – incl.  space technologies, biotech, medical engineering, affordable AI products, prosthetics[23] and life-extension pharmaceuticals.

But if the current general conditions do not change quickly, only a small fraction of the Indian society will be able to benefit from these developments – and many of them will not even know that they are happening. We need not forget that current pressing issues like water shortage, pollution and the considerable gap between rich and poor and educated and non-educated still are challenging India. If India manages to combine its millennia old philosophies with the power of science and innovation and the values of humanism, it could set an example for a progressive civilization.

If India would embrace transhumanist philosophies it could be an enrichment for both, India and transhumanism. Since transhumanist philosophies and values emphasize both the promotion of technological progress as well as humanist ideals, it can be a useful guide for making good choices for innovation and human development.  Transhumanism will be enriched by Indian philosophy and spirituality that could provide a new dimension to the notion of human enhancement and the transformation the human condition.

References:

[1] http://www.census.gov/popclock/

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