Secrets of Inferno

“Whether You Think The Future Makes Sense
or It Doesn’t, It is Here. Get Used to It.”
Futurist, analyst of global technology trends and their impact, CEO of Dotsub,
and former chairman of Humanity+.

David Orban is not mentioned by name in Inferno, but his presence is
palpable. He was behind the true-life notices announcing an H+ Summit posted
all over the Harvard campus, and thought by Robert Langdon at the time to be
“some kind of chemistry conference” (Chapter 67). Orban was one of the
organizers of that Summit, and served as its chairman. His stated goal was to
“cut across the limits of deep specialization of people concerned with the impact
of technology on the human condition” and bring them together under the
umbrella of transhumanism.
Orban himself is deeply immersed in the search for that moment when
computers will be linked directly to human intelligence, both as an entrepreneur
(he is CEO of Dotsub) and teacher. He is on the faculty of and an advisor to the
Singularity University, an interdisciplinary university whose mission is to
“educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to
address humanity’s grand challenges.”
Our interview was wide-ranging, but several larger themes stood out. One
is Orban's view that human enhancement technologies are not a zero sum game.
Another of his themes is the need to protect the rights of all individuals to make
their own choices, including those who want to participate in enhancement
technologies and those who don't. Orban also reminded us that biological
evolution is an ongoing river—its flow doesn’t stop with us. The accumulation
of knowledge and the continual work to apply it to our biology will not stop.
Change will continue whether we wish it to or not. The challenge is to create the
technologies—and the ethics—that will help us move to the next stage. As for
those who charge transhumanists with wanting to liberate the human race from
its biological contract, Orban pleads guilty and happily so, noting that there is
nothing sacred in biology.

Originally appeared in “Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown” by Dan
Burstein (Editor), Arne de Keijzer (Editor), published with permission.


Secrets of Inferno

Dan Brown uses the Humanity+ Summit held at Harvard in 2010 as a plot
point that in effect associates the philosophy of the bioterrorist Bertrand
Zobrist with the concepts of transhumanism. You were the organizer of that
conference, and bioengineering was one of the many subjects on the agenda.
Was Zobrist there?
I looked up the list of registered attendees and I can confirm that there
was nobody called Zobrist at the conference, nor Dan Brown for that matter. At
least not under their own names. . .
More seriously, you were chairman of Humanity+ at the time. What were the
goals of the Summit and what were its accomplishments?
Humanity+ is an international nonprofit membership organization that,
under the banner of transhumanism, advocates the ethical use of technology to
expand human capacities. At the beginning of 2010 Alex Lightman (then
Executive Director of Humanity+) and I thought that the time was right to have a
conference that would synthesize what are otherwise often distinct domains of







integration, and so on. We wanted to motivate mind-shifting ideas and bring
them to a wider audience.
The event was very successful. With more than 50 speakers and about
500 attendees over two days, live streamed to thousands of additional viewers
worldwide, we achieved our goal of bringing our themes to a wide audience. I
am especially proud of how many of our speakers went on with their research,
radically novel at the time, and won prizes, academic and financial support. Ed
Boyden, for example, gave a talk on “Controlling Brain Circuits with Light” and
in 2013 he won the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize. Stephen
Wolfram spoke for the first time about the ontological consequences of his
worldview and the principle of computational equivalence that he formulated.
Is Dan Brown fair to transhumanism? He seems to write positively about
aspects of the movement but then there is the anti-hero, Zobrist, who believes
in transhumanist principles so deeply that he has an H+ tattooed on his
shoulder, and turns out to be a genetic terrorist. Readers might be forgiven if
they end up with the impression that transhumanism will bring us a harsh
It is a given that a thriller, in book form or as a movie, will be more
successful representing a dangerous situation and a menacing future, rather than
Utopia. A partial representation in support of his plot line and of the narrative


Secrets of Inferno

tension can be appropriate. So I am not bothered about the question of
Real-world transhumanism is a very rich, and complex philosophy,
encompassing disparate views, some of which are actually quite mainstream,
while others that are seemingly radical now are bound to be absorbed by the
global consciousness. Still others are going to stay radical for a long time or
forever. What they have in common is the belief that the acceleration of
technological applications can have a beneficial impact on the daily lives of
billions of people.
As technology evolves, increasing energy availability, food productivity,
manufacturing capability, and the speed and depth of information and
knowledge available to all, it is up to us to decide how we want to apply it and to
find new ways to organize, in order to live our lives and progress towards our
individual and collective goals.
One of the major themes of that 2010 H+ Summit was the increasing
democratization of science and the emerging promise of the citizen scientist.
Dan Brown makes the case that this could be an extremely dangerous
proposition. Do you share that concern?
For the past 500 years, every change that took away power from an elite
and made it more widely or universally available has been met with agitated,
sometimes hysterical, and even repeatedly violent reactions. Do you dare to read
the Bible in your own language rather than hear it passed from the pulpit in the
Latin version as it was for centuries? Blasphemous heretic! Do you think that
women should vote, and that their brain is capable of absorbing the information
needed, or that they should work outside of the home? You’ll destroy society!
And so on. . .
There is no question that giving the power of scientific inquiry—both
theoretical and experimental—to everybody is as risky and as exhilarating as
these and many other changes. It will bring the possibility of mistakes, and
dangers that have to be contained, or at least minimized.
Of course we have to develop guidelines on how to responsibly handle
the power of these rapidly evolving technologies. Only an open, rich and
articulated public debate can progress toward the right balance in the use of
these tools.
A great example of this is the Asilomar Conference of 1975, where the
nascent field of molecular biology saw its practitioners agree on guidelines on
how to responsibly handle the power of this new technology. Those guidelines


Secrets of Inferno

remain in effect to this day. MIT’s yearly IGEM (International Genetically
Engineered Machines) competition is among the best current attempts to
broaden and popularize the understanding of what synthetic biology can do, and
how to use it for the good of humanity.
Individuals do not need official seals of approval to use their head. There
is nothing better than allowing them to think, learn, and prepare.
Dan Brown is certainly on point when he notes that we have huge, multiple
crises to overcome, among them economic uncertainty, climate change, social
and political upheavals, and rapid population growth. Still, those in favor of
human enhancement technologies seem a generally optimistic lot, believing in
our collective resilience. In that spirit, the futurist Jamais Cascio said,
“Apocaphilia is trite at best and counterproductive at worst.” So, please cheer
us up. What makes you optimistic about the future?
There is no guarantee that we will find a solution to all of our challenges
forever. We can only try, and in my opinion only technology and its advances
can allow us to progress in this search for solutions. Human civilization has
gotten where it is now, for the good and the bad, through the progressive
acquisition of knowledge. Yes, we have multiple, huge crisis situations to
overcome. My bet is that further knowledge and the spreading of the tools to
acquire and apply that knowledge will get us through these crises. It is up to us
to decide how we want to apply the knowledge, and to find new ways to
organize in order to live our lives, and progress toward our individual and
collective goals.
Relinquishing technology, abandoning the illuministic program of
understanding the world through reason, is a choice we are free to make. But
that will guarantee that our civilization doesn’t survive. There are indeed those
who appear to want that, and who see a positive in this apocalyptic outcome.
Fortunately, at least for the moment, they have not been able to impose their will.
Education, learning, research, and applications of our understanding to the
problems we face continue. With the right policies and with a little bit of luck,
things can actually go well.
Critics of transhumanism believe it has a dark soul. Cognitive enhancement
may hold out the promise that social productivity increases dramatically and
people become wealthier, healthier, and generally freer, but that is for a small
elite. It could also widen the gap between rich and poor, the educated and not,
and the developed and underdeveloped world.


Secrets of Inferno

Another line of argument has been put forward by Francis Fukuyama,
the Stanford political scientist social commentator who basically accuses
transhumanism of wanting “nothing less than to liberate the human race from
its biological constraints.” Shouldn’t we be worried about that? Aren’t the
ethics of our increasing ability to play god with our own evolution highly
dubious on legal, humanistic, and religious grounds?
One of the great challenges of the future, which is already showing up
today, is going to be the way society will need to structure itself to respect the
right of those who do not want to participate in the enhancements that are
available. In the past, we have been horribly unable to realize the inhumanity of
our actions, or we chose to ignore them. Nevertheless, with some “enhancement”
of knowledge we came to an understanding of how those who choose not to
participate should be handled. Society must find ways to correctly balance the
right of the individual and that of the group, and the solutions will not be
universal, but have to be wisely understood in each context.
Human history very clearly shows that our trajectory is not a zero sum
game. We don’t gain only if others lose. When we learn something and apply
that knowledge, everybody wins, we all progress. The positive applications of
technology are not in balance with the negative ones; the first vastly outweighs
the second.
As for Fukuyama’s accusation, guilty as charged. There is nothing sacred
in biology, which itself is happy to exterminate millions of species in its natural
evolutionary process as it discovers new ways of doing things. One of the most
radical changes occurred two billion years ago, when the anaerobic bacteria that
dominated the planet for a billion years were almost totally wiped out by oxygen
breathing ones, and relegated to forgotten niches under the ocean close to
volcanic vents. Is there dignity in a child dying of diarrhea at age four? Is it the
honorable thing to suffer from cancer for years, rather than opposing cancer,
finding its causes, and if possible curing it? Nature is not sacred, illness is not to
be respected, dying is not good.
What would be the ideal conditions under which society will be able to
embrace transhumanism? What kind of social, political, scientific, cultural,
biological, technological changes will we need? And how will we know if we
have reached the transhumanist epoch?
There is no there, there. You can’t go to Google Maps and search for the
path toward the country of Transhumanism, unless you misspell it Transylvania.


Secrets of Inferno

An open, strong society that recognizes its challenges and opportunities,
that provides individuals with increasing degrees of freedom, and where the
future is proactively designed rather than blindly stumbled upon, is one that will
be richer, not only in material goods, but also in the broad spectrum of
opportunities and choices that it gives to its members.
Another benefit is that the more robust a society, the more it can afford
to be tolerant— tolerant toward different ways of life, different goals, desires,
behaviors. We have to be careful, however, not to fall into a trap of false
symmetries. Tolerance is desirable, tolerance of intolerance is not. You can’t earn
my respect by imposing restrictions on freedoms, and then hiding within the
rules of an open society designing closed cultures of restriction.
Bioengineering and genetic manipulation have gone “mainstream,” and the
tools for using it are better and better known and easier and easier to put our
hands on. Do you fear for a future Zobrist? Are there any second thoughts
about the road forward, or at least cautions? Is there a role for the government,
or should it stay out of the way and let science and the free market proceed
Being cautious and avoiding risk at all cost is the accepted principle
today, the precautionary principle. The opposing view, the proactionary
principle, takes into account the opportunity cost of inaction. What good would
not do if we are paralyzed by our risk analysis?
Yes, smart solutions require constant vigilance. No given approach is
valid forever. Just because market forces appear to find optimal ways to allocate
certain resources, it doesn’t mean that only market forces can do so, or that they
always will. The interactions of individuals, corporations, and society require a
constant re-evaluation of what the best tools are in different situations. Antitrust,







associations, open standards, certifications. . .are only a few of the tools that are
at our disposal and that we have to use, refine, and apply as appropriate.
Dan Brown has said that his books are an expression of his search to balance
religion and science. We have talked about the science. Does transhumanism
also offer a belief system?
The transhumanist philosophy doesn’t require a naturalistic worldview,
but it has little to say about metaphysical components of those who need religion
to make sense of the world. Our incomplete understanding of the universe is not


Secrets of Inferno

a sign of anything more than our ignorance. Our desire to learn more and
overcome that ignorance is a fundamental part of the philosophy.
So what is going to happen? How will humanity change? How will humans
adapt to a world that is shaped by their technological creations?
Humanity+, which represents the world’s transhumanist associations, is
dedicated to proactively exploring the space of possible answers to these and
other questions without Pollyanna-ishly naïve optimism, but rather with a
rational, non-zero sum analysis, unclouded by dogmatic prescriptions.
So what is the future going to bring us? It is going to bring us a lot of
change. And whether you agree with the direction of this change, whether you
think this makes sense or it doesn’t make sense, it is here. Get used to it.
–– Interviewed by Arne de Keijzer


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