This thread is most likely to get very confusing, even though I try to make it as little confusing as possible. What makes it confusing is the combination of several concepts that stray far form today's mainsteam. Basically this thread is about the intersection of transhumanism and the furry community.
What is transhumanism?
Regular visitors of this forum most likely know about transhumanism already, but this thread is intended for a wider audience, so I have to explain transhumanism in an understandable way. Transhumanism is a group of philosophies that are about overcoming the limitations of the current human condition in some way or another. Science and technology are the tools for achieving this transcendence. In particular, transhumanism reflects on using anticipated future technologies like molecular nanotechnology and strong artificial intelligence to transform humans into better humans, or something else entirely. The line between "normal" humans and "augmented" humans or "transhumans" is blurry. What does count as transhumanist technology? It could be argued that clothing has been the first transhuman technology that allowed humans to overcome their natural limitation of low resistance to cold temperatures. Such a view however is rather extreme and not shared by many people. In general, it can be stated that any technology that has already become mainstream does not count as "transhuman", because it already has been deeply integrated into "human" culture. Take the smartphone for example. It could be argued that the smartphone is an extension of the capabilities of our brain, because it allows us to have near permanent access to a global communication network (the internet). So, technologies that truly qualify as "transhuman" always lie in the future. Therefore, it's easy to confuse transhumanism with science fiction. The difference is that transhumanism is taking the implications of realistically and scientifically expected future technology on our own world (rather than fictional worlds) seriously. Transhumanism is about granting humans unprecedented abilities with by applying advanced (future) technologies. And it's about increasing positive characteristics like intelligence, memory, empathy, longevity, resilience, and so on. Transhumanists don't want to be stuck with the current limitations of our contemporary human lives. They believe that those limitations can and should be overcome with science and technology.
Two of the most prominent goals of transhumanism are intelligence augmentation and longevity. In general, transhumanists think that being more intelligent and living longer in good health is a good thing, and that both should be pursued as clear goals. The technological approaches towards those goals are quite numerous. For intelligence augmentation the approaches range from smart drugs, over genetic engineering, to merging with artificial intelligences with brain-machine-interfaces. For longevity, they range from supplementation with life and health extending substances, over regenerative therapies, to transfering the human mind to a different computational substrate (a "silicon brain" to simplify the idea crudely) – a process called "uploading", or more recently "whole brain emulation".
Nevertheless, there is more to transhumanism than that. There's a philosophical principle in transhumanism that's called morphological freedom. It means that we should be free to choose the type of mind and body we want to have. Our body is our own, and we should be free to choose what to do with it, and how to transform it. In this context, the use of avatars, surrogates, or robot bodies is an example of morphological freedom. The 2045 Initiative is a project to create such robotic avatars backed by Russian billionaire Dimitry Itskov. Those robotic avatars are primarily intended for use by disabled persons, but once the technology will be sufficiently advanced, those avatars could be used by healthy persons, too.
What is the furry community?
A furry is a person who is interested in anthropomorphic animals. Those are animals with human characteristics. Take talking animals walking on two legs as seen in cartoons, for example. Those talking animals are also called "anthros" for short (though that terminology is rather confusing, since "anthro" is the Greek word for "human"). It's important to make a clear distinction between furries and anthros. Furries are the human pursons who are interested in anthropomorphic animals, while anthros are the fictional anthropomorphic animal characters that furries are interested in. "Anthropomorphic" is often used in a less strict way than only meaning animals who talk and walk on two legs. One of those two attributes may be sufficient. Animals with "natural" forms that may talk and may think in human ways are described as "feral". Furries may identify or play with fictional personas that are "anthro" or "feral". Those fictional personas are usually called "fursonas".
Some furries have so-called fursuits, detailed animal costumes which represent their fursona. Those furries are also called "fursuiters", to distinguish them from "regular furries", which mostly don't have a fursuit. Fursuits and furry artwork are the most visible aspects of the furry community. It's possible to identify several different subcommunities within the furry community, but going into this level of detail would distract from the point of this thread, which is the intersection of the furry community with the philosophy of transhumanism.
First of all, let's consider the concept of "morphs" that I borrow from the world of sci-fi, more specifically from the Eclipse Phase universe. Morphs are basically bodies. Bodies that can have any kind of shape, and that can be controlled by human (or non-human) minds. Morphs may be robotic or biological. They can also be infomorphs, which is basically a kind of virtual embodiement of a mind that is simulated on a kind of computer. Basically the concept of a "morph" is a generalization of the concept of a "body". Morphs may be remote controlled. Alternatively, morphs contain the "brain" (whether natural or articial) that controls them. This thread is about morphs that have both human and animal characteristics. I will call them therianthrope morphs, from Greek "therion" (animal) and "anthropos" (human). Therianthrope morphs are not to be confused with a groupd of people called "therianthropes", who believes to actually be "part (non-human) animal" in some (mostly spiritual) sense, or that they have a special intrinsic, personal, and integral connection to an animal (or animals).
A fursuit could be considered to be a costume representing a therianthrope morph. This thread is about the actual creation of therianthrope morphs through technology. Even though the term "therianthrope morph" is quite a mouth full, I insist to use it for clarity's sake. Transhumanist technologies can allow the creation of all kinds of morphs. For example, it's not difficult to imagine robotic morphs that neither have a human or animal shape – such as a robotic car or tank, or a walking toaster, if you feel funny. Anthropomorphic robots are typically called androids or gynoids. Those look pretty much like humans, and I don't include them into the class of therianthrope morphs, because they don't have distinct characteristics of non-human animals. Also, it's quite conceivable to create clearly animal-shaped robots or morphs. I'd call them "therimorphs", rather than therianthrope morphs. Because it's easy to mistake "therimorphs" for an abbreviation (portmanteau to be precise) of "therianthrope morhps", it may be a good idea to resort to a word that has been coined in the sci-fi world building project Orions's Arm, namely "rianth", as short form of "therianthrope".
When taking about such unusual topics, it's important to state what this is not about. I don't want to discuss humans turned into animals via chirurgical or genetic means, or animals made human-like via any form of biotechnology. That topic had been discussed at the Eurofurence 2011 at the presentation "Creating Furries with Bio-Technologies", if you are interested:
Rather, my intention is to explore the possibilities of creating new kinds of morphs "from scratch". There are basically three ways of going about this:
#1: Virtual rianth morphs
Ok, let's start with the "cheapest" way towards a rianth morph: The virtual pathway. Here, we need to make a distinction between "furry" (rianth) avatars, and rianth morphs. An avatar is merely a visual representation of your character, while a morph is supposed to act as real placeholder for your whole "body". But let's start with "furry" rianth avatars that are available nowadays in virtual worlds like Second Life. Second Life is a virtual world in which furries have experimented a lot with different rianth avatars already. Some Second Life users have designed their own rianth avatars, but there are many configurable premade avatars you can buy (or even get for free) and use. While having a purely visual representation of a different body is at least something, the level of immersion is still relatively limited, even with contemporary virtual reality gear like Oculus Rift. The reason for that is mostly the way that the interface between you and your avatar works. You have to use awkward input devices like keyboards, mouses, or controlers, and only get visual and auditory feedback. You can see and hear, but feeling touch, smelling, tasting, or experiencing the internal state of your virtual avatar are out of the question. Your degrees of freedom of movement are quite limited. Free dancing like in real life is not supported, yet. There are two main reasons for these shortcomings. First, the fidelity of the simulated virtual worlds is still relatively low. Virtual avatars are still mostly a bunch of triangled with "paint" on them. Avatars have little inner information. Also, the environment isn't simulated to a realistic degree of detail. Temperatures are not simulated. Wind is mostly missing entirely. Collision detection is rudimentary. Secondly, there is no direct connection between your brain and your virtual avatar. While seeing the virtual world through your screen, and listening to your virtual environment with your headset might come close to a real life experience, controlling your avatar is a whole different story. The crudeness of your input devices forces you to limit your control of your avatar to a few parameters like direction of movement, jumping, or perhaps speed of movement of your avatar as a whole. Controlling specific parts of your avatar in detail is still very hard, if it is possible, at all. It's not at all like controlling your real world body.
Theoretically, there's a way to fix that second issue: Using a brain-computer-interface (BCI) like the one Elon Musk and his new company Neuralink are developing. The basic idea is to increase the number of inputs your brain can send to computers by letting microscopic implants in your brain check a whole lot of your brain activity at once. With such an interface, it would be quite feasible to control a virtual avatar with a similar degree of precision as you can control your own body.
So, where does the line between a mere virtual avatar and a virtual morph really lie? With the human body having more than 200 degrees of freedom, let's say that we would be happy with half of that. If you can control more than 100 degrees of freedom of your virtual representation in a natural way (which is only realistically possible with a brain-machine-interface, or a device that tracks the movement of your real body and projects that onto your virtual representation in detail), then that's probably good enough. My second criterion would be at least a rudimentary sense of touch. Whether that's implemented with a BCI, or via some kind of suit that squeezes you at the places where your virtual representation is touched, is secondary. If you have both, good control, and a sense of touch, in addition to the already rather sufficient vision and sound, it would be quite easy to feel as if you were your virtual representation. This would represent a level of immerion, that I'd call "somatic immersion" (or "bodily immersion"). Once your virtual representation reaches this threshold of somatic immersion, I'd call it a virtual morph.
Now with virtual rianth morph we encounter the problem that its morphology doesn't exactly match that of the human body. It may contain appendages like tails or wings that the human brain never learned to sense or control. Trying to connect your brain to those appendages of your virtual rianth morph may require a very sophisticated brain-machine-interface, or even more. The human brain does have a quite impressive ability to adapt to new circumstances, called neuroplasticity. Your brain contains an area representing your own human bodys, called the cortical humunculus. Whether a human brain is able to rearrange itself to include new appendages is questionable, but not unplausible. If the brain does indeed manage to integrate the new appendages into its body model, then this leaves the problem what happens when you disconnect from your virtual rianth morph. This experience is harldy likely to be as severe as phantom pain, but at least it will take quite a while to get used to switching between morphs.
As virtual rianth morphs become increasingly detailed and realistic, they will become the ideal test bed for the more advanced versions of rianth morphs presented in the following sections. Before your change your material rianth morph, you better test the modifications with your virtual rianth morph.
#2 Robotic rianth morphs
Now things start getting really interesting. Once BCI technology is in place, we will be able to teleoperate drones and robotic bodies with our minds. This includes robots that have the forms of rianths. Adding more degrees of freedom to such robots is an engineering problem that shouldn't be too hard to tackle. As to sensory feedback, this is also theoretically solvable, as there is already robotic skin that's more sensitive to touch than human skin! Hooking up that artificial skin with your brain-machine-interface would allow you to feel what the robot "feels". And since we can already make robots that look strikingly similar to humans, creating robots that look like rianths shouldn't be too much of a challenge. Of course, putting all these requirements together into one realistically looking robot with lots of degrees of movement and a sensitive skin that transmits its sense of touch to the operator will cost quite a lot of money, but hey, that's a challenge that can realistically be overcome within the next few decades.
Teleoperating such robot morphs should be quite doable within the next 20 years, as our technological capabilities in the areas of robotics, wireless communication, and BCIs increases.
#3 Biotechnological rianth morphs
While the quality of robotics morphs may improve continously, they may still fail to provide a realistic experience of "being" a biological human-animal hybrid. It's hard to provide robots with the ability to breathe, to have a metabolism, or to repair itself. The human body (like most animal bodies) has a decent ability to repair damages on a small scale. While regrowing whole limbs is out of question without significant biological hacks, the body is quite adapt at dealing with most other external or internal damages. Robotic bodies can be made more resilient than human bodies, but that may come at the cost of being too hard and rigid. And once a robot gets damaged, fixing it requires potentially expensive and complicated repairs. In some cases, it may be cheaper to just switch to a new robotic body. While in theory, these issues could be addressed with advanced machine-phase nanotechnology with means that tiny nanomachines would automatically fix the damages that occur within the robotic body, this technology may still take many decades to be mature enough to be used in everyday robots.
Biotechnology will probably bring us faster to our goals. A potential approach would be to mix the DNA sequences of a human with that of the desired animal species and implant the egg or zygote into a suitable uterus, preferably an artificial one. The downside of that approach is that it's too experimental, and that it's fraught with ethical problems. Who knows that kind of monsters could be created that way, if those chimeras turn out to be viable at all. And if we succeeded, there would be the problem of the body already being inhabited by its "owner", so teleporating it via BCI would be quite an atrocity, even if it were possible without practical problems. No, we don't want that mess, so a different path needs to be taken.
An ethically "clean" solution would be to 3d print a whole mature artificial rianth body made out of chimeric cells, but without a biological central nervous system. Instead, the central nervous system of the artificial body consists of electronic or photonic devices that hook it up with a BCI. The problem is of course that we will likely need more than 30 years to develop the technology to 3d print whole bodies like that. Perhaps similar results could be technologically viable quicker, if we resort to printing specific tissues and organs seperately, connect them with artificially created blood vessels and nerves, and connect them to a device that transmits signals to a BCI. Such biotechnological bodies would essentially be assembled by surgeons and/or robots during long and complicated operations. Not the best solution from an economic point of view, but probably easier to pull off than printing the whole morph at once.
In any case, the result would be a biological rianth morph that's teleoperated via BCI.
The final step: Mind transfer
So far, we have considered scenarios in which a human body is behind the scenes who controls a virtual or teleoperated morph. In most cases, that might be reasonable enough, but it comes with the problem of having to deal with an inactive human body that's not getting a lot of love or exercise during the immersion periods. There are some interesting options for fixing that issue:
- Let an artificial intelligence deal with your human body
- Rent out your human body to other people
- Transfer your mind to a different substrate
#1 AI babysitter for your human body
While you may be immersed in a virtual world or an artificial morph, your human body remains idle. That's not ideal. Bodies are made for being used. When not used actively, our bodies essentially dismantle themselves to conserve energy. That situation should be avoided. So, why not hook up your brain with an artificial intelligence that has the task to keep your body active while you are busy having fun with your remote morph. Your body babysitter AI could guide your body through a hard workout without any effort required from you. Naturally, this requires a level of AI that still isn't here, yet, but with the current speed of development of AI technologies, it's likely that we are merely ten or twenty years away from that.
#2 Rent your body
If you can use your brain to control a different body remotely, then the same technology could be used by a different person to control your body at the same time. While this scenario is really freakish, it should be possible to implement safeguards that deal with potential cases of abuse reasonably well. Also consider that this technology would allow some kind of "body swapping", which would be very interesting, to say the least.
#3 Transfer your mind to new hardware
This option represents the dream of ultimate freedom and immortality for many transhumanists. Uploading your mind to a kind of artificial brain, or even the "internet" at large, is still a hugely speculative proposition, but at least we don't know of any laws of nature that would prevent that from being possible. There may be huge philosophical problems about this kind of "mind transfer", but for those transhumanists who are adamant about transfering their minds to "somewhere else", this won't be much of a hindrance. Since discussing those philosophical issues is an endless can of worms, let's start with some more technical issues.
The human brain is hugely complex and relatively energy efficient. Perhaps we may reach a situation in which we are theoretically able to scan the brain to a sufficient degree to get all the necessary information out of it to "store" the mind somewhere else, but running that mind (at least in real time) would still require a large supercomputer and lots of energy. Lacking the funds to pay the electricity bill could literally kill you.
Ok, no problem, we can just wait a couple of decades until technology has improved so far that your mind can be stored in a compact computation device – let's call it an em brain (alternatively for "electromagnetic" or "emulation"). You might let your em brain be implanted into your robotic or biotechnological rianth morph, and then you can finally stop worrying about losing the wireless connection to it.
In any case, don't forget to make backups of your mind regularly. It's always better to have a fresh backup in the case that your em brain gets damaged, hacked (yes, don't forget that kind of horrifying possibility), or destroyed.
The option I've described so far are increasingly extreme. Why would anyone want to go so far? Well, as technology improves, it will become easier, cheaper, and safter to do all of this, so in the end it becomes a personal choice that will depend on personal preferences. Since we are considering transhumanist furries here, it is likely that many of those will have a strong preference for rianth morphs.
Asides from aesthetical considerations, there may be more practical advantages depending on the speicifc species of the rianth morph. Of course, the quality of those advantages depends on the technological sophistication of the morph. For example, a superior sense of small that's similar to that of a dog may not be too easy to be implement in a way that's faithful to the sensory experience of real dogs. Natural flying abilities are pretty hard to realize with rianth morphs, since the required wingspan would be huge (more than 5 meters), and powering the necessary wing muscles would also be a big issue.
Other specific advantages, such as increased eye sight, stength, speed, endurance, or agility, might be just as well achievable with more "classical" robotic anthropomorphic morphs (android / gynoid morphs), so those aren't really specific to rianth morphs. Similar advantages might also be obtainable by augmenting regular humans with certain kinds of technologies. So, those kinds of advantages aren't actually a specific reason to go for rianth morphs.
Instead, using rianth morphs could mostly be seen as just another dimension of self-expression. People have different clothing styles nowadays to express certain aspects of their personality, or their group affiliations. Having the option to change one's body configuration or species relatively easily would grant people more possibilities to emphasize some of their individual traits, though that approach may depend on the common stereotypes for the specific species.
A practical advantage for colder environments would be more comfort through the fur or feather coat. Scaled creatures such as reptiles don't have that particular advantage, though. Of course, there
Finally, some of the advantages of rianth morphs are pretty much the same that furries already get from using fursuits: Being fuzzier, cuter, and an attraction for other people, especially children.
While tranhumanist furries may be most motivated to design therianthrope moprhs, and may experience the best subjective advantages from using them, other groups may also derive specific advantages from their existence. Let's consider those groups in the following.
Furries who aren't transhumanists may shy back from the high tech implementations of therianthrope morphs due to a discomfort with dealing with advanced technologies. There may also be reservations against the aesthetics of those moprhs compared to the aesthetics of fursuits which tend to have more an emphasis on cuteness rahter than realism.
So, furries may need to be convinced to go for therianthrope morphs by considering their advantages compared to fursuits. First of all, overheating is a big issue with fursuits. This issue would be reduced for rianth morphs, because they wouldn't have the insulating layer of air between the skin and the suit. Also, sweat would be able to evaporate from the skin and reach the air directly, rather than being stopped by a layer of clothing above the skin. Rianth morphs should definitely be able to sweat, because bipedal locomotion is generally less efficient than quadrupedal locomotion, so overheating is definitely something that needs to be prevented as much as possible.
A reduced field of vision is also a big problem for fursuits. Of course this would be much better for rianth morphs. With really advanced technology, better than human vision would also be an interesting possibility. Whether it's higher sensitivity, a larger field of vision, or even seeing in the ultraviolet range, or the polarization of light, anything that's out there is nature is up for grabs. If you don't plan to stay too close to the natural animal abilities, adding infrared vision, or spectral analysis capacities would also be quite useful and interesting, especially for transhumanists (see next subsection).
Transhumanists like transcending limitations. The limitations of the human body can be perceived as annoying, so certain possibilities for upgrades would be seen as very welcome by transhumanists. Most transhumanists would focus on improved abilities of an enhanced or alternate body. Plain android or gynoid morphs that are beautiful, resilient, powerful, and equipped with an augmented sensory apparatus would be the first choice of most transhumanists. It's not clear why transhumanists should go for rianth morphs, if they weren't furries at the same time.
If anything, transhumanists who wanted to try out radically new experiences would be more eager to try out therimorphs, fly as eagles, run as cheetahs, swim as dolphins, echolocate as bats, smell as wolves, see as mantis shrimps, or perceive electric fields as sharks. Some of those abilities could also be implemented in rianth morphs, but others would pose a pretty large challenge. The human body form isn't easily optimizable for specific kinds of locomotion. It's neither particularly fast in water, or land, or in the air. And that can't be fixed easily (unless you are willing to add a rocket engine or something similar).
In most cases, transhumanists would try the exciting abilities of therimorphs, and then move on to other morphs, once they want to transcent their current bodily limitations once again. Sticking to a particular morph that doesn't happen to be in a sense optimal, or their favorite, would be unusual for transhumanists. Arguably, with transhumanist technologies available the human body is only optimal for blending in to a human society, and not much more. But as social animal, blending in is particularly important in many contexts, so that's a pretty good argument for staying at least reasonably close to the human standard.
Rianth morphs would be useful for transhumanists if they decide to go for special features of certain animal species while retaining basic compatibility to most of human society. While adding transhuman abilities would be possible with rather extreme augmentations, like adding extra eyes, limbs, or antennas, doing so could violate general human aesthetics more than opting for moderate rianth morphs.
Humans who don't happen to be furries or enthusiastic transhumanists have less obvious reasons to embrace rianth morphs. One of the few reasons that could make sense could be that furry morphs would be more comfortable in colder climates. Fur kinda looks less than ideal on otherwise regular human bodies, so having a polar bear rianth morph is very cold climates could become popular, for example.
Using a certain rianth morph could be seen as strong fashion statement. Especially when changing morphs is easy, as is the case in virtual worlds, for example, changing your appearance radically, would become more acceptable as expression of fashion.
Non-human animals whose intelligence is increased by technological means will likely gravitate to rianth morphs to both blend into human society and to become ambassadors of their respective species.
Artificial general intelligences might want to blend into human society, but at the same time signal that they aren't exactly human. While not perfectly human-like android or gyndoid morphs might do the job, rianth morphs might be a preferred choice, especially when they tend to look cute and not too menacing. Humans don't expect to be quickly dominated by anthropomorphic squirrels.
Why not go for therimorphs?
Yes, why not? Well, our current society and technology is optimized to support anthropomorphic bodies. The further a morph deviates from the human standard, the more problems will arise, when trying to "fit in". Our current furniture and tools were made for human, and that won't change any time soon. Non-humanoid morphs will remain a small niche for quite a long time, so there won't be much of a market pressure for providing goods adapted to those alternative mophs.
But if you want to interact with animals of a particular species, using a therimorph of the same species would definitely be a good idea.
Wouldn't therian morphs face rejection?
Yes, as would AIs and robots when they try to become part of our society. This kind of rejection needs to be overcome, if we want to become a mature society that doesn't fear strangeness, but uses it to its advantage.