Cool Examples of Transhumanism, Nootropics and AI in Books, Games, Comics and Films

By on April 4, 2016

To me, transhumanism is the next frontier in human exploration and a path to greater physical freedom and accomplishment. I’m also very aware of the considerable ethical, social, economic and philosophical concerns though, so I think it’s important to proceed with caution.

That aside, this is a fascinating subject and one that is going to affect all of us in the near future. The technology already exists to alter genes, implant brain chips and more; so it’s only a matter of time before its use becomes widespread (legal use or otherwise). That’s why I find it so surprising that transhumanism isn’t discussed more often. If you want to find popular discussion on the subject, the best place to look right now is to cyberpunk books, films, comics and games.

This would be very handy for my line of work (pun unintended)

This would be very handy for my line of work (pun unintended)

Here then are some of my favorite examples of transhumanism being addressed directly or indirectly in the media. I’ll be discussing at the technologies, the feasibility and the ethics behind each example and also including some cool pictures of people with blades coming out of their arms…

The Deus Ex Series

The Deus Ex series is perhaps one of the most well-known franchises in any medium to discuss transhuman concepts in great depth. This comes very much to the fore in the most recent titles (Human Revolution, The Fall and Mankind Divided) but was also a big part of the first two games.

In Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, transhumanism provides the driving force of the plot. Mankind has been divided into two factions: ‘augs’ and natural humans who are against the use of bionic prosthetics and implants. Such a ‘class divide’ is something that came up a lot in my dissertation (Surplus Improvement: A Qualitative Exploration of Student Attitudes Toward Transhumanism, Transhuman Technologies and Related Issues) on the ethics of transhumanism, but I do find this part of the plot a little thin in some ways (in terms of its portrayal of the subject at least). For starters: this is all set in 2027 – i.e. 16 years from now. Call me naïve but I can’t imagine the world is going to change that much in that timeframe. Likewise, I find it highly unlikely that the average Joe would be willing to sacrifice their real limbs for synthetic ones.


Far more realistic is the version of transhumanism portrayed in the first game set in 2057 where augmentation is achieved through the use of nanotechnology and individuals sporting bionics are considered ‘low tech’. This isn’t the focus of the story in that instalment though, which is much more about conspiracy theories and biological warfare.

What I really love about this series though (other than the excellent cyber punk aesthetics), is the way transhumanism adds to the gameplay. These games are all about choice and the ability to upgrade yourself in myriad ways is a natural extension of that. By choosing whether you’d rather have bionic legs or expert hacking skills, you decide exactly how you want to approach tasks.

By the end, you’ve become an unstoppable post human, capable of going anywhere you choose and affecting the world around you in subtle ways. And with that comes more ethical choices as well.

This is what really appeals to me about transhumanism – the idea that I could one day be able to explore further and have more experiences by overcoming my limitations. Just as you can choose how you want to approach the game, you could choose how you want to approach life with far more options open to you…


Nexus is a trilogy of books from Ramez Naam that was recommended to me by a reader of this blog! The book is all about the titular ‘Nexus’ drug, which is actually a form of ingestible nanotechnology that interfaces directly with the brain. The specifics of how this works are left purposefully vague (always wise) but the implications are explored fantastically and in depth. I later realized that Naam also read an early non-fiction book I read on transhumanism titled More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. In other words: this is a guy who knows the subject!


I actually haven’t finished the series yet but so far it’s been an excellent ride. From a sheer wish-fulfilment perspective, the idea of being able to ‘install’ new programs directly into the brain is very cool (with ‘Bruce Lee’ for kung fu skills and ‘Tranquillity’ to suppress the fight or flight response being particularly good examples). I also love the concept of being able to ‘program’ your own brain, which is very appealing as a programmer and the ultimate example of ‘biohacking’. The mind is the one place where we truly are free and unlimited and expanding our internal experience this way could make that even more true.

Another interesting element so far is the parallels that are drawn between meditation and Nexus. Using existing practices, it is already possible to control our mental states to some degree. This is something that I personally have always felt warrants further exploration. ‘Cognitive behavioural therapy’ is a good start in my opinion.

One key aspect of the story though that I haven’t touched on yet, is the ability that Nexus grants users to ‘link’ their brains together. This is shown in the context of parties, for becoming closer to friends and partners, for productivity and collaboration and for creating super intelligences (through something akin to cloud computing). This is certainly interesting but it’s also something I’ve never understood. Some transhumanists and many religions have this ideal of humanity becoming ‘one’ in some way and losing the sense of self completely. Why is this a good thing? I just don’t get it! And the idea of letting someone explore my mind is horrifying to me. The borg consciousness is one transhuman innovation you can count me out of!

There’s a lot more to discuss here, so I may well write a full review in future.

Iron Man

At the start of this post I said that transhumanism was next frontier. More specifically, I believe that the human body and technology are the next frontiers (with transhumanism being just one avenue for that). What I mean by this, is that I think there are incredible experiences to be had simply by making more use of our bodies and through invention. We can have adventures and increase our freedom simply by learning to better control our minds and increase our physicality and by creating tools to help us do this.


And a great example of this is Iron Man. While you might not consider a robotic suit of armour to be truly a transhuman technology (that’s up for debate), I still love the sense of discovery, inventiveness and adventure that is on display in the first film. Here, Tony Stark is tinkering in his lab and by the end of the scene he’s flying through the air and shouting in delight at the thrill of it. The same happens when you have a great idea (the moment I started making decent money from one of my apps is something I’ll never forget) and you can have a great sense of accomplishment from pulling off a handstand or a 1 minute mile. To me exploring the limits of our bodies and minds is just the same as exploring uncharted corners of the world, or space! And Iron Man captures this in an awesome way.

If you want more directly relevant examples of Transhumanism, then there are plenty of comics that show Iron Man and Tony Stark to be the perfect vehicles for telling these kinds of stories.

One little known mini-series, Iron Man: Hypervelocity, demonstrates this very well. Here, Tony Stark is seemingly killed in battle which causes his suit of armour to make an imprint of his personality and memories. Thus ‘Tony Stark 2.0’ is born as Tony and Iron Man become literally one and the same. Of course the first order of the day is revenge but the book takes a lot of interesting detours along the way. My favourite moment happens toward the end when Iron Man starts reprogramming his own ‘operating system’ in order to make himself faster to the point where the time between seconds starts stretching exponentially. I’m not the first to notice the heavy transhuman themes in this particular story.

Another great example is the classic story from Warren Ellis called Iron Man: Extremis. This is where Iron Man gained his Extremis upgrade – storing the armour’s ‘undersheath’ in the hollows of his bones and becoming a ‘technopath’ capable of communication with all manner of technology. Stories that followed this took the idea even further and showed him with incredible multitasking skills too – doing things like bidding on auctions while simultaneously taking on bad guys.


The Dark Fields/Limitless

the dark fieldsThe Dark Fields is the book that inspired the film (and TV series) Limitless. While the film is great, the book is better (as so often is the case) and is an excellent exploration of what might happen if someone were to suddenly gain superhuman intelligence. It’s also responsible for getting a lot of people interested in nootropics (smart drugs) and for many the fictional NZT is something of the ‘ideal smart drug’.

The film version does have some added charm as well though – such as the very cool visual effects that portray (for example) what it might be like to have improved peripheral vision for instance. The ending of the film is very different to the ending of the book though, with both seeming to draw different conclusions as to the viability of nootropics.

But there are also issues with realism here. It’s cool that they addressed the likelihood of side effects but what wasn’t really explored was the idea that ‘improvement’ is very much subjective and context sensitive. In reality, most chemicals that alter one aspect of human cognition will automatically hinder others. Increased focus for example often leads to decreased creativity and vice versa. The exceptions that I have found are with things that increase general brain activity (rather than specific neurotransmitters) and ‘cognitive metabolic enhancers’ (which provide the brain with more energy). The point? There’s probably nothing quite like a Limitless pill out there. And the explanation that a pill can help you ‘access 100% of your brain’ is pure pseudoscience. But still, it’s great for imagining what a more socially intelligent, motivated and sharp version of yourself might be capable of. And the TV series is a lot of fun too!

Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy is mainly just a very visually and acoustically pleasing imagining of what virtual reality might look like. There’s barely any plot to speak of and there’s zero explanation as to how people are getting beamed into the grid… But in terms of pure visual spectacle it makes virtual reality feel incredibly exciting.

And what I find even more interesting is the idea that life ‘emerged’ in the world of Tron. Quorra is an example of an ‘isomorphic algorithm’, which is essentially a form of AI. The reason I find this so interesting, is that I think this is the approach we should be taking toward AI in reality. I think it’s naïve to think we can program something as complex as the human brain, seeing as we don’t have any good theories on the nature of consciousness yet. But if we can create the conditions under which ‘life’ could emerge, we might not have to program that brain consciously.

Sound like I’ve gone mad? Check out Conway’s ‘Game of Life’. This is a ‘zero-player game’ and a ‘cellular automation’. It involves incredibly simple rules that you carry out in a turn based system. Starting with a grid of any size, new pieces are added or removed each ‘turn’ based on their proximity to other pieces. It can be played on a board, or using an algorithm. With only these rules, people have been able to create incredibly complex systems such as calculators and from random starting points, ‘beings’ with reproductive capabilities have emerged. If you were to create a simulation big enough that moved fast enough, who knows what might occur out of pure chance? I’ll be talking more about this and the nature of AI in general in future posts.



I feel it would be remiss to have a list of transhuman fiction and not mention Neuromancer. This book was in many ways the original cyber punk tale and it has heavily influenced all manner of stories and films that have come since (including The Matrix and Deus Ex; it also shares a lot in common with Blade Runner that was released at a similar time). It’s certainly quite a dystopian take on transhumanism (as the cyber punk genre rather demands) but it also feels particularly gritty and real for the most part and it’s still strangely appealing.


The central conceit here is that the protagonist is an ex hacker (this was the first introduction of the term ‘ICE’ I believe) who hacks programs by interfacing with something called ‘the matrix’ (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, we see all manner of cyborgs, uploaded consciousness’s, AI etc.

The only downside is that it’s all a bit heavy going. The writing is dense and you’re introduced to a lot of concepts that you’re assumed to know from William Gibson’s previous short stories. It’s a bit dated in some ways but if you can see past that, then you’ll be experiencing one of the classic texts in the genre. And it tackles a lot of interesting themes such as identity, freedom and control.

The Matrix

Other than the obvious virtual reality themes, there’s a lot going on in The Matrix. One of the coolest ideas is the way that skills and knowledge can immediately be ‘uploaded’ to an individual via a jack in the back of the skull. This leads to the famous line: ‘I know kung fu’ and an ensuing very cool fight scene directed by Yuen Woo Ping.

The thing about human bodies being used to provide the machines with a source of energy is obviously completely nonsense. But fun fact! Originally the Wachowskis intended the machine’s to be building a hive mind for additional computing power but the studio felt that this concept would be too difficult for film-goers!

The Matrix also has its own take on cyber punk and once again features a hacker as the protagonist (which seems to be a trend!). And again, themes of freedom and identity are right at the heart of the discussion, with the lead character eventually ‘choosing’ his own name; ‘Neo’ (which also happens to be his internet handle). The original holds up very well still. The sequels, not so much.

Some Honourable Mentions and Round Up

I may make a part two for this list in time as there are many other awesome examples out there that I have enjoyed and have scheduled for future reading/viewing/playing.

For now, some honourable mentions go to:

Metal Gear Rising: Revengence: For just having one of the coolest looking cyborg/augmented guys in a video game. There are a few transhuman concepts here and there: such as the brains-in-jars being combat trained in VR… but mostly it’s just silly fun. Nothing wrong with that! And the soundtrack and gameplay are both incredible; the latter being developed by one of my favourite game studios: Platinum Games.


Gattaca: Gattaca is one of the higher budget films to directly address transhuman ideas. Starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman, it envisages a world where the transhuman class divide is very much an issue. Here, natural born individuals are called ‘in-valid’s’ (subtle) and find it hard to get good jobs due to ‘genotype profiling’ used in interviews (despite ‘genetic discrimination’ being technically illegal). The story follows an in-valid named Vincent who fakes his DNA and urine tests in order to join the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation.

This also addresses another interesting criticism of transhumanism and one of the biggest problems I have with it personally. To quote The Incredibles: ‘when everyone is special, no one is special!’. The problem I see with the world of Gattaca is not that the in-valids have it too hard but that the valids have it too easy.

Lawnmower Man: Lawnmower Man is a film based on a short story by Stephen King. Here, Pierce Brosnan’s character is attempting to take a simpleton and transform them into a genius using a strange g-force machine and virtual reality. It’s really just a bit of silly fun again – but I do love the early 90s CGI. And actually, the concept of using virtual reality for brain training is something I’ve discussed in the past and am very interested in.

Ghost in the Shell: Ghost in the Shell is a manga and anime series set in a ‘post-cyberpunk’ world where cybernetic prosthetics are not only common but so too are ‘cyber brains’ capable of interfacing with networks. Unfortunately, these brains are also open to attack in the form of hacks and invasion from AIs such as Project 2501. The animation is fantastic, the music is beautiful and the whole thing stays with you long after the credits. The sequel is also worth checking out, though I’ve never seen the series. A live action film is in the works too starring Scarlett Johansson (let’s hope it’s better than Lucy…).


And for now I’m all out, I think that’s enough discussion for one post! I recommend checking out all of these as they’re thought provoking and provide some interesting (and varied!) predictions for a posthuman future.

This is a topic that’s being tackled more and more though; with the word ‘transhumanism’ starting to enter popular vernacular. Three more recent films with nootropic/AI/transhuman themes are Transcendence, Lucy and Ex Machina. I purposefully didn’t include those because… well, they’re bad (my opinion of course). So there’s no shortage of content out there and lots more on the way. I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments too!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Happy to have been able to recommend Nexus to you!

    You can check out my review of the whole trilogy here:

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