“[H]uman existence, as it has been given, is a suboptimal system” – To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

tbammocTranshumanism: a worldview that conceives of our bodies, and sometimes our minds, as obsolete technologies; a system of thought that sees humans as meat-machines, wetware ill-adapted as vessels for consciousness, outmoded tech in need of upgrading so that the fallibilities of the flesh can be discarded. Or: an eclectic bunch of obsessives and millionaires geeks who are collectively convinced that by one means or another – whether it’s via AI, robotics, cyborgs, cryogenics, or uploading one’s mind to a computer system – they can, finally and forever, ‘solve the modest problem of death’. Mark O’Connell’s book is a discursive investigation of the rise and expansion of transhumanism as a movement, documenting his visits to the homes, workplaces, churches (really) and industry expos of its proponents over a couple of years as he explores not only the actual advances they’ve made and that they’re planning, but also the existential panic that underpins the genesis of transhumanism and animates many of its key figures. It’s a movement built around technological ambition, but also around a horror of dying that’s familiar to us all, and O’Connell – not himself a believer – admits that his ‘fascination with the movement […] arises out of a basic sympathy with its premise: that human existence, as it has been given, is a suboptimal system’. Well, there’s little arguing with that.

O’Connell guides us through the various subdivisions of the transhumanist world: the cryogenic suspension folk – the unlikely named Max More, FM-2030, and T.O. Morrow, amongst others – who guard the frozen bodies (and disembodied heads) of those optimistic, wealthy and libertarian few who’ve bought their way into a Phoenix warehouse in the hope of a future thaw; the people who plot to sidestep bodily death by uploading their minds to a better substrate, the ‘mind’ here affiliating itself with code rather than the mammalian brain, in a techy reimagining of Descartes’ old woes; those who are working towards the rise of AI, a super-intelligence that will surpass that of its creators (transhumanists don’t seem to be in agreement on whether this might be a good or a bad thing: some fear extinction and others imagine a emergent benevolent AI god); the robotics crews working ostensibly on the humanitarian applications of their creations, but within an industry overwhelmingly financed by defense departments, and featuring Steve Wozniac (of Apple fame), who believes we’re all destined to become the pets of super-intelligent patrician robots; the body-hackers known as grinders who implant themselves with home-made upgrades, and the military-industrial complex that’s working on more sophisticated cyborgs. That’s not the whole of it, of course, but it covers the main angles: cheat death by making oneself a machine or by creating as your legacy a machine that can itself cheat death.

O’Connell’s in-country investigation of these various factions is seductive: he interrogates his subjects, Louise Theroux-style, without alienating them, resulting in an account that’s both sceptical and genuinely inquiring, sympathetic yet detached. The scientists, enthusiasts and businessmen (as he notes, it’s a field that’s overwhelmingly male) open up to him – he drinks with them, visits their homes, and even goes on tour with one of them: Zoltan Istvan, who’s running for the US presidency on an immortality ticket, hoping to raise national awareness of the posthumanist mission while driving cross-country in a converted school bus rigged up to look like a giant coffin. Another time, O’Connell visits a transhumanist church: the movement, cult-like at the best of times, and as obsessed with transcendence as the most devout of religious believers, has its own faith – Terasem, ‘a Transreligion for Technological Times’.

So it’s not only a fascinating topic from a general existential-angst perspective, but it’s also notably (and ironically) human, insofar as O’Connell gets his guys talking about their own fears and dreams and longings: the cryogenics specialist, for instance, who fervently hope that anti-aging tech will advance rapidly enough that he’ll not have to actually freeze themselves. And there’s a real-world chill about the whole business: as O’Connell points out, driverless-cars leapt from a sci-fi dream to actual commodities once Google took the idea under-wing, and (of course) Google are amongst the backers of various transhumanist endeavors. Which is to say: this might all seem very Tomorrow’s World, but, as Orphan Annie reminds us, that’s only a day away. One central concept of transhumanism, particular as it concerns work on AI, is that of the Technological Singularity, or ‘a time to come in which machine intelligence greatly surpasses that of its human originators, and biological life is subsumed by technology’: To Be A Machine gives us a glimpse of a nerdy sub-culture that’s striving towards that seemingly unlikely aim, but with the backing of, well, capitalism’s finest, it doesn’t end up seeming that unlikely after all.

Any Cop?: For a 234-page non-fiction study of techno-geeks (and their billionaire benefactors), this is pacy and tense: the evasion of death as a branch of contemporary tech R&D makes for a unexpected page turner. After all, the goals of transhumanism are rooted both in every hard science-fiction novel you’ve ever read (AI! Robots!) and in mainstream religion (life everlasting!), and its energy springs from every child’s night-terrors – I mean, who wants to collapse and break apart, when one could carry on, as a machine, potentially forever? O’Connell tackles the subject with care, curiosity, humour and nuance: even if you’ve never given a second thought to death, life, mind and body (though I bet you have), you’ll be gripped by this.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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