Medieval alchemists sought the right combination of “cow’s wombs, sulfur, magnets, animal blood, and locally sourced semen” to conjure miniature humanoid creatures from scratch. A thirteenth century Bavarian bishop is said to have built a speaking, thinking metal statue, dubbing it an “android.” In 1655, philosopher Thomas Hobbes equated reasoning with computation, implying that the brain is a system, little more than a machine that processes information. Czech playwright Karel Čapek used the Czech term “robota,” meaning “forced labor,” in 1921 and bestowed upon the world the concept of a robot; it quickly became “a convergence point in the intersecting mythologies of science fiction and capitalism.” This is all to say that the thoughts and experiments of the transhumanists Mark O’Connell meets in To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death are hardly new.
The parameters of our existence are clear: We are born, we live, we die. But the men and women O’Connell interviewed are attempting to defy the human life cycle, shifting its boundaries from something with a beginning, middle and end to something with a limitless trajectory. They want to “solve the problem of death,” shaking humans “out of our complacency about mortality.” As transhumanists see it, death is not inevitable. The methodologies applied to achieving “longevity escape velocity” vary, and O’Connell’s chapters guide the reader through the scenery of the more prominent transhumanist landscapes, inhabited by people attempting “a Hail Mary pass into the end zone of the future.”
The animalistic vulnerability of being a husband and father heavily informs O’Connell’s take on transhumanism, and as a self-identified skeptic when it comes to these campaigns against cellular degeneration he makes no secret of his views. After all, his subjects are doubted by most, but they nonetheless receive funding from Google and tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. There is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Phoenix, Arizona, where 117 cryopreserved techno-utopian corpses (or just their severed heads for those with more modest means) are suspended in wait of a future in which their minds can be uploaded. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), established by Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, today allocates tremendous resources to transformative technologies like “brain computer interfaces, cognitive prosthetics, augmented cognition, cortical modems, bioengineered bacteria.” On a more DIY level, Grindhouse Wetware in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, designs affordable, open-source devices to be implanted beneath the skin “to enhance the sensory and informational capacities of the human body.”
All of the book’s characters, from sober researchers to the more flamboyant evangelists, adamantly defend their positions, anxiously biding time until “machine intelligence greatly surpasses that of its human originators, and biological life is subsumed by technology.” They cite scientific evidence of progress toward the eradication of finality, like extending the lifespan of a nematode worm. Hell, Tim Cannon of Grindhouse Wetware spent three months living with Circadia, a device the size of a deck of playing cards implanted on his forearm that recorded bodily biometric measurements and uploaded them to his phone via Bluetooth; no doctor would do the procedure so Cannon found a body-modification expert in Berlin who was more than happy to oblige (sans anesthesia, natch). So progress happens, but not very quickly, or gracefully. There is also the not-so-small matter of hierarchical decision making, which our brains do quite well but coders have been unable to replicate in computers—meaning we are good at building a space station, but not so good at getting a robot to climb stairs. And then what happens if a machine gets too good at a task? What if one was built to do nothing but make paper clips and it was so efficient it converted all matter into paper clips?
All of the book’s characters are anxiously biding time until ‘biological life is subsumed by technology.’
O’Connell spends a great deal of time listening to transhumanists proselytizing about what will happen, without hearing how it will happen. All that is clear to these devotees is that they are trapped in an inadequate body, one that will inevitably break down and perish. If, however, transhumanist ideals are realized, then they will ascend to a deathless forever. Sound familiar? For O’Connell this is “the central paradox of transhumanism, the event horizon where Enlightenment rationalism, pushed to its most radical extremes, disappear[s] into the dark matter of faith.” The movement even has a religion of sorts, Terasem, whose most faithful have made their beliefs known by standing in front of Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters holding signs that say, “IMMORTALITY NOW” and “GOOGLE, PLEASE SOLVE DEATH.”
O’Connell, who is the book columnist for Slate, a staff writer at the Millions and a regular contributor to The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” blog, coaxes out the day-to-day details of what transhumanists do, but he doesn’t stop there; he also shows how their activities relate to fundamental questions concerning what it means to be human and the very real philosophical questions and ethical quandaries of their pursuits. Some topics receive short shrift—most notably human hubris within the context of the larger natural order. Apparently transhumanists have little interest in ecology. And then there is the whole American presence, the bullying entitlement looming over so much of this, which O’Connell kicks the tires of but opts not to take out on the road.
The book’s jacket copy compares O’Connell’s approach to that of Geoff Dyer. This is a well deserved comparison. Both authors craft nonfiction narratives in which their own foibles are the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the subject at hand. Dyer, however, is more self-deprecating; O’Connell’s wry humor results from encounters being rendered with crystalline precision because the subjects themselves do not likely realize just how honest they are being. In this sense, To Be a Machine is more like a Werner Herzog documentary (and his most recent, Lo and Behold, meanders through some of the same terrain). Like Herzog, O’Connell has not entered into this investigation as an impartial bystander, and because he is open about his doubt, he is able to probe the subject matter so that it speaks for itself. In doing so he reveals a bounty of beguiling ingenuity and genuine absurdity, eliciting laughs and empathy, because we are our most human while trying to become something more than human.
Learn more about transhumanism, the singularity and more in the Playboy Interview with Ray Kurzweil.