To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Feath by Mark O’Connell - review

David Sexton
Sexbot: Alicia Vikander as the android Ava in the film Ex Machina, 2015

“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendour,” says Mark O’Connell, a writer with quite a way with words.

The terms of human existence, heading inevitably for death, are, to put it mildly, “suboptimal”, he had always known. But when his baby son was born in the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin he felt this truth viscerally. Becoming a parent forces you to think about the problem of nature, he says. “The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability.”

It was at this time that he became obsessed with the ideas behind transhumanism, “a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself” — from death, therefore — through technology.

He does not believe it to be possible but he has sympathy with the motivations that drive its proponents. So he has gone among the transhumanists, and here he reports, with a fluency and humour any novelist might envy, on what they are like: beyond wacky.

He visits Alcor in Arizona, the largest of the world’s cryo-preservation facilities, and meets its creator, Max More, who presides over 117 frozen “patients”, or corpses, some of them whole, some heads only, awaiting the future when they might be revived or at least have their minds somehow uploaded into an artificial body.

Perhaps Max More suspects this is daft? He admits: “Personally, I’m hoping to avoid having to be preserved. My ideal scenario is to stay healthy and take care of myself, and that more funding goes into life-extension research, and we actually achieve longevity escape velocity.”

This is the fantasy that, within our own lifetimes, life expectancy might be so far extended that some of us will escape death altogether.

In San Francisco, O’Connell meets transhumanists who believe that “the future of the human species will involve a mass-scale desertion of our biological bodies”, our minds being digitally duplicated so they can be transferred to “many different operational substrates besides the biological brain”, thus giving us “morphological freedom”.

O’Connell doesn’t fancy it. Hungover, contemplating his wife playing with their son, he loves them as mammals: “None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense, the saddest and most wonderful sense.”

He reports on Ray Kurzweil’s prophecy of the coming “singularity”, when artificial intelligence will transcend humanity and biology be subsumed by technology. He drinks with people trying to turn themselves into cyborgs with implants at “Grindhouse Wetware”. Asked what he hopes to achieve, one of them says he wants to consume the entire universe, “become a being of such unimaginably vast power and knowledge there was literally nothing outside of him”. Wowsa!

O’Connell meets a transhumanist who stood outside Google’s headquarters with a placard hopefully requesting: “Google, please solve death”. He goes on the road with an activist crossing the States in the “Immortality Bus”, an RV amateurishly converted into a gigantic coffin, campaigning against mortality itself. One transhumanist on the bus tells him that the really cool thing about reaching longevity escape velocity and being alive in the future will be the sexbots.

O’Connell, while meeting people as nutty as any encountered by Jon Ronson, never just plays it for laughs. Instead of ridiculing transhumanism as a parody of religion, he allows that it comes from the same perplexities, hopes and fears. And he’s altogether serious that we are embodied beings or nothing. “If life had any meaning at all, my instinctive belief was that its meaning was animal, that it was inseparably bound up with birth, and reproduction, and death.”

A gem of a book.

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