To Be a Machine. Mark O’Connell.

O’Connell, Mark. To Be a Machine. Doubleday New York, 2017. NF;1/18.

This book by an English literature PhD from Ireland is about transhumanism. Trans-what? you may ask. It’s the current ideology that human beings can and eventually will, through one or more of a variety of technologic methods, escape biological death. It’s either (O’Connell points out early on) an emancipation from biology, or a total enslavement to technology. He doesn’t conclude which.

Transhumanism includes mind uploading, cryopreservation when you die (to await the technology that can bring you back to life), the artificial intelligence “singularity” (a less cheerful scenario where machines improve themselves sufficiently to outstrip humans and take over the world/universe. See Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence), life eventually being prolonged by medical technology including artificial body parts that people live as long as they want, and much else.

We meet an eclectic bunch of characters who O’Connell interviews/hangs out with to inform his review of this subject. Randal Koene is a computational neuroscientist, working on “whole brain emulation”, where our brains and presumably our minds are uploaded to something non-biological and so never die. Miguel Nicolelis, neuroscientist, feels there is something inherent in a system like the brain (which constantly reorganizes itself based on experience) that makes it impossible to predict its behaviour. Ed Boyen is working at MIT to “solve the brain”, by mapping it on a computer.

These people are not all cranks. Ray Kurzweil, who somewhat troublingly is the current director of engineering at Google, believes humans will soon transcend biology, Marvin Minsky, artificial intelligence pioneer, says the brain “happens to be a meat machine” and that by the end of this century our intelligence will be “trillions and trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence”, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and other pretty credible serious people fear an artificial intelligence singularity take-over, academic Aubrey de Grey believes in “escape velocity”, where people begin to live long enough that technology catches up with them and prolongs their lives indefinitely, and Cynthia Kenyon, a brilliant MIT biologist, has increased the lifespan of a worm tenfold. How long till she or someone does the same with people?

But then we spend some time (maybe a little  too much time) with Zoltan Istvan who roams the US in a rundown motorhome campaigning for the American presidency based on transhumanism, and a crew of characters who call their organization Grindhouse Wetware who’ve implanted themselves with various kinds of gizmos to control, for example, opening the door of a car.

O’Connell remains sceptical. He sees something resembling the promises of religion in eternal life as a machine. He also asks wouldn’t it be impossible to emulate the brain of an animal without killing that animal? What, in ordinary human terms, would it feel like to exist in what amounts to a computer? Is our humanity and in fact abstract aspects of our consciousness (if they exist) not hopelessly tied up with our bodies (a la Antonio Damasio)? Is conscious experience reducible to being expressed in binary language? Would the computer containing my uploaded mind be “me”? Cartesian dualism seems to O’Connell to persist in our culture and to encourage a transhumanist understanding of our relationship with our bodies, even if the opposing mind-body monism seems friendlier to a physicalist view of the famous problem. And he worries that transhumanism which is trying to separate the body and mind at times feels like a “narcissistic fantasy of heroism and control – a grandiose delusion, on the part of computer programmers and tech entrepreneurs and other cloistered egomaniacal geeks”.

At times the English lit thesis- and essay-writing side of O’Connell pops up: “we are outside of nature, beyond it and above it like minor deities, and yet always helplessly within it, forever defined and circumscribed by its blind and implacable authority.” But most of the time our author is a friendly accessible bemused fellow traveller through all this techno-philosophical stuff. He refers to his own way of thinking as “a malfunction, redundancy, system failure” and says “absolute reason could serve as the faithful handmaiden of absolute lunacy”. Touchingly, his wife says of their infant son “If I had known how much I was going to love him… I’m not sure I would have had him.” Dr. O’Connell seems to agree with the rest of us fuzzy human experience-ists that a completed technologic understanding or even perfect transposed copy of the brain having an experience isn’t the experience. Might not feel enough like it to keep us happy anyway.

The distinction between fiction and nonfiction gets blurred sometimes. This quite literary author does a creditable job of fictionalizing what is a huge speculative technical territory reaching up into the some of the most elite scientific and technical cathedrals. There’s no conclusion about how much of what the serious accomplished people who believe that humanity is fundamentally information are saying is, or will be, credible and practical. At the moment it certainly has the feel of the very old so far elusive human desire not to die.

Don’t think I’ll be around long enough to see it happen.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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