Do you intend to live for a thousand years? Upload your mind to a machine? Augment your abilities and supplement your skills with electronic implants? Are you looking forward to the coming “singularity” when artificial super-intelligence will surge far ahead of human brainpower and computers take over the world?
If you answered any of those questions with an enthusiastic “Yes”, you qualify for membership of the secular religion known as trans-humanism, the belief that humanity should use technology to evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations — or, in Mark O’Connell’s succinct definition, “a rebellion against human existence as it has been given”.
In his first book O’Connell, an Irish journalist in his mid-thirties, dissects the practices and beliefs of trans-humanism with extraordinary exuberance and wit. He writes in the “gonzo” tradition of Hunter S Thompson — a first-person account of meeting, eating, drinking and traveling with trans-humanists in their California heartland, elsewhere in the US and on the cult’s European periphery.
To Be a Machine is sometimes hilarious (triggering several bursts of uncontrollable giggles while I read it on the Tube) but even as O’Connell mocks the more absurd manifestations of trans-humanism he shows sympathy and understanding for its adherents.
Trans-humanists, like the priests of theistic religions, display human frailty and contradiction. They may wish to live for ever but sometimes take considerable risks that reduce their chances of surviving until medicine can cure all disease.
Take Zoltan Istvan, who ran for US president last year on a trans-humanist ticket. O’Connell joins his campaign road trip across America in a coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus”, created from a 1978 Wanderlodge motor home. The 43ft vehicle was barely roadworthy, belching toxic fumes into the interior as it laboured uphill and then just surviving the downhill stretches on 40-year-old brake pads. Adding to the danger was Istvan’s constant compulsion to check his mobile phone and reply to texts while driving the monster. “Although I was not sure that I wanted to live for ever,” O’Connell observes, “I was sure that I didn’t want to go down in a blaze of chintzy irony, plunging into a ravine strapped into the passenger seat of a thing called the Immortality Bus.”
O’Connell samples the many strands of trans-humanism that are woven loosely into a movement with a sense of its own identity. He visits Alcor, the cryogenic facility in Arizona run by Max More, where “patients” are preserved in liquid nitrogen immediately after death, in the faith that they can be brought back to life or have their minds uploaded to a new body or machine — with currently unknown technology at some point in the future.
Like several other trans-humanists, More had changed his birth name to something he considers to sound positive. He used to be called O’Connor but wanted to “remove the cultural links to Ireland (which denotes backwardness rather than future orientation)”. O’Connell, a Dubliner, quotes this without direct comment but it may be no coincidence that he is less sympathetic to More than to other trans-humanists in the book.
He is more engaged with Randal Koene, who has “dedicated his life to the ideal of extracting the minds of individuals from the material — flesh, blood, neural tissue — in which they have traditionally been embedded” and uploading them into a new, much more durable substrate. Of course the technology required to scan the entire content of a human brain — its 100bn neurons, the physical connections between them and the information and emotions held among them — and then emulate all that on some sort of supercomputer or humanoid machine does not exist today even in conception.
However, O’Connell meets enough researchers working on the frontiers of neuroscience and bioelectronics to convince himself that whole-brain emulation is not beyond the bounds of possibility, taking a sufficiently long view into the future.
Koene offers no clear idea of what existence as an uploaded mind would feel like, beyond saying that it would depend on the “substrate . . . the material of being”. When pressed he tells O’Connell that it might be like someone really good at kayaking for whom the kayak feels like a natural extension of his lower body: “Maybe it wouldn’t be that much of a shock to the system to be uploaded, because we already exist in this prosthetic relationship to the physical world anyway, where so many things are experienced as extensions of our bodies.”
O’Connell does not restrict himself to people who look forward enthusiastically to a trans-humanist future. He talks also to experts who dread the likely emergence of artificial super-intelligence because it could pose an existential threat to humanity. One is Nick Bostrom of Oxford university, a former trans-humanist who still thinks that “within a few generations it will be possible to transform the substrate of our humanity”. But Bostrom adds: “There is so much cheer-leading of technology in trans-humanism, so much unquestioning belief that things will just exponentially get better and that the right attitude is just to let progress take its course.”
The fear, O’Connell explains, is not so much that super-intelligence will turn hostile and try to wipe us out but that it will destroy us through indifference. AI without human-like feelings may get rid of us because our absence is an optimal condition in the pursuit of some other goal that we may not anticipate. O’Connell gives two rather far-fetched examples: if AI’s goal is to make paper clips, it may consume the world’s resources while doing so; if it sets out to eradicate cancer, it may eliminate all living creatures in which a tumour could start.
The book concludes sensibly without venturing any predictions about whether or when the hopes of the trans-humanists — or the fears of the existential risk brigade — will come to pass. “I have seen the present, and the present is strange enough to be getting along with: filled with strange people, strange ideas, strange machines,” O’Connell writes. And no one could hope for a better chronicle of contemporary strangeness than To Be a Machine.
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