To Be a Machine, book review: Disrupting life itself

Mark O'Connell explores the drive to transcend biology using technology, examining ideas like the Singularity, mind uploading, cryonics, whole-brain emulation and cyborgs.
Written by Wendy M Grossman, Contributor

To Be a Machine: Adventures among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death • Mark O'Connell • Granta • 242 pages • ISBN: 978-1-78378-196-6 • £12.99

"We built ingenious devices and we destroyed things." These words are easy to imagine carved on the tombstone of the human race. In To Be a Machine, where these words appear after an alarming session with people working on artificial intelligence, they're just one of the many possible futures that Dublin journalist Mark O'Connell visits. None seem to appeal to him much.

A friend once observed that anyone who had ever watched a baby could see how limited AI really is. Here, O'Connell's new baby son helpfully provides him with a grounding biological balance as he ponders the work of people who, in one way or another, all want to transcend biology.

Many of the ideas O'Connell explores, and some of the people he interviews, will be familiar to those who who've read prior efforts, beginning with Ed Regis's Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. It's probably a mark of some kind of social change that Regis, writing 26 years ago, couldn't avoid -- or rather, embraced -- a certain, "Oh, my God, are these people nuts or what?" tone, while O'Connell, writing now, can be more soberly reflective. The Singularity, mind uploading, cryonics, whole-brain emulation, real-life 'cyborgs', and escaping the surly bonds of Earth to colonise distant planets and save the future of humanity may be no closer to reality than they were in 1991, but the ideas are more familiar: twenty-five years of Wired magazine and Silicon Valley hegemony have had their effect.

Today, when Nick Bostrom predicts (in his book Superintelligence) that an AI might turn all the Earth's resources to making paper clips he may still seem crazy -- but he's an Oxford University professor and director of the Future of Humanity Institute. Colonizing space to save the human race may be a fringe notion -- but it's also been embraced by the physicist Stephen Hawking.

The anti-death league

To embrace biology, O'Connell is told during his study of cryonics, is to buy into "deathist ideology". I sympathize here: visiting the leading cryonics company, Alcor, and learning the details of cryopreservation can make death seem almost cuddly. Cryonicists themselves admit that revival is a very long shot -- but it's the only non-zero option.

The one overtly comic section of To Be a Machine, therefore, is the one that's most embodied: O'Connell watches as robots try to complete DARPA's 2015 challenge -- there's a collection of the best pratfalls at Popular Mechanics. The hardest things to automate are the things humans learn earliest: the 2015 state of the art, after millions of dollars and millions of hours of human engineering, couldn't climb stairs or open doors as well as a two-year-old. So in that area, at least, we can feel smug.

Given that the technology industry famously loves disruption, it should be no surprise that it attracts people who favour disrupting life itself. In the end, however, O'Connell favours blood and bone.

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