Book Review: To Be a Machine

To Be a Machine, by Mark O’Connell, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize, one of my favourite literary accolades. It introduces the reader to transhumanism, a movement that aims, by various means, to allow humans to defeat the problem of aging and thereby death. As part of his investigation the author attended events and interviewed proponents of strands of the movement. Their faith in science and zeal to keep themselves alive is akin to a religion albeit with eternal life possible for those who can pay rather than as a reward for particular behaviours.

The first strand discussed is cryogenics which brought to mind ancient Egyptian burial rituals. Corpses are treated to prevent further decay and then stored in the hope that they may one day be reanimated in some new form, a type of reincarnation. Those who cannot afford the full body treatment are decapitated with a view to uploading only the brain. Promoters of this process regard the essence of a person as data, although how they hope to extract this data from the dead is unclear. They believe that the technology will one day be developed. I wondered why they thought future people would see value in bringing back to life those who had demonsrated a god complex.

“The mind is much more than information”

“brains constantly reorganise themselves, both physically and functionally, as a result of actual experience”

The brain is dynamic and there is as yet no precise scientific definition of consciousness. Those who rail against the frailty of their bodies, who wish to develop something more long lasting, regard humans as machines that require an upgrade. They wish to find a way to store the data in their brains that this may be moved elsewhere, enhanced and rejuvenated. The author ponders if only the mega wealthy would be able to afford a version that was ad free.

“I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.”

The discussion moves on to the dangers of developing a super-intelligent machine that would view man in the way man now views animals, a useful resource to be farmed for the machine’s benefit. Unlike man, machines bear no malice, hatred or desire for vengeance.

“The fundamental risk […] was not that superintelligent machines may be actively hostile towards their human creators, or antecedents, but that they would be indifferent.”

In creating these machines we would be creating our successors, rendering ourselves obsolete (in 1863 Samual Butler wrote something similar in light of the industrial revolution – these ideas are not new, merely updated in the language of the computer age).

“Once we can automate computer science research and AI research the feedback loop closes and you start having systems that can themselves build better systems”

“It is unreasonable to think that machines could become nearly as intelligent as we are and then stop”

Caution is advised when creating machines and then setting them tasks. Ask a machine to obliterate cancer and it will obliterate every being that could suffer the disease. Harmful behaviours are intrinsic in goal driven systems. Living requires managing risk but it has yet to be worked out how to teach this to an acceptable level to a machine.

The author attends a show put on by those who fund research into robotic development. Many of the developers and those who fund them are based around Silicon Valley, watched closely by the Pentagon. Tasks set for the robots are obviously aimed at producing machines that could be utilised in war zones.

“This is what we did as a species, after all: we built ingenious devices, and we destroyed things.”

Watching as the robots attempt to complete their tasks, it is clear that whilst machines could easily defeat adult humans in intelligence tests, they struggled to match the skills of a one year old in perception and mobility. These robots are

“an instrument of human perversity, in the service of power and money and war.”

It was noted that Amazon are amongst those funding research into robotic development. Unlike human workers, robots do not need breaks, do not complain or form unions.

The author returns to the transhumanists, comparing their fundamentalism with religion. I pondered if heaven was invented because people couldn’t bear the idea of loved ones, including themselves, no longer existing anywhere, and if hell then followed as a means to coerce them into following codes of conduct prescribed by those who would thereby benefit. Religions tend to be overseen by men.

One of the young men talked of looking forward to the development of sexbots, always available for his pleasure and would never cheat on him. The vast majority of those involved in the movement were white and male.

Certain transhumanists look to a future when man as machine may go forth and colonise space – a new type of empire building.

“This is one of the problems with reality: the extent to which it resembles bad fiction.”

The writing style is thoughtful, informative and often humorous. There are many absurdities raised. Transhumanists cannot seem to comprehend how anyone could accept death as inevitable. They do not within these pages address the problem of overpopulation.

This is a fascinating and accessible read that raises many interesting questions. It is hard to comprehend why so many supposedly intelligent individuals have become involved in particular aspects of the research given where it leads. It is worrying to think that possible upgrades may further increase the inequalities in western capitalist society. Funded by the war makers and hyper wealthy, this may not be of any concern to them.

This book is published by Granta. My copy was borrowed from my local library.

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