To Be A Machine

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The human urge to transcend physical existence and death is a powerful one. But is the application of so much human ingenuity in this direction a good idea?

The transhumanist movement is determined to overcome the inconvenient matter of our organic, human nature. Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) tackles the subject with verve and humour, intelligence and sensitivity, by actually joining the aforementioned ‘cyborgs’ etc. at work, getting to know them and trying to surmise what makes them tick, as well as to understand their ideas and the very concrete work they are doing to advance them.

Looking back into the history of humanity, people have always been concerned with transcendence. There are dramatic stories, which hit significant emotional heights, of overcoming death and the flesh. The stories are often religious ones, and it seems entirely natural for humans to tell them.

When taken to a practical level, however, the stories acquire an entirely different tone. The use of expensive technology and techniques to make them come true — technologies that can only be understood by the relatively tiny group of people who develop them, and only financed by various business involvements — is potentially dangerous when combined with the fact that the fruits of their labours, say AI and robots, could conceivably be, in the foreseeable future, in the position to cause a great deal of damage to the human race who invented them, even if inadvertently. It’s a nice plot twist, but not when it happens to you — and the worrying thing is that it is among the few people who do actually understand the technology that voices of the most urgent concern are being raised. Ethical and safety issues are not being seriously or systematically addressed by bodies with any power, and everything is in the hands of business and rich individuals with, quite possibly, more curiosity than sense. O’Connell often points out that these individuals are predominantly male. Not wishing to fall too hard into stereotypes or essentialism, this doesn’t surprise me. The desire for disembodied rationality to conquer the body and the emotions has long been a part of patriarchal thinking (and actions).

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Some of the people O’Connell encounters are planning to freeze their bodies after death in the hope of being resurrected at some unknown date in the future, in a scenario uncannily similar to the Second Coming awaited by some Christian groups. In fact, the whole transhumanist territory appears saturated in quasi-religious thinking — getting rid of the sinful mess of bodies and attaining a new state of purity in a heaven without death. I found myself wondering what kind of eternal life the believers would be enjoying once shorn of their overriding purpose — designing an end to death/life as we know it. Others are designing robots to be more intelligent than they are (which seems to me to be self-evidently stupid). While it seems likely that the subtle kind of intelligence humans use, taking into account multiple, shifting contexts, may not be attainable, this is precisely the problem. Being better at some kinds of procedure, like say pattern recognition, without an awareness of new, complex contexts, could lead to all kinds of disasters if humans don’t foresee, or forget to program in a few possible eventualities. King Midas springs to mind.

Others are busy optimising their bodies with the addition of machinery. This may seem bizarre, but when you consider how much a mobile phone has come to be an extension of your body, mind and life in such a comparatively short span of time, it gives pause for thought.

The tragedy to me is the use of so much human ingenuity in this direction both when the level of human suffering due to poverty and disease is so huge and when the effects of climate change seem to call for just such a degree of inventiveness, as well as a deeper foundational change in the way we live. This point of view might be a limited one: if we have the chance to spend resources on eventually saving the whole human race from death and suffering, from that perspective it seems short sighted to be directing resources anywhere else. It’s a rational argument, but I find my attention irresistibly drawn to the here and now and to those who are suffering more immediately than just from the knowledge that that they will die one day.

I also find the whole worldview based on making the world work in a more rational way in order to eliminate all factors outside our control deeply depressing — the complete absence of any kind sensuality, creativity, or deep enjoyment of the whole mysterious mess of embodied existence. Without this kind of joy, and upgraded/reduced to a brain manipulating factors to my best advantage, I — as me right now — would certainly not want to live forever.

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