To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (pbk)

Reviewed by Annabel

Already shortlisted last year for the Baillie Gifford and Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prizes, Mark O’Connell’s book, now available in paperback, has also been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018, which will be announced at the end of the month. This prize celebrates, ‘the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness.’ It’s a award I’ve followed for several years now and I find it fascinating how such different books, non-fiction, memoir and novels can sit together on a shortlist, united by their shared studies of aspects of the human condition.

I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title – that capital ‘B’ is crucial to the book’s premise, just as it is to Hamlet. Subtitled ‘Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopias, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death’, O’Connell, an Irish journalist, sets out to try and understand transhumanism, and the people who espouse its cause.

Firstly, we need a definition. In the first chapter, O’Connell gives us this ‘broad’ one:

Transhumanism is a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. There is another way of seeing this, an equal and opposite interpretation, which is that this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology. We will be bearing both sides of this dichotomy in mind as we proceed.

O’Connell sets off to explore the complex world of transhumanism after meeting some futurists of note in London.  His first stop takes him to Alcor, near Scottsdale. This is the famous cryogenics facility where the super-rich can have their body or just their head(!) preserved in liquid nitrogen after their death, to be revived in the future, should a cure to whatever killed them become available.  In 2016, I read Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K, which largely takes place in such an institution, eerily similar in intent, but glossier than Alcor appears here. O’Connell is cool in his assessment of Alcor and its CEO Max More, who says:

“Cryonics is really just an extension of emergency medicine.”

More gives good quote, as Madonna would say, but after reading that his inspiration as a teenager came from rather psychedelic ‘libertarianism’ of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, (yes, I read these books back in the 1980s too), I was more convinced than ever that cryogenics and the hope of reanimation should remain the stuff of science fiction – I can’t separate it in my mind from the severed heads in Futurama either (left).  Alcor currently has 117 customers at $280k for a whole body, $80k for just the head, by the way.

Next he travels to San Francisco to visit companies working on ‘brain emulation’.  These guys believe that we can transcend our bodies to have our brains uploaded, to become digital humans. O’Connell struggles, although he never calls it soul, but how could the joy of seeing his son at play ‘be rendered in code’?

O’Connell returns to visit the futurologists, including Nick Bostrom, leader of the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute. O’Connell refers to him as the ‘eschatologist-in-chief’. Bostrom is one of many futurologists (including the late Stephen Hawking), who believe that AIs (Artificial Intelligence) could destroy mankind. As Nate Soames, another futurologist puts it:

There are thousands of person-years and billions of dollars being poured into the project of developing AI. And there are fewer than ten people in the world right now working full-time on safety. […] It’s like there are thousands of people racing to be the first to develop nuclear fusion, and basically no one is working on containment. And we have to get containment working. Because there are a lot of very clever people building something that, the way they are approaching it at present, will kill us all if they succeed.

‘We’re doomed!’ This is where Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics come into the equation, but take their logic a step further and you can come up with scenarios where AIs can take over the world while still not hurting or allowing humans to come to harm.  Bostrom was interviewed in a fascinating article for the New Yorker back in 2015, (see here).

O’Connell’s travels continue, visiting the robot builders and the self-experimenters who wire themselves up believing, ‘there was almost no limit to what you could achieve if you approached humanity as an engineering problem.’  He also visits the proponent of a scientific belief system called Terasem (that feels like a religion rather than a philosophy) and he goes on a road-trip with an independent presidential candidate who wants a transhumanism bill.

There’s one more group of people I haven’t mentioned yet, and they are those working on the ageing process, from understanding it through to how to reverse it – if that could be possible. Having recently read another of the Wellcome Book Prize shortlisted titles, The Vaccine Race, I learned that cells have a limit to the number of times they can divide. This was discovered decades ago, but understood more recently. Our chromosomes have end caps on called telomeres, little repeated chunks of DNA. As we age, bits get chipped off eventually exposing the chromosomes and genes, permitting ageing and mutation. The 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, Jack W. Szostak for this discovery. Although O’Connell doesn’t go into the science, again he meets some more extreme proselytizers who already believe we’ll be able to live to several hundred, or even a thousand years by mid-century, which still sounds wildly over-optimistic – if that’s what you want…

This is the real question – why do we want to cheat death?  I think we’d all like to live longer with better health and to live well, but the consequences of this for the world’s population would be  extreme, and are beyond the scope of O’Connell’s book.  O’Connell may not be a scientist, his background is in literature, but because of that he is perhaps better-placed to introduce us to this wide subject with less bias and a different kind of analysis than say, a psychologist writing a similar book.  He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour, sometimes ironic, which keeps the text lively and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own views on the subject. He treats everyone with respect, asking the questions, but not judging them, trying to get to the heart of why they believe in their particular brands of transhumanism. For a subject based in technology, To Be a Machine is a profoundly human story.


Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds, and also blogs at AnnaBookBel

Mark O’Connell, To Be a Machine (Granta, 2017), ISBN 978-1783781980, 256pp., paperback.

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  1. Pingback: A spotlight on the Wellcome Book Prize | Shiny New Books

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