In a world where the growth of technology is exponential, the span of time between science fiction and science fact becomes increasingly shorter. Things that seem like the height of speculative fantasy become commonplace in just a generation or two.
That rapid expansion of scientific capability has led to the development of a subculture devoted to accelerating human evolution – and ultimately conquering death itself - through technological means. These people, with varied ideas and attitudes regarding what that acceleration means, are loosely grouped under the umbrella term “transhumanism.”
Journalist Mark O’Connell spent some time with assorted members of this movement; the result is his new book “To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death” (Doubleday, $26.95). Through encounters with people that run the gamut – from Silicon Valley billionaires to basement-dwelling hackers – O’Connell discovers the wide array of motivations that drive this unique (and often strange) group.
Much of the book revolves around the notion of the Singularity. The term - coined by mathematician and physicist John von Neumann in the 1950s and popularized in recent years by the futurist Ray Kurzweil – represents the hypothesis that the development of artificial intelligence springing from scientific acceleration will trigger a technological explosion far beyond anything that we can currently comprehend.
Those who believe in the inevitability of the Singularity can go to drastic (and drastically different) lengths to prepare for it. But all share some variation on a particular belief – that the human body is a machine, one which technology will someday allow us to move beyond. And almost all of them truly believe that their path can lead them in escaping death itself.
There’s the Alcor cryonics facility in Arizona, for instance. Alcor – perhaps best known as the final resting place of baseball legend Ted Williams – believes that they are capable of freezing a person in a state between life and death, preserving them until such time as science has determined a way to bring them back. O’Connell also speaks to people who have devoted their life’s work to the notion of mapping the human brain to such a detailed extent as to be able to digitally replicate a person’s consciousness.
O’Connell meets with people devoted to preparing for the worst-case-scenario of artificial intelligence, believing AI to be a potentially existential threat to humanity, and young self-styled “biohackers” whose rough-and-ready work is based around turning themselves into literal cyborgs.
To each of these encounters, O’Connell brings a keen and empathetic journalistic eye that conflicts nicely with his personal distaste for the concepts being presented. That’s not to say that he’s judging these people. He’s not. Quite the opposite – his interest, engagement and even admiration for their passion comes through.
Essentially, he allows his own feelings about what it means to be human to help balance the singular zeal presented by the people he dubs (not without affection) “Singularitarians.” That balance turns something that could have been fairly dry into a compelling narrative, one populated with outsized characters who are brilliant, eccentric or – most often – both.
“To Be a Machine” is flat-out fascinating. O’Connell’s journey is a layman’s adventure through the technological looking glass, an opportunity to meet with a subculture existing on the fringes of the tech scene and a compelling peek at one possible future. Sharply-written and thought-provoking, “To Be a Machine” is a book that will undoubtedly set your mind to racing and your gears to turning.