Wednesday 23 May 2018

'One person had to stop reading because they were in danger of fainting' - Irish author’s debut lifts lid on bizarre world of transhumanism

Mark O'Connell's To Be a Machine gives a fascinating insight into the key players in the movement

Mark O'Connell
Mark O'Connell
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Fans of series like Altered Carbon and Black Mirror will be loosely familiar with the tenets of transhumanism, the movement which aims to 'solve the problem of death' using technology.

Outside the realm of science fiction, however, transhumanism is gaining traction and increased investment in the real world as a body of people dedicate their lives to the research and development of technologies they believe will ultimately allow us to cheat death.

From cryogenically frozen bodies to uploading human brains to code to inserting implants under the skin, there are myriad technologies already in development, although the one that garners most column inches is undoubtedly artificial intelligence.

Super AI's potential to pose a threat to humanity has prompted warnings from the late Stephen Hawking, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Tesla founder Elon Musk.  Yet AI is just one facet of transhumanism - there's plenty more to be worries about (fi you buy into the theories).

Dublin writer Mark O'Connell interviewed the key players heading up some of bizarre, fascinating, and perhaps not entirely implausible aspects of the movement in his fascinating debut, 'To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers and the futurists solving the modest problem of death'.

Published last year to rave reviews, the book has just won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, which celebrates 'exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction that illuminate the many ways that health and medicine touch our lives'.

Mark visited the warehouses of Alcor Life Extension Foundation's, home to cryogenically frozen bodies (and heads) awaiting reanimation at some point in the future.  He also met with scientists at Silicon Valley labs who are turning human brains into code, and he spent time with self-proclaimed cyborgs in Pittsburgh who insert implants under their skin which, they believe, make them superhuman.

Mark also toured the US in a coffin-shaped camper van with a transhumanist campaigning to be President and met Roen Horn, founder of the Eternal Life Fan Club, who is a virgin saving himself for the sexbots of the future because a "real girl could cheat on you, sleep around.  You couild get an STD".

To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell
To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell

Coming from a literary (he has a pHD in English Literature) rather than scientific background, Mark initially came to the subject via an article he wrote for a Dublin magazine a decade ago, the themes of which stuck with him.  When his first son was born four years ago it prompted a preoccupation with 'mortality and the fragility of the human condition', he says.

"Transhumanism became a deeper preoccupation for me as a kind of route out of that condition," he tells Independent.ie

"It was never something that I agreed with but I was compelled by it in terms of its aims. I was really fascinated by the idea of the people out there who looked at mortality as a solvable problem and that’s where the impetus for the book came from. 

"It’s a really fascinating topic with really intriguing people and I guess a way also for getting to grips with the sort of thorny problems we have around our relationship with technology. 

"The topic in my mind is very much tied up with that period of my life and having this weird combination of euphoria and panic and terror."

Despite his frame of mind at the time, Mark did not emerge terrified and filled with dread and a sense of impending doom following his odyssey through transhumanism - he has not been converted to the cause.

"There was never really a moment where I felt I was in danger of being converted to transhumanism," he says.  "I never came close to that happening, but I always wanted that to be a possibility at the same time. 

"My idea for the book was kind of a trajectory where I’m going from interested, sceptical outsider to actually having a moment of conversion: 'Shit I’m a transhumanist now - someone has unlocked some sense of this world that completely changed me!'

"But it was always important for me to leave that door open. Also, from a narrative point of view it would be an interesting trajectory.  But you can’t engineer that kind of stuff and it would be dishonest of me to frame it in that way."

However, he reveals that there were moments where he was surprised by how plausible he found some of the ideas espoused by the people at the forefront of the field, particularly the work of Randal Koene, a neuroscientist who is trying to upload his brain to a computer 'Altered Carbon'-style.

"That was an example for me of an idea that seems completely absurd and implausible to me, and my preconception of a person who dedicated their entire lives to a project uploading human minds to machines, my perception is that they are completely eccentric and insane," says Mark.

"But Randal, I really liked him first and foremost, and he’s a really good communicator and I didn’t see him as a zealot or a kind of snake oil salesman or impresario of his own ideas.  He's not pushing anything. He's just a scientist in a way I found quite surprising."

However, he has no fear about theories like the 'Technological Singularity', which predicts the point in the future (estimated at around 30 years) when super AI will effectively merge with humans.  Among its believers are Google's head of engineering, Ray Kurzweil.

What interests Mark is the people who believe these ideas, see them as inevitable, and want to pursue them.  He sees the Singularity as "essentially a religious phenomenon about the displacement of religious urges on to technology".  However, he reveals that some people who have read the book have reacted with abject terror to the theories explored therein.

"I was kind of taken aback by how strong the reaction has been to the book.  Some people read it and were totally terrified by it.  I was a bit surprised by that," he says.

"I was so immersed in this world and got to know the people and spent so long reading about this stuff that its capacity to rattle me... I was inoculated, or whatever.  But the overwhelming reaction has been ‘Holy shit!’.  One person in particular had to stop reading it because they were in danger of fainting! 

"Also, I had an email from one woman, a lawyer in London, and "e knew nothing about Transhumanism but was recommended the book so she picked [it] up and her reaction was that she went out and got a microchip implanted, an RFID chip.  I don’t think it’s programmed yet.  She was jokey about it when she wrote to me, saying she was the first cyborg barrister in London!"

To Be A Machine: Advetures Among Cybors, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O'Connell is published by Granta.

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