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To Be A Machine review: The case to rage against the machine


To Be A Machine Mark O'Connell

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The T800 robot from the Terminator movies

The T800 robot from the Terminator movies

The T800 robot from the Terminator movies

In his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that mankind's obsession for achievement in life is a subconscious attempt to transcend mortality.

More than four decades on from the publishing of that Pulitzer Prize-winning book, talk of beating death in western culture has evolved considerably. It's no longer just confined to the realm of abstract ideas, either. Futurists now believe that pretty soon we will leave behind the humanist age: where liberal thinking, intellectual reasoning, science, and above all, human emotion and experience, used to be the highest form of authority. This brave new world will be one where Homo sapiens, voluntarily, will no longer be at the top of the evolutionary food chain. This idea is more commonly known as transhumanism. Recall Hollywood narratives like Terminator or RoboCop. You begin to get the picture.

And think in ideas like, say, the convergence of silicon and flesh, or the uploading of consciousness into a computer. Here, potentially at least, humans would no longer submit themselves as a species to being products of blind evolution, but would seek instead to emancipate themselves from the natural tree of life, and even from biology itself.

Trying to explore these ideas in depth - with people who firmly believe in them with almost a religious-like reverence - is the task Mark O'Connell sets himself in this brilliant work of non-fiction, To Be a Machine. O'Connell asks a number of pertinent questions along the way, such as: are humans really just bits of information floating in the universe? Is there something deeper at the core of human existence, other than just random material matter? And will artificial intelligence eventually redeem or annihilate Homo sapiens in the near to medium future?

O'Connell's greatest asset here is that he is a layman when it comes to transhumanism. That is to say, the literary critic and journalist, knows very little regarding the subject he is writing about. So he talks to the experts.

We hear fascinating conversations from people such as Dr Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute; Max More, CEO of Alcor, a cryopreservation facility near Phoenix, Arizona; and Randal A Koene, a Dutch neuroengineer, and co-founder of carboncopies.org, an outreach and roadmapping organisation for advancing substrate-independent minds.

This book has the potential to become locked down in the boring scientific specifics of transhumanism itself. But O'Connell avoids such an approach. He does, however, a fine job exploring some of the more complicated concepts for the lay reader. Like say, cybernetics, the singularity, or the notion of becoming a cyborg.

It's apparent fairly early on in the narrative that O'Connell is at odds with the core creed of transhumanism and its zany belief system. This is then lined up in opposition to O' Connell's more humanistic approach in thinking about just what it is that makes one an individual, with a unique personality, that is no way robotic. O'Connell is not attempting to bludgeon the reader over the head here with any core thesis as such.

But his main argument could be whittled down to two important questions: is the human brain just made up of material that basically works the same way a computer does? And what is it about the human condition that compels us to feel we have the right to be above and beyond mother nature?

O'Connell is also highly critical, too, of the current culture in Silicon Valley: which is now almost single handedly in control of the direction of where western capitalism is presently heading towards. In his view, it has lost any sense of humanity and is drowning in a toxic form of hubris. Particularly in its belief that one can simply throw money, and more technology, at almost every problem that life presents: up to, and including, concepts such as ageing, and even death itself.

O'Connell is a writer who is not afraid to delve deep into the history of ideas to very subtly convince the reader of his own arguments. The narrative therefore moves, seamlessly, from interviews with these Silicon Valley nerds, back to a broader philosophical humanist conversation: using quotes from a wide range of thinkers, poets, and philosophers, such as WB Yeats, Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.

Part gonzo journalism, part philosophy of the mind, part critique of late western capitalism, To Be A Machine is an intriguing investigation into what it means to be a human being. And ultimately, the book seeks to understand what direction human experience is heading towards: as technology dominates our minds like no time in human history.

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