Friday, 27 July 2018

Entropy sucks; “To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.” Mark O’Connell (Granta £9.99)

‘To be A Machine’, Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s book on the transhumanist movement, won this year’s Wellcome Book Prize. The chair of Judges, Edmund de Waal called it “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever. Mark O’Connell brilliantly examines issues of technology and singularity. In doing so he brings into focus timely issues about mortality, what it might mean to be a machine and what it truly means to be human.” It’s also very funny, but we are talking about death, the most fertile ground for comedy after sex, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising.

O’Connell is quite a stylist. His book opens resoundingly; “All stories begin in our endings: we invent them because we die. As long as we have been telling stories, we have been telling them about the desire to escape our human bodies, to become something other than the animals we are…. We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendour. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves.” It is hard to resist quoting him, the book is crammed with elegantly expressed ideas and observations. And it isn’t just me – all the reviews of ‘To be a Machine’ are littered with sizeable chunks of O’Connell’s own prose. He makes the task of paraphrasing him very difficult. Take a pedestrian example, what is transhumanism? Transhumanism is, according to the OED “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” But for O’Connell transhumanism is “a movement predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species. It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.” Lexicographers, eat your hearts out.

Aubrey de Grey "we should be prosecuting a great counteroffensive against our common enemy, mortality itself’
O’Connell nails his colours to the mast early on in the book “I am not a transhumanist,” he says “but my fascination with the movement, with its ideas and aims, arises out of a basic sympathy with its premise: that human existence, as it has been given, is a suboptimal system.” There is nothing much to argue with in these sentiments; ageing, suffering and death are generally not positive experiences and who wouldn’t be tempted by the possibility of escaping them if they could? Until relatively recently religion was our only real option if we couldn’t face up to the existential anguish of having our existence snuffed out by death.  But since the early 19th century Science has been seen, at least by some, as a contender in the fight for eternal life. The early notions of the reanimators and resurrectionists who thought they could bring a corpse back to life by passing a few hundred amps of voltaic current through it may seem absurd now but the guiding principle was no different from today’s transhumanists. The science may be more sophisticated but Aubrey de Grey is essential pursuing the same goals as Victor Frankenstein, the discovery of the secret of life and its essential corollary, the abolition of death. As O’Connell explores the various transhumanist visions of eternal life, even the idea that improved longevity might be a good thing starts to be eroded and as for immortality – the versions on offer here are generally pretty unpalatable.   

O’Connell’s tour of transhumanism starts with Swedish academic Anders Sandberg, who wants to enhance human abilities through brain implants. “What would be a nice scenario,” he tells the author, “is that we first get smart drugs and wearable technologies. And then life extension technologies. And then, finally, we get uploaded, and colonise space, and so on.” To O’Connell this looks less like liberation from the constraints of being human and more like a “total enslavement to technology” In particular the idea, which crops up again and again amongst transhumanists, of being able to upload the brain into an electronic device that is more durable than the human body. Do we even really continue to be human without a corporeal body? Isn’t a digital version of a human mind, no matter how close the resemblance to the original, just a simulacrum?
Zoltan Istvan, 2016 presidential candidate on the immortality ticket

Another early chapter deals with Max More and his wife Natasha Vita-More, who run the Alcor cryopreservation facility where technicians will, for $200,000, carefully freeze your body upon death or, if you can’t afford that, just your head for $80,000 and keep it until technology has advanced sufficiently to allow you to be thawed out and brought back to life. O’Connell has a masterly way with bathos, he writes of Max More “I wanted to know how a man who had ostensibly dedicated his life to the overcoming of human frailties, to a resolute transgression of the principle of entropy, had come to spend his days surrounded by corpses in an office park, between a tile showroom and a place called Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies.” He also notes that “when the time came to make the necessary arrangements” for the disposal of his own remains, 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary, a long standing advocate of life extension in general and Alcor in particular, eschewed the cryopreservation facility and instead “went for the more show-stopping option of having his cremated ashes shot into space from a cannon”. Amongst the disappointed cryonics community this decision was criticised as a capitulation to “deathist” ideology.

O’Connell’s tour of transhumanism takes in computer scientists researching Artificial Intelligence, philosophers, gerontologists, grinders (individuals with cybernetic devices implanted beneath their skin, often by themselves, without anaesthetic) and roboticists with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (who are still a very long way from creating a Terminator). Many of the characters he meets are colourful, English celebrity gerontologist Aubrey de Grey for one. De Grey is renowned for his theory of Longevity Escape Velocity “the notion that the pace of technological advancement in the area of life extension would eventually increase to the point that, for every year that passes, average human life expectancy increases by more than a year, at which point the theory goes, we put a comfortable distance between ourselves and our own mortality. Over the past century or so, life expectancy had been increasing at the rate of about two years per decade, but the optimistic expectation within the life extension movement was that we would soon reach a point where the ratio flipped – thereby, as de Grey put it, ‘effectively eliminating the relationship between how old you are and how likely you are to die in the next year.’” The exuberantly bearded scientist seems to be embarked on a personal life extension project of a distinctly old fashioned stamp; pickling or preservation in alcohol. O’Connell meets him “one August morning at a cavernous bar near Union Square in San Francisco…It was shortly after breakfast, and Aubrey was blowing the froth off what may or may not have been the first pint of the day.” The scientist’s partiality to anything brewed up from hops, malt and barley is notorious.
Roen Horn poses in front of the Immortality Bus

The book builds to a climax with a long final chapter on a road trip on the Immortality Bus taken in 2016 with the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan whose avowed aim, rather than election to office, was the hope “that my Immortality Bus will become an important symbol in the growing longevity movement around the world. It will be my way of challenging the public’s apathetic stance on whether dying is good or not.” The impossibly good looking Istvan was born in California in the early seventies to Hungarian immigrant parents. He became a champion swimmer and water polo player, graduated in Philosophy and religion from Columbia University and then took off on an around the world yacht trip which he filmed for the National Geographic channel. When he finally returned to the States he made a fortune in real estate which he used to fund the writing and publication of a turgid and interminable science fiction epic called ‘The Transhumanist Wager’. He is now embarked on the quixotic quest to save humanity from death. Instead of Rosinante Istvan had the Immortality Bus, a big brown antiquated Wanderlodge that with the addition of a wreath on the roof was supposed to uncannily resemble a coffin but which many onlookers likened to a turd on wheels. Istvan’s Sancho Panza is Roen Horn, a classic Californian geek, founder of the Eternal Life Fan Club, who describes himself as a philosopher and lecturer “on the importance of trying to live forever.”      

O’Connell joins Istvan and Horn driving the hazardously dilapidated Wanderlodge around the desert towns of Arizona and New Mexico, seemingly always in imminent danger of breaking down and being stranded half a days hike from the nearest water in temperatures of 45C. With nothing better to do than listen to an ancient cassette of Tom Petty’s first album and talk about immortality the three men develop an unlikely friendship. “I had begun to feel some affinity with these two men…” says O’Connell “we were confreres in futility.” Istvan plays straight man to Horn who somehow manages to make total lack of self awareness and irredeemable gaucheness deeply charming. “I just want to have fun forever,” says Roen “guiding a forkful of dry salad leaves towards his pale face. “The twenty years I get from eating the way I do could be the difference between my dying and my getting to longevity escape velocity. I’m holding off on pleasure now so that I can have more pleasure later. I’m actually a total hedonist.” “You don’t seem even slightly like a hedonist to me,” says O’Connell “You don’t drink, you don’t take drugs. You barely eat. To be honest, you seem like a medieval monk.”

Roen weighs up the pro and cons of sexbots and real girls
In another exchange with O’Connell Horn asks him “You know one really cool thing about being alive in the future?”
“What’s that?”
“You know, like AI robots that are built for having sex with.”
“Oh sure,” I said,  ”I’ve heard of sexbots. ……"
“It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”
“The problem I have with sexbots,” I said, “is why wouldn’t you just have sex with an actual person?”
“Are you kidding me? A real girl would cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an STD. You could even die.” When O’Connell asks him if he is being alarmist the response is
“No way, man. It happens literally all the time. See a personal sexbot would never cheat on you, and it would be just like a real girl.” When pushed he also admits to “have so far abstained from sex. I have never had a girlfriend.”
O’Connell tells Zoltan and Roen that he thinks of the bus as the Entropy Bus “a great mobile metaphor for the inevitable decline of all things” and quotes from St Peter in the King James Bible “the elements shall melt with fervent heat. The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
“Entropy sucks,” said Roen
“It is what it is,” said Zoltan, “It absolutely is what it is.”
The road trip on the Wanderlodge may be the longest chapter in O’Conell’s book but I could happily have spent a lot more time in the company of Zoltan and Roen.

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