The ambition of transhumanism

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a travelogue of strange journeys and bizarre encounters among transhumanists, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. Wearing my New Scientist hat I asked O’Connell how he managed to give transhumanism a human face – despite his own scepticism.

Has transhumanism ever made personal sense to you?

Transhumanism’s critique of the human condition, its anxiety around having to die — that’s something I have some sympathy with, for sure, and that’s where the book began. The idea was for the door to some kind of conversion to be always open. But I was never really convinced that the big ideas in transhumanism, things like mind-uploading and so on, were really plausible. The most interesting question for me was, “Why would anyone want this?”

A lot of transhumanist thought is devoted to evading death. Do the transhumanists you met get much out of life?

I wouldn’t want to be outright prescriptive about what it means to live a meaningful life. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. I think if you’re so devoted to the idea that we can outrun death, and that death makes life utterly meaningless, then you are avoiding the true animal nature of what it means to be human. But I find myself moving back and forth between that position and one that says, you know what, these people are driven by a deep, Promethean project. I don’t have the deep desire to shake the world to its core that these people have. In that sense, they’re living life to its absolute fullest.

What most sticks in your mind from your researches for the book?

The place that sticks in my mind most clearly is Alcor’s cryogenic life extension facility. In terms of just the visuals, it’s bizarre. You’re walking around what’s known as a “patient care bay”, among these gigantic stainless steel cylinders filled with corpses and severed heads that they’re going to unfreeze once a cure for death is found. The thing that really grabbed me was the juxtaposition between the sci-fi level of the thing and the fact that it was situated in a business park on the outskirts of Phoenix, next door to Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies and a tile showroom.

They do say the future arrives unevenly…

I think we’re at a very particular cultural point in terms of our relationship to “the future”. We aren’t really thinking of science as this boundless field of possibility any more, and so it seems bit of a throwback, like something from an Arthur C. Clarke story. It’s like the thing with Elon Musk. Even the global problems he identifies — rogue AI, and finding a new planet that we can live on to perpetuate the species — seem so completely removed from actual problems that people are facing right now that they’re absurd. A handful of people who seem to wield almost infinite technological resources are devoting themselves to completely speculative non-problems. They’re not serious, on some basic level.

Are you saying transhumanism is a product of an unreal Silicon Valley mentality?

The big cultural influence over transhumanism, the thing that took it to the next level, seems to have been the development of the internet in the late 1990s. That’s when it really became a distinct social movement, as opposed to a group of more-or-less isolated eccentric thinkers and obsessives.

But it’s very much a global movement. I met a lot of Europeans – Russia in particular has a long prehistory of attempts to evade death. But most transhumanists have tended to end up in the US and specifically in Silicon Valley. I suppose that’s because these kinds of ideas get most traction there. You don’t get people laughing at you when you mention want to live forever.

The one person I really found myself grappling with, in the most profound and unsettling way, was Randal Koene. It’s his idea of uploading the human mind to a computer that I find most deeply troubling and offensive, and kind of absurd. As a person and as a communicator, though, Koene was very powerful. A lot of people who are pushing forward these ideas — people like Ray Kurzweil — tend to be impresarios. Randal was the opposite. He was very quietly spoken, very humble, very much the scientist. There were moments he really pushed me out of my scepticism – and I liked him.

Is transhumanism science or religion?

It’s not a religion: there’s no God, for instance. But at the same time I think it very obviously replaces religion in terms of certain basic yearnings and anxieties. The anxiety about death is the obvious one.

There is a very serious religious subtext to all of transhumanism’s aspirations. And at the same time, transhumanists absolutely reject that thinking, because it tends to undermine their perception of themselves as hardline rationalists and deeply science-y people. Mysticism is quite toxic to their sense of themselves.

Will their future ever arrive?

On one level, it’s already happening. We’re walking round in this miasma of information and data, almost in a state of merger with technology. That’s what we’re grappling with as a culture. But if that future means an actual merger of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, I think that’s a deeply terrifying idea, and not, touch wood, something that is ever going to happen.

Should we be worried?

That is why I’m now writing about a book about apocalyptic anxieties. It’s a way to try to get to grips with our current political and cultural moment.

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death
Mark O’Connell

I know why the caged bird sings, so nuts to you

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is out to revenge his father – at least, that’s the idea. But William Shakespeare has saddled him with a girlfriend, Ophelia, and her father Polonius, an interfering old fool. A Pantalone, in other words: a man (by tradition, but the gender’s immaterial) who is losing his grip on affairs of which he was once the master. With age, the Pantalone’s sphere of action and influence becomes comically reduced. What was once a voice of authority has become a bark of comic impotence.

I’m at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock) is playing the prince, but it’s Polonius has me fascinated. The British character actor Peter Wight isn’t playing him for a fool, but as someone suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s. His mood swings wildly about, his silences are painful, his recollections pathetic victories snatched against the coming dark.

Wight’s portrayal is meticulous, sincere, and timely. Old age may not be a disease but it’s certainly a genetic condition, and one by one, elements of that condition are succumbing to medical research. This has had the disconcerting effect of curing all the easy diseases in order that we may bankrupt ourselves treating the recalcitrant ones. Rates of terminal cancer have plummeted, only to expose us to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It looks like we’re all going to live to 100 before we drop dead. This pleases me, because I want to become the character described by the Athenian lawyer Solon 2,600 years ago: “so wise that he no longer wastes time on useless things, and this enables him to formulate his profoundest insights most succinctly.”

The trouble is that only a couple of hundred years after Solon, Aristotle came up with this charming formula: the old, he said, live by memory rather than by hope. Sure they have a lot of experience, but this means they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. As a result, they are driven too much by the useful and not enough by the noble. They are cynical and distrustful and neither love warmly nor hate bitterly. They are not shy. On the contrary, they’re shameless, feeling only contempt for people’s opinion of them.

Aristotle knew what a pantalone was, and he knew that being a pantalone was nothing to do with disease or infirmity. It was, and is, to do with the passing of time.

By the time I’m a hale and hearty 100, what kind of monster will I have become? Always voting the way I’ve voted; always writing the same kind of novel about the same kind of people using the same kind of dialogue; always dating the same kinds of people and always messing them up in the same sorts of ways; bringing up the same kinds of children and saddling them with the same hang-ups.

Would I want to live for ever? Probably. I just wouldn’t want to remain human forever. I don’t want to be “better than human” or “superhuman” or any of that rubbish (what does that even mean?) What I want is simple and, thanks to the passage of time, quite impossible. I want to be not bored. I want to be not burdened by experience. I want to be unfazed by life.

I realise now that I don’t know nearly enough about how other animals think. I need to read more Sy Montgomery. I need to read Marc Bekoff and John Bradshaw. I need to know what my options are, just in case the triumphant effort to healthify old age tips suddenly towards affording us everlasting life.

My best bet right now is the cockatoo. If you treat a cockatoo properly, it’ll stay a three-year-old child forever – and that’s a long time: cockatoos live into their sixties.

Don’t let me be a pompous ass, a fussy, fond old fool. Don’t make me a gull, a mark, a slippered pantalone. Let me become something else, something less than human if needs be, but better adapted to forever.

Who’s a pretty boy then?

I am