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Thinking Machines

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, by Mark O’Connell, Granta, 256 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1783781966

In the eighteenth century John Locke neatly summarised a predicament facing the philosopher who wished to account for human consciousness. There exist two possibilities, Locke claimed, both of which seem inconceivable, one of which must be true. Either we are material machines that are somehow able to think, or we are immaterial, thinking entities somehow embedded in unconscious matter.

The first possibility raises the question how consciousness comes to be a property of what Locke’s contemporary Newton termed “brute and stupid” matter. In modern terms, if all the stuff that makes up the universe was spat out at the Big Bang, and has been morphing through different forms and arrangements ever since, how is it that some of that stuff gained awareness of its own existence, came to possess the power of thought? On the other hand, to hold the second position, what philosopher Gilbert Ryle called “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine”, we will have to account for how it is that this immaterial mind-substance occupies and interacts with material bodies. What keeps the mind and body together? Why don’t my mind and yours swap bodies?

Mark O’Connell’s entertaining and thoughtful book tells the story of his encounters with self-described “transhumanists”, adherents of

a movement predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species. It is the 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.

Some of the characters we meet make themselves the vanguard of the coming race of cyborgs by performing surgery on their own bodies to insert technological implants into the flesh. Some pursue the quaint twentieth century notion of cryonics, preserving the recently deceased in the expectation of being able to resurrect them eventually (soon – like millenarians through the ages, transhumanists are convinced they will be around to witness the raising of the dead and the life of the world to come). Others join the war on death by targeting the eradication of bodily aging, believing that it will be possible in their lifetime to reverse the degeneration of organic cells and achieve immortality. The objection that it is the finity of life that makes it meaningful is dismissed as an expression of the pervasive “deathist ideology”.

But the really big dreamers of transhumanism are the proponents of the meat-free option. They see the body as an outmoded device, last era’s technology, and plan to liberate the mind from its sub-optimal hardware. It must be admitted that compared to a computer, the brain is a clunky old thing: “Neurons … fire at a rate of 200 hertz … whereas transistors operate at the level of gigahertz. Signals travel through the nervous system at a speed of about 100 meters per second, whereas computer signals can travel at the speed of light.” So they aim to “emulate” the human mind “on a third-party non-flesh-based substrate” – in other words, upload it to a computer. Serious energy and money is spent in pursuit of “the ideal of extracting the minds of individuals from the material – flesh, blood, neural tissue – in which they have traditionally been embedded”. I love O’Connell’s “traditionally” in that sentence: it captures the transhuman attitude to the passé human form. These are secularists for whom the body is a temple to be desecrated.

Transhumanism’s guru-in-chief is Google high-up Ray Kurzweil. A man who seriously plans to resurrect his dead father, Kurzweil promises us that by merging with technology

We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want … We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.

More than making supermen in the world, the endgame is beings capable of remaking the world itself. Having detached ourselves from organic existence, the next step will be to swallow up the whole material universe so that mind overturns matter and converts everything into itself. O’Connell summarises:

In this messianic vision, machine intelligence will come to redeem the universe of its incalculable stupidity. … Through careful husbandry, the infinite emptiness of the universe – after some 14 billion years of sitting around uselessly succumbing to the inexorable force of entropy – will finally be turned to account as a vast data-processing mechanism.

O’Connell brings us up close to some of the protagonists of transhumanism, as often suit-jacket-no-tie Silicone Valley types (most of the encounters take place in the USA) as colourful eccentrics. He briefly joins the campaign trail of Zoltan Istvan, a candidate in the US presidential election running on a posthumanist ticket, driving around the country in a hearse. A woman in her twenties tells O’Connell with a straight face that “by the age of eleven her ambitions were fixed on, as she put it, ‘starting a for-profit entity in the aging biology space’”. A self-augmenting man (they are nearly all men) explains that “what he imagined himself being was an interconnected system of information-seeking nodes, travelling in ever-widening arcs throughout the universe”.

The most likeable characters we meet are a group of beer-drinking proto-cyborgs or “biohackers” operating out of a shack on the edge of Pittsburgh. With backgrounds in “the punk scene” and no great wealth, these are an antidote to the humourless techno-capitalists and (O’Connell’s term) necro-capitalists of other chapters. They boast of how they have augmented their bodies with cutting-edge tech, but their implants mostly seem to be devices for opening doors. They think big though, and are delightful in their disdain for the human form, which they urgently desire to leave behind like an embarrassing adolescent phase. They explain that people feel uncomfortable about cyborgism because they make the mistake of “anthropomorphizing themselves”: buying into “this really potent illusion that you’re not just a bag of chemicals reacting to shit. Which is what you are.”

The dark sensibility of the cyborg punks sets them apart from the rest of the tribe. The typical transhumanist exhibits an irony-free positivity. For people obsessed with the wonderful potential of the mind, they appear unreflective in the extreme. The anti-deathists presume that eternal life would be eternal awesomeness, not unending boredom, loneliness or despair. They choose not to dwell on the fact, if it occurs to them, that by eliminating old age and sickness they would condemn us all to eventual death by accident or violence – if you live long enough, something’s going to run you over. The brain-uploaders can’t conceive that a hyper-charged, all-consuming, radically free human mind might not be a wholly good thing. These aren’t the type of people who will relate to such European concepts as ennui, angst, or the sickness unto death.

Transhumanists are overwhelmingly scientific materialists who subscribe to the “machines that can think” view of the human being – a “physicalist” understanding whereby there is no need to posit a second, immaterial, thinking substance in the makeup of a person. And here we find the central contradiction of transhumanist thought – these adherents of a strictly physicalist conception of the human nonetheless dream of letting the ghost out of the machine. As O’Connell observes:

A strange paradox lies at the heart of the idea of simulation [i.e. the emulation of the mind on alternative hardware]: it arises out of an absolute materialism, out of a sense of the mind as an emergent property of the interactions between physical things, and yet it manisfests as a conviction that mind and matter are separate, or separable.

O’Connell’s authorial persona is that of a sceptical but curious everyman from the old world of flesh and death – albeit a doctorate-holding, literary-allusion-making everyman. He’s an observer, along for the ride with a notebook, reporting the thoughts and feelings that strike him along the way. He draws engaging portraits of the people and places behind the “transhumanist” label, but at times I found myself urging him to dig deeper into the philosophical and especially the ethical questions thrown up by the subject matter. For the most part, however, he pulls off the balancing act between reportage and reflection, beefing up the latter with eclectic references from the history of western thought, from Gnostic apocrypha to contemporary science.

Between trips to the US to visit immortality labs (“the fine slices of rodent brains preserved in glass like ostentatious servings of neural carpaccio”) and attend robot talent shows, O’Connell lives his life in Dublin with his wife and young son. Some of the strongest passages are those where he draws on this homely experience to critique the strange beyond-the-pale of transhumanism, as when he tries to explain to the cyborgs his hunch that being a human is necessarily being a traditionally embodied human:

I talked about my son, and how my love for him was largely, even fundamentally, a bodily experience, a mammalian phenomenon. When I held him in my arms, I said, I felt his smallness, his compactness, the slender bones of his little shoulders, and I experienced the softness and delicateness of his neck as a physical sensation, a tender swelling, a quickening of the machinery of the heart. I often found myself marveling at how … he was literally a small object, an arrangement of fragile bones and soft flesh and warm unknowable life. And it was this that constituted my love, my animal anxiety and affection for him, little beast that he was.

The blurb of Granta’s UK edition of this book claims it as “the first full-length exploration of transhumanism”. O’Connell is to be congratulated on his timing – the topic is suddenly everywhere. Or at least, it seemed that way to me as I was preparing to write this review. In a supermarket, the front cover of National Geographic showing an illustration of the stages of evolution from ape to human to artist’s-impression cyborg (a bald head with some sort of augmentation that looked like a three-dimensional version of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo), with the headline “The Next Human: Taking Evolution into Our Own Hands”. In n+1 magazine, an excellent article titled “Ghost in the Cloud: Transhumanism’s simulation theology”, by a lapsed Christian who presents transhumanism as nothing but Christian eschatology given a sciencey gloss, part of “a modern pantomime of redemption”. In my twitter feed, a number of articles about a conference held somewhere called the Future of Life Institute and attended by high-profile transhumanist men (for a hyper-modern phenomenon, transhumanism seems to be as male-dominated as any corporate boardroom) including Kurzweil, Tesla’s celebrity CEO Elon Musk and philosopher David Chalmers (who warned the gathering that we could be heading for “a world of great intelligence [but] no consciousness [or] subjective experience at all” – more on him below). A Financial Times article about a planned “cryonics hub” in Texas. And in the New York Review of Books, a review of the latest book by arch-physicalist Daniel Dennett, under the title “Is Consciousness an Illusion?”

That review quotes a sober caution from Dennett: “The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our role as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.” Most of the media coverage strikes a similar tone – simultaneously sceptical and fearful. But there is a certain escapist attractiveness to the optimism of transhumanists. For futurists, they seem unperturbed by warnings of climate catastrophe, thermonuclear war, “sixty more harvests” and the end of antibiotics. Instead they promise that human ingenuity, the same that has been steadily rendering the planet unfit for habitation, can in fact overcome our inbuilt flaws.

Yet the fixation on transcending traditional human existence may have something to do with a failure to appreciate the richness and fullness of lived life. Kurzweil endorses a pathetically inadequate idea of gathering data on a person’s life – photographs, biographical detail, social media activity – with which to reconstruct their personality after death. How hellish an experience would that be, condemned to live forever only what portion of life could be skimmed off the surface and recorded as data? As O’Connell puts it, “Kurzweil’s vision of the future might be an attractive one if you already accept the mechanistic view of the human being.” It’s a vision which leaves little room for the “rich inner life” prized by David Chalmers, originator of the hugely influential “hard problem of consciousness”. With the hard problem, Chalmers throws a spanner in the works of the “mechanistic view of the human being” by showing that it cannot account for the qualitative dimension of subjective conscious experience – “the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C”.

This deep incomprehension extends of course to the political. When asked whether there isn’t a risk that only the wealthiest will have access to the benefits of transhumanist technology, one prominent advocate replies: “Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.” Is that the sort of person who will control the hardware on which our minds are to live in eternal simulation? Come to think of it - who will own those minds? Will we have to rent space on some hard disk, or can we buy a plot outright? If I opt for the meat course, how much will it cost to have my body’s cells periodically rejuvenated? Just what makes transhumanist ideas so attractive to opportunistic techno-capitalists?

You might want to hold off on the down payment until a few creases have been ironed out. Aside from the ethical issues, a practical problem for the idea of mind simulation is raised by the findings of contemporary neuroscience, specifically the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. The idea that you could today make “a blueprint for the reconstruction of [my] brain’s neural networks” and use it to recreate my mind in its entirety on a computer appears to be based on the assumption that when I wake up in the morning, an identical consciousness is reloaded every day, just as when I open Microsoft Word on my laptop shortly after breakfast, it behaves in the same way each time. It seems that the human mind is not like this. As O’Connell explains, “brains constantly reorganise themselves, both physically and functionally, as a result of actual experience”. Mightn’t the mind you extract from me today be different from the one you would get next year, after I’ve learned Mandarin or undergone hypnosis to recover buried memories? (It isn’t clear that transhumanists have heard of the subconscious, by the way. Their vision of the mind is of something flat, all-accessible and mappable.) Transhumanists display little sense of the narrative of an evolving life, and one suspects they don’t read novels. Perhaps they shouldn’t – they might pick up some doubts about their plan to stage silicone second acts for American lives.

Then there is the question of personal identity. O’Connell’s transhumanists are less concerned than you might expect by the paradox that the achievement of immortality could require the obliteration of the person. Many readers will relate to O’Connell’s intuitive reaction to transhumanist doctrine: “I had a very strong feeling … that there was no distinction between ‘me’ and my body.” So who would you be, if your mind were uploaded to a computer, or your body replaced piece by piece with machine parts? In what sense could the person who is “you” continue to exist in such a state? Is it possible for your mind to be “the same” when operating on a computer – and doesn’t the physicalist view require that the mind is determined by the substrate?

Locke’s response would be that if the uploaded mind retained the memories of the embodied person, then there would be continuity of identity – that mind would still be “you”. Locke argued that if the minds of a prince and a cobbler (his examples) were to swap bodies, bringing their memories with them, the person wearing an apron and standing at the shoe repair counter would now in fact be the prince. If the cobbler had previously committed a crime, it would be the person lounging in the palace, able to recall to memory the criminal act, that ought to be convicted. As for immortality, it would be right for the person now occupying the prince’s body to be held to account for the cobbler’s actions on judgement day. For Locke, any afterlife worth the name would have to be one in which you retain your before-death memories. Some kind of unremembering essence evaporating off your corpse and merging with the oneness of existence wouldn’t cut it, since it’s hard to see how that essence could be said to be any kind of continuation of the “you” that played the lead role in your biography.

Mind, body – didn’t there use to be a third element? Locke’s philosophy was controversial in part because he shifted emphasis away from the soul as the bearer of a person’s identity. For transhumanists the question of the soul is, so to speak, immaterial. But even in a positivist, physicalist age, the notion of soul persists as a way of thinking about what it is that gives depth, meaning and worth to human life. It is a name we give to that part of us which is irreducible and beyond price, what makes a human human, and what makes you you. It is a concept which firm atheists may find themselves reaching for when confronted by the ubiquitously predicted artificial intelligence revolution and the increasing urgency of questions about computer consciousness and the status of humans vis-à-vis machines. Perhaps we will transcend our bodies, upload our minds and live forever – but we should remain wary of selling our souls.


Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as a freelance writer and editor. His twitter handle is @MatthewP_B

Articles referred to in this review include:
“Is Consciousness an Illusion?” by Thomas Nagel, New York Review of Books, available at
“Ghost in the Cloud: Transhumanism’s simulation theology” by Meghan O’Gieblyn, n+1, available at