What does it mean to be a machine?

Transhumanism is the subject of To Be A Machine, the the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize-shortlisted book by Mark O’Connell, which explores the philosophy and science behind improving our minds and bodies beyond what nature gave us.

8th September 2017
What does it mean to be a machine? © Liam Norris/Getty Images

© Liam Norris/Getty Images

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. In our oldest written narrative, we find the Sumerian king Gilgamesh, who, distraught by the death of a friend and unwilling to accept that the same fate lies in store for him, travels to the far edge of the world in search of a cure for mortality. Long story short: no dice. Later, we find Achilles’ mother dipping him in the Styx in an effort to render him invulnerable. This, too, famously, does not pan out.
See also: Daedalus, improvised wings.
See also: Prometheus, stolen divine fire.
We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. 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. The whole setup—garden, serpent, fruit, banishment—was a fatal error, a system crash. We came to be what we are by way of a Fall, a retribution. This, at least, is one version of the story: the Christian story, the Western story. The point of which, on some level, is to explain ourselves to ourselves, to account for why it’s such a raw deal, this unnatural nature of ours.
“A man,” wrote Emerson, “is a god in ruins.”

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Religion, more or less, arises out of this divine wreckage. And science, too—religion’s estranged half sibling—addresses itself to such animal dissatisfactions. In The Human Condition, writing in the wake of the Soviet launch of the first space satellite, Hannah Arendt reflected on the resulting sense of euphoria about escaping what one newspaper report called “men’s imprisonment to the earth.” This same yearning for escape, she wrote, manifested itself in the attempt to create superior humans from laboratory manipulations of germ plasm, to extend natural life spans far beyond their current limits. “This future man,” she wrote, “whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

A rebellion against human existence as it has been given: this is as good a way as any of attempting to encapsulate what follows, to characterize what motivates the people I came to know in the writing of this book. These people, by and large, identify with a movement known as transhumanism, 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. They wish to exchange the gift, these people, for something better, something man­made. Will it pan out? That remains to be seen. I am not a transhumanist. That much is probably apparent, even at this early stage of the proceedings. But my fascination with the movement, with its ideas and its aims, arises out of a basic sympathy with its premise: that human existence, as it has been given, is a suboptimal system.

In an abstract sort of way, this is something I had always believed to be the case, but in the immediate aftermath of the birth of my son, I came to feel it on a visceral level. The first time I held him, three years ago now, I was overcome by a sense of the fragility of his little body—a body that had just emerged, howling and trembling and darkly smeared with blood, out of the trembling body of his mother, from whom many hours of fanatical suffering and exertion had been required to deliver him into the world. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. I couldn’t help but think that there ought to be a better system. I couldn’t help but think that, at this late stage, we should be beyond all this.

Here’s a thing you should not do as a new father, as you perch uneasily on a leatherette maternity ward chair beside your sleeping infant and his sleeping mother: you should not read a newspaper. I did this, and I regretted it. I sat in the postnatal ward of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, turning the pages of The Irish Times in gradually mounting horror, browsing through a catalog of human perversity—of massacres and rapes, of cruelties casual and systemic: splintered dispatches from a fallen world—and wondered about the wisdom of bringing a child into this mess, this species. (I seem to remember having a mild head cold at the time; this would not have helped matters.)

Among its many other effects, becoming a parent forces you to think about the nature of the problem—which is, in a lot of ways, the problem of nature. Along with all the other horrors and perversities of the broader human context, the realities of aging and sickness and mortality become suddenly inescapable. Or they did for me, at any rate. And for my wife, too, whose existence was so much more entangled with our son’s in those early months, and who said something during that time that I will never forget. “If I had known how much I was going to love him,” she said, “I’m not sure I would have had him.” The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition. Condition: an illness or other medical problem. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

In hindsight, it seems like more than mere coincidence that this was the period during which I became obsessed with an idea I’d first encountered close to a decade previously, and which was now beginning to consume my thoughts—the idea that this condition might not be our ineluctable fate. That like nearsightedness or smallpox, it might be set to rights by the intervention of human ingenuity. I was obsessed, that is, for the same reason as I had always been obsessed by the story of the Fall, and the notion of original sin: because it expressed something profoundly true about the deepest strangeness of being human, our inability to accept ourselves, our capacity to believe we might be redeemed of our nature.

Early on in the pursuit of this obsession—a pursuit that had, at that point, yet to lead beyond the Internet into what is fondly referred to as the “real world”—I came upon a strange and provocative text entitled “A Letter to Mother Nature.” It was, as its name suggested, a kind of epistolary manifesto addressed to the anthropomorphic figure to whom, for the sake of clarity, the creation and husbandry of the natural world is often attributed. The text, in an initial tone of mild passive aggression, began by thanking Mother Nature for her mostly solid work on the project of humanity thus far, for raising us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion celled mammals with the capacity for self­ understanding and empathy. The letter then smoothly transitioned into full J’accuse mode, briefly outlining some of the more shoddy workmanship evident in the functioning of Homo sapiens: the vulnerability to disease and injury and death, for instance, the ability to function only in highly circumscribed environmental conditions, the limited memory, the notoriously poor impulse control.

The author—addressing Mother Nature as the collective voice of her “ambitious human offspring”—then proposed a total of seven amendments to “the human constitution.” We would no longer consent to live under the tyranny of aging and death, but would use the tools of biotechnology to “endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our expiration date.” We would augment our powers of perception and cognition through technological enhancements of our sense organs and our neural capacities. We would no longer submit to being the products of blind evolution, but would rather “seek complete choice of bodily form and function, refining and augmenting our physical and intellectual abilities beyond those of any human in history.” And we would no longer be content to limit our physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities by remaining confined to carbon­ based biological forms.

This “Letter to Mother Nature” was the clearest and most provocative statement of transhumanist principles I had encountered, and its epistolary conceit captured something crucial about what made the movement so strange and compelling to me—it was direct, and audacious, and it pushed the project of Enlightenment humanism to such radical extremes that it threatened to obliterate it entirely. There was, I felt, a whiff of madness about the whole enterprise, but it was a madness that revealed something fundamental about what we thought of as reason. The letter was, I learned, the work of a man who went by the thematically consistent name Max More—an Oxford­ educated philosopher who turned out to be one of the central figures in the transhumanist movement.

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There was, I came to see, no one accepted or canonical version of this movement; but the more I read about it, and the more I came to understand the views of its adherents, the more I understood it as resting on a mechanistic view of human life—a view that human beings were devices, and that it was our duty and our destiny to become better versions of the devices that we were: more efficient, more powerful, more useful.

I wanted to know what it meant to think of yourself, and more broadly your species, in such instrumentalist terms. And I wanted to know more specific things: I wanted to know, for instance, how you might go about becoming a cyborg. I wanted to know how you might upload your mind into a computer or some other hardware, with the aim of existing eternally as code. I wanted to know what it would mean to think of yourself as no more or less than a complex pattern of information, as no more or less than code. I wanted to learn what robots might disclose about our understanding of ourselves and our bodies. I wanted to know how likely artificial intelligence was to redeem or annihilate our species. I wanted to know what it might be like to have faith in technology sufficient to allow a belief in the prospect of your own immortality. I wanted to learn what it meant to be a machine, or to think of yourself as such.

And I did, I assure you, arrive at some answers to these questions along the way; but in investigating what it meant to be a machine, I must tell you that I also wound up substantially more confused than I already was about what it meant to be a human being. More goal­oriented readers should be advised, therefore, that this book is as much an investigation of that confusion as it is an analysis of those learnings.

The winner of the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize will be revealed on 19 September.

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell is available now (£12.99, Granta)To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell is available now (£12.99, Granta)