This post is not a review. It is an attempt to frame my initial reaction to O’Connell’s eye-opening, thought-provoking, even-handed investigation. It’s a first for me, But this book calls for something different. I found some of the revelations so disquietening, I started underlining. In ink! For a detailed review of the contents and scope of To Be A Machine, I refer you to Annabel.
We’re not quite there yet. (And nailing my colours to the mast at the start, I hope we never arrive.) But then I had no idea that we were so far down the road to, or that so much money was being pumped into research towards changing the human condition as fundamentally as the transhumanist vision. Not that I knew anything about that until I read Mark O’Connell’s 2018 Wellcome Prize winning To Be A Machine. In a nutshell, transhumanists envision the possibility of defeating death through the download of the human brain to a non-degenerative robotic body. Putting aside the philosophical question of whether elements of our being can be separated in such a manner and our consciousness remain intact, my burning question concerns reproduction. How does that happen in a world where all consenting adults have turned themselves into machines? Perhaps it doesn’t. As no-one dies, there’s no need for children. Heaven for some? Hell for others? Either way it signifies the end of the human race for me. Assuming that our belligerent human nature will survive this brain transference, at some point the resulting cyborgs will find a pretext to start warring against each other. MAD – an acronym I hoped (in vain) had disappeared with the Cold War – seems assured.
And (what remains of) the world is left as an inheritance for the bona-fide robots. Those with AI minus the positronic brain of Asimov’s robots; a brain capable of learning and feeling without human intervention but constrained by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. How can I be so sure? Because we’re already ignoring the first. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Would we create military drones if we were paying any attention to that? Or even seriously consider using new technologies, not only to restore the injured, but to create superior military human-machine hybrids as “the key to survival and operational dominance in the future”? Which is exactly what we’re doing.
Left to our own devices, and in theological terms, we are – it’s called free will – it appears we really are on a mission to replace ourselves. That the richest and some of the most creative of our species are knowingly pursuing this objective with some even willing to trade their own healthy limbs for mechanical substitutes (as soon as they can find a willing surgeon) is what O’Connell – an atheist – rightly calls an “absurdist parody of social privilege”.
The transhumanists call it the next stage of evolution, and accept it as a given. But only for those with money, because whatever procedures are to be invented, these will be costly. And so another two-tier society is created, one to be dominated by the superior homo roboticus. Eventually death will be defeated, and tbose whose faith in this future is such that their bodies or heads are currently cryogenically frozen will be resurrected. (The theological lanaguage is no accident, either. O’Connell demonstrates clearly that transhumanism is as much a religion as any other that requires faith in the unseen.)
Somewhere there’ll be a work of science fiction predicting this and showing how it might turn out. (Was Robocop a novel before it was a film?) Like Asimov’s I,Robot, the prescience of which is extraordinary. That ends with human society ruled by the Brain, a superior intelligence created by man but no longer able to be controlled by him. Or fixed, should it turn rogue.
Fortunately the Brain remains constrained by the Three Laws, and, therefore, mankind’s best interests remain paramount.
Unfortunately, as previously discussed, the field of robotics and transhumanism appears to be veering from that track.
The consequences – unintended or otherwise – don’t bear thinking about, and yet weeks after finishing O’Connell’s book, I am unable to stop thinking about precisely that.