Book review: To Be A Machine

Mar 24 2017

It seems like everybody is reviewing the book To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O'Connell, and most of the book reviews are, to be frank, kind of pants.  The mainstream book reviewers seem to have read only the first and last chapters and make light (at best) or a joke (at worst) of the life's work of people who are actually doing the work in some parts of the medical profession instead of just playing "Won't it be nice when..." on Slack channels and Facebook.  A lot of people in the transhumanist community seem to be panning it because it was written by an outsider who took the time to ask thoughtful, critical questions of people who don't seem used to being questioned.  If nothing else, being unused to being questioned poses a problem to the field as a whole because it means that mistakes are caught much later than they otherwise would be, plus it shows a blind spot of the existential risk research community.

Disclaimer: I'm briefly mentioned in the book near the end as some guy at a Transhuman Visions conference in 2014.  While yes, I have some skin in this game I completely forgot this guy was there, mostly because we spoke for maybe thirty seconds tops.  The pizza after the conference was pretty good, though.

In the very first chapter, O'Connell sets the stage for us by stating up front that he isn't a transhumanist which, to the community and reader, marks him as an outsider.  He doesn't have any skin in this game, which means he doesn't have any of the preconceived notions or assumptions that many of us in the transhumanist community have.  In anthropological terms O'Connell is an outsider, someone observing from the outside.  He opens with the birth of his first child and segues into ruminations on his own mortality, as one supposes many parents do.  He then brings up a classic in the community, A Letter to Mother Nature, penned by Max More in the year 1999.  The next chapter describes attending a lecture about intelligence augmentation as a primary goal and later chatting with Anders Sandberg, one of the visionaries of the community that many of us want to be when we grow up.  O'Connell seems to repeatedly conflate the option of uploading one's mind in such a fashion that it can (theoretically) be re-instantiated elsewhere in the fashion of other forms of software with actually becoming a machine, primarily by not defining what machines are and are not.  This does a great deal of research in the field of neurology (explicitly transhumanist and otherwise) a great disservice.

In later chapters, O'Connell visits the headquarters of Alcor, a company in Arizona that performs cryonic suspension on the terminally ill in the hope that they may be resurrected later through advanced scientific means.  O'Connell seems taken aback by the use of what he seems to be euphemistic terminology without seeming to register that it is the correct medical terminology for fairly serious procedures (vis a vis, preparing entire bodies or only heads for preservation in Dewar flasks full of liquid nitrogen).  What O'Connell does not seem to do is discuss any of the legitimate criticisms of the field of cryonics, such as the formation of ice crystals ruining cells and destroying their information content or patients simply not making it to the Alcor facility in time.  A chapter or two later O'Connell writes about meeting Randal Koene of carboncopies.org and his collaborative work into practical mind uploading; again, he concentrates on ruminating about the field and whether or not he feels comfortable with the idea, but very little about the solid, measurable scientific advances that have come about from the laboratory work.  Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense from an outsider laying out criticisms and commentary on a community, and for that I applaud him.  As history has shown time and again, there is no shortage of technologies that can improve the human condition, but if there is no social acceptance or widespread interest, they slip through the cracks and are all but forgotten.  It is easy to imagine most any transhumanist technology befalling the same fate.  It's also clear that O'Connell didn't seem to acclimatize to the Bay Area - either you get used to the smell of pot in the air and pee in the BART stations, lousy coffee, and bewildering selection of beer just about everywhere or you don't - which may have loaned strength to his commentaries.

No text about transhumanism would be complete without a chapter or two on Ray Kurzweil and the Technological Singularity, and O'Connell covers these with aplomb.  Insofar as the chapter A Short Note On the Singularity is concerned, he breaks no new ground.  This is followed by a discussion of existential risks and x-threats with Nick Bostrom at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge.  This is, paradoxically, one of the more interesting interviews in the book because Bostrom, face to face anyway, speaks cogently and clearly on the various related fields of transhumanism as potential existential threats as well as their pros and cons but misses an excellent opportunity to bring transhumanism back down to Earth, an oversight which sticks out like a toilet punger in a bowl of cereal.  For reasons too complex to go into here, I cannot discuss the author's visit to the offices of MIRI in the Bay Area, but suffice it to say that he discusses the prospect of Artificial General Intelligence without stopping to question whether or not it really is possible to program or grow human-equivalent sapient software.

I can't help but wonder what he would think about DARPA's Cyber Grand Challenge at Defcon last summer.

A bit later in the text O'Connell gets onto the topic of practical robotics, practically a mainstay in books about technology (and rightly so).  The author was one of the lucky civilian attendees of another DARPA competition, the Robotics Challenge in 2015.  Here O'Connell grounds us for a goodly length of time as he goes into some detail as a spectator about all of the problems that the entrant robots in the competition had, from not being able to handle their remote control radio links being jammed to difficulties with trivial seeming tasks, such as turning a doorknob.  As Marvin Minsky so famously said, "Easy things are hard."

After that, O'Connell discusses the time he spent with the denizens of Grindhouse Wetware, an open source biotech startup near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania working on practical implantable devices above and beyond what most people are coming to consider normal these days.  In my reading of the text, he doesn't seem to know what to make of them at first, and veers off into an exposition of the classical cyborg, possibly to give readers something more-or-less familiar to compare what he's already written about them with.  Traditionally speaking, when we discuss the phenomenon of cyborgs we speak of organic beings that have been repaired or augmented with permanently installed technological devices, vis a vis the Six Million Dollar Man on one end of the spectrum, and the Terminator on the other.  He works to interpret the work of these grinders against the metaphor of the Ship of Theseus, which implies that O'Connell is on the static identity side of the identity matrix (there is nothing wrong with that; it's simply a useful clue for interpreting his text).  Interestingly, he doesn't mention anything about the other aspects of the field, such as the F/OSS prosthetic limbs constructed and gifted by the Enabling the Future Project.

O'Connell's status as self-aware outsider to the community really shines through in the chapter simply entitled Faith towards the end of the book.  The chapter describes one of the Transhuman Visions conferences of 2014 at which various paths were discussed against the topic and community of transhumanism at large.  He didn't seem to know what to make of the attendees or presenters that day.  I got the impression that he had some idea of the kind of people he would be there with (both in appearance and in demeanor) but the impression was incorrect when he actually met and interacted with everybody that day.  The diversity of presenters that day (the unique history of Henry Pellissier, a born-again Christian, a practicing Buddhist, a Mormon, a Wiccan, a student of The Urantia Book, a Seventh Day Adventist, and a Raelian).  He also goes into the after-conference pizza dinner and (semi-)public rite held by a representative of the Terasem path, and what appears to be confusion admixed with skepticism bleeds through the ink on the page.  To be perfectly honest I wasn't quite sure what to make of some of the things that day, either, so I do not condemn him for this, only point out its manifestation in the text.  It is in this chapter that he either comes to terms with or figures out how to serialize his relationship to the transhumanist community: He states that he is a user of technology, not a technologist, and not really interested in integrating technology as tightly into his life and person as we are.  I don't know if he's okay with that or not.

The book ends with a travelogue of sorts of his time aboard Zoltan Istvan's Immortality Bus as it toured the southern United States during his presidential campaign.  O'Connell's opinion of Zoltan seems to align with that of many of us: Love him or hate him, Zoltan has a gift for being media-friendly, is well-spoken and glib, and has a way of hitting your buttons just hard enough to make you pay attention and listen without actually pissing you off, a rare gift indeed.  I can't speak to O'Connell's characterization of Zoltan as being blind to nuance or the realities of baselines' life but he does go into Zoltan's general stance of speaking of the self in instrumentalist, mechanical terms and metaphors.  O'Connell also seems to characterize Zoltan's stance on death as something approaching a personal insult.  He discusses the irony of the mechanical problems the Immortality Bus experienced while on the road when compared to the seemingly negentropic goals of the radical life extension community.  O'Connell also talks about the deliberately divisive rhetoric of "deathist" doctrines, which seems to alienate people who might otherwise contribute new points of view and work to the transhumanist worldview.

Strangely, O'Connell does not seem to speak much of nanotechnology, long the Tuesday's child of the transhumanist community in his text.  More's the better; everybody seems to do that but rarely do they do it with any grace, precision, or background research.  Looking back on the reading, O'Connell seems to show an uncertain amount of confusion, or perhaps contempt for members of the community improving their bodies in seeming mundane ways.  He comments briefly on the diets and exercise regimens of the transhumanists he met but fails to register the practical, here-and-now health benefits of careful dieting and regular execise.  On one hand, I can understand a half-formed expectation that we would be using things like electrical muscle stimulation and handfuls of designer drugs ala Kurzweil to improve our bodies.  On the other hand, I don't know how many of us actually do those things (or where they're posting about their results - hint hint) so I cannot, in good conscience, say those parts of the text are good or bad, I merely make an observation for you to use as you will.

All of that said, it wasn't a bad book.  I recommend it to people who are curious about the transhumanist community, or who are looking at a nuanced critique of the fields and subcommunities of the movement.  If you buy the books and really don't like it (or want to throw it against the wall), leave it on public transit for somebody else to read if they're curious.  7.5/10 stars.