The Modest Problem of Death: On Mark O’Connell’s “To Be a Machine”

By Nicole ClarkMarch 4, 2017

The Modest Problem of Death: On Mark O’Connell’s “To Be a Machine”

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

MARK O’CONNELL’S To Be a Machine gives voice to the transhumanist movement, which is predicated on the belief that technology should be used to extend human life and eventually achieve immortality. Transhumanism may appear to approach the occult, but many of the innovations O’Connell writes about have already infiltrated our collective consciousness. Uber is crafting artificial intelligence capable of manning self-driving cars. Don Hertzfeldt’s The World of Tomorrow, an animated short about mind uploading, won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film at Sundance. The Terminator series and its lead cyborg need no introduction. “Science is an almanac of unlikely victories,” O’Connell writes. These are the stories of the scientists who believe they can emerge victorious over death.

But cheating death is no simple undertaking. O’Connell’s scientists are weighed down by serious ethical questions, some of them conflicting. Can ascetic transhumanists be compared to Buddhists, insofar as they reject self-indulgence for the express purpose of living long enough to develop technology that makes them immortal? If you believe that the mind is separate from the body, and if you upload it into a robot body after you die, “would it be [you]?” Society embraces prostheses for the handicapped, but how much technological enhancement can be attached or implanted into the body before you are no longer human? Does our reliance on smartphones make us cyborgs already? Why would people believe so fiercely in the promises of transhumanism when the technology to attain it has not yet arrived?

Despite the heady subject matter, O’Connell never really attempts to “solve” these big philosophical questions. Instead, he positions himself as a spectator to the movement, a stand-in for any “non-transhumanist” so that he may draw parallels between his own beliefs and those of the scientists and entrepreneurs he is profiling. This means we are not taken aback by the severity of certain transhumanist doctrines. Take, for example, this anecdote that precedes O’Connell’s explanation of the transhumanist belief that humanity is plagued by “the tyranny of aging and death”:

Becoming a parent forces you to think about the nature of the problem — which is, in a lot of ways, the problem of nature […] the realities of aging and sickness and mortality become suddenly inescapable. […] [My wife] said something during that time 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.”

Though most of us don’t view death as expressly “tyrannical,” many of us will one day become parents and can, therefore, relate.

Each chapter of To Be a Machine follows a comforting pattern of anecdote, personal profile, and then elucidation of parallel between the transhumanist thought process and O’Connell’s own. We are eased into such bizarre subject matters as the economic impact of cryogenic freezing and the price difference in preserving your whole body as opposed to your “severed head” — a cephalon, technically speaking. All of this is done in the witty, and sometimes cheeky, language we’d expect from someone who included “solving the modest problem of death” in the title of his book:

Ask your doctor if immortality is right for you.

Ice crystals are high on the list of things that will seriously fuck up your post-resurrection quality-of-life prospects.

If you’re a neuro-patient, there is the matter of your decapitation to be attended to.

O’Connell ties his chapters together through an introspective meta-discourse — he not only depicts his thoughts as he observes transhumanists in real time, but also reflects on them from the perspective of a writer passing judgment on the subject months later. This self-consciousness is used, to great effect, in describing the parody of monster truck racing that is the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Every year, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), holds a robotics competition around a different theme. Though the technology is intended for the army, it often results in consumer products, the internet being the most memorable example. The particular event O’Connell covers is a competition to find a robot that could best assist emergency responders.

Imagine crowds of people watching, on massive Jumbotron screens, robots attempting to sift through rubble in dangerous terrain. Now factor in the absolute reality that robots are horrible at enacting what we consider to be basic tasks of perception and motility, despite having computing power that easily outstrips the intelligence of man. O’Connell describes his assessment in the middle of the action:

There was a burst of enthusiastic applause, and the robust drumbeat and rumbling bass line of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” blasted from the PA system, as footage of some of the mornings’ more audacious feats of vehicle-exiting and door-opening and lever-pulling played on the Jumbotron.

He then reflects on it further, shedding light on the absurdist humor of the situation:

These robots are literally inhuman, and yet I react no differently to their stumblings and topplings than I would to the pratfalls of a fellow human […] I found the robots’ pratfalls comical, in other words, not simply because in their forms and failures they resembled humans, but because they reflected the strange sense in which humans were themselves mere machines.

O’Connell’s meditations echo Henri Bergson’s understanding of the comic, whereby “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds of us of a mere machine.” He goes on to stipulate that the more similar the body is to a machine, while still retaining enough subtlety to be considered “human” in appearance, the funnier the action. O’Connell has struck at the same truth, one that pervades much of our reactions to AI and cyborgs. Recall, for instance, the iconic dance scene in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, in which a cyborg and her creator dance together in perfect synchrony. While we laugh at a robot emulating a human action with great finesse, we also laugh at the human, for whom learning a choreographed dance is an intensely mechanical phenomenon. All of which raises the question: How are the boundaries between human and nonhuman really drawn?

O’Connell’s most revelatory moments are when he is able to unearth these inexorably true, yet freaky insights. O’Connell cites Yeats’s works on being “imprisoned within one’s body” as being “a fundamental condition of being human.” He recounts Lauren, a 14-year-old researcher at MIT, who is driven to transhumanism because she can’t bear the limitation of her grandmother’s frailty, or the reality that she’ll eventually die. It really isn’t until our bodies malfunction — be it through sickness or aging — that we begin to consider them “wetware,” something separate from the mind or consciousness. Our minds may be sharp, but our ability to participate and interact is dependent on the machinery of our bodies. When we are sitting in bed with the flu, our minds are alive, but we can’t physically do anything.

More important, however, is that O’Connell reveals how the language of transhumanism encourages us to make this peculiar jump of separating mind from body. He profiles a group of transhumanists who go “raw dog,” opting to undergo a medical procedure without anesthesia, reveling in the insertion of technology that is too big into human flesh, just to prove a point. The usage of slang that repurposes the communion of bodies to the communion of technology to flesh is jolting and disorienting. It’s even more disconcerting to repeatedly hear the human body called a “substrate” or a “meat machine.” The number of times the word “meat” is casually used in To Be a Machine is both humorous and appalling. (Even now, I find myself admiring the flexion of the bones under my skin and repeating the refrain “meat, meat, meat” as I type.) Such moments of profundity can feel heavy-handed, but more often than not, they are offered to us as the wanderings of a fully immersed mind.

I wasn’t able to forgive O’Connell for his heavy-handedness in the arena of religion. While I found elegance in his comparisons of the Singularity — the moment technology outpaces human intelligence and potentially eradicates humanity — to the Rapture, I could really only equate transhumanism to religion insofar as they both promised some form of immortality. But this observation does not seem revelatory to me. It felt more like an excuse for O’Connell to digress into the realm of art and scripture, where mankind’s origin story needed to be retold to affirm the author’s knowledge of the Western canon. I found a stronger parallel in an area the book did not so explicitly explore: the fact that transhumanism and religion both require their adherents to put their faith in something that hasn’t been proven true. And the fact that adherents will squarely and adamantly spout illogical syllogisms in order to prove themselves right. Longevity escape velocity is a good example:

This was the notion that the pace of technological advancement in the area of life extension would eventually increase to the point that, for every year that passes, average human life expectancy increases by more than a year—at which point, the theory goes, we put a comfortable distance between ourselves and our own mortality.

For others, transhumanism is simply a last ditch hope. Note that these are still people who have gone through the trouble of paying $200,000 to have their bodies cryogenically preserved.

The key sales pitch here is that it’s got to be at least worth a shot, because although you may not be guaranteed resurrection if you sign up, you’re seriously diminishing your chances if you don’t.

Even more ridiculous are those who treat transhumanism as a religion. They believe it so strongly their “bible” tells adherents: “We should never say goodbye to deceased loved ones because we will see them again in cyberspace.”

These are only a few of the contradictions O’Connell reveals in his volume. The problem isn’t that individuals within the movement have conflicting goals — in fact, it would have been a problem had O’Connell grouped all transhumanists together, a problem paramount to calling all Christians with differing practices somehow “wrong.” What O’Connell reveals is a fundamental blindness in the way many of these transhumanists go about their own work, indicative of the paradoxes within the movement itself. The cyborgs who are so focused on enhancing the body with technology and prosthetics seem ignorant of the way they’re destroying their bodies. “What they were interested in was a final liberation I found difficult to see as anything other than annihilation,” O’Connell writes. To put things more philosophically: Isn’t living forever its own form of imprisonment?

This lack of self-awareness is latent within the Artificial Intelligence Safety industry. Its leaders grumble that the industry is underfunded and underexplored, billions of dollars are being spent on building AI without sufficient thought into how we can protect ourselves from the ramifications of bad code. And bad code can result in mass devastation:

Imagine you have a massively powerful artificial intelligence, capable of solving the most vast and intractable scientific problems. Imagine you get in a room with this thing, and you tell it to eliminate cancer for once and for all. The computer will go about its work, and will quickly conclude that the most effective way to do so is to obliterate all species in which uncontrolled division of abnormal cells might potentially occur. Before you have a chance to realize your error, you’ve wiped out every sentient life form on earth, except for the artificial intelligence itself, which will have no reason not to believe it has successfully completed its task.

These are egregiously high stakes, but the story illustrates transhumanists’ general lack of future-oriented thinking quite well. A quainter example is given in the form of a robot designed to efficiently make paperclips. The robot begins destroying valuable property in order to make said property into more paperclips. After explaining these caustic outcomes, Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, goes on to lament the news coverage of his work. He believes the media has sensationalized the coverage of artificial intelligence safety. O’Connell writes:

Their complaints about the media’s sensationalistic reporting of their claims were undermined by the fact that the claims themselves were already […] about as sensational as it was possible for any claim to be. It was difficult to overplay something as inherently dramatic as the potential destruction of the entire human race.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Zoltan Istvan, a California entrepreneur who ran for president in 2016 on the platform of achieving immortality. Istvan preaches immortality as a moral imperative, claiming that society is “deathist” — society has accepted we will all die one day — and that not funding research into immortality makes us complacent. He goes so far as to calculate how many lives he would save by eradicating death, in a speech that feels reminiscent of declaring the end of a war or announcing the discovery of a cure for the plague. There is a bizarre ignorance of gravity and scale in these claims. O’Connell writes, “[is] dying of old age not, in this sense, the ultimate First World Problem?”

Istvan’s methodology is even wackier. He decides to hit the campaign trail in his Immortality Bus. Out of context I am sure this sounds bizarre, but I can assure you that it’s equally bizarre in context. The bus is decorated to resemble a coffin. Istvan graphs the minutes he expends on non-campaign related human interaction, in order to calculate the optimal miles per hour needed to make up for the time lost. Once on the bus, O’Connell explains that Istvan deems sex too dangerous — fraught with STDs and unrequited feelings — and is holding himself out for “sexbots.” Istvan goes on to say a number of similarly puzzling and often insulting things. Take for example:

Zoltan seemed genuinely not to understand why people with disabilities were so deeply offended by this insistence that it was they who needed “fixing,” rather than the discriminatory attitudes that were manifested in the urban environment, and in the comments like his own. The underlying premise of transhumanism, after all, was that we all needed fixing, that we were all, by virtue of having human bodies in the first place, disabled.

For all of O’Connell’s efforts in characterization, he fails to give the people he profiles an acute sense of humanity. They read like caricatures — machines designed to drive plot — rather than individuals with whom you could actually empathize or engage. With any kind of doctrine, there will be extremists, but O’Connell has rendered all transhumanists as extremists. By infantilizing transhumanist leaders, he trivializes a number of their closely held beliefs. And while there is nothing necessarily wrong in doing this — O’Connell is quick to assert that these are his specific opinions because he is “not a transhumanist” — the underestimation of the transhumanist movement might be precisely what enables them to fly under the radar and pass such ableist policies.

Ultimately, O’Connell isn’t shy in stating his belief that death is what gives life meaning. He invokes the gravity of death in the book’s penultimate chapter by sharing a cancer scare, a choice that echoes the words of his dramatic opening: “All stories begin in our endings, we invent them because we die.” What he does less well is convince us that life is also something that needs solving. And this is where O’Connell wants to lead us. Despite his detailed portraits of the forbearers of the movement, with their “airtight logic” and jazz hands, we simply can’t depart from the ultimatum of death itself. Most of us can’t fathom a life that isn’t given meaning specifically because we will one day no longer have it.


Nicole Clark is an editor at The Bold Italic and a creative strategist for Off Assignment. Her writing has also been published in Femsplain.

LARB Contributor

Nicole Clark is an editor at The Bold Italic and a creative strategist for Off Assignment. Her writing has also been published in Femsplain.


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