Mark O’Connell “To Be a Machine” – book review

I found this a very enjoyable read. O’Connell describes the growing movement of transhumanism. This movement is made up of people  (often, but not necessarily of a computer science background) who believe in the analogy between the human body being hardware and the brain being the operating system. If our hardware becomes obsolete, the idea is that the human brain can be uploaded into another medium. This is why people tend to pay good money to have their bodies, or even just their heads, frozen. The belief is that in time, those brains will be reuploaded and ‘reincarnated’ in machine-form.

I really enjoyed reading O’Connell’s take on the subject. I am new to it – and I shared his skepticism and curiosity. Especially the parallels he points out with other dualist movements of the past – the idea that the essence of being human is intellect, untinged by the bodies needs or even emotions.

O’Connell also describes the people in Google who await the coming of the Singularity. In case, like me, you haven’t read enough Science Fiction, the Singularity is the time when artificial intelligence will run far more efficiently than humans ever could, and human brains basically become immortal and conquer the surrounding galaxies. Why artificial intelligence should particularly want humans to be immortal is anyone’s guess.

Here’s Steve Wozniak’s take on this problem: we will become pets of superintelligent robots, but this will actually be a good thing. Robots “will know they have to keep nature and humans are part of nature.”

The book may ostensibly pretend to be about developments in technology, but truly it is an exploration of human fear of death. An excellent example would be the transhumanist candidate for US president who drove around the US in a bus made to look like a coffin called the “immortality bus”, which was an attempt to convince the US government that it should spend more money on longevity research.

Another example is Peter Thiel ( a co-founder of PayPal) who wrote: “Death will eventually be reduced from a mystery to a solvable problem.” He is currently funding an increasing number of programs – mainly aimed at reducing the effects of human aging, ultimately with the goal of achieving immorality. When asked whether such projects would likely exacerbate economic inequality giving long life to the rich and short to the poor, he said that “Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.” I have to say, unconvinced as I ultimately was by Shelley Kagan’s Yale University Course on death, Peter Thiel might benefit from it.

An exciting fact for anyone of a Slavic background is that the word ‘robot’ comes from Czech, from a 1921 play by Karel Čapek (The play is called R.U.R – Rossum’s Universal Robots”). It shares the stem of the Czech (and also Polish) word “robota”, which simply means “work”.

I recommend this book to people who want to know what Silicon Valley is currently up to.

Favourite quotes:

“This is one of the problems with reality: the extent to which it resembles bad fiction.”

“Creating your cyber-self accelerates your joyful immorality” read the bearded latecomer.
Jason interjected. “That’s supposed to be ‘joyful immortality’, actually.”
“Says ‘immorality here.”

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