To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

Review published on July 1, 2017.

Nowadays technology is pervasive; you are rarely more than a few feet away from a smartphone or some sort of internet-enabled device. But there are some people out there who want to take it further, much, much further. Not only do they want to embrace technology, but quite a few of them want to actually inhale it; to change their bodies, improve their minds, maybe even become immortal. These people are looking beyond humanity; these people want to be transhuman.

O’Connell poses the question: what is next for humanity? To answer this question will take him all around the world to meet the weird, the wonderful and the slightly disturbed people who are trying to answer it. He visits the DARPA Robotics Challenge to meet engineers who are building the next generation of robots that are capable of learning and have awareness of their surroundings, a frightening thought when you consider the implications. He visits a cryogenics company who will remove and store your head with the promise that it will be available should the technology reach the point where it can resuscitate you, something that no one can predict if this will ever happen at this current moment. Teenagers seem perfectly happy to be constantly holding a phone, but there are those that want the technology to be always available and who are hacking their own bodies to install home-made electronics within themselves. Some are seeking immortality and are looking for ways to postpone death indefinitely and there are those that see that immortality should be capturing the mind and uploading it as you would do with photos.

These concepts that O’Connell explores on his journey through transhumanism are starting to move from the pages of science fiction into the mainstream. We already have athletes who compete in the Paralympics that are capable of equalling regular competitors and as our trust grows in technology we are looking at ways of enhancing our humanity. We, as a species, have many limitations, but the one we do not lack is imagination. Turning those ideas that the people in this book have into practical solutions is another level up on where we are at the moment, but humanity is nothing but ingenious. As an electronics and mechanical engineer this book both fascinates and terrifies me at the same time (am I the only one who had the name Skynet pass through my mind). There is the potential of the enhancements that can change people’s lives for the good, but there are lots of very real problems that need to be addressed. No one can categorically say if these things will work, or if they will benefit us, or what the implications are of submitting our lives to the responsibility of robots helpers will be. An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.

Paul Cheney 3/3

To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell
Granta Books 9781783781966 pbk Mar 2017

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