To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Mark O’Connell witty, insightful and sometimes deeply moving account of his research on the topic of transhumanism deserves a place in the bookshelf of anyone interested in the future of humanity. Reading To Be a Machine is a delightful trip through the ideals, technologies, places and characters involved in transhumanism, the idea that science and technology will one day transform human into immortal computer based lifeforms.

For reasons that are not totally clear to me, transhumanism remains mostly a fringe culture, limited to a few futurists, off-the-mainstream scientists and technology nuts. As shared fictions go (to use Yuval Harari’s notation), I would imagine transhumanism is one idea whose time has come. However, it remains mostly unknown by the general public. While humanists believe that the human person, with his/her desires, choices, and fears, should be the most important value to be preserved by a society (check my review of Homo Deus), transhumanists believe that biological based intelligence is imperfect, exists purely because of historical reasons (evolution, that is) and will go away soon as we move intelligence into other computational supports, more robust than our frail bodies.

O’Connell, himself a hard-core humanist, as becomes clear from reading between the lines of this book, pursued a deep, almost forensic, investigation on what transhumanists are up to. In this process, he talks with many unusual individuals involved in the transhumanist saga, from Max More, who runs Alcor, a company that, in exchange for a couple hundred dollars, will preserve your body for the future in liquid nitrogen (or 80k for just the head) to Aubrey de Grey, a reputed scientist working in life extension technologies, who argues that we should all be working on this problem. In de Grey’s words, cited by O’Connell “aging is a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale, a massacre, a methodical and comprehensive annihilation of every single person that ever lived“. These are just two of the dozens of fascinating characters in the book interviewed in place by O’Connell.

The narrative is gripping, hilarious at times, but moving and compelling, not the least because O’Connell himself provides deep insights about the issues the book discusses. The characters in the book are, at once, alien and deeply human, as they are only trying to overcome the limits of our bodies. Deservedly, the book has been getting excellent reviews, from many sources.

In the end, one gets the idea that transhumanists are crazy, maybe, but not nearly as crazy as all other believers in immortality, be it by divine intervention, by reincarnation, or by any other mechanisms so ingrained in mainstream culture.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, the sequel to the wildly successful hit Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, aims to chronicle the history of tomorrow and to provide us with a unique and dispassionate view of the future of humanity. In Homo Deus, Harari develops further the strongest idea in Sapiens, the idea that religions (or shared fictions) are the reason why humanity came to dominate the world.

Many things are classified by Harari as religions, from the traditional ones like Christianism, Islamism or Hinduism, to other shared fictions that we tend not to view as religions, such as countries, money, capitalism, or humanism. The ability to share fictions, such as these, created in Homo sapiens the ability to coordinate enormous numbers of individuals in order to create vast common projects: cities, empires and, ultimately, modern technology. This is the idea, proposed in Sapiens, that Harari develops further in this book.

Harari thinks that, with the development of modern technology, humans will doggedly pursue an agenda consisting of three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. Humanity will try to become immortal, to live in constant happiness and to be god-like in its power to control nature.

The most interesting part of the book is in middle, where Harari analyses, in depth, the progressive but effective replacement of ancient religions by the dominant modern religion, humanism. Humanism, the relatively recent idea that there is a unique spark in humans, that makes human life sacred and every individual unique. Humanism therefore believes that meaning should be sought in the individual choices, views, and feelings, of humans, replaced almost completely traditional religions (some of them with millennia), which believed that meaning was to be found in ancient scriptures or “divine” sayings.

True, many people still believe in traditional religions, but with the exception of a few extremist sects and states, these religions plays a relatively minor role in conducting the business of modern societies. Traditional religions have almost nothing to say about the key ideas that are central to modern societies, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the freedom of choice, ideas that led to our current view of democracies and ever-growing market-oriented economies. Being religious, in the traditional sense, is viewed as a personal choice, a choice that must exist because of the essential humanist value of freedom of choice.

Harari’s description of the humanism schism, into the three flavors of liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism (Nazism and other similar systems), is interesting and entertaining. Liberal humanism, based on the ideals of free choice, capitalism, and democracy, has been gaining the upper hand in the twentieth century, with occasional relapses, over socialism or enlightened dictatorships.

The last part of the book, where one expects Harari to give us a hint of what may come after humanism, once technology creates systems and machines that make humanist creeds obsolete, is rather disappointing. Instead of presenting us with the promises and threats of transhumanism, he clings to common clichés and rather mundane worries.

Harari firmly believes that there are two types of intelligent systems: biological ones, which are conscious and have, possibly, some other special properties, and the artificial ones, created by technology, which are not conscious, even though they may come to outperform humans in almost every task. According to him, artificial systems may supersede humans in many jobs and activities, and possibly even replace humans as the intelligent species on Earth, but they will never have that unique spark of consciousness that we, humans, have.

This belief leads to two rather short-sighted final chapters, which are little more than a rant against the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Harari is (and justifiably so) particularly aghast with the new fad, so common these days, of believing that every single human experience should go online, to make shareable and give it meaning. The downsize is that this fad provides data to the all-powerful algorithms that are learning all there is to know about us. I agree with him that this is a worrying trend, but viewing it as the major threat of future technologies is a mistake. There are much much more important issues to deal with.

It is not that these chapters are pessimistic, even though they are. It is that, unlike in the rest of Homo Deus (and in Sapiens), in these last chapters Harari’s views seem to be locked inside a narrow and traditionalist view of intelligence, society, and, ultimately, humanity.

Other books, like SuperintelligenceWhat Technology Wants or The Digital Mind provide, in my opinion, much more interesting views on what a transhumanist society may come to be.

The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity

Following the release in the US,  The Digital Mind, published by MIT Press,  is now available in Europe, at an Amazon store near you (and possibly in other bookstores). The book covers the evolution of technology, leading towards the expected emergence of digital minds.

Here is a short rundown of the book, kindly provided by yours truly, the author.

New technologies have been introduced in human lives at an ever increasing rate, since the first significant advances took place with the cognitive revolution, some 70.000 years ago. Although electronic computers are recent and have been around for only a few decades, they represent just the latest way to process information and create order out of chaos. Before computers, the job of processing information was done by living organisms, which are nothing more than complex information processing devices, created by billions of years of evolution.

Computers execute algorithms, sequences of small steps that, in the end, perform some desired computation, be it simple or complex. Algorithms are everywhere, and they became an integral part of our lives. Evolution is, in itself, a complex and long- running algorithm that created all species on Earth. The most advanced of these species, Homo sapiens, was endowed with a brain that is the most complex information processing device ever devised. Brains enable humans to process information in a way unparalleled by any other species, living or extinct, or by any machine. They provide humans with intelligence, consciousness and, some believe, even with a soul, a characteristic that makes humans different from all other animals and from any machine in existence.

But brains also enabled humans to develop science and technology to a point where it is possible to design computers with a power comparable to that of the human brain. Artificial intelligence will one day make it possible to create intelligent machines and computational biology will one day enable us to model, simulate and understand biological systems and even complete brains with unprecedented levels of detail. From these efforts, new minds will eventually emerge, minds that will emanate from the execution of programs running in powerful computers. These digital minds may one day rival our own, become our partners and replace humans in many tasks. They may usher in a technological singularity, a revolution in human society unlike any other that happened before. They may make humans obsolete and even a threatened species or they make us super-humans or demi-gods.

How will we create these digital minds? How will they change our daily lives? Will we recognize them as equals or will they forever be our slaves? Will we ever be able to simulate truly human-like minds in computers? Will humans transcend the frontiers of biology and become immortal? Will humans remain, forever, the only known intelligence in the universe?


Is mind uploading nearer than you might think?

A recent article published in The Guardian, an otherwise mainstream newspaper, openly discusses the fact that mind uploading may become a real possibility in the near future. Mind uploading is based on the concept that the behavior of a brain can be emulated completely in a computer, ultimately leading to the possibility of transporting individual brains, and individual consciousnesses, into a program, which would emulate the behavior of the “uploaded” mind. Mind uploading represents, in practice, the surest and most guaranteed way to immortality, far faster than any other non-digital technologies can possibly aim to achieve in the foreseeable future.

This idea is not new, and the article makes an explicit reference to Hans Moravec book, The Mind Children, published by Harvard University Press in 1988. In fact, the topic has been already been addressed by a large number of authors, including Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, Nick Bostrom, in Superintelligence, and even by me in The Digital Mind.

The article contains an interesting list of interesting sites and organizations, including CarbonCopies, a site dedicated to making whole brain emulation possible, founded by Randal A Koene, and a reference to the 2045 initiative, with similar goals, created by Dmitry Itskov.

The article, definitely worthwhile reading, goes into some detail in the idea of “substrate independent minds”, an idea clearly reminiscent of the concept of virtualization, so in vogue in today’s business world.

Picture source: The Guardian

Are Fast Radio Bursts a sign of aliens?

In a recently published paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, from the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, propose a rather intriguing explanation for the phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). FRBs are very powerful and very short bursts of radio waves, originating, as far as is known, galaxies other than our own. FRBs last for only a few milliseconds, but, during that interval, they shine with the power of millions of suns.

The origin of FRBs remains a mystery. Although they were first detected in 2007, in archived data taken in 2001, and a number of FRBs was observed since then, no clear explanation of the phenomenon was yet found. They could be emitted by supermassive neutron stars, or they could be the result of massive stellar flares, millions of times larger than anything observed in our Sun. All of these explanations, however, remain speculative, as they fail to fully account for the data and to explain the exact mechanisms that generate this massive bursts of energy.

The rather puzzling, and possibly far-fetched, explanation proposed by Lingam and Loeb, is that these short-lived, intense, pulses of radio waves can be artificial radio beams, used by advanced civilizations to power light sail starships.

Light sail starships have been discussed as one technology that could possibly be used to send missions to other stars. A light sail, attached to a starship, deploys into space, and is accelerated using energy in the sending planet by powerful light source, like a laser. Existing proposals are based on the idea of using very small starships, possibly weighting only a few grams, which could be accelerated by pointing a powerful laser at them. Such a starship could be accelerated to a significant fraction of the speed of light in only a few days, using a sufficiently powerful laser, and could reach the nearest stars in only a few decades.

In their article, Lingam and Loeb discuss the rather intriguing idea that FRBs can be the flashes caused by such a technology, used by other civilizations to power their light sail spaceships. By analyzing the characteristics of the bursts, they conclude that these civilizations would have to use massive amounts of energy to produce these pulses, used to power starships with many thousands of tons. The characteristics of the bursts are, according to computations performed by the authors, compatible with an origin in a planet with a size approximately the size of the Earth.

The authors use the available data, to compute an expected number of FRB-enabled civilizations in the galaxy, under the assumption that such a technology is widespread throughout the universe. The reach the conclusion that a few thousands of this type of civilizations in our galaxy would account for the expected frequency of observed FRBs. Needless to say, a vast number of assumptions is used here to reach such a conclusion, which is, they point out, consistent with the values one reaches by using Drake’s equation with optimistic parameters.

The paper has been analyzed by many secondary sources, including The Economist and The Washington Post.


Image source: ESO. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Black Mirror, a glimpse of the (near) future


If you didn’t yet watch any episodes of Black Mirror, a British series created by Charlie Brooker, go and fix that now. The 12 episodes of Black Mirror have been rated by The Wrap from “Good” to “Mind Blowing”, and they all cover the anticipated and non-anticipated consequences of new technologies.

According to the series creator, “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” 

The series analyses, sometimes in excruciating ways, how new technologies, such as social networks, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence, can lead to unexpected, if plausible, lifestyles, problems and challenges.

Reaching “longevity escape velocity”…

The concept that we may one day reach “longevity escape velocity“, a point in time when life expectancy increases by more than one year, every year, is not new. Many people believe that advances in medical and biological sciences will one day create the possibility that humans will live, if not forever, at least for millennia.

An interesting and very informative article in The Economist surveys some of the many ongoing efforts towards extending human longevity.


The “low tech” approach is based on the idea that calorie restriction (CR), the consistent ingestion of significantly less calories that what is normal, will significantly prolong life. Although the evidence is scant that CR is effective in normal humans, there exists some evidence that, under this regimen, other animals (and unicellular organisms) tend to live longer. The idea is that even a life extension of a few years may take you past the threshold where medical science may extend your life for centuries. So, a Pascal’s Wager makes sense: a few decades of sacrifice, in exchange for centuries of happy life.

More high-tech approaches include genetic manipulation and the development of special drugs that may delay ageing, such as metformim, resveratrol, or rapamycin. Clinical trials are at present very limited, because ageing is not considered a disease  and, as such, anti-ageing drugs cannot get regulatory approval. Self-experimentation seems to be very common in the field, though.

Interest in this type of research is likely to increase, as the population of developed countries ages, and the prospect of significant increase of life expectancy becomes more real. Believers in the singularity have one more incentive. After all, you only need to live enough to get to the singularity.