Writer Mark O’Connell explored the very real world of the super rich wanting to live on forever
For the past year Mark O’Connell, originally from Kilkenny, a Trinity College Dublin PhD in English literature, has become synonymous with one of the more colourful existential questions troubling some of the world’s richest technology tycoons – how to transcend the limitations of mortal flesh.
Despite his resolutely non-scientific background – he is at pains to stress he is not, and never has been nor has ever purported to be, a science writer. Yet his book has been embraced by both the scientific and literary communities for its clear eyed reporting of the phenomenon of transhumanism.
Transhumanism, a term originally coined in the 1950s by the brother of ’s Aldous Huxley, envisages the use of technology to transcend corporeal limitations and questions what it means to be human.
TV and cinema viewers will have seen some of the themes pursued in blockbusters like Netflix’s Altered Carbon, Sky Atlantic and HBO’s WestWorld reboot, and the recent Blade Runner 2049 among many others.
Mark, 37, is Slate’s books columnist, a regular contributor to The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” blog and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review among others. As he describes it he found he found himself increasingly reading about the growing fear that a super-human-level artificial intelligence (AI) might wipe humanity from the face of the Earth. But the people expressing these fears were not the usual scare-mongerers but the titans of technology and Silicon Valley themselves, whose fortunes were made from the algorithms, among them Tesla billionaire Elon Musk who called (AI) as “our greatest existential threat” whose development is “summoning the demon.”
PayPal founder Peter Thiel declared “People are spending way too much time thinking about climate change, and way too little thinking about AI.”
Physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, warned AI could be “the biggest event in human history” but also “the last…unless we learn to avoid the risks.”
Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said he could not “understand why some people are not concerned.”
This prompted Mark to go off and find out a little more for himself. In the course of his exploration he found himself in a company that cryogenically freezes people’s bodies and decapitated heads until some moment in the future when science might be able to bring them back to life and a man intent on digitizing people’s minds or consciousnesses so they can be uploaded after death to other bodies – in much the same way we store data on the cloud or transfer everything from our old phones or computers to new ones.
He recalled his visit to the Alcor Life Foundation: “There was a floor with the stainless steel cylinders and all these bodies contained within them and corpses and severed heads. That imagery is something that I will take with me to a grave, whether that’s a refrigerated cylinder or an actual grave.”
Speaking to the Irish World ahead of the publication of his book in paperback next week he said he was surprised at how frightened people had been by his findings.
“I’m slightly taken aback by how frightening people have found it all but then I was so immersed in the milieu for so long that I probably became immune to how weird and troubling it is to others.
“I am not a big scientific person, either science fact or science fiction, or wasn’t before this, in fact I was probably a bit of an ignoramus on scientific matter,” he said.
One of the great attractions to him of being a writer is the ability to come into a subject like a gatecrasher. At a Science Book Prize evening in the past year he was asked by Professor Brian Cox what science authors and books had inspired him: “I felt a bit of a fraud. I didn’t approach this as a scientific writer and do not hold myself out as a scientific expert of any kind. I haven’t even read Carl Sagan, my PhD is in Literature, I am a literary critic.”
But that literary and factual precision – rather than the dense academic writing so often associated with PhDs – has brought him considerable kudos.
The recent birth of his child had spurred him to find a topic to write about how weird it is to be alive in a body that’s decaying and dying, he says, pointing out that while he is not a person of faith but not an atheist and is often drawn to religious, spiritual or philosophical writing that examines such matters.
“I’m not religious but I am drawn to that kind of thinking,” he says.
He found PayPal founder Peter Thiel – whose vast, luxurious bunker in New Zealand for the end of the world he profiled for The Guardian last week – one of the scariest. Thiel, he says is typical of some of the billionaires who are preoccupied with the apocalypse and protecting themselves and everything they have in the event of end of days – because they have so much money and amassed every material thing they could ever want already.
He says Tesla founder Elon Musk, whom he did not get to meet or talk to, loomed like Melville’s great white whale throughout his whole quest and could not help thinking that of all of them, Musk’s innovations in battery power, may be the greatest technological legacy for future generations.
“The story of scientific progress is, after all, so many happy accidents,” he says.
The most charismatic person he met was Randal Koene whose Carboncopies foundation supports brain emulation.
“I was really struck by the tension between the madness of the idea that he might be able to eventually convert the human mind into code and talking to this normal, really smart guy who was explaining really clearly his ideas and making them seem, if not imminently achievable, quite sensible.
“I was quite swayed by him. In a weird way Randal’s work seems like some of the least crazy stuff,” he says.
All of these questions have, of course, been around as long as humanity – see Prometheus – and examined thoroughly during the Age of Enlightenment and by writers like Mary Shelley a couple of hundred years ago.
“Actually I re-read Frankenstein and thought a lot about it, while I was doing this book. I do not know if it, the essential question, has moved on that far in any sense, the whole mechanistic view of what it is to be human versus what else might there be.
“But for me transhumanism is people who think that we should incorporate technology into ourselves, to use technological evolution to push forward the evolution of the human animal.
“These people want to not be human in a very sort of radical and thoroughgoing way. They want to be literally machines.
It tells you a lot about privilege
“They all came to it in a similar kind of way. Most of them were already obsessed during childhood or growing up with not just death, but the sort of general limitations of being human, of the frustrations of not being able to do certain things, not being able to live infinitely, not being able to explore space, not being able to think at the level they wanted. All obsessed with human limitations.
“Most of them shared a similar moment where they went online, they discovered that there was this whole community of people who had the same concerns and philosophies, and they became transhumanists, even though they were without knowing the name.
“They’re all largely tech people and science people. It’s hugely a white male thing and it tells you a lot about privilege.”
He says he can empathise with their wish not to die, at one level, but the whole experience and the realisation that we appear to be at a point where technology is bringing with it its own momentum and a particular cultural moment, made him embrace his own identity not just as a human, but as an animal, a mammal, with all the frailties and weaknesses that entail and loving others for the same relative weaknesses.
In the course of his research he interviewed University College Berkeley’s Professor of Computer Science Stuart Russell, who co-wrote a core text on artificial intelligence with Google’s Research Director Peter Norvig ().
He directed him to a passage by from a 1960 article by the founder of cybernetics Norbert Wiener which he said sums up the core conundrum of today: “If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it because the action is so fast and irrevocable that we have not the data to intervene before the action is complete, then we better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire and not merely a colorful imitation of it.”
So, what conclusions, if any, would Mark like readers to take away from his book?
“I’m very often accused of raising more questions than answers but I don’t want to tell people how to act or what to think, I suppose I want people to be provoked into thinking about these things and answer questions for themselves.”