Could technology help make humans immortal? If that sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, the transhumanist movement is attempting to make it a reality. In the 2016 election, the movement ran itsfirst presidential candidate and a formal political platform promising to designate aging a disease and lay the groundwork for giving “advanced sapient beings like conscious robots and cyborgs” rights. Silicon Valley millionaire investors Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis are pumping money into the movement to support giving humans non-biological parts; Google’s biotechnology company Calico intends “to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.”
Those are a lot of lofty ideas; so what does the movement look like on the ground? In his new book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, The Millions staff writer Mark O’Connell clears the air. Informed by travels to conferences and laboratories nationwide, the book profiles the movement’s heterogeneous and incongruous members and guides readers through biotech and biomedical firms creating brain implants and artificial superintelligence. While recent surveys show that the American public at large is still uncomfortable with the idea of “human enhancement,” O’Connell’s work is fueled by a larger question: How has technology already changed what it means to be human, and how will that meaning change in the future? While sometimes touching upon transhumanism’s more unsavory roots, To Be a Machine serves up an overall uplifting answer, in line with transhumanism’s characteristic optimism in the face of powerful technologies.