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Only Human

Meet the hackers trying to solve the problem of death.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

In October of 1994, Wired magazine ran a feature about a new Californian subculture, cheerfully titled “MEET THE EXTROPIANS.” Extropianism, the article enthused, was a philosophy of transcendence. With technology and the right attitude—aggressive individualism, cool rationalism, and other vaguely libertarian leanings—followers of the movement would “become more than human.” They would become transhuman, possessing “drastically augmented intellects, memories, and physical powers,” or maybe even post human. They envisioned a future in which human brains would be downloaded and preserved for posterity. So, too, would the human body, through cryogenics.

TO BE A MACHINE by Mark O’Connell
Doubleday, 256 pp., $26.95

These transcendental technologists took the word extropy to mean the opposite of entropy, the process by which all things eventually decay, and they imagined a way of life to match. The Extropians invented an exuberant handshake to greet each other, and referred to themselves as VEPs, or Very Extropian Persons. When they gathered, they called it an “Extropaganza.” An article from Extropy magazine, published in the mid-Nineties, laid out their vision for existence. “You can be anything you like,” Extropy promised. “You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air, and fly; you can teleport and walk through walls. You can be a lion or an antelope, a frog or a fly, a tree, a pool, the coat of paint on a ceiling.” The Extropy Institute, which shuttered in 2006, defined its work as “a symbol for continued progress.”

In their early days, the Extropians looked quaint enough: a group of technophilic counterculturists clustered in a hot tub. But they helped set the stage for a sector of the tech industry that has, of late, been flooded with money from philanthropists and venture capitalists alike. Life extension, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other posthuman ambitions are still very much a part of the techno-utopian agenda, in a way that’s more mainstream than ever. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is looking into blood transfusions as an anti-aging treatment. (“PETER THIEL IS VERY, VERY INTERESTED IN YOUNG PEOPLE’S BLOOD,” Inc. reported last summer.) Google co-founder Larry Page has invested $750 million in Calico, a laboratory for anti-aging technologies. And in 2012, Google appointed Ray Kurzweil, a futurist who believes artificial intelligence will soon allow humans to transcend biology, as an engineering director.

It’s easy to take these ambitions more seriously than those of the Extropians. It’s harder to know where they will lead us. In To Be a Machine, the Dublin-based writer Mark O’Connell infiltrates groups of transhumanists with the aim of discovering how they think and live. A literary critic for Slate and a former academic, O’Connell is less interested in evaluating technology than in the people who make it and its philosophical implications. As he places the quest for immortality under the microscope, he follows the individuals—tech visionaries, billionaires, and futurists—who are trying to eradicate, or dramatically postpone, death. “I wanted to know,” he writes, “what it might be like to have faith in technology sufficient to allow a belief in the prospect of your own immortality.”

This might be another way of saying that the idea of living forever is as influential as the actual possibility of living forever. Immortality is a long shot. But why is it such big business now?

The future, as a concept, has always been lucrative; the more abstract, the better. Though O’Connell doesn’t focus strictly on Silicon Valley—transhumanists dot the globe—transhumanism is a distinctly Californian project. The state has a long legacy of self-improvement programs, exercise crazes, and faddish diets, amounting to a unique brand of bourgeois spirituality. California is a pusher for freedom. Lifestyle is supreme.

These days, this utopian futurism can take the shape of New Age management philosophy, corporate wellness, or the annual conference Wisdom 2.0, which brings together tech luminaries and the spiritual leaders of industry, from Eileen Fisher and Alanis Morissette to the CEOs of Slack and Zappos. Recent years have seen an uptick in venture capital–backed products that carry the promise of not just a better, more productive you, but a better life overall. From Soylent (a meal-replacement drink) to nootropics (capsules that purportedly level-up one’s cognitive ability), investors are pursuing extended youth, neurological enhancement, and physical prowess.

Of course, much of this is less new than it feels. In Silicon Valley, there are no new ideas, only iterations. Soylent looks a lot like SlimFast, a protein drink marketed to dieting women since the 1970s. Nootropics tend to contain ingredients like l-theanine—found in green tea—and caffeine. These companies’ web design has a lot to do with this illusion of newness—sexy front-end design signals trustworthiness and hints that there is something technologically impressive happening on the back end. Their products get a boost from their association with work-addicted engineers, who turn to them as high-tech solutions to self-created high-tech problems. But this promise is bigger than Silicon Valley, and carries with it a distinctly Californian air of self-improvement, of better living through technology.

It is tempting to see transhumanism, too, as merely the latest rebranding of a very old desire. Many of O’Connell’s subjects specialize in the hypothetical. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist who sees death as a disease to be cured. Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist working on mind uploading, wishes literally to become an “emotional machine.” He is also an artist who creates digital scenes resembling early-web sci-fi fan art, and gives them dreamy names such as Dance of the Replicators and Air Castle. Zoltan Istvan, a former journalist who claims to have invented the sport of “volcano-boarding,” ran a presidential campaign that saw him travel across the country in a coffin-shaped bus to raise awareness for transhumanism. He campaigned on a pro-technology platform that called for a universal basic income, and promoted a Transhumanist Bill of Rights that would assure, among other things, that “human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and other advanced sapient life forms” be “entitled to universal rights of ending involuntary suffering.”

Aubrey de Grey’s nonprofit focuses on extending life indefinitely.
Photograph by Peter Searle/Camera Press/Redux

Then there’s Max More, a co-founder of Extropianism, who runs the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Alcor is a cryopreservation facility that houses the bodies—or disembodied heads, to be attached at a later date to artificial bodies—of those hoping to be reanimated as soon as the technology exists. The bodies, O’Connell writes, “are considered to be suspended, rather than deceased: detained in some liminal stasis between this world and whatever follows it, or does not.” Alcor is the largest of the world’s four cryopreservation facilities, and houses 149 “patients,” nearly 70 percent of whom are male. (Alcor also cryopreserves pets.) Its youngest patient is a two-year-old who died due to a rare form of pediatric brain cancer; her “case summary,” posted on Alcor’s web site, shares that her parents, both living, also intend to be cryopreserved. “No doubt being surrounded by familiar faces of loving relatives will make the resumption of her life . . . easier and more joyful,” the case summary ends hopefully, heartbreakingly. To date, science has not suggested that reanimation will ever be possible; the dream of re-uploading one’s mind into a new, living body, at a yet-to-be-determined date, remains just that: a dream.

Those working on immortality are long-term thinkers and fall, broadly, into two camps: those who want to free the human from the body, and those who aim to keep the body in a healthy condition for as long as possible. Randal Koene, like Max More, is in the first group. Instead of cryonics, he is working toward “mind uploading,” the construction of a mind that can exist independent of the body. His nonprofit organization, Carboncopies, aims for “the effective immortality of the digitally duplicated self.” Koene compares mind uploading to kayaking. “It might be like the experience of a person who is, say, really good at kayaking, who feels like the kayak is physically an extension of his lower body, and it just totally feels natural,” he tells O’Connell. “So maybe it wouldn’t be that much of a shock to the system to be uploaded, because we already exist in this prosthetic relationship to the physical world anyway, where so many things are experienced as extensions of our bodies.”

Aubrey de Grey is in the second, body preservationist group, whose efforts tend to be slightly more modest: Rather than solving death, they focus on extending life. His nonprofit, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, focuses on research in heart disease and Alzheimer’s, and other common illnesses and diseases. (SENS, like many organizations the transhumanists are involved with, has received funding from Thiel.) De Grey’s most mainstream contribution is the popularization of the concept of “longevity escape velocity,” which O’Connell explains as such: “For every year that passes, the progress of longevity research is such that average human life expectancy increases by more than a year—a situation that would, in theory, lead to our effectively outrunning death.” One might dismiss such transhumanist visions as too extreme: so many men, so much hubris. And yet, at a time of great cynicism about humanity—and the future we’re all barreling toward—there is something irresistible about transhumanism. Call it magical thinking; call it radical optimism.

A quest for immortality may be the ultimate example of overpromising and under-delivering, but it will still deliver something. Indeed, plenty of the Extropian dreams of anti-aging have already been realized, though these accomplishments now look less futuristic than we previously imagined. Thanks to improved health care, sanitation, and education, we are living longer than our ancestors could have imagined. We sleep with our cell phones. Prosthetics have become increasingly personalized and affordable. Roboticized microsurgery blurs the lines between human and machine skill. In more staid quarters (where most of the money is), the quest for transhumanism is simply biotech.

O’Connell’s focus is on the more extreme transhumanists, those committed to eternal life. But he also meets a few of the transhumanists taking this more incremental approach, edging us closer to longer and healthier lives. Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist working on brain-machine interface technology, created a robotic exoskeleton that can be controlled by brain activity. He exhibited it at the 2014 World Cup, to give a sense of how human and robot might work together in the future. A clear practical application of his work would be to help paraplegics increase their mobility and activity. It’s technology that doesn’t demand that we radically overhaul our idea of reality. It allows us to make minor adjustments.

Nicolelis does not seem to share the technologist’s passion for scalability; though he has proven that brain activity can be translated into data—and that data can be translated into movement—he is not drawn to large-scale projects like whole-brain emulation. “I don’t think we will ever be able to broadcast from one brain to another the essence of the human condition,” he told Popular Mechanics last year. “We love analogies, metaphors, expecting things, and predicting things. These things are not in algorithms.”

As transhumanism gradually alters the length and quality of human life, it will also alter political and cultural life. If the average human life were to span 100 healthy years, then society, the economy, and the environment would be drastically transformed. How long would childhood last? What would the political landscape look like if baby boomers were able to vote for another 50 years? O’Connell’s foray into transhumanism comes at a moment when our democratic institutions look weaker than ever. Wealth is increasingly concentrated among a small group of people. The future, while always uncertain, looks, for many, particularly bleak. Envisioning a future in which transhumanism’s wildest desires are realized is a heady thought experiment, one that quickly devolves into a vision of dystopia: too little space, too many bodies, and—if brains are uploaded from centuries past—obsolete software.

As exciting, ambitious, fantastical, or practical as the transhumanists’ aims may be, they neglect to offer a fully fledged vision for society should they be successful. It would hardly be the first time that actors in Silicon Valley, with an emphasis on speed and scale, innovated first—then scrambled to address the repercussions after they had already arrived.

This is both a core promise and the fundamental problem of transhumanism: It exempts those involved from their debt to the present. As Bill Gates put it in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.” O’Connell finds it odd, too, that “billionaire entrepreneurs” are more interested in developing AI than in eradicating “grotesque income inequality in their own country.” Of course, experimentation is essential to progress, and researchers claim their work will benefit all of humanity in the future. But it raises the question: What future and for whom?

There is something deeply sad about transhumanism, too—a yearning, one that perhaps harks back to the self-improvement doctrines that have so colored California since the halcyon days of the midcentury. The promise of a better world—a better you—is hard to turn away from these days. We are not more than human; we have not found a way to transcend. In the weeks between the election and the inauguration, our collective visions of the future adjusted to accommodate the possibilities of rampant corruption and the rapid perversion of constitutional freedoms, among many other things. It feels indulgent to fantasize about a future in which humanity is optimized for immortality; it feels indulgent to fantasize about a future at all.

Yet I cannot fault the transhumanists for wanting more: more from life, more of life itself. In How We Became Posthuman—published in 1999, and now a touchstone of writing on transhumanism—the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles detailed her ideal version of a posthuman world:

If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality … that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.

To focus on the extremes of posthuman ambition is, it seems to me, to miss the point. As a species, we are slowly nudging along a spectrum. Hayles’s vision is solidly in the middle with its mortality and fallibility, rendered not obsolete but more manageable—more human.