Fed up with your body? Forget about changing, just trade it in. Upgrade to a better model with guaranteed durability.

Feeling stupid? Upload your mind to a machine and avail of our special AI introductory offer.

These could be the commercials of the not so distant future but there will be planned obsolescence, faulty fixtures and deluxe, luxury models not the Utopia futurists imagine.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 1951 original, directed by Robert Wise, is one of my favourite all time science fiction films. Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, an alien sent to earth with a dire warning about its future. The people of Earth react to his visit with defensive aggression but marvel at Klaatu’s extraordinary health, considering he’s 75 years old. As the military put a guard on the alien’s spaceship and his silent robot companion, Gort, Klaatu tries to explain to a gathering of scientists the earth is on a path of self destruction. Then he explains Gort.

That has always been a key point for me about the film. Gort, he says, is a machine his planet built for the express purpose of curtailing their worst instincts like greed, hate and destructive jealousy: because what he, Gort, could do to them was just so terrible, it’s beyond consideration.

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine reminded me of that film and particularly, Gort, an artificially intelligent robot programmed to control and prevent his maker’s worst impulses.

In the space of two years O’Connell set out on a voyage of discovery through the world of transhumanism, a philosophical conceit that covers a desire to become a machine, conquer death and shed the frail and inadequate shells we call bodies.

It’s an entertaining and informative read, part philosophical discourse, part travelogue and the rest an often hilarious encounter with people who, some might say, have too much time and money but who may, despite our sarcastic scepticism, be the precursors of a new age of the living or just the next stage in a program of preconditioning that began a long time ago.

Films like Robert Wise’s could be part of that last impulse, too. In the early 18th century the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson built a mechanical duck that was capable of eating grain, metabolising it and then defecating. This shitting duck and deVaucanson’s mechanical flute player were characterised as ‘androids’, the first recorded use of that word. O’Connell’s superbly researched book is full of rich nuggets of knowledgeable nothingness like that.

For example, when Czech playwright Karel Capek brought his play, R.U.R. to the stage in Prague in 1921, he introduced the word ‘robot’ to the lexicon since the title’s initials stand for Rossum’s Universal Robots and the word, robot, itself derives from the Czech word, ‘robota’, meaning forced labour. Or how the word ‘cyborg’ first appeared in a scientific paper titled ‘Cyborgs in Space’ was published in  the Astronautics journal in 1960 in a discussion about how unsuitable the human body was for space exploration.

O’Connell meets many of the prime movers of the strands of transhumanism, from the advocates and promoters of artificial intelligence to those whose fervent wish is to become robots either by preserving their bodies in cryo-suspension or simply uploading their being to a computer. Then there are the cyborg enthusiasts, known as ‘grinders’, who can’t wait for science or fate and have taken to implanting machines in their own bodies. He spends the last three chapters of the book recounting his adventure, travelling  across the United States in a beat up bus turned in to a coffin with U.S. Transhumanist Presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, whose political intent was to promote a campaign to eliminate death.

Now, before you begin the instinctive and dismissive head and hand wagging these stories are prone to promote, please be aware that millions, maybe billions of dollars are already being spent in this and all these pursuits. Robots and androids are being built. There is research into longevity and the elimination of death and artificial intelligence is already a reality.

People use phones like they’re an extension of their bodies. How big a step will it be to put those machines inside you? And it isn’t just science fiction that has raised these issues. The subject of mortality has been a preoccupation since the first sentient human stood up and farted.

Are the ‘freedom’ and ‘free will’ we prize so highly just illusions and are we simply conditioned to behave towards someone else’s purpose while lingering under the notion that what we do, how we do it and why is by our own free choice? Anyone with a rudimentary awareness of global economics can see the lie in that delusion.

But To Be a Machine raises more questions than, I suspect, it ever set out to ask. Like if death is eliminated, how do you solve over-population? What about natural selection and regeneration? If we become mechanical beings, what happens to human emotions?

The transhumanists, according to O’Connell, believe these questions are manifestations of society and religion’s careful conditioning through the ages but I believe it wasn’t religion or conditioning but careful observation that drew people to the conclusion that life is a product of death.

Do people want to live forever? Six months before my father died at the age of 93, he told me he’d had enough. It was a theme he touched on with increasing regularity. He had a pacemaker and a smorgasbord of stents keeping his heart beating and his body functioning. His mind was lucid and alert.

If their world comes true and the substance of the mind – memory, reasoning intelligence  and experience – separates itself from the physical body, will those bodies then take on the function of municipal bike renting schemes, something the mind could borrow when it needs one?

There is a poem, Death is Not the End, which is popular at funerals but for some odd reason it is the words of Dylan Thomas in his poem, And Death Shall Have No Dominion that seems to best express, however unintentionally, the motivation of transhumanism although I’m equally sure they wouldn’t agree.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

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