Over the next few weeks, I will be shadowing the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist with fellow book bloggers Rebecca, Laura, Annabel and Paul. The £30,000 prize is awarded to a book about any aspect of health, medicine or illness and this year’s six shortlisted titles are:
I read and reviewed the only fiction title Stay With Me last year which leaves the five non-fiction titles to read over the next few weeks. First up is ‘To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death’ by Mark O’Connell which was also shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year. While most of the books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist deal with illness, ‘To Be a Machine’ is more about what it is to be human or “post-human” in which O’Connell, a freelance journalist, explores the transhumanist movement which is “predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species” (p.2) and advocates “nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself” (p.6). In other words, transhumanists want to eliminate ageing as a cause of death.
Like the subtitle of the book, O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism, particularly the wildly optimistic and outlandish claims made by those such as gerontologist Aubrey de Grey who tells O’Connell that the chances of him living to be 150 years old are “a little better than fifty-fifty”. I read a large chunk of ‘To Be a Machine’ earlier this week when my journey to work was delayed by over an hour due to a broken down train. I would have shared O’Connell’s cynicism of such utopian beliefs in any case, but finding ways to double life expectancy definitely seemed far less pressing than improving the technology and infrastructure that enables me to show up to work on time where I do a job which hopefully won’t be replaced by a robot any time soon.
One of the most humorous parts of O’Connell’s travels is when he attends the DARPA Robotics Challenge which shows that while machines can be programmed to play chess with grandmasters and process complex calculations in the blink of an eye, they haven’t quite caught up with functioning on an emotional level yet. Other aspects of transhumanism such as the cryonics facility in Arizona could potentially inspire future episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ and while some of the people O’Connell meets during his bizarre travels come across as relatively harmless eccentrics, it is also evident that an awful lot of money is being invested in projects by Silicon Valley tech billionaires who take it very seriously.
In a week when Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have come under intense scrutiny for data mining and a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona, ‘To Be a Machine’ has been particularly timely reading. It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself, but I wonder how it will stand up against some of the other shortlisted titles written by authors with a more scientific background. I look forward to reading the rest of the shortlist before the winner is announced on Monday 30th April.