To Be A Machine
Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death
Mark O'Connell, 2017, Beaverton Library 306.461 OCO
The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them. --- Henry David Thoreau
This book does not have an index or explicit citations, my usual way of sampling a book by a process not controlled by the author. Since O'Connell does not accomodate my discovery process, I sampled a few pages randomly, and concluded that he started with his conclusion and selected biased examples to support it. He offers a bibliography, perhaps as a showcase of his starting assumptions, but not specific citations. I do not have time to watch a polemicist wield his rancor.
Ambitious people (like Aubrey deGray) set very high goals, and will almost surely "build a woodshed" by the end of their career. That is the nature of accomplishment; even the most creative people I know fear that they have fallen short, and will be forgotten. The high goals are there to focus attention, gather comrades, and set a straight course - they are almost never achieved.
The "Modest Problem of Death" is an infinite goal; perhaps by aiming at that, we can solve the very real problem of the irreplacability of neurons in the human brain. We've already invented a crutch for that - the printed page - and will invent better ones. We've also invented tools (like voice navigation from "smart" phones) which do little more than steer us towards goals chosen by others, diminishing ourselves as rational, competent, independent people in the process. I vaguely "feel O'Connell's pain", but he is a producer of computer text, and is working much farther along the path to "machine intelligence augmentation" than he may care to acknowledge.
The process is there, and always has been; we started turning people into machines with the invention of religious ritual and military drill, thousands of years ago. For a brief time (the early internet, open source software, desk top publishing) we used new tools to expand freedom; those tools are now used to herd us into tighter channels and a vision of the future designed (by accident or intentionally) to cow us into obedience. The "A.I. will conquer us all" is a myth that cohabits with "the infinite exponential" and "the singularity" (A.K.A. "divide by zero"), the idea that somehow computation will become cheap enough to transcend all aspects of human ability. Not anytime soon...
Indeed, powerful groups ( cough cough NSA cough cough Madison Avenue cough cough ) will use computation to amplify their power. It is not the machines that are the problem, but our spineless surrender to these powerful groups. Kill your TV, ditch your behavior-modifying "smart" phone, use a paper map sometimes, and open your eyes to the world around you; you will retain more autonomy and human intelligence. You won't replace these powerful groups, but you will weaken them by the absence of your contribution to them.
Those of us who have worked with machines all our lives know that they don't "heal" easily; they fail without a lot of human effort to prevent that. The question is always: "is the effort we devote to these machines helping us multiply the efforts that matter to us?" If we are not thoughtful about our time investments, and beneficent in our relations to others, our machine-centric efforts simply distract us from our goals and rob others of our generosity. If we are thoughtful, our efforts make our tools more useful to us and the people we care about, and extend our caring around the world.
O'Connell does not write about this frequently enough for me to find evidence of this in my admittedly sparse sampling of this book. I have other goals, which machine enhancement may help with, and this book is does not help me make better decisions about that. The author has an axe to grind, and human targets to attack with it. I read enough to conclude that my own successes are likely to put me on his target list. But so what? My impression is that he is not as capable as any of the people he skewers, even if those people are unlikely to directly achieve very many of the goals that they seek and he fears.
If there is a second edition, with citations and an index rather than snarky polemic, I'm quite willing to delve deeper, perhaps expand my thinking. For now, an upsetting, plodding cover-to-cover reading would be a waste of about six hours that I have better uses for.