The Machine of Life

How will the new futurists react when confronted with their mortality?

'Death Comes to the Banquet Table' (detail) by Giovanni Martinelli (1635)
April 8, 2017

Here's a new book about how wonderful the next stages of the cyber-revolution are going to be: Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence by Richard Yonck, a contributing editor to The Futurist magazine. And here's another: The Digital Mind: How Science Is Redefining Humanity by Arlindo Oliveira, president of the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon.

Recent months have also brought us Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence—and Where It's Taking Us by the widely published technology writer Luke Dormehl. And What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing by Arizona State University professor Ed Finn. In case that's not enough, you can always go for Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and self-designated cheerleader for modern atheism. And if you get bored with that, you can add in the more worried Data for the People by Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at Amazon, and The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick, the convicted-felon hacker, free from prison and wondering where computers are taking us.

Or you can just skip them. The moral reasoning in these books rarely rises above a freshman-level ethics class, and the metaphysical analysis is more like a late-night bull session in the dorm after those freshmen have had a few beers: But, like, Turing said that if you can't tell if you're talking to a computer, then it's a mind, you know? Each of these authors is smart, for certain values of the word smart, especially Oliveira, Dormehl, and Weigend. But even the professional writers among them have a prose that clatters, connecting thoughts like train cars being slammed together. And they all have the kind of intelligence that imagines it can fly because it is so completely ungrounded.

I gave up on Harari, the anti-religion activist, around the point he informed his readers that the name Eve derives from the Hebrew word for snake and thus, you know, Judaism is basically nothing more than a harvest-festival cult. I gave up on Yonck after he insisted that proof of the coming of emotional machines is found in the fact that cavemen had tools before they had language. I gave up on Finn once he found himself incapable of explaining the agency, the final causation, that he ascribes to bits of computer code as he speaks of what algorithms want. In truth, these books are far more interesting in general than they are in particular, and the bulk of them suggests far more compelling thoughts than any one of them manages on its own.

Although the authors tend toward the happy-happy end of futurism—Soon we will live like George Jetson!—they begin in outrage. It's outrageous that our bones break and our cells fail. It's outrageous that we have such flimsy bodies. It's especially outrageous that we die. The indignation here is metaphysical, a fury at the human condition, and it has its root down in Francis Bacon's modernity-defining claim that science is born in rejection of the world as unchangeable.

Unfortunately, the new futurists' panangelicum is not Bacon's seventeenth-century New Atlantis, much less Thomas More's sixteenth-century Utopia. Instead of plowing ahead on the path that early modern thinkers pointed out, seeking to ameliorate the shocks that flesh is heir to, the new generations of computer-enamored writers seem to have taken a detour—and found themselves looping back to recreate, all unknowingly, the old hatred of the material world taught by the gnostics of late antiquity. If it's outrageous that our bodies fail us, then we should try to eliminate the body. If it's outrageous that we die, then we must become immortal. If it's outrageous that human existence is so sloppy and fragile, then the human parts of us will simply have to go.

So let us become computer programs, you and I. Let us upload our consciousness into the cloud. Let us turn insubstantial, immaterial. Let us be pure spirit, just as the old gnostics wanted. What could possibly go wrong? Not just self-improvement is involved here. Soon robots will be human, fully self-conscious and aware. So we must computerize ourselves in self-defense.

Part of these writers' ungroundedness is their inability to believe that rational thinkers could possibly disagree. Back in 1624, John Donne suggested that "affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it." It's not enough that the new futurists imagine Donne is mistaken. For these modern gnostics—especially the religion-hating futurist Yuval Noah Harari—people like Donne must be either idiots or hypocrites. Only rank stupidity or evil motives could produce a thought so manifestly wrong.

And thus, human sympathy soon follows the human condition down the drain. Richard Yonck, for example, begins with love for the promise of emotional machines—and he ends by insisting that those who are bothered by the idea of robot sex are the exact equivalent of the racist opponents of miscegenation. Luke Dormehl starts with great optimism about humans in the cyber future. "Barring some catastrophic risk," he writes, artificial intelligence "will represent an overall net positive for humanity when it comes to employment." But by the conclusion of Thinking Machines, he suggests that the intellectual advantages of neural nets will compel us to cede them rights—giving them our jobs and forcing us to upload ourselves into computer code.

The other worrisome part of these books is their certainty that the gnostic transformation will happen soon. Years ago, teaching logic to young engineers, I had a student who insisted he could simply take the time to keep following an infinite regress. When I suggested that, if nothing else, death convinces us of our finitude, he had an answer. "I'm not going to die," he explained, "because by the time I get old enough to die, medical science is going to have cured whatever it is that I was going to die of."

I think about that student from time to time, wondering what happened to him when he learned about mortality. The new futurists are all older than my student was, but even in their adulthood they seem to share his sophomoric conviction that never-endingness lies just around the corner. Yuval Noah Harari is already an angry man, but what will the ebullient Richard Yonck do—what rage will possess him—when he discovers that he is born to die? How will Luke Dormehl and Ed Finn take the news? For them that think death's honesty / Won't fall upon them naturally, / Life sometimes must get lonely.

We seem to have some weakness that lures us to think fundamental change is barreling down upon us. As it happens, the utopians and dystopians do share one thing in common: For centuries now, neither group has been much more successful at predicting the future than the gypsy lady who reads palms down on 18th Street. But still we imagine that this time, it's going to be different. This time, the world will change.

The current futurists tend toward happy visions of the world to come, but along the way to their utopias they take our susceptibility for the new and divert it to the old, old belief that there's something ugly and vile, something outrageous, about life in a fragile material body. Why should the new gnostics differ much from the old? Each of them longs to be an animal, a tree, a stone, an angel, a machine—anything but a human being.

Published under: Book reviews