On the glass coffee table at the Alcor premises in the Arizona desert, there’s an illustrated children’s book titled Death is Wrong. The cover shows a child forcing Death to leave empty-handed. In the building, there are enormous reservoirs containing over a hundred frozen people, all of whom paid huge amounts of cash to be put into a cryogenic state. As soon as cures have been found for the diseases that killed them, their bodies will be thawed. Or perhaps technology will advance so far the information in their brains can be retrieved and transferred to a computer or a robot.
“You can choose to have your entire body treated, but the other – cheaper – option is to have only your head done”, Irish writer Mark O’Connell explains. “In theory, you only need your brains, which they’ll put into a new body or something, that’s the idea.”
Alcor is described in O’Connell’s To Be a Machine (2017). Last week, the writer gave a talk at the Brave New World Conference in Leiden. For his book, he went in search of scientists, philosophers, technologists and even politicians who are interested in transhumanism.
“There are people who don’t see life and death as mere existentialist philosophical matters; they roll up their sleeves and look for ways to make life eternal, or at least, ways to extend life beyond the normal span. I’m not happy with the thought that I could die at any moment. It’s not cool that we all have to die. But I’m not sure about living forever as a machine or my brains being stored as data either. That’s even scarier. It’s a strange kind of paradox.”
Transhumanism focuses on going beyond the natural boundaries of human life, in different ways. Take one group, for instance, in a basement in the American city of Pittsburgh, who regard themselves as cyborgs and want to enhance themselves with electronic implants. In fact, they’ve set up a company called Grindhouse Wetware. Tim Cannon, software developer, biohacker and the man who attracts the public’s attention to the company, resolutely rejects our biological bodies, claiming that we’re underdeveloped apes. In the book, one of Cannon’s colleagues says: “We can’t even see X-rays, how shit is that?”
If he had his own way, Cannon would replace all his body parts. “I don’t care if I look like a Mars Rover. I don’t give a damn.” Nonetheless, his eleven-year-old daughter doesn’t agree with him. “I think she’s quite attached to my face.” Cannon caused a stir some years ago when he inserted an implant the size of a pack of cards into his underarm. The device sent biometric data to his phone every five seconds. Doctors refused to carry out the surgery, O’Connell writes, but Cannon found a “body technician” in Berlin who was willing to do it – raw dog, i.e. without anaesthetic.
Despite the outlandishness, some outsiders are attracted to the idea. “One of the weirdest things that happened to me after publication was a lawyer from London who sent me an email to say she’d never heard of transhumanism but had got a microchip implant after reading my book.”
“People sometimes ask me if I’m not worried about meeting such characters. I was only frightened once, when I joined transhumanist Zoltan Istvan on his election tour. He wanted to run for president in the 2016 American elections. Istvan travelled in a quite an unusual way: in a thirteen-metre mobile home he’d converted into a coffin. The vehicle was as hot as an oven and leaked oil, so I did have a couple of worrying moments – I could imagine us going over the edge of a ravine, which would have been an ironically silly death, especially in the light of my research.