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Future Imperfect: Transhumanism, Immortality, and Science's Legacy of Sexism

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In the wake of that Google memo manifesto, the Edinburgh Book festival hosted a two-part discussion on the sexism in scientific research and the future of science and scientific progress. The discussion was led by Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, and Mark O’Connell, author of To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.

One key theme running close to the centre of discussions of both books was the cultural gendering of thought styles and processes, with those of us in the western world often thinking of rationality as somehow fundamentally associated with the masculine (and often conversely associating the emotional and intuitive with the feminine). This sort of easy separation into diametric oppositions is appealing if only because it allows us to categorise things neatly and without much thought, but Saini argues that it is part of a process that has constructed a world in which scientific research itself becomes gendered.

In a scenario in which scientific research and advancement are often pursued by teams composed largely of men, questions begin to arise about the extent to which that research can accurately represent women. Indeed, this question forms the foundation of Saini’s book, which interrogates some of the fundamental assumptions that science and scientists make about women and their role in society and culture. These assumptions are questioned with a healthy dose of competing research and contradictory statistics throughout the book, challenging what Saini refers to as science’s “legacy of exclusion.”

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This legacy of exclusion is also born out by O’Connell’s work on the future of science. Looking specifically at those at the forefront of science-fiction-seeming fields like transhumanism, cryogenics, and cybernetics, O’Connell reports that the individuals he spoke to were overwhelmingly male. 

Death has, historically, been the one thing that no amount of money, power, or influence could hold sway over. It is, as O'Connell puts it, the great equaliser. Sadly, given that much of his book is dedicated to people whose ultimate goal is to solve "the modest problem of death,” the overall impression is that we are living in a world in which that last bastion of equality might now be under threat as an overwhelmingly male and stupefyingly wealthy group try to untangle the foundations of the human experience.

Worse still, subjects like transhumanism and the quest for scientific immortality seem fraught with their own profound inequalities. Questions quickly arise about the potential issues of practical immortality for the super-rich creating fundamental divisions in society. O'Connell mentions that the broad argument in these instances seems to be one in which such technology would initially be reserved for the phenomenally wealthy, but eventually become available to all, as part of what he refers to as "the trickle-down economics of eternal life." 

If you find any of this worrying, then you’re not alone. Having written the book, O’Connell responded to concerns of the existential threat posed by rogue AI by saying, 


I don't know if I have an answer to your question, as much as just piling more worries on. Don't come to me for answers, come to me for extra things to worry about. 


If you’d like to read more about feminism, science’s legacy of exclusion, and transhumanism, we’ve included a reading list of all of the books mentioned during the talk below.  

Inferior

From intelligence to emotion, for centuries science has told us that men and women are fundamentally different. But this is not the whole story.

Shedding light on controversial research and investigating the ferocious gender wars in biology, psychology and anthropology, Angela Saini takes readers on an eye-opening journey to uncover how women are being rediscovered. She explores what these revelations mean for us as individuals and as a society, revealing an alternative view of science in which women are included, rather than excluded.

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To Be a Machine

What is transhumanism? Simply put, it is a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are. It's a philosophy that, depending on how you look at it, can seem hopeful, or terrifying, or absurd. In To Be a Machine, Mark O'Connell presents us with the first full-length exploration of transhumanism: its philosophical and scientific roots, its key players and possible futures. From charismatic techies seeking to enhance the body to immortalists who believe in the possibility of 'solving' death; from computer programmers quietly re-designing the world to vast competitive robotics conventions; To Be a Machine is an Adventure in Wonderland for our time.

To Be a Machine paints a vivid portrait of an international movement driven by strange and frequently disturbing ideas and practices, but whose obsession with transcending human limitations can be seen as a kind of cultural microcosm, a radical intensification of our broader faith in the power of technology as an engine of human progress. It is a character study of human eccentricity, and a meditation on the immemorial desire to transcend the basic facts of our animal existence - a desire as primal as the oldest religions, a story as old as the earliest literary texts.

A stunning new non-fiction voice tackles an urgent question... what next for mankind?

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Geek Nation

India: it's a nation of geeks, swots and nerds. Almost one in five of all medical and dental staff in the UK is of Indian origin, and one in six employed scientists with science or engineering doctorates in the US is Asian. By the turn of the millennium, there were even claims that a third of all engineers in Silicon Valley were of Indian origin, with Indians running 750 of its tech companies. 

At the dawn of this scientific revolution, Geek Nation is a journey to meet the inventors, engineers and young scientists helping to give birth to the world's next scientific superpower - a nation built not on conquest, oil or minerals, but on the scientific ingenuity of its people. Angela Saini explains how ancient science is giving way to new, and how the technology of the wealthy are passing on to the poor. 

Delving inside the psyche of India's science-hungry citizens, she explores the reason why the government of the most religious country on earth has put its faith in science and technology. Through witty first-hand reportage and penetrative analysis, Geek Nation explains what this means for the rest of the world, and how a spiritual nation squares its soul with hard rationality. Full of curious, colourful characters and gripping stories, it describes India through its people - a nation of geeks.

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Superintelligence

The human brain has some capabilities that the brains of other animals lack. It is to these distinctive capabilities that our species owes its dominant position. Other animals have stronger muscles or sharper claws, but we have cleverer brains. If machine brains one day come to surpass human brains in general intelligence, then this new superintelligence could become very powerful. 

As the fate of the gorillas now depends more on us humans than on the gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species then would come to depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence. But we have one advantage: we get to make the first move. Will it be possible to construct a seed AI or otherwise to engineer initial conditions so as to make an intelligence explosion survivable? How could one achieve a controlled detonation? To get closer to an answer to this question, we must make our way through a fascinating landscape of topics and considerations. 

Read the book and learn about oracles, genies, singletons; about boxing methods, tripwires, and mind crime; about humanity's cosmic endowment and differential technological development; indirect normativity, instrumental convergence, whole brain emulation and technology couplings; Malthusian economics and dystopian evolution; artificial intelligence, and biological cognitive enhancement, and collective intelligence. This profoundly ambitious and original book picks its way carefully through a vast tract of forbiddingly difficult intellectual terrain. Yet the writing is so lucid that it somehow makes it all seem easy. After an utterly engrossing journey that takes us to the frontiers of thinking about the human condition and the future of intelligent life, we find in Nick Bostrom's work nothing less than a reconceptualization of the essential task of our time.

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Woman the Gatherer

Essays by Dahlberg, McGrew, Zihlman, Estioko-Griffin and Griffin, Berndt, Turnbull, and Sharp. "Refreshing and challenging."--Richard E. Leakey "An indispensable contribution."--Ashley Montagu

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Weapons of Math Destruction

A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life - and threaten to rip apart our social fabricWe live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a loan, how much we pay for insurance - are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated. And yet, as Cathy O'Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and incontestable, even when they're wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination. 

Tracing the arc of a person's life, O'Neil exposes the black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These "weapons of math destruction" score teachers and students, sort CVs, grant or deny loans, evaluate workers, target voters, and monitor our health. O'Neil calls on modellers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and on policy makers to regulate their use. But in the end, it's up to us to become more savvy about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.

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Irish writer, editor, and capoeirista. Passionate about folklore, videogames, and communication. Editorial content writer at Bookwitty.

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