The Man Who Would Be a Machine

The Man Who Would Be a Machine

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In October, 2019, Peter Scott-Morgan (1958-2022) announced that he had evolved from Peter 1.0 to Peter 2.0. What that meant in practical terms was that, at that point, he had made enough modifications to his body that he considered himself to be something new entirely—less of a human, more of a cyborg. He wasn’t yet fully robotic, but he was fast approaching it and, as he told an interviewer, there was no technology he “wouldn’t consider.”

Scott-Morgan, a British scientist with an expertise in robotics and organizational theory, was tall and slim, with a floppy mop of blonde hair and a blindingly bright smile. He skewed full-on optimist; to scroll through his Twitter account is to be showered by exclamations of wonder and delight. Samples: “I so LOVE Hi-Tech!!” “I FIND MYSELF CELEBRATING how amazing Humanity is.” “Oh, I LOVE Science!!!” “2020 IS OFF TO AN AMAZING START!” In truth, though, Scott-Morgan would have had good reason to be a pessimist. In 2016, when he was fifty-eight and galloping along in his career, he noticed that he had trouble shaking water off his foot after a shower. That trouble was diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, A.L.S. (known as motor-neuron disease in Britain), an incurable neurodegenerative disease that results in the progressive loss of muscle function. (Another British scientist, Stephen Hawking, died of the illness, in 2018.) Doctors told Scott-Morgan that, at best, he had two years to live. Given the usual course of the disease, he was likely to spend much of those two years “locked in”—that is, he would lose the ability to walk or speak or eat, though his mind would still be alert.

Scott-Morgan got the first Ph.D. in robotics ever granted by a British university—from Imperial College London—but he liked to say that he got his science education from watching “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek.” (His doctoral thesis is a little less jazzy than those shows; its title is “A technical and managerial methodology for robotisation: An approach to cost-effective introduction of robotics technology into industry with particular reference to flexible assembly systems.”) His first book, published in 1984, was called “The Robotics Revolution.” He believed that human life and machine life were destined to merge. When he got sick, he decided to use his experience to test his theories. What if he replaced his body parts, before they failed, with machinery? He thought that swapping out components might mean that he could survive for decades despite having A.L.S. or, at the very least, that he would still be able to communicate and move as his muscles froze and the disease advanced. His hope was that, by using himself as a test subject, he could help the cause of other people who had what he called “extreme disability.” He was certain that even the most severe limitations could be allayed by innovative technology. “I refuse simply to stay alive,” he wrote to a reporter from the Guardian. “I choose to THRIVE!”

Breaking ground seemed to come naturally to Scott-Morgan. In 1990, he and his partner of forty-three years, Francis Scott-Morgan, fashioned the merged last name that they both used. (They met in Torquay, in southwest England, on the day that Francis’s previous partner was murdered, in what Francis describes as a hate crime.) In 2005, they were the first same-sex couple in England to form a civil partnership, on the first day that such partnerships were legal. In 2014, they became one of the first same-sex couples in England to get married.

In 2018, Scott-Morgan started the process of his transformation. He began with a complex surgery that redirected his digestion into a mechanized system. He then prepared for what he considered the most dramatic procedure—a laryngectomy. It would mean that he would no longer be able to speak naturally, but it would allow him to be hooked into a breathing apparatus that wouldn’t rely on muscle control. The inability to breathe and swallow is the most dire symptom of A.L.S. and often is the actual cause of death among those suffering from it, so Scott-Morgan thought this might forestall that. In preparation for the laryngectomy, he recorded twenty thousand words to be used in a synthetic-voice program. He also helped devise an avatar that he planned to have projected onto his face. The avatar would be able to move and show expression when his own facial muscles no longer could. An eye-tracking computer program allowed him to communicate. He had a souped-up wheelchair that employed every modification available and was able to raise him to a standing position.

The progression of A.L.S. proved to be unyielding, even to a human cyborg, which is what Scott-Morgan liked to call himself. (It was also the title of a documentary, on Britain’s Channel 4, that followed his process of surgeries and modifications.) In the end, he couldn’t outrace the disease. But he never stopped cheerleading for the process he had undertaken. A few months before he died, he tweeted, “Every morning when I wake I take stock of how hugely lucky I am – not least that I’m having so much FUN! And that I’m STILL ALIVE!!” ♦

Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. If you’d like to propose a subject for an Afterword piece, write to us at afterword@newyorker.com.

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