Zoltan Istvan’s quest for immortality came out of a near-death experience.
As a young war correspondent for the National Geographic Channel, Istvan narrowly avoided stepping on a landmine while on assignment in Vietnam. (He can thank his tour guide, who pulled him aside just in time.) For the then-budding transhumanist, the experience was not only harrowing—it was career-changing. Or rather, it sparked a career change.
“I’m a transhumanist,” he says over the phone. “I shouldn’t be doing dangerous things. I should be devoting my time and my energy to conquering death.”
When he returned home after the assignment, Istvan began to do just that, authoring a manifesto on immortality called The Transhumanist Wager. In 2014, he formed the Transhumanist Party, a political party dedicated to harnessing science and technology to defeat death. Now, Istvan finds himself in an unlikely new position: as the Transhumanist Party candidate for the United States presidency.
The Transhumanist platform—which includes harnessing the nation’s scientific resources to enhance our lifespans, and fighting for the rights of “other future advanced sapient beings like conscious robots and cyborgs” — is an unusual one. It’s also apparently not entirely palatable to the public: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of Americans aren’t totally comfortable with the use of biomedical technologies to “enhance” human beings.
With the majorpartyconventions finally over, Pacific Standard caught up with Istvan to discuss American attitudes toward transhumanism, the future of the human condition, and his grand strategy going into the general election.
I wanted to ask you about a recent Pew poll on American attitudes toward biomedical technology and medical engineering. A majority of adults say they’re “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the advent of technologies like gene editing, brain implants, and synthetic blood. What’s your reaction to this report?
That’s one of the most important things that’s happened to transhumanism this year. Everyone seemed to think the document was very negative for my campaign, but the fact that [Pew] is even covering it is a huge plus. Even two years ago, it was impossible to dream about having thorough research. If we had asked Pew to do something like that, they would have said, “well, that’s not an important enough topic.”
That said, it’s no surprise that it turned out the way it did. In fact, it wasn’t even that bad: You have 30, 40 percent of people who might actually be interested in implants. That’s a huge portion. In a way, I’d say it was a strong hit even though it was generally panned by the press as, “Oh, Americans hate technology.” Americans are wary of it, and it’s going to take them time.
My sense is that when people talk about this stuff in popular culture, they get a vision of something incredibly macabre. Why do Americans have this seemingly innate discomfort with biomedical implants?
It’s 100 percent religion. OK, maybe 99 percent. We live in a Judeo-Christian framework. When we talk about breaking that framework by becoming a robot or or sticking something in your brain, it’s revolutionary in countering the religious culture of man as a sinful creature that has to be uplifted by God.
The most fascinating thing about the Pew study is that, when you take religion out of the equation, a huge amount of people were more comfortable with this radical technology. The more religious they are, the less they want it. If you could strip religion out of this question, I’m sure more than half of Americans would support this.
Aren’t we already kind of cyborgs? We have pacemakers and subdermal implants, and we treat our smartphones as limbs. The historian David Landes even traced the impact of personal technology like eyeglasses and the wristwatch on the course of human civilization.
I would argue that the transhumanist age or the cyborg age or whatever you want to call it is already here. That fact is, we sleep with our phones inches away from us and we often depend on vehicles to take us everywhere; this machine age, where we’re dependent on tools, has been here for years.
But what’s really starting to happen is the integration of technology and synthetic parts into our bodies. Yes, there are millions of people who have dentures and artificial hips; some 350,000 people have brain implants, mostly in the form of cochlear implants that cure deafness, or chips to tackle epilepsy. The age of cyborgism has occurred — it basically occurred about five or six years ago rather quietly.
I’m deeply convinced that, within just a few years, this age of implants is about to explode, and you’re going to see dozens of companies coming onto the market seeking [Food and Drug Administration] approval. Over the next 10 years, the thing that’s going to change our lives is bionic organs, and there are already so many companies out there working on this, from artificial hearts to lungs to livers. We’re going to start electively getting better bionic and artificial organs.
Aren’t people more put off by implants that make one person better than another? The Pew data indicates that most Americans “think recipients of enhancements will feel superior to those who have not received them.”
Yes, absolutely, but bear in mind that manufacturers, in an effort to get a comparative economic advantage, will do different things. There’s going to be a point where you can zap yourself and not need a coffee anymore. Companies are spending their research and development budgets to see if this is possible. Why waste money on Starbucks when you can activate zones of your brain that make you more focused with a push of your smartphone?
That said, you’re right, people are uncomfortable with these parts that make us more than human, but don’t for a second think that this won’t happen anyway. Capitalism will drive this: Manufacturers will want to make a fortune off of offering you something inside yourself that will make you better than the original thing. Look at efforts to develop the synthetic eyeball: The eyeball impacts how we viscerally see the world. Experts say that, by 2025, there will be at least six manufacturers producing elective eyeballs that are better than what’s in our heads right now. And why wouldn’t you get one? You can stream media directly through it. The real question is, when does this become something like Blade Runner, where you just enter a shop and get it?
When someone has an artificial heart, we don’t see them as a cyborg. But when someone has a Terminator eye, we all of a sudden see them as something that stands apart. There’s a psychological impact here, what I call “speciation syndrome” — when you change certain parts of your body, sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t.
Let’s talk about the presidential election.How did you end up here?
I realized two years ago that what was missing in the transhumanist movement was a political party. So I founded one, and with the officer’s nomination I became the party’s presidential candidate. Two years into my campaign, I think it’s surprised a lot of people how far it’s grown. I mean, I’m easily number five now overall in the election. Can I do better than that? Probably not, but we can make a lot of news going into the next three or four months.
What’s the goal of the party over the next several decades?
The main reason we formed the party was to influence the major politicians. Because I write a number of high-profile columns, I have the ability to call out politicians. Hillary Clinton, how do you feel about designer babies? Donald Trump, would you use artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons together?
That’s important. It gets the attention of campaign staffs and the media alike. Part of the goal of the party was to popularize the problems, issues, and solutions of future technologies. We want to direct more government resources into science and technology, and so far the best way to do that is to impact media and public perception.
We’re hoping that, within eight years, the party could establish itself and get support from tech people. Right now America leads through Christian doctrine and historical precedent and its military power, but science, technology, and reason are far better motivators for changing the nation than anything else.
Hasn’t military R&D generated the bulk of the technological innovations we’ve enjoyed over the last 50 years or so?
Yes, there’s no doubting that. I’m big on cutting the military, but I’d rather just change the name. Instead of being military engineers, they’d be science engineers, and they’d be working on the same types of projects they’re still working on.
I’m currently consulting with the U.S. Navy about questions around chip implants. Do you allow a civilian chip in someone’s body on a nuclear submarine?
Let’s say a transhumanist candidate, at some point in the future, is elected to the presidency with a sweeping mandate. What does the ideal transhumanist state look like?
As dystopian as this sounds, I’d advocate for artificial intelligence to lead all government. I would not advocate for human beings anymore; I don’t think human beings are capable of the kind of governance or leadership that the planet needs.
You have to understand that the species itself is almost over. We’re in one of the very last decades of what it means to be a human being. We will become machines very, very quickly, starting with the artificial heart and the chip implant that ties into your neural system and whatnot. We already have these technologies; it’s just about rolling them out commercially. Once we start integrating neurochips with the cloud, there’s really no reason to remain biological anymore.
It will be a quick transition. By 2040, I’d be very surprised if human beings are still leading in the way. We’ll have intelligences that are far smarter than what we can currently imagine. And we’ll have them in 10 or 15 years. So when we talk about governing policies, there’ll be algorithms that are much, much cleaner for us. We won’t have people like Trump asking the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails. That’s not the way the safety of the world will operate. It’ll operate through sound decisions of pure rationality. This is the best thing for the greatest amount of people. Every decision we make will be based on machine computing.
I would be very surprised if, in 15 years, your iPhone is in your hands. It’ll be somewhere on your body, and probably integrated into your skull.
Let’s unpack that. The Pew Research Center indicates that most Americans believe new technologies will simply “exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots,” since biological enhancements will be available to the rich first. Is our high-tech utopian society inherently an unequal one because the technology will be unequally distributed?
In my campaign — and this is where I cross over to a more authoritarian or socialist perspective — I would have laws that would insist that the inequality divide does not grow. The reason is because, for the transhumanist age to take place, the most important thing is peace and safety. We need to avoid asteroids, we need to avoid global conflict, we need to avoid wars and plagues. From an existential point of view, the most important thing for the Transhumanist Party is to create an environment where science thrives, and that means equality. The last thing we need is civil war.
Even though I tend to be quite libertarian, I tend to take a democratic-socialist point of view when it comes to inequality, pretty similar to Bernie Sanders. We must share the technology. The good news is that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are much more prone to helping. The new generation of billionaires is a better generation, much better than the robber barons of the 20th century. I have confidence that Elon Musk is not just trying to take his money for himself; he’s trying to give it back to society in a way where we can all benefit.
Also, think of the cell phone. The cell phone came out 10 years before the average person could afford it. Technology now progresses so quickly that the line between the rich having something and the poor having it is only three or four years.
What technologies would you prioritize that fit within that inequality divide?
The main focus right now is on the bionic heart. A third of people die from heart disease. The Holy Grail of medicine is the artificial heart, since it keeps everything going; the big problem right now is that it costs $250,000. Even the elite have a hard time affording this. That’s the kind of thing the party would allocate R&D money from the government for, so those hearts could be made very cheaply and everyone could have an opportunity to have one.
Our most important social platform is the universal basic income. It would swallow Social Security, Medicare, and Obamacare. And we can thank robots for this, frankly, and this is the most important social question of our age: Do we let robots take all the jobs? I would say yes, because it frees up all our time, but it’s also going to make it so nobody can get really wealthy anymore.
So what’s the plan for the rest of the general election?
The most interesting strategy point we have right now in the campaign is on a state level. The four biggest states for transhumanism are New York, California, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Florida and Pennsylvania are both battleground states, and we’ll both be on write-in ballots in both of them. We actually have an opportunity to take a lot of votes, especially in Florida, and negotiate a position in someone’s administration.
Our main strategy going forward is that, because Pennsylvania and Florida could be decided by less than 10 or 20,000 votes, we could be a huge factor when it comes down to the wire. This is the way to get transhumanism into the news and maybe secure myself a position of longevity.
We have no chance of winning, but we might have enough power to shape the final outcome.
And where will you and the party go after November?
I’m working on a television show right now, but my main goal is to run again for the presidency. I never had a shot of winning this time around because of the technicalities against me, but as I look into the future, I want to do this again, if not in 2020 then in 2024. I’m looking for ways to get my name out there on a national level, and also to get some actual experience in the political world. I may run for some local offices, say, as a state lawmaker, so I have some years of elected experience under me.
A lot of what I’m trying to do here is spread transhumanism broadly, but my time as a real politician I hope will come, and then the idea of getting down to the nitty gritty on policies will actually come. And look, the party’s only two years old, but I think a lot of people believe it will matter some time in the next 10 years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.