Zoltan Istvan is a fairly remarkable human being. Having embarked on a solo sailing journey around the world at just 21, he has since been an acclaimed journalist for the National Geographic Channel, and more recently has become a prolific writer about transhumanism.
As well as penning numerous articles on the subject, he is the author of The Transhumanist Wager, a novel exploring the philosophical aspects of the movement that has popularised it in the US and abroad.
With such a strong background in bringing transhumanist concepts to the masses, he is, perhaps, the perfect person to introduce the concept to the political sphere.
Having founded the US Transhumanist Party, he announced his plan to run in the 2016 presidential elections at the end of 2014. Now, with his campaign set to begin in just a few weeks, Istvan explains his motivations for running and his plans for the party and the movement.
Q: What is it about transhumanism that has captured your attention?
There’s a lot of ways to look at it, but when I was travelling around as a journalist for the National Geographic Channel and I was in Vietnam I had an incident where I almost stepped on a landmine. This was after covering a number of warzones and a number of dangerous situations, and this incident kind of shocked me or became so important for me, symbolically, to try and avoid death and avoid harm and avoid suffering.
So after that I dedicated myself to the field of science and technology of eliminating human death. Now the best way to call that is transhumanism, that’s kind of what the main word has become of the movement, or of that type of goal.
But that’s why I’m so interested in transhumanism, it’s really to avoid my own death
I’d been interested in transhumanism for 20 years before that, but it wasn’t so defined in myself until this incident where I finally said, ‘Wow, I’m 30 years old, I better dedicate myself to this thing that I really believe in’.
But that’s why I’m so interested in transhumanism, it’s really to avoid my own death and also to avoid the deaths of my family members: I have kids and a wife and all the other things.
Q: Why did you decide to form a political party to further transhumanism?
In America we have a very large religious population. I would say that 75-80% of people are religious, and they don’t like this idea of wanting to live indefinitely. When you tell them that you want to conquer human death, they ask why. You’re going to go to an afterlife with God or Jesus, or whatever.
Transhumanism has a lot of different organisations, lots of independent non-profits, but it didn’t have a political aspect, and I felt that the very best way to get the movement on the radar screen of a lot more of the public was to form a political party. Politics is so personal and so explosive, so as soon as you enter that field, immediately there’s recognition for the movement of, ok now it’s time to get a government member that’s a natural transhumanist to make policy.
This is a different shift in the thinking of just working as a scientist, or as a philosopher, or as a writer. Being a politician transhumanist was very different. That’s why I chose it as the best and most expedient method for popularising the movement.
Q: What are your plans for the Transhumanist Party over the next few years?
I am running for president, and I am literally just a few weeks away from beginning my campaign. Now I’ve already begun my campaign for the last six months, but I mean more formally: we’re planning bus tours and stuff like that.
So yes, I’m definitely running for president, I was nominated as the candidate by the officers of the Transhumanist Party. That said, I have no chance of winning the presidency, nor does the Transhumanist Party have any chance of getting on all the state ballots – we might get on a few, we’re hoping, if we get enough funding.
But the more important thing is that we’re about to generate a lot of discussion, and we’re able to bring up topics that maybe Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, or the various parties that probably will win, are not going to bring up.
The Transhumanist Party aims to interject its ideas into national politics, even if it’s not necessarily a real player yet
For example, we’re going to talk about designer babies a lot; in our dialogue we talk a lot about stem cell development, which a lot of the Republicans are against, we talk about artificial intelligence, which neither of the candidates have addressed even though it’s potentially the most explosive technology of the last 25 years on the horizon that the history of the planet has ever experienced.
So the Transhumanist Party aims to interject its ideas into national politics, even if it’s not necessarily a real player yet. We hope it will be, though, by 2020. That’s one of our aims – for 2016 to put in a good showing and get a lot more support for a much better run four years from 2016.
Q: How much will you discuss overcoming death in your campaign?
It’s going to be the number one thing we mention all the time. It’s the number one goal as the party itself.
Also it’s good as it speaks in a way that – I don’t want to say shocks people – but it really brings to the forefront what it is – how radical the transhumanist party is. We’re not trying to change social security, or taxes, or welfare or some of these things. We’re trying to change the very nature of the human being for all American citizens and also, you know, the various other national transhumanist parties – there’s a couple of others in Europe.
I would say that’s our number one goal. It certainly is the number one goal of the United States party, and I promote that as the number one goal, because it’s the one that I think a lot of people relate to. It’s not really about living forever, of course, it’s about health, it’s living better, it’s living longer, better.
Q: How do you see this goal being achieved?
I think the one area that I have a lot of hope in – it’s the furthest-off area – is the one that deals with uploading our minds into computers, literally creating algorithms that replicate exactly the brain.
At the end of the day, your thoughts are neurons firing, and that’s just a matter of quantum physics or subatomic particles – figuring out how that works, creating an exact diagram of that inside a machine. Now that’s 20, 30 years off and they’re using telepathy already to kind of start looking at how you can get thoughts into a computer. I’m definitely relying on that.
But that said, I’m quite certain the more realistic approach, the one that I am advocating – because the computer one sounds pretty far off to some people – is the replacement of organs or the creating of robotic organs.
Already, as you probably read, in France they’ve had robotic hearts put into people. I’m hoping that within ten years, the robotic heart will be electively put into people because heart disease is the number one killer in the world, so if you can eliminate heart disease by robotic hearts, then all of a sudden you have already lengthened the life spans of so many people around the world.
The same thing is happening with the pancreas, with the kidney, with lungs; they’re starting to create either 3D printed organs or organs that are injected with stem cells, or robotic organs as a way to stop death. Organ failure is basically the number one reason for death. When people die, it’s because an organ goes. So the main thing I’m pushing for is organ replacement because it’s the one way that we can certainly ensure that people stay alive.
Q: How much do you see technology not only prolonging life but improving human ability?
I see it absolutely improving human ability, but I think very quickly we may not even refer to that as human ability.
They have exoskeleton suits that went on sale this year, I think from Panasonic, and all of a sudden people now have commercially available suits that they can put on and lift 500lb. I think in a few years when you’re working on a house and you want to lift the motorcycle out of the way, or lift the fireplace, you’ll be able to do it with one of these suits.
So the question of human ability is probably going to become much more merged with machines, or cyborg-like, and exoskeleton suits are great, but it’s endoskeleton suits that are actually much more promising where you would, for example, cut off the leg and put in something where a portion of your leg would be skin and flesh, and another portion of your leg would be metal. People are talking about being able to run as fast as cheetahs with that technology, at least that is what a lot of computer models have shown.
I think the question of human ability depends on how much you are planning to modify. If you’re going to modify it all the way we’re definitely going to be something much closer to cyborgs, so it’s really just a way of looking at it. But either way I think it’s absolutely going to make us healthier, it’s absolutely going to make us more agile, I think the entire sporting industry is going to change.
I’ve written before about the transhumanist Olympics; it’s a matter of ten years or 20 years before they have an Olympics where every sport is centred around the technology as opposed to the actual athlete. The athletes will be great, of course, but scientists will play a much bigger role in who wins, because it’ll be like race car driving – whoever is the best engineer usually ends up usually winning the race car race.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of computer-brain technology?
I recently heard that second languages will be eliminated because of telepathy. First off these mind-reading headsets are already in existence, have existed for a few years now, and they’re probably going to overtake telephones quite quickly.
You can already take a photo with your mind, put it up on Facebook, and stuff like that. And they sell it at consumer department stores here in America, and they’re pretty cheap, $100 to $200.
But that kind of technology is going to jump over the next five years, in fact I believe we’ll probably all be having these headsets as opposed to phones.
What’s going to happen is eventually that’s going to translate to telepathy like they’ve already done, but this is very complex, the technology needs about five to ten years to develop. Eventually, because of DARPA and some of the new funding, we’re all going to end up having chips.
The chips will be great, they’ll tell us if someone is drowning – for example if you have a pool in your backyard and your child is drowning, something will go off on your iPhone if you’re not there with your child and it’ll say, ‘Hey, your child is in trouble’, or if they’re caught in a fire or if people are being raped – this is another thing – if they have a chip in their head it will go off and alert authorities.
I think the headset industry is a trillion-dollar industry and the chip industry is much bigger than that because eventually I think everyone will have multiple chips all around us just for safety’s sake.
Right now I’m taking my daughter very quickly to the childcare center and I have to leave her there and I always hate doing that. So if she had a chip in her and I could track her, I’d feel a lot better. We’re just about two to three years away from that point where even children starts getting tracking chips in them.
Q: A lot of people are fearful of being tracked – how do you think this can be addressed?
This is tough, because so many people actually are just afraid of chips. The problem is that the Bible has created this fear where it’s all mark of the beast kind of stuff. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with it, but when they think of the mark of the beast, people often think that they mean a chip implant or something like that – at least the modern versions.
So when you talk about America taking in chips, that becomes very controversial because most people associate it somehow religiously. I don’t think in Europe you have that problem – you guys are sort of way ahead of us on that social problem.
But as a politician I deal with it all the time. Everyone always brings up the religious ideas of transhumanism as the very first disagreement they have.
I think we will start to slowly become a cyborg society.
So I think we will start to slowly become a cyborg society. It will happen slowly, there will be surveillance issues and worries like that but we’ll get used to it.
I think if we told everyone 20 years ago we were all going to be on cell phones all the time we would have thought that was crazy. But now look at us: an entire generation won’t even take it out of their pockets sometimes.
So it happens – we don’t see it happening – but it happens because it’s very useful and it’s kind of functional. I see the same thing happening with a lot of this technology, including brain implants. At one point it will be quite simple – you’ll go in for a quick surgery, they’ll put something in, you can take it out, you can turn it off with your cell phone if you don’t want it activated, and no one will think twice about it.
So I see that definitely happening, especially if the publicity of some of this stuff is handled well. Selling the public on it is really important – you can’t sell them on something weird, you have to sell them on the functionality of it.
Q: Do you think religion can be compatible with transhumanism?
Yes, in fact I just wrote an article on this. There has been a rise of Christian transhumanism recently which I am somewhat responsible for because I wrote an article on converting artificial intelligence into religion and one pastor I promoted, he got a lot of questions from the media on it, and also a lot of the major populous was introduced to Christian transhumanism – not the transhumanism that I had been advocating since I am an atheist.
All of a sudden everyone thought, well, how can the Bible fit in with this? Is the Bible ok with upgrading yourself to be a better person? And you know a lot of people said, well, it’s ok as long as you continue your relationship with God.
There was this outbreak of, well, maybe transhumanism isn’t so bad as long as we leave behind atheistic perspectives of it and concentrate on the other perspectives, which is we can get closer to God if we have more technology.
I think there is a possibility that it is compatible, and as a politician I’m not moving away from my atheism, but I’m definitely welcoming more religious ideas regarding transhumanism because I’m never going to make much headway in politics in the United States if I’m not inclusive of religion.