Human or Not?
Zoltan Istvan is not a scientist and he's not an academic. He is however the leader of the Transhumanist Party and he is running for President of America. Istvan, who's been criss-crossing the country in a coffin-mobile called the 'Immortality Bus' on his campaign trail,
is part of a fast growing worldwide movement who believe we are on the threshold of a new cyber-human transformation. Istvan believes that the age of human-hybridized technological transformation is upon us. Well-renowned thinkers and wealthy entrepreneurs agree with him, they include Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom and Peter Thiel (incidentally all people who have signed up to be cryogenically frozen.) It all started for Istvan many years ago when he was on assignment in Vietnam as an award winning reporter for National Geographic and was nearly killed by a land-mine. This is when a ‘philosophical time bomb’ went off for him and things clicked into gear, ideas surfacing for the first time about immortality and his future. He knows he’s not running a winning ticket this presidential race, his real motivation is to kick-start a legitimate discussion about where we are heading as a species and how the era of the techno-human is upon us.
Transhumanism is a deeply interesting area. I would say it’s still a very peripheral topic and yet it seems to have people’s underwear in a knot. Would you agree that transhumanism at the moment is primarily still just an open intellectual public debate?
No, not at all. I would actually argue that huge amounts of the technology are already here. It’s becoming a much larger field. There are half a million people around the world with brain implants, and driver-less cars are operating now in San Francisco. We have people coming back from war zones whose arms and legs have been blown off and they can now have bionic limbs that are tied to their neuro-systems. By controlling the bionics with their mind they can reach out and grab a beer just like you and I and drink it. So whilst this is not the full transhumanist age we have basically crossed the threshold. We’re through that door into the machine world for the first time and even if there are huge parts of the field that are academic it’s becoming more real every single day. At the university of Pittsburgh they’re now putting saline solution into gunshot victims who are essentially dead and bringing them back to life after keeping them completely brain dead, heart dead, all dead for up to four hours. So the definition of death thanks to transhumanist technology is changing. That four hours will probably be eight hours by next year. So what I’m trying to say is that we really are already in the transhumanist age and it’s really time to focus on how to get ourselves in deeper and embrace it.
Okay but it still doesn’t seem to have permeated popular culture yet. The types of technologies you’re talking about are still thought of as science fiction, even though they are reported on from time to time. So when does it get to the point where transhumanism fully becomes accepted as a part of our culture?
The problem is that although we are in the transhumanist age, culturally speaking you’re right in saying that in America it’s still on the periphery. But if you get a transhumanist presidential candidate who drives a crazy coffin bus around then all of a sudden the traffic of transhumanism literally quadruples from the year before. In the last few years I’ve been given a number of transhumanist themed columns at major media outlets, The Huffington Post, Vice, Psychology Today, TechCrunch, and all of a sudden my editors are allowing me to use the word transhumanism and literally label what’s happening. I like to think of transhumanism like the environmental movement. Environmentalism started thirty years ago but twenty years ago environmentalism started seeping into the culture through a number of major news events. It takes major news events and it’s hard to see right now what those events will be. I think the designer baby one in China was one of the first that awoke the whole world. The artificial intelligence fear of Elon Musk and some of these other people have also been raising the profile of these issues. These things have been bringing the transhumanist age into cultural arena, taking it from the periphery and into the mainstream press. The New York Times and other places that might normally only report on it selectively are all of a sudden running front page articles saying, ‘Designer Baby Moratorium A Possibility.’
In the last seven days I’ve had three different television show series people reach out to me saying they want to do a series on transhumanism. Additionally we have a huge event on the horizon right now which might literally jettison transhumanism right into the mainstream. The movie Inferno is coming out. You probably know that book by Dan Brown. It’s partly about transhumanism. So this could literally lift the whole movement. I think everyone’s going to want these radical technologies in their lives but they don’t know it yet because it hasn’t been reported on this much.
I’ve heard transhumanism defined in two ways. Francis Fukuyama said “as transhumanists see it, humans must wrestle their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation.” But I’ve also heard it being described as, “a state religion run by the Californian techno neo-liberalist elite.” What do you feel about both sentiments?
I definitely don’t sit on the techno neo-liberalist side. They like to paint transhumanism as being a Californian movement coming out of Google and Apple so that all these zillionaires can live forever. . . and to some extent that has a little bit of accuracy. Obviously ground zero for transhumanism is Silicon Valley, right where I live. Everyone I know is into it, every company I know is looking for the next cool technology to make the human species better. But at the same time a real definition of it is much closer to the first one you gave me. It’s simply a social movement of a few million people that want to use science and technology to radically modify the human being. There’s nothing religious or spiritual about it. It’s just that technology and innovation is accelerating so quickly that we need a name, a social umbrella to ask what’s happening to us because clearly with cranial implants and bionics tied to our nervous system, something is very different with the human species.
The world will always evolve with or without us, so do we really need the word ‘transhumanist’?
Of course this is just a matter of semantics. Transhumanism is the largest umbrella term for what’s happening and yeah people ask me all the time – do we need transhumanism? Can’t we just let technology do what it wants to do? But there’s going to be a word, like ‘environmentalism’, that wins, so we may as well pick one now. People made the decision to choose the word transhumanism a long time ago and I’ve stuck with it because it is a simple word, the Latin means ‘beyond human.’ I think it’s better to just keep one word representing the movement and emphasising that there is a social movement. The reason that a social movement is so important in America is that 75% of the population still believes in god and an afterlife. Transhumanism cuts at the core of many of those philosophical beliefs. If you believe in god and an afterlife you probably believe in the Judo-Christian framework that says you should not try to become god. Well the very core philosophy of transhumanism says you should become gods, so that’s why I think the social movement is critical. We’re not necessarily fighting Americans, but we’re struggling to change their perception. It’s not an easy thing to do.
So let’s talk your wish list. Molecular nanotech, super intelligent AI, mind-uploading, interstellar travel, these are all on the agenda for transhumanism. What have I left out? What’s real in the near future? And what do you see developing in a couple of decades?
I think the most important part we have right now is going to be the biohacking field. This is a DIY field, people who are out on the fringes. They made up the majority at every rally I went to on my campaign trail. They are out there messing with their bodies, doing crazy things like trying to splice plant DNA into their arms so that they can photosynthesize.
But what about outside of the DIY stuff and in academic institutions, think tanks or in government?
The reason I mentioned the biohackers is they are in the press the most because they’re easy to cover. They’ve literally changed the face of transhumanism in the last year and that’s important because it’s becoming really cool to be someone who wants to modify your body with technology. It’s going to hit the millennial generation like a truck. We’re going to have an entire generation grow up who feel very comfortable with chips inside themselves, very comfortable wearing virtual reality gear, any type of technology. Whereas right now the older generation, especially those who control congress, have no inkling of technology. Many of them like Donald Trump don’t even like to use email but the younger generation are going to usher in this whole transhumanist age and hopefully with it much more funding. One of the reasons I’m doing my presidential candidacy is that it’s pathetic how little funding is actually going into life extension technology and biohacking.
"We’re going to have an entire generation grow up who feel very comfortable with chips inside themselves."
Zoltan Istvan on a very different future
In a headline that hit the papers in 2013, Barack Obama was praised for investing a couple of hundred million into the DARPA institute for new brain technology. So there is some kind of interest there.
And Obama is my hero for doing that. It’s one of the best things that’s happened in the last year in the field of transhumanism. The brain initiative gives credibility to what’s happening. The only problem is that it’s still in the hands of the military. I wish there were many more government grants going to public projects. But we’re slowly seeing them and we’re seeing public spaces open up for biohackers and transhumanists to go in and mess with themselves. Especially now with the CRISPER kit, a DIY D.N.A. kit.
The problem though is that some academics felt like they were committing suicide by going into this technology too deeply because everyone else thought it was so weird. Now finally there’s a lot of professors and researchers saying that living indefinitely is not a weird thing. Even Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the other day that he’s interested and will be spending some money in this area. So all of a sudden this avalanche of academics, popularisers and CEO’s are starting to see that we can do this. We can overcome death and we can start to change ourselves and that’s okay. It’s not a negative thing. It’s not just the techno-elites.
Let’s talk about the fear and anxiety that surrounds this debate. Geoffrey Hinton, the godfather of deep thinking made a statement basically saying that we need to fund social sciences to learn to use transhumanism technologies for ethical reasons instead of doing what you suggest and putting funding into hard sciences.
I like his idea. I think it would be great. But for me it’s about how to quickly get the world thinking and the reality is that’s just not going to happen if the government is reluctant to spend the money on the hard science. Most technologies will probably remain in the hands of private enterprises unless it becomes something that’s very useful for the military. And actually it is. I’ll be honest with you, I had four navy officers in my house two days ago, one of them a top officer. They had been commissioned to do a study on transhumanism and machine-human interfaces over the next ten years. They came to me wanting lectures and consulting.
Are you allowed to tell me that?
Yes, I am allowed to tell you because I wasn’t paid or anything. They’re simply officers that are doing research. They understand that this is something that’s going to be happening and they want to get a handle on it. They are asking questions like, “what if soldiers want to replace arms for bionic arms?” and “Should soldiers be chipped?” It’s not all about fighting wars, it’s about the stuff you just said, the social sciences. It’s about how you manage two million people of which maybe a few hundred thousand might really advocate transhumanist technology and want the military to put that forth. The military has been busy worrying about whether to put women in battle, but now we have other types of issues. What about people who are cyborgs? What about giving people robotic eyes? They may want to start doing some of these upgrades in the next five to ten years. It’s wonderful that we have a major organisation literally coming to my house, having coffee, sitting down and talking about the reality of these things.
At some point in the future there has to be something that’s ethically questionable. Let’s imagine something eventuates out of transhumanist technology and that cat can’t be put back in the bag. Is there anything you’re fearful of?
That’s a tough question. Let me just start by saying that one of the most important things in my campaign and my bus trip was to deliver this transhumanist bill of rights to the US capital which we did after four months. It’s very important because the United Nations declaration of human rights has nothing in it that even touches the surface of what is happening to the human species through transhumanist technology. So we have things that we want to do but we do have regulations. Those rights are not entirely open, they do have some basics when it comes to environmental damage or planetary damage. I don’t advocate for the use of artificial intelligence openly. I would say something like that has to be controlled.
What do you mean by closed and open?
So for example I would not allow an artificial intelligence on planet earth to function that could be potentially as smart as us. I don’t want that. Perhaps if we had a team of ten or fifteen people interconnected directly to that AI through cranial implant technology. . . I don’t know if you’ve seen how far telepathy has come?
Yes I’ve seen it. It definitely looks promising.
The thing to remember is that in eighteen months it went from being able to think one word, to being able to ask twenty questions. So if you take that forward ten years you could literally have mind controlled reading of books and solving of mathematical problems. So I’m not speaking about today where the field is. I’m talking about where we could be in ten or fifteen years. My transhumanist bill of rights does offer some resistance to the technology, but it offers basic guidelines for what I think people should be able to do. The core philosophy of transhumanism is that if the technology is not hurting somebody else directly it should be permissible to use. So whenever a question comes we just have to ask, what’s the net benefit for society? If the net benefit is positive or neutral then it’s one hundred percent you can go for it whatever it is. I don’t care if it’s people editing genomes and growing tails or growing gills to become fish.
"If I get in front of Hillary Clinton I’m going to ask her, “Hillary, what’re you going to do about the designer baby age which is literally upon us?”
On running for president.
Let’s talk about your US presidential bid. You’ve talked openly about the fact that you don’t think you’re going to win. You’ve talked about the fact that there’s been a lot of people thinking you’re a freak show, but at the same time you’re getting more and more media attention. So what has been the response from the US government? Have they side-lined you? And do you still plan to use this race and future presidential bids to grow attention in the United States and in the rest of the world for that matter?
Yeah it’s really interesting. I feel like I get as much attention abroad as I do here in America and part of the reason is that I’m the very first candidate to run entirely on a science and technology platform. Our platform is very simple. We believe every single problem of human kind can be solved through science and technology. In the past everyone said it could be solved through philosophy or morals or historical context or especially religion. Well we believe everything can be solved through science and technology and that’s a radical idea to many politicians around the world and in America. I’m using my presidential campaign right now as a vehicle for promoting transhumanism and trying to get the government to dedicate more money to transhumanism because ultimately it helps our health. Getting people to live as long as possible and as healthy as possible should be goal number one for any government, and that’s what transhumanism is really dedicated to.
I’m trying to set myself up with what I’m doing now to run for real in 2024. I don’t mean the run I’m doing now isn’t real but for one thing I’d be the youngest president ever elected. We’re aiming to create something that is historical and a legacy that will be useful in eight or twelve years when I have many more of those things fulfilled that require a real presidential bid. I probably wouldn’t run under the transhumanist party either, I’d run as a democrat because I do lean left. And at the very end, about 48 hours before the elections take place I’d concede my election and vote for whoever the democratic nominee is. So I have real aims to do it but right now what we’re trying to do is build a movement, give that movement a political face and do it in a way that is deserving of respect and that it gains some attention. There’s a fine balance between being a bit of a spectacle and being presidential material.
Have you heard from any of the other candidates at all Zoltan?
No I have not. We’ve had a few emails back from various people but never directly from any major candidates or major players. But that said, I’m a thorny thing in everyone’s side. They all know who I am now because my articles are too wide spread. I get a huge amount of traffic just based on my columns and the places I write like Vice and Gizmodo and TechCrunch get a lot of views. My idea to microchip Syrian refugees obviously went all the way around the country because it was a technology alternative that a lot of people felt was possible but too Big Brother-ish as a method.
We’re making roads but nobody is reaching out because if I get in front of Hillary Clinton I’m going to ask her, “Hillary, what’re you going to do about the designer baby age which is literally upon us?” And can you imagine if she had to answer that in front of a bunch of cameras? She could sink her candidacy.This is such a thorny issue in a nation where 75% of people are religious and may have absolutely no interest in modifying their children. But many other people want to do it because they know they can eradicate cancer before it even happens. So the other candidates don’t want to talk about this. It’s much easier to talk about taxes and foreign policy.
I don’t want this question to sound contentious at all but by writing for magazines such as Motherboard etc. do you worry that you could be harming your cause further? Those channels often seem to belittle the issues.
People like Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Thiel are having serious philosophical intellectually engaged discussions whereas you seem to be more in the realm of popular discourse. Do you feel like those channels are not taking the subject as seriously as they should?
I agree with you and that has been a problem. But that said, I have had successes. I did speak at the World Bank, I did speak at a Microsoft event, I did speak at the CTIA which was a 40,000 person event. We’ve done something recently for Showtime and BBC America, so we are getting out there in different ways. However I am a young person still and as a non-academic I’m much more of a cheerleader for the movement than I am somebody who is down in the nitty gritty like Ray Kurzweil who’s actually working on the engineering of AI.
What do you think of Ray Kurzweil?
I think he’s great. I know him and he’s doing great work. But at the same time these are people who have now been in the field for twenty or thirty years whereas I’ve only been in it for about five or six years, and I’m much more tied to the millennial generation and the guys trying to make crazy start-ups. People like Nick Bostom are really ingrained in academia, ingrained in government policy. Of course I’d like to get as much legitimacy as possible but I am still a fringe candidate no matter how you look at it.
"I had four navy officers in my house two days ago, one of them a top officer. They have been commissioned to do a study on transhumanism and machine-human interfaces over the next ten years. They came to me wanting lectures and consulting."
Let me ask you this, why is it necessarily so bad that AI becomes smarter than us? That we respond to fears of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk? Perhaps it’s a kind of cognitive evolution that we’re eliminated.
I totally agree with you. In fact my novel argues that that’s the way it’s supposed to be and everyone needs to get used to it. And that’s why the book is so well hated all around the world. It advocates that the three laws of transhumanism are not just for human beings, they were written for artificial intelligence. But that’s no way to run a presidential campaign. You can run on merging humanity with the best of the machine world, but there’s no way you can run on ending humanity. So we’re pretty careful to say that we’re going to take the best of both worlds and never lose the parts of ourselves that we love. But I’m the first to say that I see no reason why an artificial intelligence that’s smarter than us and also seeks power, would not systematically try to eliminate us. That’s a very real possibility. I’m not saying that it would happen but even if it’s a 5% possibility then that’s too much. We have 7 billion people on the planet so we need to make sure that 5% never becomes a reality. That’s one of the reasons I would not advocate for myself being replaced by a machine intelligence. For me survival is goal number one. I think most humans feel the same way.
Zoltan my last question to you is, when you die what would you like done with your body?
Oh one hundred percent I’d be cryonically frozen. There’s not a question in my mind, if I knew I was going to die tomorrow that’s what I’d do. But I’d do all sorts of other things too. I’d have brain scans and I’d collect all the social media so that I would be able to go back and figure out who I was. I was just covering a story on the Terasem movement, it’s kind of like a spiritual aspect of transhumanism and they’re already doing these things. They have these mind files where you download some of your thoughts and shoot them out into space. So I’d do multiple different things, but of course the most important thing is to cryonically freeze myself. But you can also do brain scans where they take minute scans of your brain, literally down to the molecular level, so at some point you might be able to recreate that. I would guess you’d be able to re-create that in a hundred years on a computer. But I’m hoping that none of that will come to pass. At forty-two I’m hoping I may be able to make it for thirty or forty years and slowly replace my organs one by one as they fail so that I may be able to continue to live indefinitely.
All photos taken by Nancy Borowick.
SiddharthaSiddhartha | Hermann Hesse
I’ve read that 23 times. I read it when I go through breakups or dark times and it helps me understand more about the unity.
The FountainheadThe Fountainhead | Ayn Rand
Really a celebration of the artist saying that nothing else around me matters except the art I want to create. And I love the logic of that because I’ve felt that with transhumanism there’s a lot of art involved.
Heart of Darkness (Wisehouse Classics Edition)The Heart of Darkness | Joseph Conrad
An understanding of the scope of human morality.