Zoltan Istvan interview: Transhumanism Next?

Zoltan Istvan is running for the President of the United States, and he wants us all to live forever, but at what cost? We speak to the leader of the Transhumanist Party about his vision for the future

Feature by Santini Basra | 08 Oct 2015
  • Interview with Zoltan Istvan - Leader of the Transhumanist Party

Transhumanists want us to be immortal. While this might sound far-fetched – an idea plucked straight from the pages of a science fiction novel, the transhumanism movement is taking this extremely seriously. In fact, they suggest that a state of indefinite life can be achieved by augmenting our bodies with radical technologies, a process called 'Cyborgisation'.

Transhumanism is a worldwide (somewhat grassroots) movement made up of individuals who strongly believe in the benefits of invasive technologies, technologies that for most of us appear far off (or just downright ridiculous), but in the minds of transhumanists are achievable in the next few decades. While the exact constitution of a ‘transhumanist technology’ is still being debated, it's safe to say that chips in our head, robotic limbs, and uploading our thoughts to the cloud are all part of the transhumanist repertoire. While the rest of us are still pondering what to do with drones and 3D printing, transhumanists have big plans for a future where we can buy body parts off supermarket shelves, and solve global warming with artificial intelligence.

On top of all this, they believe that within most of our lifetimes we'll see the advent and application of life extending technologies, start to augment our bodies, and prolong life to a point at which death becomes optional.

Transhumanism is an international movement that aims to bring us toward a 'better world'; the United States Transhumanist Party, led by Zoltan Istvan, makes up a significant proportion of this movement. Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, and author of science fiction novel The Transhumanist Wager.

The Skinny: Let's start with your personal views about death. I am assuming that you want to avoid death?

Istvan: The main goal of all transhumanists is indefinite life via science and technology – they want to apply 21st century medicine in ways which would enable them to overcome biological death. Personally, I don’t want to die because I love life, but it’s not that I want to live forever, I just want to have the option to die or to check out of life whenever I want. We don’t want to have the spectre of death hanging over us, coming to take our family away or give us cancer or whatever it is. We want to overcome that entire element and make it so that we can live indefinitely and choose when and if we are going to die at all.

You estimate that the hurdle of death can be overcome in 15-20 years, but if you reach a point where it's apparent that it will not happen in your lifetime, what would you do about it?

I would do Cryonics. I have not signed up for this yet, because I am pretty confident that barring a tragedy, I should be able to make it with the way my health is at the moment. Cryonics is where you freeze yourself in the hopes that technology can revive you at some later point in time.

"If you merge with the machines are you even going to want to have children?" – Zoltan Istvan

Is immortality desirable on a global scale? If so, how do you deal with the issues of a population that is not dying and reproducing?

We believe that one of the most fundamental rights of being a human is the right to health, to longevity and to lifespan extension – who wants to die? The issue of overpopulation is one of the most thorny subjects of transhumanism right now; I like to answer by saying that technology and science are bringing less poverty to the world. It's a fact that over the last 30 years there has been less poverty, greater life expectancy, more employment – there is just more prosperity all round. It's important to understand that within transhumanism there are a number of different movements or fields, for example, artificial intelligence and green technology.

We would advocate for using an artificial intelligence to figure out for example, a number of different geoengineering methods that could help the ozone layer. We would like to use new green technologies such as solar cars, we also have vertical farming ideas where you can farm huge amounts without taking the space that’s hurting the planet. So transhumanists are very much environmentally minded. Yes we are going to have more overpopulation, but in essence the planet can handle a lot more people than it has now, it just has to be managed better and that’s what transhumanists would aim to do while still allowing people to have children if they want. But you know, in 50 years the interesting question is going to be: if you merge with the machines are you even going to want to have children?

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Can you expand on this? How are social structures like the concept of family influenced with the possibility of infinite life?

So far the concept of family hasn't really changed that much. However, we have artificial wombs on the horizon which means that for example, women no longer need to give birth inside themselves, and then we will have designer babies – which are essentially already here. It will be very much a test tube situation, an aquarium at home where you grow your baby. I think that in the next 10-20 years some people will spend more time in virtual reality than in the real world, and a question is brought up: do you want children in that environment? Having children is a physical thing. I think people are going to say, 'I'll wait,' and the problem is by waiting, say, an extra 100 years, you will get to an age where you are actually more machine than you are human, where we have taken out the entire sexual drive, we have taken out the drive to have progeny, maybe it wasn't very useful – it's useful if we are biological human beings, but if you are a machine, is it useful to have children? Probably not. I mean, what's useful is your own personality, and your own ego. I think the institution of children, of marriage and all these things over the next 50 years might completely die off. There's no reason to get married if you think you are going to live 10,000 years – being with one person for 10,000 years is very different to being with one person for 40.

You talk about us becoming more ego-centric, is this essential to transhumanism?

I advocate for a planet that’s primarily self-dependent. I believe that the human species itself, the artificial intelligence that we are developing, and all animals are primarily designed to be ego-centric creatures. I am a firm believer that it is the ego that personally motivates us, and I think unfortunately no matter how you look, it's difficult to get outside of it unless you rewire it. It might make sense to rewire some of the ego-centric parts of our being, because ego creates problems and tensions. At the same time, ego has been responsible for so much innovation in the last 50-100,000 years.

It's people's drive for power, for creation, that has made us get this far, so you have to be very careful when you talk about removing it. It is however possible that we would, either through drugs, or through some type of genetic manipulation or cranial implant, take out the parts that make us want to fight each other, the parts that make us too competitive and create this kind of communistic socialistic world – what a lot of people call 'the hive mind', which is where we are all interconnected and one benefits the other. The idea is a utopian kind of outlook, but I still believe that people are always going to want their inner desires or egos as the final mechanism underneath everything else.

Why is transhumanism as a concept currently more advanced and accepted in the US? Which ideologies do you think it aligns with in your area of the world?

It's funny, it's only accepted in terms of technology, but I think it's accepted that way because we have so many massive companies that put forth a technology culture such as Google and Apple. I mean Silicon Valley is a legendary place in America. At the same time, we also have a much more religious side of our nation. America is split. You generally have on the east and the west coast, I would say, educated populists that aren't that religious, and in the middle of the country you have huge amounts of very fundamental religious populations.

Are you concerned that other nations are better poised to accept this cultural change, thus advancing faster than the US?

Well yes, I definitely think that China is going to outdo us over the next five years, and the transhuman home is going to end up being in China, for a couple of reasons. China are starting to open themselves up to capitalism in a very real way. Of course they have always embraced a little bit of capitalism, but every year they seem to be becoming more capitalistic. Secondly and most important, when you talk about innovation, in China the testing times are literally 15 or 20% of the testing times in America. We have an incredibly strict government FDA that regulates all sorts of medical devices and drugs, and makes it difficult to get anything into the public sphere in a commercial way, whereas China is still not really sure what their laws are.

"I consider transhuman as any type of radical technology that challenges us, and challenges what it means to be human"

At what point do you become transhuman and cease being human? Could we already be considered transhuman?

That's a tough question and everyone has a different answer. Transhumanism is just the use of tools, so the first time a walking primate picked up a stone and made an axe out of it, was that transhuman? I guess it was, but personally I consider transhuman as any type of radical technology that challenges us, and challenges what it means to be human. So for example, let's say driverless cars, that is a classic transhuman technology. The horse and carriage? not so much a transhumanist technology in my opinion. Bionic hearts or robotic hearts are some of the most promising transhumanist technologies in the world, but is an iPhone a transhumanist technology? Well of course it is, but it's so common that we don't usually refer to it as transhuman—it's just human. So we look for ideas that are a little more radical to give us an idea of what the definition really is. Part of making a movement succeed is getting the word into the public's mind, so that they have the definition, a simple word, so they can look up and say, 'Oh yeah, a cranial implant, thats transhuman', you know some kind of robotic arm, 'Oh yeah that's the transhumanists that are doing that.'

Do you have any implanted technology?

I do not. I am just not that interesting when it comes to transhumanism. I don't take any vitamins, I don't take any pills, I don't do anything, I am just a guy who runs every day, and I am in perfect health, so it has been very hard for me to justify some of these things. That being said, we have a TV show that is being done on my presidential campaign, and one of the things I am going to be doing is to be getting an implant into my hand – a tracking implant.

Is there an aesthetic that has been transferred from popular science fiction, and things like the Cyberpunk era into transhumanism?

I think Cyberpunk literature has helped create the transhumanist movement. You can directly point a finger and say, 'these ideas belong to science fiction, and they have always belonged to science fiction,’ and there is a huge generation right now of transhumanists that are heavily influenced, not just by science fiction, but by cyberpunk science fiction. They want really cool wearable technologies, and they want really cool vehicles, they want the Iron Maiden poster – a revolution, something to fight for. Transhumanism in a country run by Christians who feel they want to die, a bunch of deathists, this is a challenge in itself! You can see the influence, especially if you go online, you can see the essence and the revolutionary spirit of the cyberpunk feeling.

Beyond aesthetic, do you think that some of the themes and visions within science fiction will actually influence the direction of scientific development in the future?

Yes absolutely. In fact, when you look at any scientific idea that has come out, it's almost always influenced by science fiction and literature. I wrote an article yesterday, and I brought in two different science fiction movies, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ex-Machina, and frankly they are, through art, already exploring all these issues. It's great because it prepares us for it, and it prepares us in a way that is entertaining and lets us feel emotions, without actually going through some of the difficulty. Now sometimes they mis-represent stuff, it's not necessarily a great thing that Terminator has become the most important image for artificial intelligence.

At the end of the day, a lot of the scientists that are emerging now are young people just graduating from college, and they are influenced by a whole bunch of movies like Star Wars they saw in their youth. You can see Elon Musk and all these people are totally inspired by Star Wars, and all of a sudden, naturally they are starting space companies. I think Hollywood, I think online literature, and I think blogs dedicated to these ideas are going to continue to influence transhumanism dramatically. I hope they will because some of the greatest memories I have, and some of the things I aspire to, have also been built in art, literature and in movies.