Remarkable People

Zoltan Istvan on transhumanism, politics and why the human body has to go

Zoltan Istvan on transhumanism, politics and why the human body has to go
Istvan is currently running for the position of Governor of California
Istvan is currently running for the position of Governor of California
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As part of his 2016 Presidential campaign Zoltan Istvan traveled through the United States in a bus shaped like a coffin
As part of his 2016 Presidential campaign Zoltan Istvan traveled through the United States in a bus shaped like a coffin
Istvan is currently running for the position of Governor of California
Istvan is currently running for the position of Governor of California
Istvan getting a microchip implanted into his hand during his 2016 tour
Istvan getting a microchip implanted into his hand during his 2016 tour
"My entire goal, and one of the things I'm standing behind is that we all have a universal right to indefinite lifespans"
"My entire goal, and one of the things I'm standing behind is that we all have a universal right to indefinite lifespans"
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Zoltan Istvan is a transhumanist, journalist, politician, writer and libertarian. He is also running for Governor of California for the Libertarian Party on a platform pushing science and technology to the forefront of political discourse. In recent years, the movement of transhumanism has moved from a niche collection of philosophical ideals and anarcho-punk gestures into a mainstream political movement. Istvan has become the popular face of this movement after running for president in 2016 on a dedicated transhumanist platform.

We caught up with Istvan to chat about how transhumanist ideals can translate into politics, how technology is going to change us as humans and the dangers in not keeping up with new innovations, such as genetic editing.

New Atlas: How does transhumanism intersect with politics?

Istvan: For me you can never make any headway in the universe, or on planet Earth, if you don't involve politics because so much money for innovation or research and development comes from the government and so many laws about what you can do. Genetic editing, chip implants, can you get a brain implant that makes you smarter than other people? These things are often directed by the government determining whether it's illegal or not. You can either be thrown in jail or not thrown in jail – so you must have a political footprint, you must have attorneys on the ground, you must have that kind of legal position that can explain things in terms that a government will understand.

One of the things that happened to me was that when I became a public figure in the movement, I realized very quickly there was zero political framework for this entire movement. It was one of the reasons why I founded the Transhumanist Party and also then went through the process to become the 2016 nominee.

As part of his 2016 Presidential campaign Zoltan Istvan traveled through the United States in a bus shaped like a coffin
As part of his 2016 Presidential campaign Zoltan Istvan traveled through the United States in a bus shaped like a coffin

You've recently announced your run for California governor as a libertarian. How do you reconcile the small government "hands off" ideals of a libertarian ideology with your transhumanist goals of keeping technological innovations accessible to all?

Well, tranhumanism began as a libertarian philosophy really, with most early people who thought about it having the point of view that we should have the right to merge with machines, we should have the right to overcome death.

To actually make real headway in politics it would takes years, maybe decades, to get the Transhumanist Party with enough funding and infrastructure to make a difference. But with the libertarians you walk directly into a party that got four million votes for Gary Johnson, its 2016 presidential nominee. Four million votes is a lot of votes.

That's one of the reasons why I am running for the Libertarian Party. It's not that in any way am I changing my science or technology beliefs. It just happens to be that the libertarian philosophy is pretty equivalent with tranhumanism and it fits very well for the next journey of my life.

What do you see the government's role is in preventing technological inequality between the rich and poor?

In my opinion the government should obviously be around to make sure we don't create a dystopia. Everyone thought the Transhumanist Party was totally optimistic of technology and, while it totally is, it is also very fundamentally concerned with things like being able to go onto eBay and for a thousand dollars buy some kind of a virus making kit where you can create a virus that could take out millions of people. Or the idea of artificial intelligence, some people just want to let AI run wild whereas I'm not really sure we want a species on Earth that is smarter than human beings. I'm not sure that makes any sense.

So despite the optimism of the Transhumanism Party and that political element, we were also very conscious that inequality was growing because of technology. That said the standard of life was improving around the world even if inequality was growing. But still, I think the role of transhumanism in politics is not just to say, 'this is the greatest thing ever, let's go full force with whatever new technological development is happening.' We need to be concerned about these things.

Transhumanists can play a political role by stepping up and saying there are limits to where technology goes, and at the same time some things like genetic editing are things that we should put our foot down and say this should be open market. We should find out where this takes us and seek to improve ourselves as human beings. As you probably read all the time, Christian America is literally trying to shut down genetic editing and they are only getting certain types of things going. It's just like when George W Bush ran the government and stopped stem cell funding for seven years. They are trying to do the same thing now with genetic editing, which is perhaps the most promising science of the 21st century.

This is where transhumanists have to stand up and just say no, this has to be determined by the market. If people start creating monsters and those monsters do evil things that's a whole different story, but what we're trying to do right now is eliminate cancer, augment our intelligence so we can become smarter, and do away with hereditary diseases. Very few people in Congress are talking about it, yet it is probably the most important science of our time.

So, for example, in terms of genetic editing that creates IQ boosting - how do you manage that so it's not just an expensive process only available to the rich? Do you agree there needs to be a heavy regulatory hand from the government to ensure we don't move towards a dystopian future?

Tough question. I would've answered in the past that certainly some regulatory hand has to be involved, and I still think some regulatory hands have to be involved. I just think at this point in time we're not really talking about the rich becoming super smart and the poor not getting these kinds of technology. We're just fighting for the right to even do experiments.

I do believe that there's a libertarian version of universal health care and universal income out there that would be good. I just think at the very top of the food chain is where we really need to let people, those very rich and super innovative people, do exactly what they want to do. But as a left-leaning libertarian I'm probably always going to say that some regulatory hand has to be in there to protect the poor.

My entire goal, and one of the things I'm standing behind is that we all have a universal right to indefinite lifespans. That's something I can promise you in the 21st century will become one of the most important civil and ideological rights of humanity. That everybody has a right to live indefinitely. Right now we still think death is natural, but that's gonna be changing over the next five, 10, 15 years.

I want people to feel entitled to an indefinite lifespan where if they choose to live for a long period of time, they will. And to get there we're going to need some type of government hand that says, enough with the bandaid medicine, enough with your Christian antics where you must die to meet God and it's okay to age. I believe aging is a disease. I believe the government needs to classify it as a disease. We need to tackle aging, let's stop it.

It's not really libertarian or democratic or republican. It's a humanitarian point of view. People should have the right to live as long as possible. We should stop trying to fix the human body when we need to realize that moving beyond the human body is probably the very best scenario for getting rid of some of the maladies and diseases we suffer from. And you can call this universal health care, the libertarians may get all grumpy and angry, but the reality is I think there is a very libertarian nature to it.

The most important thing about the libertarian point of view here is private property, and this private property extends all the way to yourself. If you see yourself as something that wants to be left alone, then you want to be left alone, not only from other people, but from the ravages of nature, from the ravages of disease and I think the libertarian calling could be to come up with these solutions that could change humanity forever so we really could live a truly libertarian life where you're not constantly attacked. We're all being bothered by biological issues so I'd like to take that libertarian philosophy one step further and apply that to the human body.

You've done a little biohacking yourself. Can you tell us about the chip in your hand and what it does?

On my bus tour recently, the very first stop on that four-month tour was this place called Grindfest. All the biohackers across the country fly in and they do things to themselves. They put chips in, they electrocute each other, they party, they do drugs, it's a very free society. One of the things I did was I got chipped. I got a tiny little implant in my hand. It's about the size of a grain of rice and it allows me to open my front door. I'm trying to get the software right now to get my car to start with it. It also sends out a text message if you get close enough to me and have the right software. It can do all sorts of little things.

Istvan getting a microchip implanted into his hand during his 2016 tour
Istvan getting a microchip implanted into his hand during his 2016 tour

The biohackers are some of the most important people in the transhumanist movement. They're some of the ones that are really out there beyond the academics of it. They're doing things, they're testing things. I'm a big believer that a lot of people will get chip implants soon. I'm a surfer and when I go surfing I don't have to hide my keys underneath my car somewhere or worry about them getting wet. I just go because the housekeys are in my hand.

Do you think there is a line in how far human enhancement and augmentation can go before we can't really classify ourselves as humans anymore?

I would say that when we start really merging with machines, maybe over the next five or 10 years, that's when mainstream people will say, yes, we are fundamentally crossing that line of becoming less human.

I think when we start affecting our thoughts, and that's gonna come through the neural laces or the neural prosthetics. When you start getting into the matrix you're really no longer a human being, but the reality is that we're probably going to keep the best of our human traits with us for a long time. There's this idea that we may not ever even see that change because it happens so slowly and it will be hard to diagnose when it does. We'll always just think, oh, we're who we are.

So you're not afraid that we're moving into a phase where we are potentially losing an essential sense of self or individuality through this augmentation? You're embracing a future with a new type of human?

Oh I'm totally embracing it! I have called for the end of humanity as we know it. The reality is that I think the human body is frail. I don't want to say the human body is evil, but I don't like it. I'm not a fan of the human body. I think it's something that is designed to be replaced and replaced as quickly as possible.

When you tell me that a third of everybody I know dies from heart disease and my father has had four heart attacks, I'm not saying the human body is something wonderful. I'm saying look, the heart is a terrible frigging mechanism. Awful mechanism. Terrible. We need to replace it and we need to replace it quickly. Frankly you could say the same thing about the human body as a whole. Every single part on the human body has to go and can be substantially improved. And will be substantially improved over the next 25 years.

We need to get over this idea that the body is something holy. Of course this is classic Christian ideology teaching us that, the human body is holy, marriage is holy, all these things are holy. Listen, none of that is holy. The only thing that really makes sense is what's most functional to increase our living standards for ourselves, for our families and for our community and humanity as a whole. And frankly, to do that, the most functional thing is to upgrade ourselves. To get rid of limbs. To get rid of blood. To get rid of breathing air. To get rid of eating and pooing. I mean if you were to create a machine, you had all the power in the world, you would never create a human being. You would never create the human mind, three pounds of meat. It's nowhere near as sophisticated as the Empire State building having servers lined up to the windows. Here, in just a few years we're gonna see exactly how complex a machine we can create.

The human mind is something that's just evolved over a period of 150,000 years from being essentially apes and we think we're really smart, but we have no idea the sophistication we can get to. If you look at the trajectory of how intelligence is increasing in the machine world. If you take that out a hundred years, just on that trajectory, the artificial intelligence would probably be approximately one trillion times smarter than a human being. We have no idea what a trillion times smarter than our brains would look like. I think we should do the best to be that change and go with it rather than be left behind.

Do you see it as an imperative to augment ourselves so as to make sure that AI doesn't speed past us and render us irrelevant? Elon Musk recently said that artificial intelligence could at some point view us as house cats in terms of usefulness.

Hah, house pets would be lucky! We would be much more like ants! If an ant sees a human being it has no idea what that human being is. It just sees something moving in its vision. In fact I've often speculated that this is why we have never made contact with any other species out there or any other kinds of intelligence. Any other intelligence out there is almost certainly going to be some kind of machine, perhaps even more complex than we even know.

Elon Musk is 100 percent right. That is why the Transhumanist Party never advocated for artificial intelligence to go beyond the human being. I would not be surprised whatsoever if machines suddenly decided, why would we want to keep humans around?

What I have advocated is that we need to spend more time working on neural prosthetics so that when we create an AI that can become smarter than us we can directly tie ourselves into that AI and become an intrinsic part of it. So that anywhere the AI goes, we also go. That's the only way I'd like to let loose a machine like that, where we were a huge part tied directly into it.

Just finally, is there a specific area of research or technological development that is happening right now that excites you?

To me, the most important development of the last decade, or even century, is genetic editing. It's here, it's real and it's now. It's not just about giving babies blue eyes or brown eyes or blonde hair or black hair. It's about going in and eliminating cancer before you ever get it. It's going in and saying, this is something that Einstein had in his brain and we're going to create a genetic component so that you have it and then all of a sudden you are 20 percent better in physics than you would have been.

And this is something that the Chinese have been working on and leading the way. They're moving forward on it in ways that America is totally stopped on because we have all these laws in place. So we're very much stuck at a point where the most important science, being genetic editing, we could lose our entire teeth on it while Asia takes the lead.

What does it matter if a couple of hundred million Chinese kids have augmented intelligence that makes them twenty to thirty percent smarter than us, but for religious reasons Americans aren't? What happens in the 15 years after that? There is no way to compete against them.

It becomes a great controversy not only between rich and poor, but between Chinese citizenry and American citizenry. This is a very real civil rights debate that America and the world has to have. Everybody knows how thorny it is, but none of the politicians want to discuss it because it is so thorny. There is no right way about it and yet the technology is here and we all know it has the potential to completely change human nature.

Ed's note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rocky Stefano
I'm a transhumanist and while I agree with some of what Zoltan has aid, there are fundamental issues that he is either glazing over for the moment or being totally ignorant of the facts. This planet does not have unlimited resources, the same goes for our governments. With no one dying, where and how will people live? That's only one of the "minor" issues to be dealt with.
I'm a Christian and I don't have any problem with genetic manipulation. I do think the interviewer missed a huge question in, "If everyone lives as long as they want and can have kids well into their second century, where will we get the food to feed everyone?" The only way extreme life extension is feasible is if only the elite have access to it. 8 billion would turn into 30 billion in a blink of the eye if no one aged.
I to have felt this change and I am quite sure this is the direction humanity must travel. It is exciting times and there will be more to come, the trick is to still be around to observe it.
Also, "Elon Musk recently said that artificial intelligence could at some point view us as house cats in terms of usefulness." If it came with the pampered life of a house cat, 90% of the population would love this.
Nonsene. No artificial intelligence has ever existed, and it is not likely they will ever succeed at creating any artificial intelligence, ever. That is because we can't make artificial intelligence, because we have no idea how intelligence works. A computer that plays chess has ZERO intelligence. It simply has canned responses to programmed in conditions. That is NOT at all intelligence. It is all fake, just like the claims of self driving cars. The reality is these so called autonomous cars can't even recognize turn signals or brake lights. They can't tell where lanes are, so instead rely totally on GPS mapping. That is not intelligence, and is not at all safe. Transhumanism makes no sense at all, because essentially the body is God. There is no point to life at all except in terms of physical responses to the body. We live to eat, sleep, poop, have sex, etc. Without that, life is meaningless.
If it ain't broke don't fix it. For added strength and intelligence, condition your body with good exercise an a healthy diet. We have not even come close to exhausting human potential. How about educating and motivating people to be more naturally rather than advocating a quick fix through interfaces. Just remember, it works both ways. You interface to the machine, and eventual it will interface to you. Consider that an AI that taps into the brain's potential to massively parallel process/store, will likely want to move in and make it its home.
DrRobo Dawg
@Rocky Stefano & Tanstar There is "unlimited" space and resources in space. While space colonies are still a ways off, so is human augmentation. Who knows, maybe augmented intelligence will help us in the move to space, certainly augment bodies will. Alternately, simply give people a choice...immortality and sterile or not. Sterility could also be temporary until space is more accessible.
@KirkAugustin Actually we do have an idea of how intelligence works, we just need better machines to model it. Then we can use the model to expand our understanding. It is a problem of complexity. In essence you are just as much a "canned response machine" - only a really complex one. I think you have it backwards, we don't live to do those, we do them to live. And with that life we can experience the joy and wonders of this world. Whether it be learning new things, or meeting fellow travelers, or exploring new places...if all life means to you is a burger a lay and a bed...well I say you lack imagination!
1. Be careful in calling yourself not a "human being" - some will claim that you no longer have human rights.
2. What happens when you smash the brain right out of balance by a neural implant? No animal testing here, do you know how much a single alteration to the chemical balance can cause? Imagine the damage a cognitive enhancement of a electronical kind would do.
3. I'm all for enhancing the human being, mind as well. Genetical improvements too - we just gotta do things the right way.
4. Beings of conservative religions are unlikely to want to see this change; humans will become too hard to control or in kind situations heal. It will simply become too hard to keep humanity down.
5. Marriage is indeed not holy; as with much else in religion, it is claimed holy. It causes so much suffering and has been a tool to misuse women for millenia.
6. Notice the "dystopian future" - I would claim this something akin to propaganda in order to "lock" progress in the field; forcing people to believe they have to overcome a dystopian future and making people think specific things: Jailing peoples mind in fear.
7. We are in severe need of balancing such technologies pre-emptively, they are gonna screw us all up. Humans are good at adapting. However just look at our environment; pre-emptive problem solving is not exactly a specialty. Almost every religion, but Buddhism to the best of my knowledge, claims the end of the world. That's the limit of their pre-cognitive ability; they cause the end they think they are predicting.
Zoltan Istvan is a transhumanist, journalist, politician, writer and libertarian, and one day he too will ..... die. "In my opinion the government should obviously be around to make sure we don't create a dystopia" This statement by Istvan is proof that he certainly needs intelligence augmentation. Government is the cause of dystopia. As for his semi-literate statement "You would never create the human mind, three pounds of meat." WTF ? Can't even differentiate between the brain & its potential manifestations.Perhaps if you can kill your ego, you might be able to enhance your mind. Please be sure to donate your brain to science fiction Zoltan.
Ralf Biernacki
I'm a Christian transhumanist, and I certainly have no problem with genetic augmentation. Christianity tells you that your spirit is imperfect, and that you have an obligation to do your best to improve yourself, spiritually. It would be nonsense to at the same time insist that the human body is perfect, and brooks no improvement. As for holiness, God is holy; neither the human body nor spirit is, at least not in this life.
Yet, while I agree with many of Istvan's theses, especially as regards wise and foresighted regulations of human germline engineering, I think his insistence on cyborgization is misguided, and perhaps a bit passe---it is a 20th century vision. Our understanding of genetics and its synergy with biochemistry is rapidly growing, and IMHO much better results can be achieved by manipulating biology than by replacing it with prosthetics. There are at least two showstoppers in the machine route: 1. We have no idea, nor even the beginnings of one, on how to transfer consciousness to a machine. It might very well be impossible to do so while preserving identity. 2. While a biological organism can, almost by definition, survive and reproduce in the natural environment, a cyborg can do neither without a sophisticated technical infrastructure that it would be utterly dependent on. In other words, a TEOTWAWKI of even minor magnitude would extinct the cyborgs, but not the gengineered.