BBB presents: Q&A with Zoltan Istvan, transhumanist and U.S. presidential candidate
If there were ever a U.S. presidential candidate you’d want to have a beer with, it’s Zoltan Istvan. He may be a single-issue candidate, but it’s an issue as interesting as the man espousing it. Istvan has become the world’s most visible proponent of transhumanism, which aims to advance the human being — and with it the human condition — by breaking through present biological limits, overcoming aging and, eventually, conquering death itself.
Istvan was raised by Hungarian immigrants in California and educated in philosophy and religious studies at Columbia University. He was not a born transhumanist. He was, rather, a traveler and journalist. He had already spent years as a war reporter and invented the sport of volcanoboarding by 2004. He was writing for The National Geographic Channel on assignment that year when he very nearly stepped on a landmine in the former Vietnamese demilitarized zone. It shocked him into realizing that he wanted to live as long as possible. Transhumanism was a way to do that, and, in his mind, one that had become much more science than science fiction.
His 2013 novel, The Transhumanist Wager, explores the idea further, and transhumanism has evolved into a guiding principle so powerful that he’s running for president under its banner. From early September through late December 2015, he and a few volunteers and journalists climbed into his Immortality Bus (a 1978 Blue Bird Wanderlodge RV, which he bought for $10,000 and modded into a rolling coffin) and headed for Washington D.C., where he delivered the Transhumanist Bill of Rights to the U.S. capitol in December.
For Brain Bar Budapest in June, he’ll be flying commercial. But who knows? Maybe one day, Istvan will make the trip in Air Force One.
Q: Let’s say you were to win in November — and come January 2017, Zoltan Istvan is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. What’s at the top of your agenda?
The first thing I’d do is pull money from the U.S. military and put it into life extension research. I want to dedicate $1 trillion to longevity science, and I believe in just 10 years’ time, scientists can figure out a way to stop death. It’s time to have a war on cancer, on diabetes, on disease and aging — and not on other human beings.
Q: What’s your take on the views espoused by Nick Bostrom and others who talk about the risks of technology potentially dispensing with — rather than merely supporting — humanity?
First, we have to ask ourselves if we as human beings have evolved with that dangerous technology into something totally different. Is that a bad thing? Because I don’t mind losing humanity as long as what humans become is better than before. That said, the idea that humans will become extinct against their will is still science fiction in my mind. But it’s very possible in 50 years we won’t be anything like mammals.
Q: What about the population impacts and the accompanying increase in ecological footprint that starkly longer lifespans would bring?
The great thing about science and technology is, applied correctly, it can solve all the world’s problems. The planet can handle a much larger population, but we need to distribute resources better and find better technological ways to keep the planet healthy. Science and technology are the answer. Things like meatless meat, cures to cancer, new ways to produce food, and even ways to not eat food at all — these are things we need to embrace.
Q: How is the campaign going so far? Is the bus still running? I see you take no contributions at all. Will you be on ballots or will it be a write-in thing?
The campaign is going strong and the bus is still running, though it finished its tour to deliver a Transhumanist Bill of Rights to the U.S. Capitol. So we’re not actively on it right now, but that might be the case again later in the summer. My campaign was never designed to win the presidency, as that is a feat too large. My campaign was really about spreading the message that transhumanism is here and growing much larger, and that requires much discussion. While I probably won’t be on too many state ballots, voters can write me in. And it’s also vice-presidential picking season, so there’s always a chance to join forces with someone to make a greater impact. Most importantly, I’m laying the foundation for more presidential runs in the future — ones that will have a much greater chance to succeed.
Q: Your parents fled communist Hungary for California. How did your experience growing up inform who you’ve become, how did it shape the boldness of your approach to pursuing your ideas and profession?
My parents were very motivated to have a good life, and that sent them across the globe looking for it. I believe I carry that same drive, but instead of freedom, I’m looking for living far longer via science.
Q: Do you have connections there?
I’ve been to Hungary a few times, and even have a Hungarian passport. Some of my extended family lives there, but most of my immediate family now lives in the United States.
Q: What are you most looking forward to at Brain Bar Budapest?
I look forward to meeting many of the amazing thinkers and speakers at Brain Bar, and also soaking up the Budapest culture.
Interview by Todd Neff