The Transhumanist Who Would Be President

An interview with Zoltan Istvan


With a few minor exceptions — tattoos, piercings, elective surgery — design is a practice applied to objects and spaces, not to people. We can upgrade and improve our bodies through dedication and habit, but the notion of manipulating and reconfiguring the human system in a design sense remains largely fantastical. At most, when we speak of redesigning our lives, we only mean it metaphorically. But to transhumanists, the idea of redesigning oneself is a literal — and imminent — proposition. For Zoltan Istvan, founder and 2016 presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, it is also a political one.

On the surface, Istvan doesn’t look radically different from most presidential candidates. He is white (Hungarian-American, to be precise), male, and Ivy League educated, having studied philosophy and religious studies at Columbia University. He is a former extreme athlete (he is credited with the invention and popularization of volcano boarding, which is exactly what it sounds like), a successful businessman, and happily married with two daughters. At 41, Istvan would, if elected, be the youngest person ever to assume the presidency. But if he succeeds in bringing transhumanism to the political mainstream, his age will be the least remarkable thing about his candidacy.

If you ask people on the street, most can’t tell you what “transhumanism” is. But everyone knows what transhumanism looks like, because the dreams of transhumanists are the stuff of science fiction: extending our lifespans indefinitely, augmenting our senses and adding new ones, and even uploading our minds to computers and living forever.

Of course, in another, more practical sense, transhumanism is already with us. The ever-accelerating rate at which technology is increasing in speed and power, and the alarming ease and intimacy with which new gadgets can become part of our very selves, is a phenomenon real enough to have inspired The Brookings Institution to publish a report on our cyborg future and the implications of this intimate and ubiquitous connectivity for law and policy. For some, it’s not even the future: people who rely on pacemakers, for instance, are already (perhaps too prosaically for science fiction purposes) part machine.

More fantastic examples exist as well: artist Neal Harbisson, born colorblind, famously has a device implanted in his skull that turns visible light into audible frequencies, thus allowing him to hear “a symphony of color.” As remarkable as it is, Harbisson’s prosthetic can also make him into a target. In 2012, the artist was arrested in Barcelona, and his angler-fish-like prosthetic damaged, when police mistakenly assumed he was filming protests there.

Neil Harbisson, cyborg artist.

Harbisson is an outlier in today’s world. But in the future envisioned by transhumanists, such augmentations would not be unusual in the least. Nor would they need to be confined to people making up for perceived limitations like colorblindness. Why not a prosthetic that enabled one to see infrared or ultraviolet light? Or prosthetic hands that allowed a person to scale a sheer surface as easily as a gecko scampers up a wall? To transhumanist thinking, nothing is off the table; human biology is just a starting point, and the only limits are those set by technology.

But for Istvan, all of the concerns of a transhumanist political agenda can be summarized in three key priorities. As he puts it:

1. Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15–20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2. Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3. Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

Istvan laid out this agenda in an October 2014 column in the Huffington Post, where, along with Psychology Today and Vice’s Motherboard blog, he is a regular contributor. He is also a former reporter for National Geographic, and has published work in a number of other outlets, including Slate and the San Francisco Chronicle. Istvan has been interviewed by John Stossel and Joe Rogan, and his ideas explored in an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s series “Inside Man” on CNN.

Istvan volcano boarding, a sport he pioneered and popularized.

Istvan’s credentials make him difficult to dismiss as a mere crackpot. While he doesn’t expect to be elected in 2016, or even come close, he hopes his campaign will bring transhumanist ideas, such as extending human lifespans and systematically eradicating disease, into the political conversation.

I recently had the chance to talk with Istvan over Skype about his presidential ambitions. What follows is a dialogue that has been condensed for brevity and edited for clarity.

Why have you decided to run for president now on the Transhumanist Party ticket?

The transhumanism movement has been around for 30 years, but it really hasn’t gained any traction until the last few years. And I don’t mean to put myself out there, but I’m the first person in the movement to have access to national columns. I have three national columns and so as a result, transhumanism has been in the news a lot. And they’re all sort of cheerleading transhumanism articles. Most of the articles before have been skeptical. Which is fine — that’s what a journalist’s job is. But it’s different to have someone promoting it.

What’s happened over the last few years is that the movement has changed. There has never been a political component of transhumanism, mainly because a lot of the scientists and engineers that support the movement aren’t fans of politics. It’s just not their thing. So I decided to take it upon myself to form the Transhumanist Party.

In the past month, I think another fifteen national transhumanist parties have started. The United Kingdom has one, we have one forming in Germany, we have one forming in India. We already have one in Slovakia, one’s developing in Australia. It’s incredible. Everyone is saying it’s time we moved the movement into politics. And there’s been a huge amount of media interest in what a transhumanist-minded president would do differently than a normal politician.

What was the process like to register the party?

Setting up a political party is relatively easy in America, so setting up the Transhumanist Party was technically quick and simple. A few officers were involved and we had general discussions on policy and goals, and then voted on them. The difficult thing about a political party, though, is to get momentum going about it, and getting one’s community and supporters to embrace it. The Transhumanist Party seems to be growing everyday and more people are coming to support it. It’s helped that I have most infrastructure in place, all the social media set up, and a revamped website now.

For me, the difficult part is actually setting up a US Presidential campaign that can really do well. That has taken hundreds of hours of research, outreach, planning, and strategizing. Planning events, seeking donations, and getting people involved on a voluntary basis is tough work.

Gabriel Rothblatt has just agreed to be an adviser of the party and of my campaign. I consider this great news since he just ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket, and knows the ins and outs of campaigning. He’s also the son of transhumanist and legendary entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt.

How do you plan to fund your campaign?

That’s a difficult question. Currently, I am funding almost everything myself for my campaign, and this is a strain on my wife and family. Like many other people, we have a mortgage payment, bills, and kids to support. However, over the next months, I will be reaching out for donations and financial support from my community, friends and supporters, and planning events to get donations. There are a number of people who have expressed interest in helping me. Funding is critical for my campaign if it hopes to be an important part of the national dialogue in politics.

How much support do you think there is for an explicitly transhumanist politics in the US?

It’s very tough to say exactly how many transhumanists there are, but I’m guessing there are now about 150,000 in America. But I feel like our community is potentially a few million people. I don’t know how many people would actually say, “I’m a transhumanist,” but the idea is pretty clear: A lot of people say, I would like to use science and technology to transform my body, transform my life, and transform some of the other things that are happening in the world.

What’s the goal of your campaign?

Of course, as you know from reading my articles, there’s no chance of me winning. I’m not even trying to pretend that I’m necessarily going to take votes from anyone — it’s pretty complex to get on all the state ballots and do all these other things. But it’s very likely that I’m going to be involved in some discussions at the higher ranks of politics as to, well, what is this guy really talking about? Should we be considering genetic engineering and talking about it in our political campaigns, for example? I’m hopefully going to have some contact with Hillary Clinton. Al Gore has been a closet transhumanist for literally a decade.

So there’s been some involvement, especially in the liberal parties, and interest in what technology is doing, and interest in how it can help politics. What does Hillary Clinton think about artificial wombs, for example, or designer babies? What about the military controlling artificial intelligence, this technology with the potential to create something with a hundred times the intelligence of a human?

These are not things she wants to talk about, and neither does Mitt Romney [NOTE: This conversation took place before Romney announced that he will not run] or whoever else is going to run, but there’s a good chance if there’s enough press around it, they’ll be forced to deal with it.

The idea is that maybe in 2020, 2024, the Transhumanist Party can become something more significant than what it is now — a brand new startup, in a way.

So it’s about shifting the conversation, and getting some of these transhumanist ideas and concerns out of the fringe and into the mainstream, on people’s TVs.

Absolutely. And I don’t mean to take anything away from my own campaign — everyone keeps saying, “Don’t say you’re going to lose” — but I’m just trying to be realistic. Our time might be in four or eight years. But what we can really do this time around is bring the conversation into the public’s view. I believe that I can be included in some debates, especially with other third parties, where we actually get a voice to make a dent, and get people saying, “Well, we really don’t want to talk about these topics, because they’re so controversial. However, it’s probably time we do, because after all, the country is kind of running headlong into the Transhumanist Age.”

You know, we have robotic hearts, bionic eyes, artificial hearing, all this stuff — it’s already here, it’s just a matter of, when we start implementing these things, how the FDA handles it, how the culture of America decides to say, “Wow, is a robotic arm something I’m going to want in ten years if it’s actually better than a human arm?”

OK, so along the same line, what’s the elevator pitch for the Transhumanist Party? What do you say to someone who hasn’t had any exposure to these ideas, outside of maybe “The Terminator?”

Well, basically the elevator pitch, and maybe it’s still a bit far-fetched, is that the most important idea about transhumanists is that they’re trying to conquer human death. They’re trying to eliminate cancer, they’re trying to eliminate disease, and basically eliminate the bad health that we all suffer from, and that takes away our loved ones. So the main goal of the Transhumanist Party is to divert money away from defense — you know, the 20 percent of the national budget that we spend on wars and bombs — and to put a lot of that, or at least some of that, into life extension science.

Why should we have a war in Afghanistan if we can have a war on cancer, or a war on heart disease? About a third of Americans die from heart disease. We should wipe that out! That’s where the war should be. And so that’s my elevator pitch: the Transhumanist Party is going to do everything in its power to shift the resources and the intellect of this country into fighting for the things that affect our health, and not for fighting far-off wars.

America can become the biotechnology powerhouse in the world, and end a lot of suffering, especially needless suffering from disease, if we were just to spend our resources there. You don’t get anywhere from spending money on brand-new cluster bombs. You have to spend that money on science, give it to the scientists.

That echoes what a lot of science popularizers, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are saying about space exploration, and things like that. But it’s almost like we’re suffering from space fatigue at this point, because the goals seem so far away. The idea of conquering death might stand to capture people’s imaginations more.

Yeah, and we’re totally “pro” the space industry, we love it, but it’s exactly like you said, it is out of reach for most people. But I certainly support it, especially the private space industry, and would love to create more funding for it. But our real goals are in tackling the well-being of the American citizen, and saying, we’ve been spending so much money in so many far-off places, when we should be spending it on their health.

And again — it’s also not just conquering death, it’s stopping aging, and eventually reversing aging. There’s been some success in actually reversing aging, and reversing aging in organs specifically, in mice and some other animals. It’s really just a matter of fast-forwarding that, putting it on overdrive, spending a lot more money — a hundred times the money — and you’re going to get, potentially, at least ten times the results. And I think, literally, as I have said before, if we put a trillion dollars into the life extension field, we will conquer human mortality within ten years.

It’s a numbers game, really. We have so little money going into the field right now. The NIH is putting in just a few billion, and it’s mostly towards Alzheimer’s and things like that. But if we really put in real money, even just put in a fifth of what we put into the Iraq War, we would probably be able to conquer human death. And this is not me saying this. This is what experts, gerontologists are saying. They’re the ones who are really suffering from the lack of funds — they’re dealing with multi-million dollar budgets, instead of multi-billion dollar budgets, which is what most other industries in America are actually dealing with.

And the other part of the elevator pitch is that the Transhumanist Party is trying to protect us from existential risks. I think there’s a lot of politicians out there who don’t want to talk about the danger of an asteroid hitting the planet, or the danger of an artificial intelligence running wild, or some virus like Ebola taking over. The Transhumanist Party wants to examine the real risks, and put resources into making sure that the human race doesn’t get wiped out by something really stupid and really minor that we could have taken care of.

It’s kind of sad that we still have Ebola, 30 or 40 years later, when it’s probably only going to take $100 million to knock out the disease. This is one thing that the Transhumanist Party would be very actively pursuing, going through one by one, and every year, consciously taking out a disease. I really like Bill Gates’s approach, how he’s trying to tackle malaria. When you look at the numbers, you realize huge amounts of people are dying every year from malaria around the world. And it’s exactly the kind of thing the Transhumanist Party would want to do. Go disease by disease by disease and tackle it. Knock it out.

That makes sense — but existential risk is actually what a lot of people fear from transhumanists. People enhancing themselves, and maybe getting ahead of normal, or biologically normal humans. How would you address those fears?

I think those fears are very natural, and they’re very important to consider. There’s two questions I get asked all the time. The first is, “Well, great, you want to solve human mortality, but that leaves Earth with an even greater overpopulation problem, so how do you deal with that?” And the second one is, “So how can we keep the elite, the really rich people of the world, from taking advantage of these technologies and leaving the rest of us behind?” And I’ve written articles on both these topics, because I think they’re both so critical.

I’ll start with the elite. You know, the new generation elites, the Elon Musks, the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Bill Gates — they are not the kind of elite that I believe is going to allow a substantial discrepancy between the rich having access to some of these transhumanist technologies that come into play, and the poor not having any access. First of all, they’re all very liberal-leaning — same thing with Google — so I think they’re going to make sure that as a policy, everything is as widespread and as cost-effective, basically as free as possible in the digital age. I have more confidence in the future than other people do, who remember the barons of the 20th century — the steel people and stuff like that who were literally sort of Darwinian. I don’t see the future being Darwinian like that. I think the new crowd is going to make it so we stay stable, make sure we lift the poor out of poverty.

And if you look at the United Nations reports that have come out, in 2013, 2014, all the reports say that poverty is decreasing, lifespans are increasing, health and wellbeing are increasing, all across the world. It’s not just first world countries; it’s especially third world countries. I mean, that’s what’s essentially happening in China. You’re having a ton of people leave their fields and moving to the cities. And while from our perspective it might not be the best life to have, they’re moving from the bottom class to a middle class life, and now have access to luxuries that would have seemed impossible to their grandfathers.

So there is this kind of upward climb that’s happening all over the world, and it’s happening because of science and technology. And I believe that, under our capitalistic system, it’ll probably continue that people will get nicer. People will want to get the poor to have access to these technologies, more so than has been in the past. It’s in the best interest of a capitalistic society that everyone buys this stuff and everyone has access to it. So I’m definitely a believer that we’re going to end up in a place that has more equality than before, and it’s made that way because the nature of technology allows it. Things inevitably get cheaper — that’s why people have access to cell phones in mud hut villages in Africa. Everyone has access to this incredible technology, and will continue to do so.

And what about overpopulation and the environment?

The Transhumanist Party is very pro-environment. We believe in global warming, or at least I do, and as the head of the party — I know some of the right-wing transhumanists don’t believe in it and want to deny it — but I absolutely believe in climate change, and we think the human race is responsible. Now, that doesn’t mean we want to stop the world from going forward, it simply means that we’re aware of the problems. But what we would like to focus on is putting a lot of money, and a lot of resources — and again, this is the Transhumanist Party policy — into technological fixes that can solve the environmental problems that we have. Rather than putting giant restrictions on companies or on people to literally change what they’re going to do — unfortunately a lot of the restrictions simply happen so slowly that they’re not as effective as you’d hope they would be. What is often the most effective is to put money into types of technology that would solve the problem.

And you’re seeing this. A few years ago people were saying, “Oh, solar panels will not be effective enough, and in the last few months in the media, all you’re reading about is how solar panels are becoming more effective, in price per watt. And you can also see that the oil companies have gotten very worried that solar power and wind power may actually take over as the main sources of power in the next 20 to 25 years. This presents a massive problem for the oil industry.

The idea is that technological fixes can solve the environment. And we need to spend a lot of money on geoengineering and ideas like that, where we actually re-engineer the planet to make up for some of the harm we’ve caused. So that’s the transhumanist perspective — trying to get scientists and engineers involved in solving the environmental problems we have, and really giving them the funding and the platforms that they need, and making it an industry that’s really massive, and hopefully changing the Earth’s atmosphere and environment back into what it was. We’re absolutely wanting to have a pristine planet for transhumanists to evolve and live on.

If you think about the 50-year future — we’ll probably have artificial intelligence by then, and there will probably be mind uploading occurring by then. They already demonstrated that telepathy was possible, just last year. There’s a possibility — and it’s a bit far-fetched, so we don’t really advocate it as a policy, but it’s worth discussing — that we’ll be living lives virtually in 50 years, or probably in ten or fifteen years. That’s why Facebook bought Oculus Rift.

The idea is, what happens, if even a small percentage of the population disappears into servers? We have this suspended animation now where people who have been shot can actually last four hours, dead. They’re practicing this in a hospital at the University of Pittsburgh. This is today; what will happen in ten years? It’ll probably be two or three days they can keep somebody frozen. And in 20 or 30 years, it’ll be indefinitely. Technology is changing so quickly, there may be some unexpected fixes for the environment that come from how we embrace virtual reality, how we embrace mind uploading, and also how we embrace space travel.

But even space travel I don’t think will change the dynamic for the foreseeable future, because it will be so few people. Virtual reality and mind uploading is different. I could see an entire generation of younger kids saying, hey, I want to live most of my life in a virtual reality. That means my body doesn’t need to be actively involved in the world. Again, all this is 50 years out, but it is worth considering, and we do talk about it sometimes, because a lot of transhumanist engineers do consider mind uploading to be a key to extending their lives indefinitely. So you have guys like Ray Kurzweil literally spending all their time working on that.

One thing I wanted to address, that you don’t see too much in articles about transhumanism, is these critiques that are out there, particularly from the left, of transhumanism being, not willfully or overtly, but implicitly racist.

Like any movement, there are going to be tiny factions that make news and spread, I’d say bad news, about any kind of movement. But just today I released a very pro-LGBT article, and the thing with transhumanism is, it must be the least racist or least bigoted movement on the planet. There’s no color, there’s no gender — I mean, these are people who might become a fish! People in my community talk about having no gender, intermixing these things so much that there’s nothing, or going back and forth between genders, between races and cultures, with genetic manipulation in the future. I am totally against any form of racism, any form of bigotry in transhumanism.

You know, the greatest thing, and the thing that attracted me and many thousands of other people to transhumanism is, it does not judge. Because there’s nothing permanent here. There’s no permanent religion, there’s no permanent body, there’s not even a permanent self. We are constantly changing, transitioning, evolving into new types of beings. Or at least we’re hoping to.

Unfortunately, you do have those types of people out there, but I certainly don’t allow them to contribute to the party, and I don’t allow those ideas either into my own personal writings and articles, or in the party itself, because first and foremost, the greatest thing about the Transhumanist Party is that anyone and anything is allowed. And nobody wants to say we’re going to end up as one thing, either. Because the idea is, we can all end up as different entities later in life. And that’s an idea that’s way beyond color, beyond religion, beyond ethnicity, beyond gender, beyond anything that’s caused civil rights problems in the past.

It’s interesting — the critiques I have read have not been about people of ill will, or with these bigoted ideas, but that, because transhumanism, to start, consisted of white males, that perspective was sort of implicit. But you mentioned in the beginning that India has a national Transhumanist Party developing, so maybe that indicates that the movement is becoming more diverse.

Yeah, I’m actually on the board of the India Future Society, too. They do some really good work, and I’ve featured them in some of my articles. There are no boundaries to come into this movement — I’d say the one boundary is, if you’re racist, we’re not really interested in having you. If you’re bigoted, this is not the place for you, because transhumanism is the most open-minded philosophy I can think of, and that’s what attracts many people. It’s notable that a large number of transhumanists are LGBT themselves.

But again, there’s factions everywhere, and they break off. And I do want to speak a little bit about the history and the Wikipedia page of Transhumanism. Unfortunately the Wikipedia page is sort of controlled by that group that started transhumanism 30 years ago, and they are mostly white males. The problem is that that is an implicit message. I’ve recently written a number of articles, my most popular one in 2014 was “A New Generation of Transhumanists is Emerging,” that really details the diversity in the movement — that there’s now women in the movement, there’s all sorts of ethnicities, races, and political viewpoints, too. It’s all across the board now. It used to be a very libertarian-minded movement, but now it’s very all-across.

One more potential criticism I want to address is that your novel, The Transhumanist Wager, follows a protagonist who is often ruthless and dictatorial in enacting a transhumanist agenda. You’ve mentioned that you’re worried people will read his actions and outlook into you and your campaign.

I definitely worry that my book is going to get me in trouble as a politician, especially since it advocates for a certain type of philosophy with an entire ideological system behind it. I have been going out of my way to publicly tell people there are large differences between [protagonist] Jethro Knights and myself, both philosophically and in how we care about people. I care a lot more about people and democracy!

On the other hand, I try to remind readers that Jethro Knight’s actions mostly take place in a war zone environment. Morality does change as circumstances change. Perhaps the most important line in the book is: “Morality is defined and decided by the amount of time we have left to live.” And Jethro’s extreme actions should be seen in light of the circumstances — people always trying to kill him, and religious extremists making transhumanist progress and life extension research impossible in America and around the world.

Did you have political aspirations when you were writing the book?

I did have political ambitions while writing the book. It wasn’t so precise as to say I was sure I was going to run for US President. But I certainly thought that was a possibility, as I believe politically it’s possible to dramatically make the world a better place and give people far better, healthier, and longer lives.