Episode 142 - Transhuman 2016 And Beyond
Published February 3, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Zoltan Istvan. On this episode, we're joined by Zoltan Istvan, who is running for President in 2016 for the Transhumanist Party. We talk a bit about the philosophy of transhumanism, the impact and possibilities of longevity and other medical technologies, as well as upcoming technology trends. Recorded 1/29/2015.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Zoltan Istvan on Twitter
Zoltan Istvan on Wikipedia
The Transhumanist Wager website
The Transhumanist Party website
The Transhumanist Party on Wikipedia
The Beauty Of Being Alive - by Zoltan Istvan (TEDxTransmedia)
Interview with Zoltan, by Kate Aquino (Miss Metaverse) - our guest from Episode 139
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #142. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us tonight is Zoltan Istvan, the 2016 candidate for president for the Transhumanist political party. Zoltan, thanks for joining us.
Zoltan Istvan: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate that.
MJ: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and about how you got into transhumanism?
ZI: Absolutely. I’m a 41-year-old guy, I have a family, two kids. I’ve done a bunch of different things in my life. I suppose some of the more interestings things are I’ve sailed mostly all away around the world on a sailboat, most of it alone, and I’ve also been a journalist for the National Geographic channel and I’ve seen over 100 countries. I’ve studied a lot of philosophy, that’s what I took my degree in. Just so your audience knows, transhumanism, the latin itself means “beyond human” but it’s really an international movement that are trying to use science and technology to radically improve the human being and improve the human experience. I got into it about twenty years ago and I’ve been kind of going strong ever since. What happened is I essentially wrote a novel, The Transhumanist Wager, it did really well, became a bestseller in philosophy and has sort of launched me into this place where I get to speak a lot about transhumanism all over the country and, in fact, the world. I’m promoting it and now I’m the presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party and I’m kind of lined up to spend a lot of my time dealing with promoting transhumanism.
MJ: What is the Transhumanist political party?
ZI: Transhumanism has existed for thirty to forty years, mostly led by some philosophers in academics, but it wasn’t really big until the last few years when a lot of the onslaught of technology started really getting people thinking “Wow, what’s really happening to the human race? We can’t live without our iPhones, we’re going to have driverless cars soon, we all get up to go flying on jets 30,000 feet in the air and nobody thinks anything of it.” This age of technology has really taken us over, so I had decided to form a political party centered around some of the ideas of transhumanism, which really is just kind of promoting science and technology-- but you’d be surprised, especially in America, there are a lot of people that are kind of sketched out by science and technology. One of the main things about transhumanism is we want to live indefinitely and that’s always kind of a problem, especially for a religious country such as America. So, I formed a party to kind of promote some of our ideas and to try to introduce these ideas into United States politics.
MJ: I think the idea of life extension and things like that has traditionally, for a lot of people, brought up the idea of more problems, like either it would be something reserved only for the wealthy elite and create a ruling class almost of god-like people over everybody else or exacerbate our population problems. Do you think that we are, as a species, ready to deal with that technology in a wise way or do we also need to be looking at technology to move out to space to have room for the species?
ZI: I absolutely support moving out into space anyways just because it’s so exciting. It’s part of what transhumanism is about, is we’re not limited to our natural environment, our natural bodies--we believe we can do anything. But I worry, and I say that’s probably the number one question I get all the time, is “Will a ruling elite take over the rest of us because they have access to the technology first?” I say this a lot: there’s a younger generation that’s involved now with the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Elon Musks, and also even people like Bill Gates--they’re not the kind that really have an interest in ruling over us. Their companies and everything that they’re doing is sort of built upon this premise of society and democracy working in consumerism. Consumerism doesn’t necessarily work because we force people to do it. It sort of just works because we want the things that they present. So, the age of the JP Morgans and the Rockefellers is sort of 100 years behind us. I’m convinced that the new really wealthy or the elite are not really interested in ruling over us. I think they’re interested in their wealth, but I don’t think they’re interested in power. I’m hopeful that the technologies that they bring through their companies, like Google--Google’s motto is “Do no evil,” that kind of thing--I think really a new generation of capitalists has emerged and they’re more concerned with the world moving forward as a whole. So, I don’t think that they world will be taken over or that the ruling elite will ever somehow take power unless it happened even behind the backs of the other elite. I think that the new generation that’s come up, they’re just more cool.
MJ: I guess you think we’re really ready as a species across the board. I just saw today actually a Pew research poll about how Americans feel about genetic modifications for babies, and it was like 46%/50% as far as that it’s okay and not okay to get rid of diseases, but for really improving on the species it was something like 83% against and 15% for. Approaching this from a US perspective, do you think that we’re really ready to think about this? It seems like there would be some resistance.
ZI: I think that the IVF situation and the IVF culture that has developed in America is a really good example. When we first brought out the question of “Should we use in-vitro fertilization” and use some of these techniques, everyone thought “Wow, this is way too far. This is going beyond the natural,” all these other things, but I think ultimately within a span of a couple of years, when you had women getting pregnant that never could have gotten pregnant before and the joy that it brought them, and the families that it held together, and the promise it gave to couples that couldn’t have it, all of a sudden that statistic changed from something like 80%/20% to something like 20%/80% the opposite way. I’m a believer that once people start experiencing some of this technology, once they start experiencing what life is like to have no sense of disease or what life is like when you don’t worry about your child dying in a car accident, they’re going to say “You know what? Maybe it is a little far fetched, maybe it is something that is a little dramatic for the species itself...” But I think they’ll subscribe to it because, at the end of the day, we are functional animals and we go for the cleanest food, the best shelter, we tend to want the best and I think it’s our morals or our hang ups that will probably adjust to the growing trend of technology in our lives rather than we stick to the past and whatever we were taught and that said “No, this is the right way.” I think people will grow up and mature into the transhumanist age and accept it as something that’s not only important but as what is making everyone’s lives better.
MB: So, we’ve prevented people from dying and we have all this technology, what are we going to do with all these extra people?
ZI: You’ve both already asked the #1 and #2 questions because it’s true--you have an environmental crisis with global warming and some of this other stuff, at least I believe that we have global warming, and this is very important because if no one dies, then all of a sudden we could have an even worse overpopulation problem than we have. But I still advocate for the technology. In fact, what I advocate for is more development for the green technology. I was just reading the other night that solar panels have had their wattage per cost increased again by another 15% last year. If you take the J curve out, in ten or fifteen years it’s going to be cheaper to have solar panels than it is to use any fossil fuels. That’s what I’m talking about when I say “Put your money into green energy.” Maybe we should take a little bit of a hit now and start doing that stuff. The reason that’s important is that I believe that, from an environmental standpoint, we can solve a huge amount of the problems just by spending a ton of money on working out green technologies. I think geoengineering, where you kind of maybe refill the ozone layers with some type of new technology that’s out there, this is all twenty to thirty years away from us getting our hands on it. So, the question is just to make it from here to there and hopefully contain the environmental issues until we get the technology to fix it. Don’t forget, according to the United Nations and a lot of its reports over the last few years, technology has dramatically been increasing the well-being, the health, and the longevity of everyone around the world. People all around the world are simply living better because they have access to even just basic technology. In the long run, technology has really been responsible for improving the lives of literally billions. Yes, it’s causing environmental destruction around the planet and that’s something we have to get a hold of, but I’m hoping we’ll be able to also get a hold of it through new technological fixes that our governments will put money towards.
MJ: Besides the technologies that affect longevity, and you mentioned a couple just a minute ago, the green energy technologies and geoengineering, what are some of the other trends that you really see emerging out of the Silicon Valleys of the world or the technology centers that you’re kind of keeping an eye on that you think will really create that transhumanist age?
ZI: My favorite one, because I have heart disease that runs in my family, is I believe that in ten years the robotic heart is going to be better, or at least equivalent, to the human heart. Right now, they just, a few months ago, they just did a second transplant where they replaced someone’s heart with a robotic heart in France. In the past when they had replaced hearts with a robotic heart, they’ve been doing in for fifteen to twenty years, the idea was that it was just a kind of temporary replacement and then you’d look for a transplant for a real organ, but now they’re doing it so that the robotic heart permanently replaces the real heart. It’s really just a matter of time before they make it so that robotic heart is actually better than the heart you would have been born with. In fact, that heart is probably going to be the equivalent of an Olympian’s heart. Around the world, the #1 killer is heart disease; especially in America, about over a third of people die from heart disease. If we can put a lot of resources into it and speed up the development of the robotic heart, we could literally help millions and millions of people every day that die from heart disease. This is a class transhumanist technology that’s not that far out; a lot of older people have hip surgeries, a lot of people have dentures--this is all technology of some sort. However, the robotic heart is pretty invasive. But at the same time, it is something that could substantially change the lives of many Americans and many people around the world. These are the kinds of technologies I’m keeping my eye on, but I have it on so many different things. I’m doing an article right now on artificial intelligence for Gizmodo. I also study the field of telepathy, which is using brainwave headsets to try to download your thoughts--there’s some incredible stuff out there, but those get pretty far fetched. The robotic heart I think is something that everyone sort of gets, saying “Yeah, it would be nice to have a heart that would never fail.”
MJ: I’m definitely on board with that. Like you, I have family history of heart disease. I remember seeing a futurist special in the ‘80s sometime, I think when Matt and I were in junior high or something like that, and they showed a bunch of clips from different futuristic movies. But one of the things they showed was the artificial heart at the time and then they showed a concept heart and they talked about using some of the mechanical devices like rotors and things like that to make it even more efficient than a standard heart.
MI: It hasn’t grown as quickly as possible and part of the reason is because governments have been kind of slow to advocate for it and it’s just private companies doing it, but it really represents the holy grail of medicines. One of the other reasons is that if you have a good heart, a lot of your other organs will work better as well, you’ll have more blood pumping. I’ve written a couple articles about the heart--you then get into some really weird stuff. All the new hearts now are WiFi-enabled. Even Dick Cheney had, for example, a pump on his heart and that was because he was worried about terrorists trying to hack into the device he had on his heart, because when stuff is WiFi-enabled, you have the ability to download software and stuff into it. But everyone eventually will have these hearts, they’ll all be WiFi-enabled, you’ll be able to control them with your iPhone or whatever device you have. For example, if you’re going to have wild sex, you can speed up your artificial heart, if you want to sleep or meditate, you can slow it down. This is what the future is about. It’s not just “Oh, you get a better heart.” It’s the things that your better heart is going to enable you to do. You might be able to hold your breath for ten minutes. There’s a whole new set of human rules or human ways of how we’re going to interact with our environment because we’ll have a lot better organs or parts that will enable us to do this. I was just reading the other day about a guy who is developing these boots that have springs in them and right now he’s about able to run as fast as the fastest human being can run, but they’re thinking that within five years he’ll develop more technology that will enable him to run 40 mph to 50 mph and eventually outrun cheetahs. This is just a special pair of boots that enables your step to become three times as long and you can run with it. So, imagine running down the street at 70 mph.
MJ: Matt and I talked a while back to some guys with IAmTheCavalry, a security organization that advocates for better security on auto devices and medical devices and things like that, and they brought up the issue of WiFi and some of these protocols in those devices that manufacturers really need to take seriously when it comes to security.
ZI: Dick Cheney made this entire thing famous because all of a sudden you have the vice president-- no one has really worked on the hacking of artificial parts in your heart and it doesn’t take much to send in a basic signal and stop it. It’s a dangerous field. Don’t get me wrong, I promote this stuff but I also realize the dangers involved with it. But entire fields of bother hackers and both people that work against the hackers are going to develop entire new industries as we start getting to a place where a lot of our organs are either artificial or contain some type of technology inside them. I write a lot about brain implants in my articles and about a half a million people right now have brain implants around the world, most of it is for Alzheimer’s or epileptic patients. But eventually we’re going to start getting it for other different types of things where if you’re having an emergency, it will alert authorities that you’re drowning in a pool or something like that, or you’re in an automobile fire; it will alert someone in case they can help you more quickly. I think in fifteen to twenty years, many of us might have these chips because they make sense from a security point of view, but they also bring up all the surveillance issues which none of us want to deal with.
MB: You talked about the safety issue, being able to alert authorities. Where do you see it going with enhancements to the brain, making people smarter, that kind of thing? Do you think there’s a future in that too?
ZI: I really do. So far there’s been a lot in terms of development when you talk about mind-reading headsets and registering brain waves coming out of your head; we’re pretty good at monitoring what’s going on in your head, what part of the brain it’s doing and stuff like that, but we’re not very good at interjecting anything yet and getting the brain to recognize that. I just did an article for Gizmodo on bionic eyes, and bionic eyes are very interesting. You actually take this robotic eye and you tap it into the optic nerve, the robotic eye sees little particles of light and it sends stimulation to the optic nerve, which is a part of the brain, and then your consciousness and mind takes that in and deciphers it. It’s not the same way the eyeball works because the eyeball works off different types of light and other different types of things happening, but the bionic eye operates like a camera, you even have telescopic vision. But that’s taking something from the outside and putting it into the brain and interpreting it. We’re really good though at doing the other things, which is having the brain say something and us registering it on the outside. So, it’s going to take a while before we can actually get to a point when we can have a chip or have some kind of brainwave headset that stimulates our mind or makes us that much smarter. But the bionic eye is very interesting because it’s allowing people who are blind to see, and there are now about a few hundred blind people around the world who actually have telescopic vision. So, these blind people that have these bionic eyes, they have the ability to see objects much closer than you and I do already. Now, they can’t see really well because the bionic eye is still in its infancy, but they already have superhuman abilities to some extent. The same thing will be happening with the cochlear implants for ears and all the other implants that we’ll start doing--we’ll eventually make it so that the senses all are getting better through some type of technology. But when we start enhancing the brain, that’s pretty tough because a lot of people talk about nootropics and stuff that apparently makes you smarter, but a lot of the studies also show that no, it’s just you working on it, it’s not necessarily that you’re actually increasing IQ level or anything like that.
MB: You’ve said that you’ve basically traveled all around the world. Is the United States still at the forefront of all of this technology or is it spreading out? I know Silicon Valley is kind of the hub of a lot of this stuff.
ZI: America has lost some of its luster, some of its glory days in science, and there’s a number of reasons. For example, with stem cells, when George Bush stopped the development of them in the United States for seven or eight years, stem cell innovation went elsewhere, it went to Italy, it went to China, it went to other places around the world. If you have a conservative or a religious base of people that actually stop scientific development, naturally the other people pick it up. I can tell you that it’s very likely that in five or ten years, China will likely be the dominant transhumanist laboratory as far as countries go, and the reason is because they don’t have such bureaucracy with their government and they don’t have so many laws that get in the way of the things that scientists want to do here. There’s a lot of red tape that American scientists have to deal with and there’s also not so much funding for a lot of this radical stuff, whereas there’s a lot of Chinese companies that are looking for the next holy grail of medicine and they do what they want to do--it’s not necessarily ethical all the time, at least from an American point of view, but they get the job done with what they’re trying to do with science. So, a lot of people in my community feel that China might be the transhumanist frontier where a lot of the most amazing technologies are going to come out of.
MB: I find it a little ironic that a communist government has less regulations on stuff like that than a supposed free and open type of government.
ZI: It is ironic and, as an American, it’s sad. I find it sad that we have to lose our “lead.” The thing is the communist government just doesn’t really interfere. That’s the whole thing, is they just say “As long as you socially belong to us and salute the communist government, you can kind of do whatever you want.” I wish that the American government would sort of step back and say “You know what? We believe in free enterprise, we believe in tackling all these different challenges.” For example, just to even get some drugs through the FDA, it takes sometimes six, eight, ten years. In the meantime, when you’re talking about a cancer drug, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people dying just during the approval process. Some things have to made more efficient in order for America to kind of gain that foothold back in being the leader in some of this radical science and technology.
MJ: Speaking of the political process, with the Transhumanist Party, is that part of what you’re looking to do with that movement?
ZI: Absolutely. I’ve laid out my three main goals: (1) If I was elected president, which is totally unlikely but it’s nice to lay out these hypotheticals so that people see them, I would spend a huge amount of the war budget that America has on the life extension budget, which is tiny, it’s millions of dollars, it’s so small. We spend such a small amount of money as a government on actual benefits for people living longer. We’re about ten or fifteen years from stopping aging or reversing aging, and we could make that eight years, maybe even less, if we would just put the amount of resources into it that we actually need. That would be my first priority, is to put more resources into science and technology. The defense budget of America is 20%, the science and medicine budget of America is 2%, so the difference is crazy to me. (2) The second thing the Transhumanist Party is trying to do is spread a culture of science and technology to tell people that even if you are religious or you have some conservative views, you still can subscribe to a transhumanist-minded future that will enable you and your loved ones to live better and healthier with more well-being and stuff like that. (3) The third one is we worry about existential risks. We worry about asteroids hitting the planet, we worry about artificial intelligence taking over, even though artificial intelligence is a classic transhumanist technology, we worry about Ebola. I find it kind of crazy that America hasn’t spent $100 million to wipe out Ebola. It just seems in the best national interest when we have a huge amount of resources--we spent $6 trillion on Iraq. Maybe we could just take a tiny fraction of that and wipe out some of the world’s major diseases. So, these are the kind of things that the Transhumanist Party is trying to promote. I’m hoping it’s going to gain some traction because I think there’s a lot of people that are a little bit fed up that the United States is continuing down the same path it’s kind of gone down for the last fifty years without making some changes both socially and structurally in how it wants to act as a nation.
MJ: For someone that wanted to get involved in the Transhumanist Party at this point, do you have any outreach or membership programs or things like that yet? I think it’s still pretty new, is it not?
ZI: Yeah, it’s very new. We’ve decided for the time being not to have a membership clause or something like that. It’s like the Green Party, where if you support the Transhumanist Party, you belong to it, and if you want to vote for it and you see it on the ticket in front of you when you go to vote on election day or for whatever candidates are running for local offices, you do it. We’re not trying to get people to commit to a specific party right now or “You need to vote this way,” because I’m just trying to spread the word. We’re hoping that eventually we’ll get to a point where there’s so many supporters and we can get on so many state ballots--or example, with my presidential candidacy--that people will say “Let’s vote for this guy.” In the meantime, what people can do is they can volunteer, they can make donations--we’re desperate for donations, as a new party--and there’s so many things that people can do. In fact, just even talking about it with other friends or with family members, like “What would it mean to live in a world that is more transhumanist-minded? What would it mean to live in a world where we concentrated more on science and technology than on shopping for trinkets at Walmart?” So, we’re trying to do a grassroots movement right now since the party is so new, hope that it catches on, and hope that we can spread the word. If we grow larger, we might become a bit more formal, but right now we’re just out there having a good time and just really trying to spread the word that “Hey, there’s some good things coming down the pipeline in the future but we all have to work together to make it happen.”
MJ: In your book you used the concept of seasteading. Say the US failed to do some of these things or transhumanism didn’t really take root among the mainstream, do you see some of the people maybe in Silicon Valley or elsewhere that are interested in these technologies and exploring these kinds of themes moving out onto the ocean and things like that?
ZI: It’s possible but despite the regulations that we have in America, it still is an awesome country and we still have a lot of promise here and you’re still able to get a lot done that you want. But the book is kind of set up where somehow America becomes very conservative and very religious-minded and all of a sudden really wants to stop the transhumanists, because ultimately, the most important thing transhumanists want to do is create a type of technology that allows them to live indefinitely. They’re not really conserved with politics, they’re not really concerned with a lot of the other political angles that so many people think about. They just want to have the technology to live good lives. So, it’s possible in the future, and I’m a volunteer ambassador for the Seasteading Institute, so I am totally for it and I think it’s great and I think we should do it anyways just in case there’s a virus that ever comes across the continent, it’s just nice to have entities and whole floating islands out there that could keep humanity going or maybe they’d just be giant gambling complexes, I don’t know. But whatever it is, I’m definitely supportive of it. I’m hoping that we’re going to have floating universities and floating medical schools soon. But I don’t know if we definitely actually need it right now, but there certainly could come a time where the political environment changes so rapidly into something that’s more authoritarian that we would need it, and then it would be useful to have your own floating country where you could develop this stuff and keep transhumanist ideals and dreams alive.
MJ: Is there anything specific that we haven’t covered that you want to make sure you hit?
ZI: No. It’s been great. If your listeners want to find anything else about the Transhumanist Party, you can go to TranshumanistParty.org. If you’re interested in me, my website is ZoltanIstvan.com. And I wrote a novel, The Transhumanist Wager, which we’ve mentioned a few times. It’s on Amazon, there’s a Kindle version, a paperback version. It’s an epic about transhumanism and it’s a bit crazy, but it’s also pretty interesting. If anyone wants to reach out or volunteer for the Transhumanist Party, I usually answer all my emails and we have other people answering emails, so we’re all trying to work on this together so that we can use technology and science to live better, and eventually we’ll get it to a point where in maybe twenty or thirty years we’ll have it kind of closer to a utopian existence that I think a lot of us would enjoy.
MJ: Zoltan, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure.
MB: Thanks a lot.
ZI: I had a great time talking to you guys. Thanks so much. I look forward to listening to it.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: By Frank Borman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons