“I had been working for National Geographic, travelling, doing all these fun things and then all of a sudden, I nearly stood on a land mine in Vietnam,” Zoltan Istvan tells me, as we sit in the lobby of a hotel just a few minutes walk from the White House. “My guide tackles me, throws me down, and saves my life. It was then that I decided that it was time to really dedicate myself to stopping death – stopping death for me, and stopping death for my loved ones.”
So goes the dramatic origin story of one of the most unusual candidates in the 2016 race to be president of the United States.
Istvan is running for the Transhumanist Party, a movement that believes technology has the power to transform the human mind and body
Amid the rolling election coverage, the social media jabs between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, and the debate sparring of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Istvan has been staging a rather unusual campaign as a third party candidate. This writer, philosopher and futurist is running for the Transhumanist Party, a movement that believes technology has the power to transform the human mind and body.
Transhumanists dream of achieving immortality and physical perfection through futuristic technologies like mind uploading, cyborg body augmentation, and genetic manipulation; they want us to evolve into a race of post-human super-beings. While the other presidential candidates are claiming they know best how to deal with Iran, the economy, and immigration, Istvan is trying to appeal to the US electorate with more ambitious goals. He wants to eradicate death, and for everyone in America to live forever.
Transhumanists want us to evolve into a race of post-human super-beings
Istvan is currently touring the US in what he calls the “Immortality Bus”: an old school bus converted to look like a huge coffin on wheels and paid for by an online crowdfunding campaign. He’s doing this to spread his vision of transhumanism, and so far it seems to be paying off – he openly admits the bus is a stunt, but it has been winning him the news coverage he seeks. But back in early August before the tour had kicked off, and the bus was still on the drawing board, I spent a day in Washington DC with Istvan to try to find out what he really believes in, how serious he is about it all, and what he sees in America’s future.
The plan is to join Istvan at his hotel at 9:30 in the morning, but I’ve come to DC on an early flight from New York, and I arrive an hour ahead of our meeting. I grab a coffee and sit in the lobby, when I notice Istvan is already here. At first I’m not sure it’s him – we’ve never met before but I’ve seen photos of him online, and he’s a striking figure: white, tall, muscular, healthy, with blond hair and blue eyes. There’s little denying that he looks stereotypically ‘all-American’, like the physical embodiment of the Californian, libertarian, start-up culture tech-utopian dream. In his publicity photos he looks like the transhumanist movement’s ideals made flesh.
Istvan is currently touring the US in what he calls the ‘Immortality Bus’: an old school bus converted to look like a huge coffin on wheels
But, arriving early and unannounced, that’s not the Zoltan Istvan I spot in the hotel lobby. Instead he looks a little disheveled and tired, like he’s just woken up, wearing a scruffy t-shirt and faded jeans. His hair is a bit of a mess. As he anxiously fidgets with his smartphone the air of confidence projected by his publicity shots is gone, replaced instead with a sense of stress and nervous energy, something that will emerge repeatedly throughout the day. It is, to be frank, far more relatable than his presidential persona. The transhuman is, for now at least, very clearly still human.
I don’t approach him, suddenly feeling like I’d be intruding on his personal space. Instead I keep my distance and wait, and soon enough he disappears back to his room and reappears before me as his more expected public persona. He’s friendly and enthusiastic, and before long he’s telling me about his background, and how he got involved in the transhumanist movement.
The son of Hungarian immigrants to the US, Istvan was working as a journalist when he nearly stood on that land mine in Vietnam. “I’d been involved in environmental stuff. I'd been doing good humanitarian work. I felt good about my life, but I was not dedicated to the field that I really was interested in. It had a lot to do with also being through with being a journalist. Not completely through, but just through with covering other stories and not the real story I wanted, which was, ‘What kind of science can make people live longer?’
“After that, I felt like a philosophical bomb went off in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I should use whatever skills I have to contribute to this movement. I almost just died. This movement’s about not dying basically, in many ways. Maybe I should do something for it.’”
Istvan quit journalism, and instead threw himself in to writing a novel, The Transhumanist Wager. “That took about four, five full years. I worked on my novel eight hours a day for four years straight. I didn’t have a day job. I just did the novel.”
Istvan’s novel tells the story of Jethro Knights, a philosopher who rails against democratic politics and becomes a revolutionary that seizes control of the world
The Transhumanist Wager tells the story of Jethro Knights, a philosopher who rails against democratic politics and becomes a revolutionary that seizes control of the world in order to enforce a global authoritarian transhuman regime. It sounds a little like the neoreactionary movement, I suggest, the far-right philosophical movement that believes democracy has failed, and that nations should once again be run by hereditary monarchies. Isn’t that perhaps a worrying storyline from someone running as president?
“I’m distancing myself, I have been, from the book now for a whole year,” he says. “I know the neoreactionary movement really well. I really dislike some of their policies, especially on women… But that said, I do subscribe to some of their strong monarchy ideas where if you actually have a benevolent dictator that could be great for the country.”
I’m a little surprised to hear a presidential candidate openly suggesting this. But that, as it turns out, is very typical for Istvan; he’s not finished. There’s always another angle, some other philosophical surprise up his sleeve.
I’ve advocated for an artificial intelligence to become president one day
“In fact it’s one of the reasons why I've advocated for an artificial intelligence to become president one day. If we had a truly altruistic entity that was after the best interests of society maybe giving up at least some freedoms would be beneficial if that was truly in our best interests. What’s happened in the past is we’ve had dictators who are selfish, and they’ve done an absolutely terrible job of running countries. But what if you actually had somebody who really was after your best interests, wouldn’t you want him on your team?”
I want to talk to him in more detail about this – it seems that every time Istvan gives me an answer it prompts a dozen more questions – but we have to be at his first appointment of the day. It’s breakfast with the Washington DC arm of the Transhumanist Party, which turns out to be six nerdy middle-aged men, five of whom are white. It’s an odd, often slightly awkward hour, which reveals that – like all political movements – there are a lot of internal schisms, different factions, and that perhaps not everyone is convinced Istvan is the best person to be leader.
He’s not fazed by it though, he tells me afterwards. He’s far more interested in making the party appeal to a larger, wider audience. “The real goal is to get millions and millions [of people] to consider longevity issues, transhumanism, cyborgism and how they'll affect the future and whether they want to support it and tell their government, ‘Hey, this is something important to me’. My goal, my main goal for the Transhumanist Party, is to change the culture of America.”
It’s a noble aim, I say to him, but with technologies like those he’s advocating isn’t there always an issue of access? They’re expensive – how do you ensure that they’re not only available to those who can afford them?
“I’m trying to get the party as centrist as possible with an emphasis on ‘There is no way in hell we're going to let the rich keep these technologies for themselves.’ That no matter what happens, if it’s designer babies or augmenting intelligence, we must have government plans in the works to [ensure] that it’s completely open and free to all of society.”
That sounds almost like socialism, I suggest.
“I’m not a fan of socialism. I come from a libertarian background, but I know the right thing to do. The right thing is not to separate society further from itself and create greater inequality. The right thing is to make sure that everyone has access to these technologies at once. They’re so revolutionary and they give such advantages to those who have them.
Robots are going to start taking people’s jobs. There’s really no question about it over the next 10 or 20 years
“One of the big ideas we support is the universal basic income. Robots are going to start taking people’s jobs. There’s really no question about it over the next 10 or 20 years. Even someone with 20 years of training is going to eventually lose out. We need a universal basic income to make sure everyone has a roof over their heads, food to eat. The basics are provided. We also want to emphasise a totally free education system. One of our strangest and most aggressive policies is that we support mandatory preschool and mandatory college. Everyone has to go to a four‑year college. The reason we do so is because anyone born today is going to live to 150 or to 200. Yet the amount of education we receive is not changing.”
I want to ask him how he’s so sure about these predictions and life expectancy figures, but right now I have a more pressing question: as president, how would he pay for all this?
“In America, we spend about four times the amount of money on prison systems than we do on education. We also spend approximately 10 times on bombs, war, and defence than we do on education,” he says. “We need to make the prison industry – I don't even call it ‘the prison system’, it’s an industry – we need to make it go away. I can think of nothing better than instead of keeping a bunch of people jailed, to spend a bunch of money on educating people. It may seem a little utopian, but it’s a pretty good argument when you look at it from a fiscal point [of view]. In fact, if we just even implement our system by about 20%, let’s just say 20% less prisoners, we’d be able to pay for all the colleges in the nation.”
These words could be coming from a mainstream politician – so where does the transhumanism part come in? But of course he’s not finished yet.
“If we use robots, drones and all sorts of types of technologies, we should be able to eliminate incarceration altogether at some point in the future. Meaning it would be much cheaper to have a drone follow somebody that is a criminal, especially if it’s the kind of low-level criminal which is filling our prisons. As opposed to feeding them and paying for a bunch of guards to watch them, have a drone follow them to work and make them work.”
As I continue to talk to Istvan it’s clear that there’s this repeating pattern to his views, an often unconventional mix of the liberal and conservative, the pragmatic and the frankly science fictional, the utopian and the slightly sinister. We’ve been discussing this on the way to the World Bank, where he’s giving a talk and appearing on the panel at Athgothon 2015, which calls itself an ‘innovation forum’ where attendees will learn to “build a start-up in three days” and “be guided by industry leaders on how to turn an innovative idea, a skill, or a passion into a commercially viable and socially impactful business”. It seems to be mainly students and recent graduates here, but it’s a very exclusive event – tickets cost in excess of $500. I’m only there for a few hours, but it mainly consists of networking opportunities and motivational speeches about how to be successful – there’s a lot of talk about how to be the next Uber or Facebook. It’s very much a platform for extolling that libertarian, Silicon Valley entrepreneurship philosophy that transhumanism is associated with, and as such I find myself feeling very cynical and more than a little uncomfortable. Istvan, on the other hand, seems to fit right in, and the attendees lap up what he has to say about the future of automation, robotics, and how they could all live forever in his technological utopia. Afterwards he asks me how I feel he did, if it went alright, and once again reveals that more endearing, slightly vulnerable side of himself.
In Istvan’s post-human future utopia – where we all live forever and upload our minds – will there even be a United States of America?
The afternoon is taken up mainly by a photoshoot, with a photographer from the Transhumanist Party getting new publicity shots of him in front of the capital’s most famous monuments: the Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument, and of course the White House itself. Again, Istvan looks the part. It’s very patriotic, and it makes me think: in Istvan’s post-human future utopia – where we all live forever and upload our minds into computer networks – will there even be nation states? Will there even be a United States of America? His answer is, once again, a strange mix of the liberal and the slightly sinister.
“I think America’s great because I’m from an immigrant family and was brought up that way. But I totally support a giant world government. We have to get over our countries. This is the same thing with immigration. I just completely support total immigration anywhere. No questions asked. There should not be borders. There should be identification, sure, and tracking using [implanted] chips and whatnot. I’m all about the tracking.”
With the photoshoot over, we’ve got a couple of hours before Istvan has to catch his flight back to California. Just enough time for a coffee, and a few more questions. Just enough time to get down to the nitty gritty.
It turns out Istvan and I are the same age, 42. For as long as I can remember we’ve been promised that the same technological breakthroughs – advanced robotics, the rise of artificial intelligence, the end of work – are just 20 years away, but so far they’ve never materialised. What makes him so sure of his predictions now? What if he’s wrong about the science?
Instead of Trump saying, ‘America's great.’ I’m saying, ‘Technology is great’
“To begin with, that is a bit of my speaking in platitudes, being the techno-optimist, ‘Hey it's all going to be great.’” he admits. “Instead of Trump saying, ‘America’s great.’ I’m saying, ‘Technology is great.’ I’m guilty. My timelines may be off. I've been known to be off. That said, every 10 years, you do gain an exponential growth and there is something like that happening. Certain technologies come much quicker than others. We actually didn’t even really know about 3D printing five, six years ago. It’s happening. It’s a new type of technology that could, like the internet, jumpstart a lot of huge industries. At the same time, where’s my jetpack? We’ve been talking about it forever.
“It’s the same thing with artificial intelligence. We may not knock out artificial intelligence for another 50 years. We might find the human brain is so much more complex than we ever thought. But we might all have 3D‑printed organs so that we’re able to easily live that much longer. Some technologies are right on time and others are way too optimistic. Frankly, this is where the politician comes out, in that I do play this game to try to convince people. I’m a believer in the stuff I say and the timelines. But I do understand that people like me have been wrong in the past.”
While I’ve got him being frank, I ask him about his real political aspirations. Does he really think he’ll win, and if not does he really see a future for the Transhumanist Party?
“There’s no real chance of winning this time at all, unless something turned. My people are constantly emailing other candidates saying, ‘Do you want Zoltan as your VP?’ Maybe there is something like that that could happen. Who knows how that would work? What I was hoping and what I have done myself is I’ve actually emailed the Hillary Clinton team and said, ‘Look, are you looking for a technology advisor? Are you looking for somebody later to fill a role in the White House, like a technology person or a science person in a Cabinet position, or even a deputy position?’ That would be a really good way to get a foot in the door.”
It’s not the first time he’s mentioned Hillary Clinton to me. Does he consider himself a Democrat?
“Honestly, if I had a chance, I would vote for Obama again. I know many people may disagree with that, but I like the way the country is going right now. I don’t like what I saw in the Republican debates. I don’t really see anyone else. I like Bernie Sanders and what he fights for, but I’m also afraid that China’s gaining ground on America so we need someone in the middle who can continue to push science forward... You’ve got to be careful, we’re entering a very dangerous age.”
Yet again, I’m slightly surprised at this.
If I was there I would implement so many science and technology policies. I would stop wars
He laughs. “Yeah, I think a lot of people are surprised given my crazy book that I would embrace the Democratic Party or vote for it. I don’t mind if you mention this, but I do have ambitions for 2024, and I do have ambitions for 2020. I’m not sure I would run under the Transhumanist Party again. It’s a great thing to establish, it’s a great thing to do for the movement, but I actually want to win. I actually have the family life, some of the credentials. I would like to be in charge. I can’t help but look at the White House and think, ‘God, if I was there I would implement so many science and technology policies. I would stop wars.’ I would be like, ‘Wow, we’re not doing this crap anymore. We’re actually going to cut down the prison system literally by 80% and put that money into education. Everyone’s going to get the education they always wanted.’”
And then his cab arrives and it’s time for him to go. We shake hands and I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed our day together. I might not agree with all his ideas, but it’s hard not to like him. He’s very frank and he’s very honest, I tell him.
“I hope that’s good,” he laughs, “or is it going to get me in trouble?”
If he was a traditional politician, then I suppose it would probably would – but Zoltan Istvan is anything but.
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