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The full-length interview with transhumanist Zoltan Istvan from the 17th Future Congress – Text and audio

Hear and read the complete interview with Zoltan Istvan, founder of the Transhumanist Party, from the 17th 2b AHEAD Future Congress


2b AHEAD: So we would like to start an interview with Zoltan Istvan, the presidential candidate for the transhumanist party and leading a figure in the transhumanist movement. Also the best-selling author of "The Transhumanist Wager." Welcome, glad that you could make it. I hope you've been enjoying the congress so far and would like to just ask a couple of questions about transhumanism, about you and your work and about where you see things are going and could go.


To start with maybe just to get into the question you mentioned resistance to transhumanism in different cultures, in different countries – where do you see a time frame where things even out more, where this might become a bit more...


Zoltan Istvan: Well, to be honest with you I don't know if I actually have a time frame for when this evens out. This might be a story that gets worse and worse and worse, where in five years there are clashes on the streets, they are already happening, but I think in 5-10 years in America you start having demonstrations, you start having riots, you start...


I mean imagine when we have only driverless cars and 4 million taxi drivers and truck drivers have lost their jobs – most of truck drivers in America are gun owners, they are kind of like tough guys, they are not going to be happy that a robot took their job. And these are not people you can re-train. They are not educated, they're not able to get back into the workforce. They became truck drivers, because that was sort of one of the easiest jobs I think they could get into and continue on. And it's no easy way out of that. So they're going to be upset. I think that kind of conflict continues to the next 20-30 years and perhaps gets worse and worse.


And at some point even the really smart people, the doctors, the lawyers – they start getting replaced by machines, automation and then transhumanism becomes I think a full revolution, where it's really technology versus humanity. But in the end, there are so many benefits coming from transhumanist technology, that I think it wins and I think what's really important is the governments figure out a way to give people a livelihood – even if they cannot work, because robots or automation is taking off. If the governments can figure out a way to do that peacefully, then I think we could all live in a techno-utopic world full of transhumanist technologies and maybe even have the benefit of not having to work anymore, of a much more leisurely lifestyle.


2b AHEAD: Sure. Thank you. That would come to another question, so obviously transhumanism touches on many important topics that we're looking at today – as we look at the digital and technological world. So you're a candidate under the Libertarian Party – will you have a candidacy of the Libertarian Party – is at the plan for the next presidential race?


Zoltan Istvan: So to be honest with you...I ran for the United States Presidency under that – I was the Transhumanist Party nominee and then I did an 18-month run for the Libertarian Party as the endorsed candidate for California Governor from them. But I'm not sure I'm going to run for the presidency under them. It's really about whether I think I can win the nomination or not – and right now Governor Bill Weld is probably going to run and he would be a very tough competitor. There maybe is a possibility becoming a vice presidential nominee for him – but I don't know about that.


So if I don't think I can win, then I may run under a party where I think I could win or I might just run with something else. Because then it should be nice to win and win nominations and make an impact. So really there's a lot of politics involved in what party I run for. Well, I subscribed to very many libertarian values, I'm a transhumanist at heart and I want to do what's best for the transhumanist movement and also for freedom of science and technology.


2b AHEAD: That would have been where I was trying to get you with this question is...obviously you don't want to limit it only this point? A platform only to transhumanism specifically, but those are some of the other issues, that you mentioned – the progress of Science and Technology and the freedom of the human body. Do you see any other major topics as more central to your platform, to your passions or work?


Zoltan Istvan: Well I think for me...you know I got to be honest...the number one goal really still is to get culture and to get governments to understand that aging is a disease – at least I think it's a disease – and if we treat it like a disease, that would be the very first step in getting people aware of how important it is to conquer it. Right now the majority of Americans don't believe that aging is even really an issue, let alone a disease. They just don't think it's a problem. They just say: you know, we get old, we die and we believe in God, we go to an afterlife.


But if you don't believe in God like me – and – you know...not that I don't believe, I just don't know...then you feel like: well, I want to do everything I can to live longer and better and science and technology are the tools – so how do I get more money from entrepreneurs, from the government, from people into this field, so that we can – all our society and my family – live better and longer. And that's really my goal...is to try to change culture. We have a culture in America, that just simply almost wants to give zero money to these radical ideas and radical technologies. They will give a lot of money to cancer, but it's never to defeat cancer, it's always to make you live better with cancer. We as transhumanists are sick of cancer – we want to hit cancer like rabies or something – we literally got rid of it, basically, in various countries. That's how we want to have cancer. That's a different approach. We want a vaccine, we don't want to have anyone – not even one person in America of 25 million people – to get it. That's the kind of things that I'm searching for my campaigns.


2b AHEAD: Ok, thank you so much. Taking that to the point of politics, on the point of...what are some of the other connected topics to transhumanism...you mentioned in your keynote the tension between the coexistence of humans and machines – we have with Michihito Matsuda someone who has had an AI as a mayoral candidate and predict AIs will take leadership from humans. What do you think of this point?


Zoltan Istvan: I think this is absolutely the future and I think of it – for a number of reasons to be honest – I actually think having politicians that are robots that make decisions based entirely on this principle "the greatest good for the greatest amount of people" is exactly what democracy is really about. But right now – you know like take a look at our American political system – Trump got elected, but only 24 / 25% of Americans voted for Trump – and now a great many people dislike him.


Despite that, half the country doesn't vote and when only 25% vote and now we have and now he may start wars or would do whatever – the point is – what I am trying to say is that if we had a machine intelligence at the forefront of our government, the people could rest assured that the machine intelligence is going to take the greatest amount of people and do the greatest amount of good based on algorithms. Right now that's not happening.


Our presidents are taking lobbyist money, they're thinking about being re-elected, they're thinking about how to get their ideas put forward – which are personal idiosyncrasy, like personality traits. Like Trump wants to build condos in North Korea for example, that might be his ambition with North Korea. Now maybe that’s an OK one – I actually don't disagree with that, but the point is: that's a personal opinion. What I want is a machine intelligence to do what is the best for all society – that is democracy. Democracy is not a president making choices based on his own opinion.


2b AHEAD: Sure. But would you go as far as to say: let's give the ultimate decision-making authority into the hands of a machines or would you see sort of like a hybrid decision making model?


Zoltan Istvan: I think at first a hybrid is really the only way that I would go through with it – because I would be afraid of giving a machine too much power. And I would always like to know that there's somebody else behind it – but that might only be for one for year term, and then we can evolve out of it and do it completely. But I think we always are going to need kill switches, we always are going to need an ability to turn off a system that might turn into a terminator for example. So I think we will have to have safeguards in place. But I think...when I look at a machine intelligence running the country, I don't know if I necessarily look at it in terms of a leader, I look at it in terms of a mirror, of almost as what we call direct digital democracy, which is democracy that is in real time. Like we look at IBM's Watson, when you think of IBM's Watson, you never think of "oh there's his personality" – you just think of "there is this very complicated and sophisticated computer, that is trying to do really good medical things for the world" – and therefore it's a neutral to positive kind of thing. I think an AI at present would be something very similar. It would almost just be a mirror of American democracy in itself.


2b AHEAD: Ok. So we have right now the ethical debate often resting at the point "is it ethical to augment the human body, to optimize the human body through technology?" How long...let’s not get too much into timeframes, but roughly how long or do you see it as possible, that the debate flips and the question becomes rather: if it optimizes and helps us this much – what right do I have not to optimize?


Zoltan Istvan: Well, I think ultimately...we should always retain our rights to do whatever we want. And then you know...the core philosophical belief of transhumanism is this idea of morphological freedom, which is the right to do to your body whatever you want, so long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. But I think the same thing applies to technology – you should have the right to utilize technology or not utilize technology, completely based on your own desires. And ultimately you know that's going to make a choice in how much we decide to let AI and other technologies run our world. Some people will always say no – probably the older people and some of the younger people will probably be much more gung-ho on doing it. And I think everyone should have their choice. But I want to point out – though it's sort of like the corporate world now in America – if you're not on social media and you're not computer savvy, you have a very little chance of getting a good job.


Because it requires a presence, any corporate, any intellectual job pretty much in America requires some presence – so they're going to be people that say "Oh I don't want to do that" – but you won't get hired. And so in an evolutionary way the market has sort of weeded that out and said "well, like it or not, you're going to do these things, because this is what's important for working at this company." And I think accepting technology in your life, especially transhumanist technologies are going to be – you know – game number one. If you're in a construction job and your neighbor has two robotic arms that lift 10 times as much as you do and your boss isn't going to care whether you like technology or not – he's only going to care whether you're efficient and whether you get the job done faster than someone else and if someone else gets it done fast and you're going to get fired or he's going to get hired. These are realities of technology – so I totally defend people's right to resist it or to not use it. But I think, you know, you're going to not go very far in terms of productivity and you might end up living in a in a tent or something, whereas other people are living in – you know these sophisticated 3D build houses on the moon or wherever else. I think you have to sort of give in to transhumanism, because if you don't, you get left behind.


2b AHEAD: Ok. Another point of this would be...we've had a long-term study, "The Future of Your Children," where we look 100 years into the future – and one of the theses that we engage with is the view, that it's possible through technologies, technology a whole to enable – theoretically at least – immortality. And you've mentioned this is something, that you think is a core goal, a core achievement of transhumanism – what do you see the technology is taking us forward here or how do you see this journey from here to a tech-based immortality?


Zoltan Istvan: Well I think, basically we have these companies working on these brain implants, now in California and you know, Elon Musk has a lot of money and a lot of success in the stuff and the bottom line is: if any of these companies have any success the next 5-10 years, I think both will. That's sort of the end of the human mind being not connected. Once you connect to the internet, why would you ever go back? For example, this recording we're doing, this interview, we would do it in our brains and we wouldn't need to be near each other, and it would be so much more efficient, so much more streamlined, and the point is that – I think once we connect, we will never disconnect, because the advantages are way too great. It's almost like when to start using the gas engine, combustible engine versus horses. It’s like: "Wow, there's really no reason ever to use a horse again."


2b AHEAD: Ok. last year we looked at quantum computing and looked at sort of a timeline that was not quite yet ready to start saying "we're getting concrete now" – but we did look at sort of these are some of the first use cases, some of those most likely areas. If I remember correctly for quantum, this was machine learning, cybersecurity, and simulations. Would you care to give initial use cases for a transhumanist technology, for a more near-future timeframe?


Zoltan Istvan: Sure. It's amazing. First of just in what's happening in quantum computing the last 12 months, now Google and a number of other companies are showing some success – and just even 12 months ago, so – again it's like 3-4 years, our iPhones could be smarter than the smartest computers on the planet – just because of this new type of computing process and algorithms. But I think ultimately... the whole world's going to change very, very rapidly, much more rapidly than we think, because of a lot of these radical technologies – and we're going to embrace and we're going to get involved with them, they're going to drive us all the way around and it's really…there's nothing that I can say negative about it – except that we are to just embrace and take it as far as we can go.


But I think the one thing I can say is that: everybody's assumptions on how fast technology is going, is generally too slow. I think people think: oh in 10 years... you know it'll be like this and they forget, that, even just like...let's say genetic editing...2 years ago nobody even knew about genetic editing and now it's become the most important science in the 21st century. That's in 24 months. Like how did nobody see that coming and what are we not seeing coming in the next 24 months through another something? And I think a lot of people... you know that we call this a black swan, there's so many black swans and the more technology progresses, the more that happens, things are happening more quickly than we think.


2b AHEAD: Ok. Maybe a last question. Obviously, we are in initial stages for a lot of transhumanist technologies, but as things progress, like what are some of the first augmentations, that you personally look forward to getting on board with, when they become ready / mature?


Zoltan Istvan: Well, so I have put myself on a volunteer list for brain implant. I have friends that have done some of the very first ones. It´s very private, because in America you are not allowed to do brain implants, but their goal with these implants ... okay people have been brain implants before, but these implants were designed to commune directly with artificial intelligence. So they want to be some of the very first people, that communicate with computers like Siri and can – in their head – talk to Siri. It's just different than let's say what they're using for Parkinson's right now or Alzheimer's. So I was put on a volunteer list, because I would like to do that – assuming I want other people to go ahead of me. Assuming that that turns out to be...they can do that without infection, without brain problems – so I'll let the others go a little bit forward. But that’s one of the very first things I want to do – because I want to commune and I like it as Elon Musk and other people working on the same devices, but theirs is more like 5-6 years out, whereas these other guys are...this is all last year's stuff. So the question is really: Can that happen? Yes, I'd do that next 2-3 years. I told my wife: I'll cut off my arm, when the robotic arm is good enough. When will it be good enough? You know I used to say 7-10 years, but it could be 5-7 years. The problem really is that once you put on your robotic arm and other people are having problems, already they have done this like victims in wars and stuff, is that the robotic arm actually becomes obsolete very quickly. Within two years your arm can become completely obsolete and then if you want to get an upgrade, you got to go through that entire surgical procedure and it takes a long time to train it, it takes about a year to train your arm so that you can grab glasses of water and things like that. Maybe you'll get better and maybe it'll be easier, but right now that's one of the main thing is...okay it's like a good brand new car...you are like: I'm going to wait for the 2020 version of my new next new car, because I know it'll be completely driverless, whereas 2019 version, which are coming out very soon now, are not fully driverless yet. So I think we were going to have that same situation...but those are the two things that I want to do. The brain implant could be within 2-3 years.


2b AHEAD: Very cool. Well thanks a lot for joining us, thank you for your thoughts and input and thank you for your time now and we look forward to following what you do.


Zoltan Istvan: Thank you so much for having me.



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