Zoltan Istvan was among the earliest candidates to declare his bid for the 2016 US presidential elections. But most Americans still won’t know about this writer and Transhumanist philosopher by the time they head to the polls. Istvan knows that.
Yet, his platform is refreshing: put science first. His ideas are radical, which is not uncommon for third-party candidates, but they are also appealing: make college education mandatory and free; create policies so that everyone can have designer babies, not just the rich; and discover immortality in the next 15-20 years.
Istvan represents the Transhumanist Party, which claims to have its root in philosophical thoughts going back centuries, and has the core aim of building technologies that will give us superhuman powers. The total number of members of Humanity+, the biggest such membership organization, is only 10,000. His campaign—which includes a bus shaped to represent a coffin—is run with help of a group of volunteers in California.
Quartz caught up with Istvan recently to discuss mandatory college, living indefinitely, and our “baggage culture.” The following is edited and condensed for clarity.
Quartz: The history of third-party presidential candidates in the US is not a hopeful one, in that none have ever won. So what is it that you are expecting from your campaign?
Zoltan Istvan: From the very moment that I declared my candidacy, I knew there was no chance to win. The Transhumanist party’s main aim right now is to make a difference, establish a party, and, hopefully, to change people’s views. By talking about science and technology at every chance, we are doing something very different than what most politicians do.
Since you announced your candidacy, which was more than six months ago, what has been the response like?
The reception in the media has been better than anticipated. I think that’s because people are really interested in the kinds of questions we ask, such as those about designer babies, artificial intelligence, exoskeleton suits. The big disappointment so far has been the funding.
No country in the world invests more than a tiny proportion of its GDP for scientific research and development. If it is such an important part of the economic development of a country, then why is the investment so low?
I have given this a lot of thought. The answer I’ve come up with is that we’ve built an economy that is based on religious beliefs that limit our imagination. We are told to live well, do well, have a good family, and die happily. Frankly, that is not a good system for science. Instead, a better system would be one where we fear death and would spend our money and our energy on overcoming death. If he had this attitude, instead of spending 20% of GDP on bombs, we would be spending that much or more on science.
I call this baggage culture, and it is not good for science. We believe in fairytales, which have kept us from what our real evolutionary heritage should be: striving to always improve ourselves.
A counter-argument to investing so much in science is that there are problems in the world that we need to fix that don’t require science. For instance, how would you deal with inequality?
Our policy is simple: we will not allow only the rich to have, say, designer babies. We would have government plans in place to make sure that all people will get to use transhumanist technologies.
Even though I do believe many libertarian ideas, I will never advocate for a society where the 1% leaves us behind. They already have so much, but it would be a different thing if they also have much higher IQs because of chemicals or genetic treatments.
I’m encouraged by cellphones and vaccines. These technologies are widely available and affordable today. So inequality may be growing slightly, but the standard of life is going up for every single person on the planet. I support many Republican values, but I also support a universal basic income. This way everyone has enough to eat, has a house over their head, and such. And I think science and technology can help overcome these problems.
How do you see the work of futurist researchers who are trying to ensure that, whatever the future may be, humanity survives it?
The Transhumanist Party has three major goals. First, we would like to overcome death (probably within the next 15-20 years). Second, we would like to get rid of the baggage culture and spend a lot more on science. The third, and this is to your question, is worrying about existential risk.
We would like to do everything to stop anything from destroying all the progress that humanity has made. And the risks are real: artificial intelligence could go bad, an asteroid could strike and cause extinction, or even amateurs could create killer viruses in their basement.
Transhumanism is not just about techno-optimism, but also about protecting the future. We would like to have stable policies and ideologies built in place that will guide us in to a future where we don’t end up killing ourselves. So I’m deeply concerned by existential risk. If I don’t emphasize it enough, it’s because as a politician I have to be deeply optimistic.
You also have some generous education policies. Could you tell me more?
We would like to make public education from pre-school to the PhD level completely free. Part of the policy that we would also like to make mandatory that people go to college. Many jobs are going to be gone in 10-15 years, because robots will be able to do them better. The more the educated someone is, the more they will get out of life, the more creative they will be. A well-educated populace is a single best way to defend against any of the challenges that humanity is going to face in the future.
This is where the rubber hits the road in a way. Your policies right now are idealistic, but do they make economic sense? If education is not the driver of economic progress, how would you be able to make the case to the US Congress that college education be made free and mandatory?
So this is the big difference. I don’t really believe that some of my policies need to be positive in an economical sense. In the case of education, sometimes education is not beneficial to the economy. But I’m interested in shaping a culture that is pro-science, pro-reason.
Most people that go to college end up having a higher standard of living, and it’s not just because they earn more but often because they have a better idea of who they want to be. Their brains work better because, just like an athlete, they’ve spent four extra years just thinking about how to think.
As for implementing this, I will strip the military down to pay for it. The US spent $6 trillion on the Iraq war, and not building robotic hearts. This upsets me. Many people say that you can’t just cut the military in half. And we will not do that, but we would like to convert the US from a military-industrial complex to an educational-scientific one.
Because I really have no chance of winning, I have the luxury of thinking about policies that are probably to some extent unrealistic. I can talk about these without getting slaughtered by the media. They are idealistic and they sound very nice, because they will create the world we all want to live in. Unfortunately, even if one was elected, implementing them would be impossible. If I re-run in 2024 and I have the backing of many wealthy people, it may be a very different game that I would have to play.
I’m putting forth ideas that are radical and would change things dramatically, but should I actually be in office I think I’d take a much larger step backward and ask: “This may sound good but is it going to create irreparable damage to civilization that we have been working towards for millennia now?”
When you ask scientists working on the cutting-edge science of aging, they tell you that it’s impossible to overcome aging. How would you deal with the fact that your core aim as a transhumanist may not be achievable?
I’m not going to disagree with you, because nobody knows whether we can overcome biological aging. That said, we may not be limited by biology. There are other ways to ensure immortality, such as mind-uploading. Another way to improve longevity is to look at regenerative medicine, if not reach immortality. My father is suffering from heart disease and just had his fourth heart attack, and I hope we can soon 3D-print organs and replace them when they fail. I’m not saying there is anything definite, but I believe as a 42-year-old I have a very good chance to one day have the choice of living indefinitely.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, Quartz quoted Istvan as saying he was a Republican, which is incorrect. He supports some Republican values.