Zoltan Istvan is launching his campaign to become Libertarian governor of the American state of California with two signature policies. First, he’ll eliminate poverty with a universal basic income that will guarantee US$5,000 per month for every Californian household for ever. (He’ll do this without raising taxes, he promises.)
The next item in his in-tray is eliminating death. He intends to divert trillions of dollars into life-extending technologies – robotic hearts, artificial exoskeletons, genetic editing, bionic limbs and so on – in the hope that each Californian man, woman and AI (artificial intelligence) will eventually be able to upload their consciousness to the Cloud and experience digital eternity.
“What we can experience as a human being is going to be dramatically different within two decades,” Istvan says, when we meet at his home in Mill Valley, California. “We have five senses now. We might have thousands in 30 or 40 years. We might have very different bodies, too.
“I have friends who are about a year away from cutting off their arm and replacing it with a prosthetic version. And sure, pretty soon the robotic arm really will be better than a biological one. Let’s say you work in construction and your buddy can lift a thousand times what you can. The question is: do you get it?”
For most people, the answer to this question is likely to be, “Erm, maybe I’ll pass for the moment.” But to a transhumanist such as Istvan, 44, the answer is, “Hell, yes!” A former National Geographic reporter and property speculator, Istvan combines the enthusiasm of a child who’s read a lot of Marvel comics with a parodically presidential demeanour. He’s a blond-haired, blue-eyed father of two with an athletic build, a firm handshake and the sort of charisma that goes down well in TED talks.
Like most transhumanists (there are a lot of them in California), Istvan believes our species can, and indeed should, strive to transcend our biological limitations. And he has taken it upon himself to push this idea out of the Google Docs of a few Silicon Valley dreamers and into the American political mainstream.
“Twenty-five years ago, hardly anybody was recycling,” he explains. “Now, environmentalism has conditioned an entire generation. I’m trying to put transhumanism on a similar trajectory, so that in 10, 15 years, everybody is going to know what it means and think about it in a very positive way.”
I meet Istvan at the home he shares with his wife, Lisa – an obstetrician and gynaecologist with Planned Parenthood – and their two daughters, six-year-old Eva, and Isla, who is three. I had been expecting a gadget-laden cyber-home; in fact, he resides in a 100-year-old logger’s house built from Californian redwood, with a converted stable on the ground floor and plastic children’s toys in the yard. If it weren’t for the hyper-inflated prices in the Bay Area (“It’s sort of Facebook yuppie-ville around here,” says Istvan) you’d say it was a humble Californian homestead.
Still, there are a few details that give him away, such as the forbidding security warnings on his picket fence. During his unsuccessful bid for the presidency last year – he stood as the Transhumanist Party candidate and scored zero per cent – a section of the religious right identified him as the Antichrist. This, combined with Lisa’s work providing abortions, means they get a couple of death threats a week and have had to report to the FBI.
“Christians in America have made transhumanism as popular as it’s become,” says Istvan. “They really need something that they can point their finger at that fulfils Revelations.”
Istvan also has a West Wing box set on his mantelpiece and a small Meccano cyborg by the fireplace. It’s named Jethro, after the protagonist of his self-published novel, The Transhumanist Wager (2013). And there is an old Samsung phone attached to the front door, which enables him to unlock the house using the microchip in his finger.
“A lot of the Christians consider my chip a mark of the beast,” he says. “I’m like, ‘No! It’s so I don’t have to carry my keys when I go out jogging.’”
Istvan hopes to chip his daughters before long – for security purposes – and recently argued with his wife about whether it was even worth saving for a university fund for them, since by the time they reach university age, advances in artificial intelligence will mean they can just upload all the learning they need. Lisa won that argument. But he’s inclined not to freeze his sperm and Lisa’s eggs, since if they decide to have a third child, 10 or 20 or 30 years hence, they’ll be able to combine their DNA.
Even if there’s a mischievous, fake-it-till-you-make-it quality to Istvan, there’s also a core of seriousness. He is genuinely troubled that we are on the verge of a technological dystopia – that the mass inequalities that helped fuel US President Donald Trump’s rise will only worsen when the digital revolution really gets under way. And he despairs of the retrogressive bent of the current administration: “Trump talks all the time about immigrants taking jobs. Bulls**t. It’s technology that’s taking jobs. We have about four million truck drivers who are about to lose their jobs to automation. This is why capitalism needs a basic income to survive.”
And he’s not wrong in identifying that emerging technologies such as AI and bio-enhancement will bring with them policy implications, and it’s probably a good idea to start talking about them now.
Certainly, life extension is a hot investment in Silicon Valley, whose elites have a hard time with the idea that their billions will not protect them from an earthly death. Google was an early investor in the secretive biotech start-up Calico, the California Life Company, which aims to “devise interventions that slow ageing and counteract age-related diseases”. Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel has invested millions in parabiosis: the process of “curing” ageing with transfusions of young people’s blood.
Another biotech firm, United Therapeutics, has unveiled plans to grow fresh organs from DNA. “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,” the firm’s founder, Martine Rothblatt, told a recent gathering of the National Academy of Medicine in Los Angeles.
In attendance were Google co-founder Sergey Brin, vegan pop star Moby and numerous venture capitalists. Istvan fears that unless we develop policies to regulate this transition, the Thiels of this world will soon be hoarding all the young blood for themselves.
Istvan was born in Oregon in 1973, the son of Hungarian immigrants who fled Stalin’s tanks in 1968. He had a comfortable middle-class upbringing – his mother was a devout Catholic and sent him to Catholic school – and an eye for a story. After graduating from Columbia University, he embarked on a solo round-the-world yachting expedition, during which, he says, he read 500 works of classic literature. He spent his early career reporting for the National Geographic channel from more than 100 countries, many of them conflict zones, claiming to have invented the extreme sport of volcano boarding along the way.
One of the things he shares in common with America’s current president is a fortune accrued from real estate. While he was making films overseas in the noughties, his expenses were minimal, so he was able to invest all of his pay cheques in property.
“So many people in America were doing this flipping thing at the time,” explains Istvan. “I realised very quickly, ‘Wow! I could make enough money to retire.’ It was just quite easy and lucrative to do that.”
At his peak, he had a portfolio of 19 “fixer-upper” houses, most of which he managed to sell before the crash of 2008. He now retains nine as holiday rentals and uses the proceeds to fund his political campaigns (he is reluctant to name his other backers). Still, he insists he’s not part of the 1 per cent; the most extravagant item of furniture is a piano, and his groceries are much the same as you find in many liberal, middle-class Californian households.
Istvan can’t think of any particular incident that prompted his interest in eternal life, other than perhaps a rejection of Catholicism.
“Fifty per cent of me thinks after we die we get eaten by worms, and our body matter and brain return unconsciously to the cosmos […] The other half subscribes to the idea that we live in a holographic universe where other alien artificial intelligences have reached the singularity,” he says, referring to the idea, advanced by Google engineer Ray Kurzweil, that pretty soon we will all merge with AI in one transcendental consciousness.
However, when Istvan first encountered transhumanism, at university via an article on cryonics (the practice of deep-freezing the recently dead in the hope that they can be revived at some point), he was sold. “Within 90 seconds, I realised that’s what I wanted to do in my life.”
After a near-death experience in Vietnam – he came close to stepping on a landmine – Istvan decided to return to America and make good on this vow. “I was nearing 30 and I’d done some great work, but after all that time I’d spent in conflict zones, seeing dead bodies, stuff like that, I thought it would be a good time to dedicate myself to conquering death.”
He spent four years writing his novel, which he proudly claims was rejected by more than 600 agents and publishers. It’s a dystopian story that imagines a Christian nation outlawing transhumanism, prompting all the billionaires to retreat to an offshore sea-stead where they can work on their advances undisturbed (Thiel has often threatened to do something similar).
Istvan continued to promote transhumanism by writing free columns for Huffington Post and Vice, chosen because they have strong Alexa rankings (ie, they show up high in Google search results).
“I wrote something like 200 articles, putting transhumanism through the Google algorithm again and again,” he says. “I found it a very effective way to spread the message. I covered every angle that I could think of: disability and transhumanism; LGBT issues and transhumanism; transhumanist parenting.”
He’s proud to say he’s the only mainstream journalist who is so devoted to the cause. “A lot of people write about transhumanism, but I think I’m the only one who says, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened!’”
Istvan’s presidential campaign was an attempt to take all of this up a level. It sounds as if he had a lot of fun. He toured Rust Belt car parks and Deep South mega-churches in a coffin-shaped “immortality bus” inspired by the one driven by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters to promote LSD in the 1960s.
His platform – Make America Immortal Again – earned a fair amount of publicity, but Americans seemed ill-prepared for such concepts as the AI imperative (the idea that the first nation to create a true AI will basically win everything, so America had better be the first) and the singularity. At one point, he and his supporters were held at gunpoint by some Christians in Alabama.
The experience taught him a salutary lesson: unless you are a billionaire, it is simply impossible to make any kind of dent in the system. Hence his defection to the Libertarian Party, which vies with the Greens as the third party in American politics. “Every town I go to, there’s a Libertarian meet-up. With the Transhumanists, I’d have to create the meet-up. So there’s more to work with.”
The Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, received 3.27 per cent of the votes last year, including half a million votes in California. “About seven or eight million are likely to vote in the California governor race, in which context, half a million starts to become a lot of votes,” Istvan explains.
His own politics are somewhere between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, he admits, and he has a hard time converting the right wing of his new party to causes such as basic income. (The general spirit of libertarian America is, “Hands off!”) But he believes transhumanism shares enough in common with libertarianism for the alliance to be viable; the core precepts of being able to do what you like as long as you don’t harm anyone else are the same. And the gubernatorial campaign serves as a primary for the 2020 presidential election, when he believes the Libertarian candidate will have a feasible chance of participating in the television debates.
But what’s wrong with death? Don’t we need old people to die to make space for new people? And by extension, we need old ideas and old regimes to die, too. Imagine if William Randolph Hearst or Genghis Khan were still calling the shots now. And imagine if Mark Zuckerberg and Vladimir Putin were doing so in 200 years. Innovation would cease, the species would atrophy, everyone would get terribly bored. Isn’t it the ultimate narcissism to want to live forever?
Istvan does concede that transhumanism is “a very selfish philosophy”. However, he has an answer for most of the other stuff.
“I’m a believer in overpopulation – I’ve been to Delhi and it’s overcrowded,” he says. “But if we did a better job of governing, the planet could hold 15 billion people comfortably. It’s really a question of better rules and regulations.”
And when discussing the desirability of eternal life, he turns into a sort of holiday rep for the future.
“What we’re saying is that over the next 30 years, the complexity of human experience is going to become so amazing, you ought to at least see it,” Istvan says. “A lot of people find that a lot more compelling than, say, dying of leukaemia.”
Still, it comes as little surprise that he’s finding “live for ever” an easier sell than “give money to poor people” in 21st-century America.
“I can’t imagine basic income not becoming a platform in the 2020 election,” he insists. “And if not then, at some point, someone is going to run and win on it. The Republicans should like it because it streamlines government. The Democrats should like it because it helps poor people. Right now, Americans don’t like it because it sounds like socialism. But it just needs a little reframing.”
Basic-income experiments are already under way in parts of Canada, Finland and the Netherlands, but how would he fund such an idea in the US? He can’t raise taxes – libertarians hate that. And he doesn’t want to alienate Silicon Valley.
“How do you tell the 1 per cent you’re going to take all this money from them? It wouldn’t work,” he says. “They control too many things.” But Istvan has calculated that 45 per cent of California is government-controlled land that the state could monetise.
“A lot of environmentalists are upset at me for that, saying, ‘Woah, Zolt, you want to put a shopping mall in Yosemite? Well, the reality is that the poor people in America will never be able to afford to go to Yosemite. I’m trying to be a diplomat here.”
And he insists that if Americans miss those national parks when they’ve been turned into luxury condos and Taco Bells, they’ll be able to replenish them some day if they want.
“There’s nanotechnology coming through that would enable us to do that,” Istvan argues. “We have GMOs [genetically modified organisms] that can regrow plants twice as quick. In 50 or 100 years, we’re not even going to be worried about natural resources.”
Such is his wager – that exponential technological growth is around the corner and we may as well hurry it along, because it’s our best chance of clearing up the mess we’ve made of things thus far.
Didn’t the political developments of 2016 persuade him that progress can be slow – and sometimes go backwards? Actually, Istvan argues that what we’re witnessing are the death throes of conservatism, Christianity, even capitalism.
“Everyone says the current pope is the best one we’ve had for ages, that he’s so progressive and whatever. Actually, Catholicism is dying,” says Istvan. “Nobody’s giving it any money any more, so the pope had better moderate its message. As for capitalism, all of this nationalism and populism are just the dying moments.
“It’s a system that goes against the very core of humanitarian urges. And while it’s brought us many wonderful material gains, at some point we can say, ‘That’s enough.’ In the transhumanist age, we will reach utopia. Crime drops to zero. Poverty will end. Violence will drop. At some point, we become a race of individuals who are pretty nice to each other.”
But now we’ve talked for so long that Istvan needs to go and pick up his daughters from childcare. He insists that I join him. What do his family make of all of this?
“My wife is a bit sceptical of a lot of my timelines,” he says. Lisa comes from practical Wisconsin farming stock, and it’s a fair bet that her work with Planned Parenthood keeps her pretty grounded. They met on dating website match.com. Does she believe in all this stuff?
“I don’t want to say she’s not a transhumanist,” he says, “but I don’t think she’d cryogenically freeze herself tomorrow. I would. I’m like, ‘If you see me dying of a heart attack, please put me in a refrigerator.’ She thinks that’s weird.”
We arrive at the community centre where Istvan’s daughters are being looked after. They come running out in summer dresses, sweet and sunny and happy to be alive. Both of them want to be doctors when they grow up, like their mum.
The Times/The Interview People