Zoltan Istvan: It Goes beyond Human

Let’s think about this: what happens when sometime in the future the whole generation of Chinese kids have higher IQs than their American peers, because they’re technologically hardwired for that? Will this be a national security issue? This is a global security issue—says Zoltan Istvan in an interview with Jakub Dymek.

JAKUB DYMEK: You are a transhumanist—member of a movement endorsing technologically augmented advancement of human species and using technology to extend our capabilities. What does transhumanist thinking bring into the world of policy debate in the US and worldwide and how politically influential it is?

ZOLTAN ISTVAN: Transhumanism influences politics today only a little bit. But at the same time, transhumanist movement grows exponentially, like 1000% every year. So I think its implications for the policy debate here in the US and globally will only grow in scale and importance, obviously. Transhumanism can define policy debate of the future, of that I’m sure. President Trump can say today that manufacturing jobs and jobs in general are lost because of immigrants. But he wouldn’t be able to say the same thing up until 2020 campaign, because it’s simply not true, and more people realize the simple fact that jobs aren’t lost to immigration, but automation. It’s tech “stealing the jobs” he is going to have to say then. And you cannot build a wall to stop technology from spreading. This is how transhumanism is already shaping this debate. And it goes beyond jobs. Let’s think about this: what happens when some time in the future the whole generation of Chinese kids have higher IQs than their American peers, because they’re technologically hardwired for that? Will this be a national security issue? This is a global security issue. And I’m not even going into genetic engineering just yet…

Do you think that today’s policy debate is sufficiently concerned about issues like these?

Not sufficiently whatsoever. It’s amazing that in presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump there was no mention of robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic editing, none of that. And these issues—even if they haven’t changed politics just yet—are changing realities of life and work worldwide. Journalism has changed dramatically because of automation for example. But actually there’s a simple reason why it’s not debated enough. It’s a hard thing to say to your voters—robots are stealing your jobs, things are going to change, et cetera. Saying things like that is going to be detrimental to politician’s appeal to the voter base. But not saying this doesn’t change the fact that technology is accelerating.

What happens when some time in the future the whole generation of Chinese kids have higher IQs than their American peers, because they’re technologically hardwired for that? This is a global security issue.

Another issue: life extension. We have a set of institutions—like social security, retirement benefits, healthcare system, and so on—built upon certain life expectancy. But that’s going to change, too, and this change has to be factored in policy debate, right? It’s not happening today.

Well, I wouldn’t reasonably expect politicians who can’t handle their own email or Twitter accounts to actually concern themselves with problems like these.

Funny thing is: one of the basic tenets of transhumanism is to promote life extension, but what that gives us is also these ageing politicians, old dogs who cannot be taught new tricks, and there’s really a debacle coming when the ruling elite isn’t even familiar with the most basic features of today’s online technology. Presidential terms are limited to eight years, but you can run for Congress or Senate indefinitely.

I’ve made a decision long time ago to support universal basic income and I still believe it to be the best solution until we come up with something better.

What can a transhumanist candidate for office like yourself offer American workers that can benefit them in the time of automation and technological acceleration which entails reasonable fears about their and their families’ futures?

I’ve made a decision long time ago to support universal basic income and I still believe it to be the best solution until we come up with something better—but for the time being there’s nothing that compares to it. Some form of basic income should support people while automation takes jobs—some libertarians don’t like it, but there should be this discussion about how capitalism, commerce, trade can continue while it’s only robots that run the planet. It is possible that capitalism will survive for the next 20-30 years, while actual economy will keep falling. Capitalism will be under immense pressure in the next 5-10 years and more and more people will be asking how to organize the economy for basic need of survival. We’re already seeing massive job loss to automation: I believe millions will lose their jobs by the 2020 election in the United States and by 2025 we will have 20-30 million people’s jobs replaced by automation.

What struck me as a paradox is: you run as a libertarian candidate and identify yourself as such—libertarian transhumanist—but also promote programs like space exploration, investment in science, free education and basic income, which by definition demand government’s money, oversight, and enforcement.

And for that reason many libertarians don’t see me as one of them—they say I’m no libertarian at all! [laughs] But the reason libertarians haven’t achieved anything significant politically and haven’t even done very well in terms of media is because they’ve been impractical with exactly those kinds of things you’ve just described. In America today 49% of the people already depend on government services to survive: be it social security or food stamps. So half of the voting population relies on the government, while some libertarians still pretend government can’t do things. It’s libertarian flaw. I, as a libertarian transhumanist, don’t believe in redistribution in strictly fiscal terms—tax the rich more, give money away—but for example see technological streamlining of bureaucracy as a form of redistribution, because by making government more efficient we’re saving resources which can be invested elsewhere. I believe it’s possible to be a libertarian and support some form of government intervention.

How would this look like in terms of policy?

In San Francisco we have such a terrible homelessness problem. I believe we should pay for the housing for the homeless and literally force the homeless to live there. And the reason is, when I went to San Francisco City Hall to submit my paperwork for the governor’s run, me and my small daughter were literally unable to walk the pavement because of the amount of used needles and human feces. In one county, Los Angeles County, there’s fifty thousand homeless people. There’s where my libertarianism ends: when a social problem like homelessness becomes at the same time an infringement on someone else’s civil rights, like my right to go to my own City Hall as a citizen. Here you have an example where some enforceable action should be taken.

In America today 49% of the people already depend on government services to survive: So half of the voting population relies on the government, while some libertarians still pretend government can’t do things.

I imagine it quite frustrating that such a rich, innovative, and prosperous community like San Francisco cannot at the same time handle basic problems like infrastructure maintenance, public schooling and transportation, affordable housing. But what this also says contradicts your belief that technology would provide reasonable solutions to all these problems. In Silicon Valley you have all these companies and they didn’t alleviate any of these problems, they’ve exacerbated them.

I think there’s too much crony capitalism and too much lobbying power built into the government. I think there are incredible ways to solve a lot of these problems through innovation. But what happens is we in California have the biggest bureaucracy probably in any state and the state has been mismanaged for a long time. Look at the projects developed today: we have this Bullet Train, which is essentially going to be a train to nowhere, because in 4-5 years there will be more driverless cars, and nobody’s is going to take train ever again if he or she can arrive to Los Angeles from San Francisco in similar amount of time, but while sleeping in their own car. Nobody saw that coming. Same with Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which I don’t think is realistic just yet, but I know for sure that somebody already made billions of dollars on these infrastructure and transportation projects here in California, which are going to be rendered useless in couple of years anyway. The reason why it’s hard to get anything done is that anyone who’s elected into office has so many paybacks to do and there’s so many special interest groups who are putting politicians where they are.

The fact we still have people going to bed hungry and that some parts of California resemble slums in India causes this deep political polarization and distrust in political process.

I believe there are certain European countries—like Norway or Sweden—where there’s also extensive bureaucratic apparatus, yet these countries are getting things done, but let’s put it aside for a minute.

I visited both Norway and Sweden and I love these places, I think political culture there is different than in California—although I don’t want to say anything bad about California—less polarized, less volatile, with more trust, and so on. But you have to note that California is significantly bigger than Sweden or Norway is and at the same time it’s a place where circa 14% of population lives below poverty line and almost 40% live close to poverty. This is why I predicate my proposal for universal basic income on lease or selling federal land. Really poor people have less opportunity to actually benefit or even see this state’s natural reserves and its resources. Easiest way for them to participate in these riches is through land dividend in a form of basic income which would be funded from commercial use of federally-owned land. The fact we still have people going to bed hungry and that some parts of California resemble slums in India—which I’ve seen as a reporter with the National Geographic—causes this deep political polarization and distrust in political process which is fueled by special interest money.

And a transhumanist’s response to that in quick three policy proposals?

Federal land dividend, about which I just told you, is and always was my first policy proposal. It doesn’t necessarily have to function as a basic income, it can subsidize food stamps, housing, healthcare and welfare while at the same time lowering taxes. Second thing I propose is to decriminalize all drugs. I know it sounds radical, but I’m a big supporter of the kind of system Portugal has, where efforts are made to reduce harm and not to penalize drug abuse. My idea behind decriminalization of all drugs is to stop the costly war on drugs and use the money instead on rehabilitation and healthcare. This provides us with a perspective for building a freer, more liberated society and invest in care and support for those who need it. Also: saves us from this terror when even recreational drug use can result in persecution, being put in jail, destruction of families. The third thing I’d normally say is lowering taxes, but let’s skip that for a moment. I propose using technologies like blockchain for replacing bureaucracy and making government more efficient and reducing employment in administration. There’s so much AI around that having people doing every single bit of work in managing things is simply nonsensical and too costly.

So, what’s coming next?

I predicate a lot of things regarding technology—automation, AI, and life extension—will result in a significant backlash. From, for example, Christian people who will resist the idea of us becoming different humans than we are today. Surprisingly, when for the first time—in March 2018—a driverless car killed a person on the road, it became a news event, but it didn’t generate as big of an outrage as I previously thought it would. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t heading in this direction in the near future, where this supposed clash of people and technology will result in some sort of social upheaval. But with transhumanism, as with every technological innovation of the past, there’s a process of acceptance. Transhumanist movement is on the same trajectory as environmental or green movements were back in the day. When 30 years ago people were saying about the need to save the planet, they were seen as crazy. But the idea caught on and today green movement and environmentalist thinking are global political forces that shape many of the most important debates of today. Same will happen with transhumanism.


Zoltan Istvan

is one of the world’s most influential transhumanists, a journalist, entrepreneur, and Libertarian futurist, the author of The Transhumanist Wager, a philosophical science fiction novel. In his previous career he was an online and on-camera reporter for the National Geographic Channel. His writings have appeared in a blog of the San Francisco Chronicle, Outside and The Daily Caller. His work has been covered in publications such as The Huffington Post. Istvan’s coverage of the war in Kashmir was made into a documentary, Pawns of Paradise, distributed by Janson Media. Australia’s The Age has acquired nonexclusive Australian rights to the show. In late 2014, Istvan announced his intent to run for President of the United States in the 2016 elections to raise awareness of transhumanist politics issues. He announced his intent to run for Governor of California in the 2018 election as a member of the Libertarian Party

Jakub Dymek

Jakub Dymek is an expert in cultural studies and a journalist. He is an editor of Krytyka Polityczna and a regular contributor to the New York magazine Dissent. He was nominated for the Grand Press Prize for his texts on the CIA prisons in Poland. His book about the roots of the revolutionary right in Poland, USA, and Europe will be published in 2017.

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Current issue - 04/2018

Energy for the Future

A technological revolution in the energy sector is at our door and we must decide, what our vision is going to be for the 21st century. Were our industries of centrally planned economies, dependent on energy supplies from the Soviet Union, successfully turned into modern, efficient ones? Is the technological progress leading to more efficient and environmentally safer energy production fast enough? The Future of energy is now!

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