‘I don’t actually feel attracted to robots.’ Presidential candidates have to deny all kinds of things, but only Zoltan Istvan would be compelled to clarify that he’s not interested in sleeping with robots. As the Transhumanist Party’s contender, he’s unsurprisingly enthusiastic about some pretty far-out ideas involving the crossover between people and machines. He even recently injected a rice-sized microchip into his hand, which can literally open doors. That said, with the speed of tech, his chip is almost obsolete: he knows guys working on ones that will ‘allow you to pay at Starbucks’. But it’s useful for when he’s been out running, as he has when we meet at his red wooden house, in a suburb of San Francisco.
He looks more of a swimmer than a runner — tall and broad, blond and presidential: a cross between Phelps and Schwarzenegger. Not that he’ll win, of course. And he’s aware of that, to the extent that it was significant for him to come out as intending to vote for himself. Rather, his campaign has been focused on getting science on to the political agenda — and specifically, transhumanism, with its aim of ‘eliminating human death’. If that sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, it’s because it is. And the biggest novel on the transhumanist scene is Istvan’s. His book, ‘The Transhumanist Wager’, reads like Dan Brown’s undergraduate thesis — a rollicking plot setting out futurist thought, manifesto style. Written before he set up the party and began his presidential run, the novel has influenced Istvan’s campaign in ways good and bad. For a start, it split the transhumanist ‘community’, appealing more to its new millennial members, than the ‘elders’ — those ‘academics and scientists’, who are unsure about Istvan. A lot of them ‘don’t think politics and science should mix’, he says — they ‘just sit in their laboratories’.
Istvan is stuck between real science and imagination, however. Along standard lines, he supports stem-cell research (even claiming that Bush should face charges for having delayed its progress) and decreasing fossil-fuel dependence. Then, there’s the middle ground: his friends want robotic eyes in the backs of their heads. And then there’s the most hardcore stuff. After ten years of the coming ‘AI age’ (he likes predicting things in years), he believes there’ll be something more extraordinary – ‘I don’t have a word for it yet, but probably intelligent universal matter’ – which seems to be related to black holes. He’s also happy about the ‘inevitability’ of us all becoming iPhone-like cubes. When I say that I’d be sad not to be able to eat and drink, he says, ’Of course it’d be sad, but you’re talking as a mammal! Say you were God.’
As a secularist, religion plays an important part in Istvan’s campaign. He was brought up a Catholic, and that still affects him:
‘You cannot take a small little brain, and say you were born into sin and only Jesus can forgive you, and now go off and be a normal kid’.
He wants to make America secular by stealth — by banning religious education before the age of thirteen (which he refers to as ‘child abuse’), and removing churches’ non-profit status. His time as a reporter for National Geographic took him to warring Kashmir, and he believes that, without religion, that kind of conflict would end. Even Israel and Palestine would simply be ‘trading partners’, he thinks; he’d prefer to have ‘Walmarts than war zones’. Instead, he’d rather political decisions were informed by ‘the scientific method’, premised on health first. He sees this — and, specifically, the measure of ‘longevity’ — as a decider of good and bad in terms of policy: not unlike the way some people rely on God for moral absolutes. He agrees that this does make transhumanism seem like a faith itself, but doesn’t mind that, as long as it’s seen to be based on reason. Having something that convinces you you’re right, however, can lead you towards authoritarianism. Indeed, Istvan thinks that sometimes you need to ‘create freedom with an iron fist’.
All this makes his political positioning somewhat confusing. ‘The Transhumanist Wager’ appealed both to those left-leaning millennial futurists, and to their libertarian counterparts who (clearly ignoring the novel’s authoritarian message) thought Istvan was the new Ayn Rand. And, while he’s tried to walk a centrist line in his candidacy, he admits he’s been on a ‘journey’ from right to left. This was inspired largely by his realisation that, if he wanted to be in a position of responsibility, he would have to be more altruistic (the hero of his novel is the ultimate non-altruist: it’s a paean to an individualism so self-centred it’s practically solipsistic). And, being one for extremes, he’s gone quite far with this move — some of his statements are full-on Bernie Sanders. He doesn’t like the word ‘socialist’, though, currently preferring the idea of ‘automated luxury communism’, which seems to mean that when technology has fixed everything, we’ll all live happily ever after.
If every problem you pose to someone will soon be ‘fixed’ by science — including ‘human death’ — it’s hard to have a conversation about policy, however. Overall, Istvan believes that, if only he could persuade the government to invest properly in technology, that, in the next x years, most problems would be ‘eliminated wholesale’. He thinks such advances are inevitable, but that making them happen faster would save countless lives. Eventually, the government will be run by robots, the ‘economy will change’, DNA will be the new currency, and so on. In the same way he thinks that when we get rid of religion, we’ll get rid of war, he thinks that when we get rid of natural hearts, we’ll get rid of heart disease. Climate change will be solved by artificial lungs and humans controlling the weather. And, because we’ll be able to depend on robots, we’ll be able to introduce UBI, and banish taxation. Overpopulation caused by people living forever will be solved in a way similar to how Jurassic Park-style developments and synthetic tiger penises are stopping black market trade (yes, the link is tricky), and we’ll soon be able to move to Mars, anyway. Not that we’ll need to — or have any international borders — because we’ll all be multiplying our consciousnesses in ‘The Cloud’, by then.
But what for Istvan, until those happy times? He’s relieved that there’s less than a week left of his campaign. When I meet him, he’s been at it for 725 days. He’s going to vote in Florida (one of the few states where he’s a ‘write-in’ on the ballot), where his sick father lives. He’s certain that Clinton will win, but is terrified in case Trump does — after all, if Trump were then assassinated (as described in Istvan’s first piece of fiction since his novel), then Pence would be the one to ‘oversee’ AI, and would make it all religious. And, further on, Istvan is keen to be a presidential candidate again, although it’s the libertarian ticket he’s considering for next time round (he says he’s a better speaker and debater than Gary Johnson, but accepts the party will struggle with his views: ‘I’ll be the person who wrote this great book, and then betrayed it’). And he’d like to run, as a Democrat, for mayor in his home town. There’s no rush to find the best party, presumably, if he’s going to live forever.
Finally, I ask, is there anything science can’t fix? Art, he replies: it’s ‘one of those things where there’s no right or wrong’. And, as much as he’d prefer to be a digital being, Istvan enjoys relaxing in the evenings with a glass of scotch, at his rather nice grand piano. Sure, he doesn’t think his children should learn to play it, because, by the time they’re 25, they’ll be able to get an implant to do that for them. He likes doing so, all the same. Indeed, he moved to San Francisco to be in a band, before his band-mates had kids and grew up. He’s doing that now, too — he says he’s become less ‘gung-ho’ — and he’s getting there with it.
Or is he? When Istvan’s scientism turns full on, it’s more than just fantasist. He thinks, for instance, that it’s fine to claim that smarter people are ‘better’. He justifies this by pointing out that he wants to make everyone equal in that way: not only through mandatory college education, but also by creating designer babies, and thus ‘limiting [people’s’] ability to have their personality’. If evolution is about ‘the tallest person getting the apples’, then why shouldn’t we make everyone tall and smart, he thinks. Indeed, he’s talked about all this in an upcoming documentary in terms of ‘eugenics’, which he claims to be ‘a huge supporter of’ — he recognises that this will ‘probably get [him] into big trouble in three or four months’.
The aim of Istvan’s campaign is to be taken seriously. If he ever truly is, however, life may prove more difficult than he thinks.
After the American people have voted, what next for the US and the rest of the world? Join panellists including Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG, former British ambassador to the US, for a discussion chaired by Andrew Neil on 30 November at RIBA, London. Tickets include a drinks reception. In association with Seven Investment Management. Book now.