Did you know there is a Transhumanist Party, which has a candidate in the current U.S. Presidential race?
Transhumanism espouses the transformation of humanity through genetic engineering, brain implants and other technologies. It has much in common with the Singularity, the idea that super-intelligence, in the form of a machine or human-machine cyborg, is imminent.
In 2014, Zoltan Istvan founded The Transhumanist Party and announced his intention to run for President. Istvan is a journalist and author of a science-fiction novel, The Transhumanist Wager. He has also made money in real estate. His goals, he said on Huffington Post, were to
1. Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.
2. Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.
Istvan has also called for a “bill of rights” for “conscious robots and cyborgs.”
I hadn’t heard of Istvan until two days ago, when Amy Nordrum, an editor at technology magazine IEEE Spectrum (where I started my career in 1983), emailed me. She was planning to interview Istvan live on Facebook. Glenn Zorpette, Spectrum’s executive editor, had suggested reaching out to me.
Zorpette, an old friend, knows I’m skeptical of transhumanist claims. In 2008, Zorpette asked me to critique the Singularity for Spectrum, and he moderated a debate between me and Singularity guru Ray Kurzweil. At a skeptics’ conference last spring, I bashed the Singularity again, calling it “an apocalyptic cult, with science substituted for God.”
Nordrum asked me for “questions that you think I should ask [Istvan] that drill down a bit on what he thinks... I want to make sure this is a realistic conversation and doesn't oversell the concepts he's promoting.” Nordrum sent me links to an interview with Istvan and to his campaign platform.
I urged her to press Istvan on the “implausibility of transhumanist scenarios. Their projections are childish fantasies, based not on what science has actually accomplished but on wishful thinking. Our treatments for cancer and mental illness are primitive. We don't even know what schizophrenia is! Not a single gene therapy has been approved in the U.S. Brain implants, with the exception of cochlear implants, don't really work. As for AI, yeah, Watson is cool, and the Go-playing program, but general AI is still non-existent.”
Then Zorpette asked if I would talk to Istvan, with Nordrum moderating, and I said sure. Although I disagree with them, I find transhumanists fascinating. I’ve presented the views of several transhumanists on this blog, including Steve Fuller, Eliezer Yudkoswky and Robin Hanson. Fuller spoke at my school last year, and Hanson is giving a talk in November. [See Postscript for Steve Fuller’s take on Istvan.]
I spoke to Istvan yesterday at the Manhattan office of Spectrum. In spite of his exotic views and name (he’s of Hungarian descent), Istvan looks like a clean-cut, all-American jock--and in fact he used to be into extreme sports, like “volcano surfing.”
During our conversation, I spouted my concerns about transhumanism. Scientists are struggling to convince the public to believe in climate change, evolution and the efficacy of vaccines, I pointed out. When transhumanists make absurd claims about science’s potential, I added, they damage science’s credibility.
Istvan handled my complaints graciously. Far from being fanatical, he was disarmingly amiable and reasonable. He knows he has no chance of winning the election, even though he claims to have as many as 1 million supporters. His real goal is to get people excited about science and its potential for improving our lives. Aside from the stuff about the imminence of immortality and sentient robots, I like some Transhumanist Party positions:
Spread a pro-science culture by emphasizing reason and secular values
Advocate for partial direct digital democracy using available new technologies.
End costly drug war and legalize recreational drugs
Significantly lessen massive incarcerated population in America by using innovative technologies to monitor criminals outside of prison. Spend saved money on education.
Strongly emphasize radical green tech solutions to make planet healthier
Insist on campaign finance reform, limit lobbyist’s power, and include 3rd political parties in government
Provide free public education at every level.
Advocate for a more open and fair immigration policy
Create a scientific and educational industrial complex in America instead of a military industrial complex. Spend money on wars against cancer, heart disease, and diabetes—not on wars in far-off countries
I told Istvan that if the election came down to a run-off between Trump and him, I’d vote for him. Of course, I would vote for anyone over Trump, even IBM’s Jeopardy-playing program Watson. But I like Istvan, and I love his call for slashing the U.S. military budget and investing more in science. I wish Hillary Clinton would adopt that position.
Postscript: Transhumanist Steve Fuller, who has debated Istvan, wrote an insightful assessment of him for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. An excerpt: “Istvan has been disowned by many key Transhumanist thinkers and has even alienated self-avowed Transhumanist groups, especially those with religious affiliations. In fact, I do not know of any self-avowed Transhumanist group which has endorsed his presidential campaign, other than his own one-man party. Yet he is sufficiently media savvy to realize that some ‘serious’ presidential candidates might pivot in the direction of his policies – especially once he abandons his own campaign (something that he has already hinted at)…Istvan comes across as a down-to-earth, family-oriented person. This by itself is quite an achievement for someone who declares his Transhumanism loud and proud. After all, Transhumanists have been lampooned for being weird, nerdy and creepy.”