I hadn’t come to room 3301 of the Sands Expo to see Zoltan Istvan speak. I had come because the official CTIA Super Mobility 2015 conference app had pinged a notification to me that Mike Tyson – a boxer of some repute – was due to participate in a panel discussion and I wanted to startle my editors by landing a quote from Iron Mike.
What I found, instead – I have no notion where Tyson was at the appointed time – was Zoltan Istvan, who is running for president. He is polished, polite and friendly. He was also gracious and patient with a reporter who bumbled into his speech by accident and essentially asked, “What the heck is going on here?”
For those unfamiliar with his work, Istvan is a columnist for Vice, former reporter for National Geographic and author of a novel called The Transhumanist Wager, which lays out his hyper-futurist philosophy. In essence, he believes that humanity’s goal must be to create technology so advanced that we become immortal – conquering death with the infinitely sharp sword of logic. Through advances in medical science, the gentle melding of humans and machines and various other technological means, Istvan says, we can achieve this transhumanist ideal – and as president he’ll devote his full powers to achieving the goal.
Most of Istvan’s more specific ideas are, well, nonsense – his assertion at the beginning of the speech that because the universe and the Earth are billions of years old, humans are clearly “just getting started” contains the kind of glaring logical flaw I was to notice several more times.
He covered a wide range of scientific and technological topics with breathless joy at their wildest possibilities, and little recognition of the mountainous challenges between here and there. Within 15 or 20 years, Istvan asserted, gerontologists will be able to halt the fundamental process of aging. Later, we’ll be able to rejuvenate ourselves to become any age we desire. In roughly the same time frame, humans will communicate via cranial implants that directly send and receive thoughts, rather than through physical speech, he said.
Istvan is clearly not a stupid man, nor is he lacking in self-awareness – he’s cognizant that his ideas seem strange to most. And it’s difficult to argue with the basic premise that medical science can dramatically improve the lives of every human on Earth – his goals, in their way, are laudable. Why not make ourselves better, anyway?
But his grasp on the real science behind these hoped-for miracles seems limited, and the argument that technology really will cure all of humanity’s ills ignores the inarguable miseries that it has already caused.
Istvan is touring the country in a bus dolled up to look like a coffin, complete with a white floral arrangement on top, funded by a successful $25,000 IndieGoGo campaign. The idea, he said, is to prompt people to think about their own mortality.
“The number one goal of transhumanism is overcoming death,” he said. “Transhumanists just simply don’t like the idea that we’re here for a limited amount of time and we have to accept it.”
The ultimate aim is to bring a “Cyborg bill of rights” to Washington D.C., he says, and nail or otherwise affix it to the doors of Congress. Istvan knows he’s not going to win the presidency, but he does want to raise awareness.
“We are becoming something different,” he said. “And the speed at which we are becoming something different is accelerating incredibly fast.”