Transhumanist Presidential Candidate Zoltan Istvan: Tech Giants Will Make ‘Billions and Billions’ off Machines Replacing Humans

DARPA/Wikimedia Commons
DARPA/Wikimedia Commons

Zoltan Istvan is the most intriguing presidential candidate you’ve never heard of. While those at the forefront of the 2016 race talk about defeating ISIS, Istvan is taking on beating death itself. Recently, I had a chance to talk to him.

In approaching the interview, I was unsure of what to expect. Istvan is a dynamic personality, as polarizing as he is engaging. His enthusiasm for the future is contagious, and he’s not afraid to make seemingly outrageous statements to get people engaged in a conversation he believes is vital — not only to our country’s future, but humanity’s.

I’ve been following your articles on Motherboard, but I’d like to more formally introduce you to our readers. Even considering the current, shall we say “eclectic” roster of candidates, your campaign remains particularly unique.

Istvan: You know, when you’re a third-party, you do wacky things to try to get some attention and spread your message. I think one thing I’ve been a little bit more open about recently, is while I have aimed to make the political side of my things kind of centric, I think most people know me basically as someone who has sort of some Libertarian values, even if they’re a little bit left-leaning Libertarian values, but they’re ultimately that.

So you’ve gone from sailing around the world, reporting for National Geographic, surfing down the side of an active volcano, war coverage in Kashmir, and writing a sci-fi novel. Now you’ve driven a coffin-shaped bus around the country, campaigning for president of the United States. The first question I would ask is …why?

Well, you know, regarding the campaign, had a lot to do with actually a draw to trying to make the world a better place. I don’t like to use the word “public service” because it doesn’t necessarily mean what I’m trying to do, but there is this real feeling that through technology and science we can make the world a significantly better place. And some of that science and technology is coming so quickly that a lot of people don’t realize it.

So what I had been thinking, especially after I wrote my novel The Transhumanist Wager, which was broadly considered a kind of Libertarian book, how can I now do something next without writing another book — and, you know, beyond my articles. And the real answer was, well, why not do a presidential campaign that really emphasized science and technology? No one had really ever done that.

You know, it just turned out to be something that grew really big as far as publicity, visibility, and media, and it’s been a really unique way for a lot of people to say, “Wow, what if this country was run by a scientist or run by a technologist?” and that, you know, it’s just something to examine. Not that, of course, I have much chance of winning. So that’s how I ended up doing the political aspect of it. And I’m pretty pleased with so far how that campaign has turned out.

It’s been fascinating to follow. We just recently covered a Pew Research study that suggests that while people believe that 65% of jobs could potentially be replaced by artificial intelligence, about 80% don’t believe that their job could be replaced. There’s this huge disparity between what’s actually happening in technology and people’s awareness, and how those things might actually affect their lives. In that respect, I think that you’ve brought something that we can all appreciate to the conversation.

I couldn’t agree with you more. It shocks me sometimes, especially coming off my national bus tour, where I went all the way across the country talking about technology, how little people really understood how they’re going to be affected.

My wife is an OBGYN. She trained for 19 years to practice gynecology and what she does, and frankly, they, at a conference recently, they said, “Hey, be prepared that robots can deliver babies better than humans within 15-20 years. Just be prepared for it.” And that’s an incredibly complicated job. And so, what I’m trying to say is, if her job can be replaced, it affects me financially. What about retirement and all these other things?

If that can happen, then probably everyone’s jobs are going to be at risk, and I would say within 5 years you’re going to see truck drivers — one thing I found on my bus tour is that we really met a lot of truck drivers because we stopped at truck stops, here we have this big bus and, you know, there’s already driverless trucks out there in other countries being experimented on, and we have about 3 or 4 million truck drivers in America, one of the largest jobs. What do they do when they’re replaced?

And these are grown men. They’re not going to sit down quietly and say, “Oh, my job’s gone.” So, you know, they’re going to be mad. They’re going to potentially want to revolt. They’re going to say, “We need new training,” but what are you going to train them for, that in time another AI wouldn’t take? So this is one of the most important issues of our time. It astonishes me that the presidential candidates we have are not discussing this.

These advancements have the potential not only to redefine American policies, but the way the entire world functions. Why do you think nobody is talking about it? Why is this a fringe conversation?

So I think what’s happening in the elections, is what’s been happening for the last twenty or thirty years. We have this new concept of being overly politically correct. It’s probably part of the success of Donald Trump, of why he’s emerged as this candidate, and people are shocked that he did, because he’s able to say the things he wants without worrying about the backlash. No other candidate now can do that.

And that’s one of the problems with why nobody wants to discuss artificial intelligence. They know that as soon as they say something about people losing jobs, they’re going to lose voters. But, you know, unfortunately, whether they say it or don’t say it, companies like Google or Silicon Valley, they’re moving full-speed ahead with their artificial development, and they’re going to make, literally, billions and billions of dollars off machines essentially replacing humans with work.

We need to have that conversation whether it’s politically correct or not, whether people lose voters or not. And that’s been one of my things is that I’ve been — I have no shot of winning, of course — I get to say whatever I want, and what I say is generally just the truth about technology. Hey, 95% of the jobs, in my opinion, will be gone within 50 years. Within 30 years, you’re looking at probably 60-70%, and can you imagine, what kind of world we’ll live in?

I’m not even sure that capitalism, which I support, will survive. Because I’m not sure how capitalism can survive when 60% of the world doesn’t — can’t — work. So, you know, what do you do? And of course, as soon as you mention these topics, it gets very edgy or very scary for people, and that’s exactly why the main politicians don’t want to do it. They just want to talk about the things we all understand: taxes, Social Security, immigration, foreign policy.

They’re not realizing that it’s science and technology that are going to make the biggest disruptions in society in the next five, ten, and twenty years. And if they just push it underneath the rug, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to come out. I mean, Silicon Valley is developing and investing as much as possible, and all around the world technology companies are, in these technologies. We’re looking at a completely different society here in as little as ten, or fifteen, or twenty years.

It’s a conversation that you’re very personally invested in furthering. You have not only funded your entire campaign yourself, you seem to do most of the work for your campaign personally, too. What’s that like? It’s a stark contrast against the major campaigns; Trump, Cruz, Clinton, even Sanders — they all have enormous teams of people to handle every possible task on their behalf.

I really feel like independent candidates, third-party candidates have no real shot against competing against the bigger presidential candidates like Clinton or Trump, because of finance laws. It’s like, you know, they can take in a billion dollars for their campaign, where the average person, if they want to run for president, even if you’re technically allowed, is probably going to take in 50- or 100- or 200-thousand.

We have a couple hundred people running for president and I thought, you know, “Anyone can become the president” is what I was taught. But it’s not necessarily the case when you look at it from a realistic point of view. Without big giant donors, without big funding behind you, there’s no way to make a real run. So I chose upfront to make a stance — a symbolic stance — you know, for campaign finance reform so we can make it so that anyone can get their voice heard. Not just the big players that belong to the big establishments.

But beyond that… That has, you know, limited my ability to hire staff, because I’m a well-to-do person. I’m an entrepreneur, I had a real estate business, I sold it, it’s allowed me a whole bunch of freedom. I’m not a gazillionaire, so I have to fund my campaign. And so, we have volunteers. Everybody is not paid whatsoever, nobody is paid. But we have about 40 people that do stuff. But nobody does it full-time. Nobody does it perhaps more than even a few hours a week, except for a couple different people, and they really have a lot of freedom in what they want to do.

Sometimes they’re not even supporting my campaign as much as supporting a Transhumanist political agenda. And so, you know, everyone’s sort of scattered and left to their own, but I do everything, which included driving my bus. This was one of the big questions: Did I actually hire a driver to drive the bus, or am I the driver of my campaign bus? The fun news was that because it was such a funny bus, it was interesting to drive and do all these kinds of things with it.

But yeah, it left me in a very difficult decision as a “one-man-band” to try to push this forward. Luckily, the media has been very open to what I’m doing, and I think that’s kind of the biggest method for getting a Grass Roots Movement behind you. And as a result, we have, now tens of thousands of supporters, both pushing for my campaign in social media, meeting me at rallies. You know, we’ve had a lot of great film crews come and cover us.

So, despite us being very small and despite me running mostly everything by myself, it’s been a fascinating way to try to educate the country on the real need for the government to embrace the science and technology in our lives.

Or perhaps for the technology in our lives to embrace government? In a recent CBC interview, you suggested that within 10-15 years — rather than people running for president at all — maybe an AI should run the country.

Yeah, and I really do actually advocate for this. Because they already think that, for example by 2020 they already have a competition on which artificial intelligence can give the best TED talk. I do believe that, probably within 15 years — I know I said 10-15 years in the CBC-NPR piece I did recently, but I think it’s probably closer to 15 years — we will have a machine out there, that with a handful of people kind of overseeing it, will be able to make incredibly altruistic decisions for ourselves.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of altruism when it comes to an individual. Like myself, or family, I sort of believe that we have selfish reasons for doing things, and that’s often what makes a strong capitalist society move forward. However, when it comes to somebody running the country, I want to know — for example, a police officer or something like that — I would want to know that they’re really out for my best interests and the best interests of the people, and I do think we can program that into a machine that can make the very best decisions for the greater good.

And it can do it in a way that is truly, you know, without the lobbyists, without the special interests, in a way that really makes it the most “American President” that you can have. I think that could really be the best thing we could ever do for this country. You know, currently, we have so much fighting, the country is split. But what if you had a presidential candidate who said, “I’m always going to make the very best decision for the greatest amount of Americans.”

That’s a very different thing than we have right now. No more biases. No more Left, no more Right. You know, no more Democrats or Republicans. You know, just, “I’m here for the greatest number of Americans.” And that’s what I think would be very interesting to see, and I certainly advocate for experimenting with that, and seeing if that was something that would be better for the country than what we have going on now, for example, in the 2016 elections.

So… actual Skynet. I must admit, there’s a lot of bickering  and in-fighting going on right now.

Yeah, and I don’t see an AI doing that. I see an AI simply answering questions from a very technical point of view. And when you really get down to what we would want a president for, we want it to, technically, bring about the greatest amount of prosperity and happiness and health for the country as a whole. In many ways, these are very mathematical questions, and that’s where I think an AI president could exceed many expectations.

In the mean time, while you don’t seem to have any illusions about winning the presidency in November, do you have any advice for someone who might?

I think the thing I would really continue to emphasize is the separation of church and state. I really do believe that the country has an issue with mixing its moral systems with politics. And this is again, kind of why I really think we just need objective leaders, leaders that ,”Yes, fine. I don’t mind you being religious. That’s of course your prerogative. Do it.” But really it needs to be kept out of politics.

And, you know, the same way with religion. You want to keep your biases out. You want to keep your… anything out. I mean, if you’re a racist, you want to keep that out. I mean all of our biases must be kept out entirely in order to serve the people. And so, if I was going to say anything to whoever ends up winning, please keep your bigotry, keep your biases out of the system of running the country.

Let’s make this “how can we help Americans the most to fulfill obvious things. You know, health, safety, family values, prosperity, national defense. These kinds of things. And I would say, on top of that, I think the biggest agenda that I have been pushing — the single biggest agenda that I have been pushing — is to try to spend more money on science and technology instead of building bombs, building more weapons, “revitalizing” our nuclear weapons. I mean, you know, spending a billion dollars on that.

If we spent more money on science and technology, if we reduced the size of the military — and I’m not using the term “reduce” in the sense of, you know, not putting the money somewhere else, but we can change the military industrial complex into a science industrial complex.

Everyone can make just as much money as before. Everyone can have just as much prosperity. But let’s focus on fighting wars against diabetes, against cancer, against Alzheimer’s, instead of fighting other human beings in far off countries where most of us will never ever go.

And that’s been one of the big things that I’ve been drumming on is that, you know, if we create a scientific industrial complex, America will be better for it in 50 years, whereas I don’t know if a growing military industrial complex, sort of how America thrives, is really going to work very well 50 years into the future, when it’s all cybersecurity, all these other kinds of new types of worlds with AI controlling their weapons.

I think it’s science and technology that can make this country much greater than it already is.


This is part one of a two-part interview. In the next part, Zoltan Istvan will discuss Transhumanism, solving the problem of a longer-lived population with fewer jobs, and telepathy through biomechanical implants.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.


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