Long before he found transhumanism, Zoltan Istvan was called by adventure
The pirates boarded his 25-foot skiff and held a rifle to his chest. Moments before, Zoltan had managed to stow his girlfriend away in the hull in a cupboard, where she cowered in mortal terror. They were off the coast of Yemen and there was nothing of value on the boat. In the end, the pirates left without causing any harm, but they gave Zoltan his first real brush with death. He was 21 years old and he did not enjoy it, not even one bit, he tells me. He had just graduated university with a degree in philosophy and religion, and was sailing around the world, mostly alone but occasionally accompanied by a girlfriend, fueled by an insatiable jones for adventure.
Zoltan’s parents immigrated to the US from Communist Hungary in 1968, wanting a better life for their young family. They came to California, where they had Zoltan five years later. Zoltan says his parents’ strict Catholicism gave him the lasting feeling that at all times he was doing something vaguely wrong and that he would eventually be punished for eternity in hell. “I know some of this stuff I’m doing today is a direct kind of a rebellion to that,” he says now.
His four-year-long boat trip took Zoltan to 100 different countries. When he eventually came back, he rode around America on a motorcycle, camping in a sleeping bag he tied to the front wheel, sometimes lying up on benches so as to avoid any snakes or scorpions that might have wanted to join him in his slumber.
In his late 20s, Zoltan moved to Oregon to be near his retiring parents and started working as a contractor. He put enough money together to buy a small house, which he renovated and flipped. The first time he did this he doubled his money, so he kept going, eventually making a good income and running a thriving contracting business.
“I didn’t set out to do it, really. It just happened that way,” he says as we sit in a boisterous barn of a BBQ joint. It’s Wednesday, and we’re just outside of Phoenix. Zoltan is eating a baked potato nearly the size of a football and straining to be heard above the twanging din of Top 40 country music.
Eventually he sold most of his properties, making a few million dollars. “Not crazy money,” he says, “but enough to not ever have to work again, if you’re smart.” Amongst all this, he’d also been working as a freelance video journalist, traveling to exotic locales and doing things like surfing the outsides of active volcanoes. He met his wife, they had two children, and he decided to write a dystopic sci-fi novel. The novel did pretty well, so he leveraged a sideline as a writer on what he was passionate about: transhumanism.
After years of covering war zones, he decided it was all too dangerous
While still in college, Zoltan had come across a Time article on cryonics published in the 1960s, and had then become increasingly obsessed with transhumanist ideas. Once he was a self-made millionaire, he dedicated himself to the movement full time. And here we are.
When I ask him what else drew him to transhumanism, Zoltan tells me a story he often recounts: it was the early 2000s, and he was in Vietnam reporting for National Geographic on the trade in scrap metal from unexploded ordinances. As he made his way through the brush, his guide tackled him from behind. He had been inches away from stepping on a landmine that would have certainly killed him. Even more than the pirate thing, that was the moment Zoltan realized just how much he didn’t want to die. After two years of covering war zones, he decided it was all too dangerous. He quit reporting, and his political ambitions to convert the world to transhumanism were born.
Zoltan tries to popularize volcano boarding while reporting for National Geographic.
Zoltan would be the first to admit that he is a somewhat reckless, impulse-driven, thrill- and pleasure-seeking hedonist who hungers for experience and who might even harbor a death wish. It’s easy to see why a belief system that renders death meaningless would be so appealing to him.
It’s less easy to understand some of his other ideas about the future.
When I ask how Earth will sustain billions of immortal people, he says he isn’t concerned. Within the next 25 years, he explains, we will have become machines.
“We only have five senses. As a machine you might have a thousand senses.”
“If you’re a machine, you might not need air and you might not need food. You might just need solar power. You could probably fit a thousand times the amount of people on the planet right now. We’re going to become pure energy, you could fit the entire human population in a skyscraper like the Empire State Building, filled with servers based on neural connections. Population and resources, they’re not worries, they will be solved,” Zoltan says, washing down his chilli cheese-stuffed potato with a beer and getting revved up on all the cool things he says the future will bring.
“We only have five senses. Inside a virtual reality or as a machine you might have a thousand senses. So your sense of beauty would be greatly enhanced,” he goes on. “You could also make clones of yourself.”
Zoltan’s eyes widen at the possibilities. “I like transhumanism because it’s something creative and it’s something dramatically different. I like it because I could be the ruler, or I could be the one who just sits on the beach and plays ‘Margaritaville’ all day.”
Zoltan talks about these things not only as if they are inevitable, but completely normal and highly desirable. When I push back against his arguments, he never gets angry or upset, and will often say that he doesn’t have all the answers and that he realizes that. Whenever I ask for concrete proof for why he believes the Singularity will be here soon, he says only that technology’s forward march is unstoppable. So why not, he says in his infinite optimism, assume that future will be wonderful?
Still, Zoltan sees artificial intelligence as a huge threat and opposes its development, which is confusing as these are the same technologies that will allow us to become cyborgs and virtual consciousnesses and clones of ourselves and everything else transhumanists are looking forward to.
The key to safe AI, Zoltan says, is simple:
“We’ll program it ourselves,” he says. “Or maybe there will be other people who we’ll trust,” to take care of it for us.
The staff are beginning to clean up around us, and the call goes out for last drinks. I ask Zoltan how long he would really want to live for. Centuries? Millennia? What would it take to get off the ride?
“Well, you would have to end your life.”
What would have to happen before you did that?
What would it take to get off the ride?
“You never want to be a slave. If you were put in a system where the slavery was worse than anything else that could happen, then you would say death is better than an existence that is useless.”
But if you’re enslaved, what if you can’t kill yourself?
“Then you’d be trapped in a hell forever.”
Even with so many risks, Zoltan says that if he didn’t live to see the Singularity come to pass in his lifetime, the sadness for him would be beyond belief. “Crushed. I would be highly, highly disappointed,” he says, firmly shaking his head at the incomprehensible.
Walking back together along the deserted freeway to the motel, I try to better understand what makes death so unpalatable for Zoltan. I ask if it isn’t true that life is only meaningful because we’re painfully aware that someday it will end?
“Maybe. But I don’t think so,” he says, throwing up his arms. “Isn’t life so much fun? Why would anyone ever want it to end?”
By Thursday, even after sunset, the temperature inside the bus sits at an oven-like 95. After an endless-seeming, cloudless day of driving alongside marbled-grey and ochre mountain ranges, we make it to the motel in Scottsdale at around 10PM. Zoltan and I jump in the pool and float around on foam noodles, slowly circling each other, luxuriating in the feeling of not being on the bus. This is when Zoltan tells me that he wants to join the Democratic Party, to run as a Democratic presidential nominee instead of a transhumanist.
Zoltan says the field is wide open — no one wants to go up against Hillary
Zoltan says that some of his people have been telling him that now may be an opportune moment. The field is wide open, he muses, because no one wants to go up against Hillary, and his popularity is such that he could maybe get on a televised debate.
Zoltan wants his running mate to be Martine Rothblatt, the millionaire CEO of United Therapeutics and founder of Sirius Radio. Rothblatt is also known for founding Terasem, a transhumanist belief system whose adherents put faith in the ability of future technologies to make mind upload simulations of ourselves from our digital footprint, and to then have those uploads sent on a frequency into space in search of friendly extraterrestrial life. She is also building a functional robot modeled on her wife.
Zoltan knows his VP will need two things: a significant profile and plenty of money, and Martine ticks both boxes. Though, he isn’t quite sure if the American public is ready for a transhumanist / transgender ticket. “Maybe by 2024, they will be. We will have had the first black president and the first female president,” he says, chopping the water with his hands for emphasis, “And then we can have the transgender transhumanist vice president and it won’t be any big deal.”
Having this conversation, I realize the cognitive dissonance I feel so often when talking to Zoltan comes in large part from how progressive and inclusive many of his ideas are. He is an ardent environmentalist and pacifist who would immediately halt all military spending and permanently disarm all the world’s nuclear warheads. He believes that everyone should have the enshrined right to choose to live the life they want, and the right to choose to do whatever they want to with their body; be that women’s reproductive rights, transgender rights, or the right to turn yourself into a cyborg. Zoltan sees these all as equal.
And then Zoltan is also an unapologetic capitalist who has absolute faith in what he sees to be the ethical neutrality of markets that will always “self-correct in our best interest.” He isn’t comfortable with corporations being people, or with the power they wield, but believes they are at base benevolent and would never hurt consumers.
Zoltan sees reproductive rights, transgender rights, and the right to turn yourself into a cyborg as all equal
He also thinks capitalism is nearing its natural end. As wealth disparity comes to an untenable crisis point, the only solution to quell the furious masses threatening violent chaos will be something he calls “luxury communism,” which is another way of saying a universal living wage. “I’ll be on the basic wage too,” he says, “and I think I’ll be pretty happy with it.”
In this way Zoltan is the embodiment of the mishmash of amazingly confusing and conflicting ideologies that make up transhumanist thought: some extremely progressive, some Randian Libertarian, some socialist collectivist, and all mixed in with a big, big bunch of straight plain crazy. It is a buffet smorgasbord of serve-yourself beliefs, many of which do not complement each other in any way.
Zoltan is making a number of each-way bets on making sure he lives into the future: banking on a cure for aging in his lifetime, but also being cryonically frozen and revived at a later time when death has been conquered. In the meantime, he will slowly turn himself into a melding of man and machine to realize his hope of becoming a cyborg. He’s had a chip inserted into his hand, which can be programmed to open doors and interact with other electronic devices. Zoltan says he will have much more powerful biohacks at his disposal once the Singularity is here.
But that’s all a way in the future. Right now, in the pool, Zoltan is very excited about the prospect of getting a national televised audience and is going to put some calls in the next morning to see if Martine will go for it. He isn’t too worried about how the rest of the transhumanist movement will react, he’s more concerned with spreading the word to as many people as possible than anything else.
A few days later, Zoltan will tell me that he heard through Martine’s son that it was a no in the end. When I ask why, he says, only a little deflated, “I don’t think she was happy to just be VP.”