Reason Podcast

'Becoming Machines Is Part of Our Destiny,' Says Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan [Podcast]

The "California Dream of Transhumanism" on why he's pro-robot, running for governor of California, and still angry about getting busted at 18 for selling pot.


Zoltan Istvan isn't just one of the world's leading transhumanists. He's one of its most unapologetic when it comes to using science and technology to improving and augmenting humanity.

"If I could cut off my arm right now, to put on a stronger robotic arm because it's more functional, I would do it," he tells Nick Gillespie in the latest Reason Podcast. "My wife might not like it, but I would do it because it will help me to climb Mount Everest or help me to throw a football or whatever, or even just work and build houses….I think all of us will start merging with machines…I think even religious people will say, 'You know, becoming machines is part of our destiny.'"

At 18, Istvan got busted for selling pot, and he still simmers with outrage over drug prohibition and the way he and others are treated by the legal system. He traveled the world as a journalist for National Geographic, made a fortune selling real estate, and published the best-selling and award-winning novel The Transhumanist Wager in 2013 (he wants it to become the Atlas Shrugged of transhumanism). He's run for president on a transhumanist platform and now he's running for governor of California as a Libertarian and wants to transform his home state into a showplace for radical technology that will extend and enrich human life, reduce taxes, and replace bureaucrats, road-builders, and even teachers with cheaper and more-efficient robots.

"It's very natural to want to innovate," he explains, "to want to see these amazing technologies and scientific discoveries come about and change the human race and apply this libertarian morphological freedom to everything. And, if you get there, then you're gonna really find a future that I think combines the best worlds of libertarianism as well as transhumanism."

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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie, and this is the Reason podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there.

Today, we are talking with Zoltan Istvan. He wrote a novel in 2013 called "The Transhumanist Wager." He's run for president, or tried to run for president to get to the candidacy of the Libertarian Party. He is a futurist, a transhumanist, and he is a candidate for governor of California on the Libertarian Party ticket.

Zoltan, thanks for talking to Reason and the Reason podcast.

Zoltan Istvan: Thank you so much for having me.

Gillespie: In a recent article in The American Conservative, which is available online, you wrote that whether we like it or not, transhumanism has arrived. How do you define transhumanism and how do we know that it's arrived?

Istvan: Transhumanism is now a social movement of a few million people around the world, perhaps more, and they want to use science and radical technology to change the human being, and also to change the human being's experience of the world, of the universe, of everything. Generally, it can be anything from exoskeleton suits to give to disabled people, out of wheelchairs, it can be things like telepathy and brainwave headsets. It can even be things just like driverless cars, but it's essentially radical science and technology, and I think, just look around and check out the news, there's so much of this science technology already hitting us and impacting us.

Gillespie: What are some of the examples… I have a pet theory that the future is always kind of fantastic in the abstract but then when it arrives, it almost becomes banal to us and we take it for granted. So, the Dick Tracy comic books in the '40s or '50s or Dick Tracy comics would be talking about two-way video phones that you would carry on your wrists and that seems really cool but then when you get a cell phone and a smartphone where you can actually do that, or Skype where you can talk for free to anybody on the planet, we're like, "Eh, we've had … why is this so special?" What are some of the examples of transhumanist reality that is going on right now that we've lost the sense of wonder about?

Istvan: Well, I mean we've lost the sense of wonder about many things in technology. We take it for granted we can fly 30,000 feet up in the air in a jet airplane and things like that, but you know some of the technologies that are now just … that are actually, we already have but are probably gonna be commercially available in four or five years, for example is the neural lace or a neural prosthetic. Some of the Wall Street companies are already starting to fire people, employees because they're replacing people that would be trading with artificial intelligence. So, people like Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs now creating companies, so we can either have essentially brain implants or headsets that allow our brains to tie directly into the cloud or into the internet or into artificial intelligence, so that we can be competitive against these artificial intelligences that are coming or these robots or whatnot. This is kind of like, wow, you're thinking about brainwave headsets connected to the internet with your thought, this is something that is truly science fiction and yet, there's already hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into it. They've already had a moderate amount of success with telepathy.

Gillespie: I am hoping that Apple and other cloud providers have better security because if, as embarrassing as it would be to have your nude photos leaked en masse, I'm only thinking that if you had the actual contents of your brain available to hackers, that would be particularly embarrassing, don't you?

Istvan: Oh, absolutely. You know and when young kids come to me and say, "What job should I do in the future?" I almost always say security, cyber security because this is the big challenge of our future, especially if you're a Libertarian and very worried about it, is how can you take all this amazing technology and still remain like a private individual, somebody who likes their liberties, somebody who likes their sense of privacy. Increasingly it becomes very difficult to do that, yet, if there are people that are working on the security angle of things, I think we're gonna have a great future and one that'll be still protecting all our rights.

Gillespie: Right, so it's partly kind of like the way that internet culture has expanded over the past 20 or 25 years. You want all of the benefits and as few of the liabilities as possible, or you want a user controlled experience, and you think that that's possible in a transhumanist future?

Istvan: Well, I guess I should be a little careful because I don't think it's entirely possible anymore. I actually, and this is where I get myself in trouble with Libertarians, I recently wrote an article saying that perhaps freedom can best be served by actually giving up some of our privacy. I think privacy is something that will not necessarily die like the dinosaurs, but certainly transform itself. We're gonna become much more okay with letting a lot of our lives online and in the public domain.

Now, what you mentioned though, somebody hacking into your brain and actually uncovering your deepest, darkest thoughts, all those skeletons, I mean, every single one of us would be like, that would not only be the most embarrassing thing ever but you know it could really ruin lives. So, there are obviously gonna be some things that are always gonna have to be very, very protected.

Gillespie: Well, and it seems so also, thinking about a couple of years ago when there was both the Sony hack, which didn't just release product that the Sony movies had been working on and record label, but also internal memos and stuff, but then there also the hacks of Apple Photo clouds and stuff like that of celebrities and nude pictures or selfies. But, it does seem that people give, in a world where that kind of thing happens more often, people kind of learn how to give people more grace, a wider grace period in a world where everybody is kind of out there, you're willing to cut people a break because you know your dirty laundry is gonna get out there too. So, there seems to be a kind of homeostasis or maybe that's the wrong term, an equilibrium gets reached pretty quickly if we're in a less private world where people don't get bent out of shape by private misstatements.

Istvan: No, in fact, that is the most important idea there, and really what a lot of my article was about when I wrote about privacy recently, is that if the entire world is open, a lot of people that might have had hangups, whether they're conservative or whatever, just let them go because it's too difficult to actually get along when everybody is judging all the time. It's much easier to have much more Libertarian world where everyone's like, do your own thing, we love you for who you are, we like you for who you are, that kind of thing. So, I actually think that's why freedom is better served by giving up some of our privacy through technology.

Gillespie: Well, you know, this may be an East Coast, West Coast thing, and although Reason is headquartered on the West Coast as you are, and I've lived in L.A. for three years, I was gonna say that libertarianism may be, for me as I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey, but libertarianism's creed may be less about we love you for who you are, it's that we hate you for who you are. But, it's all kind of the same thing, I think. Where we evaluate each person individually and come to some kind of individualistic conclusion. Your piece in The American Conservative, which is a great magazine, I don't agree with it on everything, but it's really provocative in the fact that they had you there and you were talking about libertarianism and transhumanism. What is the essential connection between transhumanism and libertarianism in your kind of discussion of these topics?

Istvan: Well, the basic, most core tenet of transhumanism is this concept of morphological freedom, which is you have the right to do with your body whatever you want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. You know, that's a great platform to have is kind of the core tenet of transhumanism. Of course, that's incredibly libertarian too. It's like, yeah, leave me alone, hands off, let me do what I want to do, as long as I'm not hurting you there's no reason to intrude. So, in that sense, transhumanism and libertarianism are completely linked. So it's very natural to want to innovate, to want to see these amazing technologies and scientific discoveries come about and change the human race and apply this libertarian morphological freedom to everything. And, if you get there, then you're gonna really find a future that I think both combines the best worlds of libertarianism, as well as transhumanism.

Gillespie: About a week after your piece appeared in The American Conservative, they had a response from a more conservative thinker who also claimed to be a libertarian and at one point he quoted as a kind of critique of you. He said, "As Ludwig von Mises wrote sarcastically, the socialist paradise will be the kingdom of perfection, populated by completely happy supermen." That's something that Ludwig von Mises said decades ago, but how do you respond to critics who say that transhumanism is ultimately a mix of eugenics and utopianism and that it's doomed to either replicate the worst elements of both or just be a complete mishmash and a failure?

Istvan: Well, I like to say, for me transhumanism is just another facet of evolution. We've been evolving for millions of years, and I think what happens is we now have the tools to make that evolution quicker, and a lot of the basis of transhumanism is, let's live longer, let's make it so our children or our parents don't have to die from so many diseases, let's make it so life is easier, we have driverless cars so we don't get stuck in traffic all the time, maybe then we could read newspapers. I mean, transhumanism is about making the world better. So, when people talk about it in some kind of anti way, it really is surprising to me.

Actually, usually, what I find is that people are either very religious because one of the main tenets of transhumanism is we do want to overcome death with science and technology. Of course, if you're religious you're like, "Wait a sec, that completely conflicts with not only, you know, the Bible, or the word of God and these kinds of things," and that's where I think you find a lot of people that are against transhumanism. They're not against what it can do for their lives, they're against some of those core ideas that we can for example, become gods ourselves, and I subscribe to that idea. I'm an atheist or a secular person, so I'm not worried about any kind of afterlife or breaking any rules, I want to use transhumanism to go as far as I can, become as intelligent of an entity as I can. I'm not sure what that means, it might mean becoming a machine, might becoming a much more sophisticated biological entity, but I think it's gonna be super exciting. I want to be that super human. I want to be that Nietzschean uber man.

Gillespie: Well, you raise Nietzsche and that conjures up a lot of negative connotations for sure, and in 2014 in an article for Wired, you argued for having the state license parents. Let me quote from it and then I want to get your response to it, but you wrote, "If you can't feed a child, you probably shouldn't have one. Licensing would have restricted many of those births until the parents were more able to deal with the challenges of procreation, which is undoubtedly the most intense and serious long-term responsibility most humans will face in their lives." How does that kind of idea of the state of all things, licensing parents and saying, "Well, you can't have a kid yet because you haven't jumped through this hurdle or you haven't passed this test or you don't have enough money in the bank." To be honest, I'm not sure, I have two sons, I'm not sure that my first one, if the state had looked at my balance sheet they would been like, "What the fuck are you thinking? You really can't afford this kid." But, how does the idea of licensing parents square with your libertarianism? I kind of see with transhumanism, but even then, it's kind of like, why shouldn't individuals be free to figure out when they want to have kids and how many and things like that, or not to have them at all?

Istvan: Sure, well, let me just also clarify one thing that I never said it should be done by the state. I definitely wouldn't say that, I said it should be done potentially by non-profit of some sort and basically could be community-based things, also, this is definitely not a part of my … any kind of official platform. This was before I did any kind of political running, so this was a philosophical article I wrote for Wired trying to say there are 8,000, this is a fact, there are 8,000 kids that starve to death or essentially die from malnutrition every single day on planet Earth. So, that's 8,000 yesterday, that's 8,000 today, 8,000 tomorrow. If you look at it in the 20th century, that's about 70 million kids have starved to death.

So, one of the things you have to ask yourself is, "Well, what were the parents doing of those 70 million kids and why were they having children?" Even in America, about 13 million kids go to bed hungry at night or don't have enough nutrition in the way they're supposed to. This is America. We have a problem where there's a huge amount of people, millions of people that are having children when they probably should be waiting a few years to get some more financial strength under their feet. Besides the fact that we have homeless people that might have children, we have crack addicts that might have children, so I think there's a very strong humanitarian argument to be made on some type of community coming together and saying, you know, it would be great if we could just have the majority of people have children and those that aren't ready to have them yet, because they can't feed them, they're using state funds or whatnot, we should give them a little bit of a break.

Now, again, I want to point out, this is not a policy of mine in any official capacity, this is simply a philosophical discussion and I definitely would never say that the government should be responsible for licensing things. Also, I was thinking the licensing thing would be very simple, cost no money, something very simple. I mean, you go out to buy a house, one of the largest and most challenging investments you can get and you go through a month of paperwork, a month of this, and they look at every single angle and yet, to have a child, you just … you can get drunk and have sex and, all the sudden, it comes out. Then for 20 years you gotta feed this thing and if you don't it can die, it can drown in the bathtub. I mean, we have 10 million people that have enough mental issues that they might accidentally leave a child in the bathtub to drown so there is … Many states actually have quite a bit of laws regarding some of this stuff already because they also are worried about children that are not being tended to properly. Like I said, if 70 million kids have died in the 20th century something more should be done. I'm not saying it's licensing, it has to be, but, the discussion is good.

Gillespie: Well, you know, you're running for governor of California and Arnold Schwarzenegger is, you know it would have been great if he had to be licensed to have kids because I think it would have clarified a big issue in his former marriage or estranged marriage to Maria Shriver. The Kennedy family in general probably should have been licensed to have kids, but let's talk about your gubernatorial run. What is your platform and what are the key issues for you? Now that we have definitively taken off licensing parents off the table.

Istvan: Yes, please take that off.

Gillespie: Yes.

Istvan: No, I have a pretty straight forward libertarian plan. The only difference is that I'm really trying to emphasize science and technology in that gubernatorial run. So, some of the things I'm essentially trying to say is we can use a lot more technology in government to shrink it, and thereby shrinking it, we won't need to pay such high taxes and this is something that a lot of people don't look at. They're like, we have to reduce taxes by reducing it from people, well, maybe we can reduce it by shrinking the government. That can be anything from all sorts of different types of robots taking peoples jobs, government jobs, to just different types of technologies that might shrink it in itself, all the bureaucracy. Of course-

Gillespie: Can you be a little bit specific on that. What are some jobs that are currently being done by state employees that could be transferred to make it cheaper and more efficient, one would expect to robots or automated processes?

Istvan: Well, let's just look at some of the basic things that are coming right down the pipeline. We essentially already have road-building technology, driverless technology, just are redoing infrastructure projects where we can have half the employees. If we were just to take some of that money and two years to develop, go out to Google or go to some of driverless car companies and say, "From this point forward, we're gonna build all roads without essentially paying human beings, at least not as many." We just have to take that step. It's very controversial because there are unions and people want their jobs and stuff like that, but that's just a very simple way of getting around it. I think another way, we could use some of the blockchain technology to potentially do a much better job when we come to titling or when we come to even maybe the way we tax people. There are a lot of different ways that we might be able to just save I guess just pennies here, but when you're talking about everybody paying such high property taxes, if you could just get a little bit of blockchain stuff into this system, you could really save essentially billions of dollars. There's a lot of different avenues for this kind of stuff, but a lot of it's going to be very difficult in an ethical perspective because it requires removing human workers and they're not gonna go away easily.

Gillespie: I guess, going back to that idea of when the future arrives, it seems banal is not quite the right word, I mean it just is normal when you think of things like toll roads. Toll roads are shifting overwhelmingly to automatic transponders so that you don't need toll takers anymore. There are all sorts of things like that and we tend to just take in stride all of these great technological advances that actually make our lives so much easier. Then we keep asking where our jet pack is without kind of fully acknowledging how things have changed for the better.

Istvan: The taking away toll personnel is actually a really good idea because we also then get to take away their pensions. You know, things that are really literally bankrupting California. Of course, the same thing can be applied for teachers. I don't want to get myself in too much trouble with the teachers union but the reality is there's a lot of educational opportunity with technology just through online learning and also thought automation robots teaching kids and this is the kind of stuff that over the next couple years you're going to see regardless because companies want to use this and governments gonna have to use it some point as well just to save money. But, my biggest plan, and this is quite controversial to a lot of libertarians is that I support a libertarian version of a basic income, which I call a federal land dividend. For your listeners, about 45% or about 45 million acres of California is federal land, most of it is unused and I have suggested that we start monetizing that federal land and paying people a basic income, at least of some sort, that way about 40% of Californians, or 19 million people are living at, below or right above the poverty line of about $24,000 for a family of four.

So, the inequality in California is striking, it's incredible. So, this federal land dividend could actually provide a lot more money. The good news though about it, is that it would swallow things like Social Security, it would swallow things like Medicare, it could swallow things Medi-Cal, could swallow things like the different types of government bureaucracies that California has right now. Government ones, where we spend a lot of money to keep people essentially living, where if we just leased out our land or sold our federal land, we might be able to shrink the government dramatically, shrink the need for taxes and still get people out of poverty. It seems like a win-win solution.

Gillespie: So, with that you would … and boy, you talk about you want to take out the unions, when you take on the federal government, that's something, but you would basically take the land and sell it off or lease it off to whoever wanted it and then use the proceeds to pay guaranteed income or a social safety net for poor people.

Istvan: No, definitely not for poor people, but for every single person.

Gillespie: Everybody, I see.

Istvan: No, I would insist on that because I want it myself. If you take … apparently they say this, they say there's around 150 trillion dollars of federal land out there in the United States, if you divide 150 trillion dollars by 325 million American citizens, you get around 450,000, which means every single citizen, including the babies in America, have about a half million dollars coming to them, or at least have a half million dollars in equity in federal land. I feel like, with so much poverty happening, and issues like Houston happening, isn't it time we take some of that beautiful federal land and start monetizing it so people can live better lives. I understand the environmental perspective but I'm much more concerned with people eating right, with people being able to afford healthcare. If you have a federal land dividend or a basic income, there's not gonna be a question on single payer healthcare system or not anymore. It's gonna be a question of, well, everybody can afford private insurance because they have enough money now, so let capitalism thrive.

Gillespie: You talk a lot about using technology to replace human workers with robots or with blockchain technology or AI or something, explain to people who are a little bit worried about this, how automating more parts of our life are not gonna cause more people to be underemployed or unemployed, and this is one of the great themes, of course, of your novel "The Transhumanist Wager," which I think everybody would find interesting if you're at all curious about this. But, does technology just put people out of work or how does it work to create a richer planet for everybody on average?

Istvan: I think in the past, technology has always created more jobs and I think that's an argument a lot of people make now, but I think we're coming to a point when artificial intelligence, in 10 or 15 years according to most experts believe that a machine will be smarter than a human being. So, there's just no reason to have engineers, stock traders, architects, doctors. You know, my wife's a doctor and they've told her, they said be prepared in 15 or 20 years there's going to be robots that deliver babies better than you and they can do 24 hours a day, with zero liability to the hospital, or at least zero liability in the sense that the robot could sue the hospital. That makes a better worker than my wife, even if she trained for 19 years and has school debt. This transition is going to be happening to every single person, I would say most people are going to be losing their jobs, including journalists because robots will be able to tap in and ask any question and do a great job in interviews and writing articles. We're all challenged-

Gillespie: I look forward to a world where robots are my readers, rather than the apparent flesh and blood people who are calling me a sack of shit out on a minute by minute basis. So, get back to me when you've created robotic readers, as well as journalists.

Istvan: Yeah, we'll have them commenting on social media and Facebook and we'll have robot trolls, in fact, they already have them but the reality is that this is a very challenging world because I can't imagine that human beings are gonna be competitive in 10 or 15 or 20 years. You're already seeing McDonald's get rid of its employees to put on a kiosk and whatnot.

Gillespie: Wait, okay. So, now wait, you've been called by various publications that you are kind of like the California dream of a transhumanist and of a libertarian. You're a good looking blonde guy. You've got a beautiful family. You made a mint in real estate and got out before the market tanked and you are painting a truly dire or at least pessimistic or gray-skied vision of the future. You're saying like, "Yeah, robots are gonna take over everything and the jobs aren't coming back." What's in it for people to go with you on this trip?

Istvan: Well, I think for starters, I think this is why a huge part of my platform is this federal land dividend or this basic income. We need to be able to, when people lose their jobs, and they can no longer retrain for them because robots will take those new jobs too, we need to be able to give them kind of a buffer zone so that the American dream is different. It's not work nine to five and buy a house, the American dream can be something quite different. Maybe we'll become a country of artists, maybe people will just watch TV all day, it'll be like the movie Wall-E, I don't know. It's not for me to decide what people do. As somebody who's running for office, it's for me to help make that transition as smooth as possible and to understand that that's where capitalism is going and I'm a believer of capitalism and I think it'll be better if people don't have to show up for a job every day. They'll find ambitions and satisfaction in other different places. Like I said, I think we could become a world of artists.

But, I think one really quick thing, going back to what we discussed earlier with the neural prosthetic is if we come up with these brain implants, which we will and we are able to connect directly to the cloud, that might push back this robot revolution for decades as we now compete directly with robots. Of course, we might be augmenting our limbs, we'll be like some of those war veterans that come back and they get robotic arms, because in probably five to eight years, a robotic limb will be able to out throw a football from a human limb if it's attached properly to your neural system and to your skeletal structure. So, we might start seriously upgrading ourselves to become competitive in a new kind of environment. So, this whole idea of robots taking over, might never actually happen because we've sort of become at least half robot.

Gillespie: I gotta tell you, right now, when you were talking about Americans not having to show up for work every day from nine to five, I think I've got a bunch of early adopters of that on my recent staff, but we'll let that go for now. I think you're probably … I mean, would you agree that the most likely outcome of all of this is transhumanism is that it isn't gonna be like a robot world and a human world, but it's gonna be this kind of hybridizing of what it means to be human, just as the meaning of privacy changes, or the meaning of work changes over time?

Istvan: Oh, 100%. This idea that robots will take over and there'll be two different species, this is not it at all. We're going to merge as quickly as possible, I mean if I could cut off my arm right now, to put on a stronger robotic arm because it's more functional, I would do it. My wife might not like it, but I would do it because it will help me to climb Mount Everest or help me to throw a football or whatever, or even just work and build houses. So I think all of us will start merging with machines, even if people like in The American Conservative argue against it. I think even religious people will say, "You know, becoming machines is part of our destiny."

Gillespie: You wrote a piece on recently, which was pretty fascinating. It was about your experience, you were arrested at age 18 for selling pot, a small amount of pot. What happened to you and why are you calling attention to your arrest now, and the fallout from that?

Istvan: Well, strangely enough, I went through my entire presidential campaign and nobody, even though I had quite a lot of publicity, nobody mentioned it. Then I did an interview for the Los Angeles Times about my California gubernatorial run and I got, boom, they just nailed me on it. I've had my two felonies expunged about 12 years afterwards, but expunged is kind of a funny word, it doesn't mean it's … I still sometimes get stuck at airports where people say, "Oh, he has a drug felony. Let's do an extra thing where cops will have access to it when something like a traffic thing happens," but the reality of the story is that even in addition to spending 30 days in jail, I think I even mention in my articles, I was actually sentenced to two years in federal prison. I mean, this is ridiculous for selling a couple joints, especially now that America is starting to enjoy joints and say, "You know what? This is great. Pot's great. We're gonna make a lot of money on it and a lot of people are gonna be a lot happier."

It really upsets me that they stole my Jeep Comanche. I never saw my Jeep again. They took my motorcycle away. I actually bought my motorcycle back at exactly face value for what it was worth, but it was ridiculous that they would do that to me when I'm 18 and I have a real life ahead of me. Then for years I couldn't get a job. I had to carry around this badge of dishonor. Well, now it's a badge of honor. Now I want to stick it in the government's face and say, "Hey, you're gonna have to pay for this somehow. I'm not gonna let this go." The silver anniversary is happening this year and just because you're legalizing it doesn't make me feel better about it. You took away something from me a long time ago and I want some compensation for that now."

Gillespie: Well, in the Reason article, you hint at the idea that people who have been arrested or convicted of pot possession, pot selling, that they are owed reparations by the government or some kind of compensation. Is that part of your gubernatorial race? Would you pardon all non-violent drug offenders? Would you end the sentences or remand the sentences to time served for people who are in the prison system now?

Istvan: Yes, 100%. They would all be pardoned immediately, the sentences completely finished, let them out of jail that day. Just so you know, I have a legalize all drug policy. This could be heroin, could be cocaine, could be anything. I like the way Portugal's going about it. They're spending the money, instead of on a war on drugs, they're spending money on rehabilitation for addicts and things like that. Frankly, according to Cato Institute and other studies, this has been working. This is exactly what a normal society would do, if they have some problem drug people, let's help those people, we don't put these people in prison. So, yeah I would, especially minor offenders and marijuana offenders, yeah. But, day one if I was office I'd say-

Gillespie: What about prescription drugs? Do you think we should have different regimes for recreational drugs caffeine, liquor, whatnot, then a kind of prescription regime for pharmaceutical drugs or should it all be wide open and let people inform themselves and make their own decisions on that?

Istvan: When it comes to things like this, I think it should be left wide open. If anything, I think doctors should be more responsible for how they allow people to essentially take these drugs and give them prescriptions. But, I just generally think that a person can make a proper informed decision on what to take. And a lot of times if they're doing something wrong, they should be able to help them. That's where I think if the government's gonna come in, it should be just there to help, but it shouldn't be there to make decisions. It just doesn't know what's right or wrong in this case.

Gillespie: Give our listeners the thumbnail biography. You were arrested for pot when you were 18, you worked for National Geographic and traveled the globe seeing different parts of the world, including getting scared enough where you came back to the U.S. after seeing some bad shit, became a real estate magnet. Give a quick summary of where you came from, how you became a libertarian and whether or not your kids hate you yet.

Istvan: Well, I think one of the key things is I read Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" when I was on my sail trip. I was around 18 years old and I found it just an incredibly important book. I then went on to read it 13 more times.

Gillespie: I'm sorry, you were on your what trip?

Istvan: So, I took a sail trip when I was 21 years old, but I've been a big sailing person for a long time. This is one of the ways I got into National Geographic is I was on a boat covering multiple stories, from multiple different countries along this trip. But, what's most important to me, and I rarely talk about this is that I read a lot of Ayn Rand's work. You can't read that and not sort of think libertarian thoughts, but it wasn't until I actually finished. I had been doing a lot of war zones for National Geographic. I did Kashmir, I did also conflict zones in Columbia, whatnot. I came back and started a real estate business and anyone that has been in real estate, if you're in real estate, you are ultimately gonna come down to libertarian thoughts because they want to make it so difficult to erect even the simplest of houses. Given that this is something that everybody has, it really made me realize how bad the government can be when they get in the way of things.

So, I combined a lot of different things including this sense of being a libertarian, this sense of loving a lot of Ayn Rand's work, as well as my National Geographic writing and I decided to write a novel about transhumanism. That novel is "The Transhumanist Wager" and it did so well, I got very lucky that it kind of launched me as a public person in the transumanist movement. From there, it's sort of like, wow, what can I do next? I decided to run for the presidency in 2016 because it was an excellent platform to spread knowledge of transhumanism, which at the time was still kind of not that well known and now I'm running as a Libertarian. While I'm running as a Libertarian, everyone knows I'm still running, pushing a very strong transhumanist agenda to bring science and technology and artificial intelligence and genetic engineering to our state and, to make sure that we're the world leaders in it.

So, that's sort of the run down of how that happened, but I think because it's a Reason podcast, I feel like I wanted to talk a little bit about having read Ayn Rand at an early age, because a lot of people always say, "Well, why did you become a libertarian?" They think I don't have that many libertarian thoughts, but the truth is I have been thinking libertarian thoughts for two decades.

Gillespie: What's your favorite Rand novel, or Rand writing actually?

Istvan: It's "The Fountainhead," but I have read everything of hers many, many times. In fact, I took an independent course at Columbia University on Objectivism. I went to school in New York and so I studied a lot of Ayn Rand in college as well. My novel, "The Transhumanist Wager," is sort of a modern version in many ways of "Atlas Shrugged," except instead of worrying so much about what happened in the 1950s and '60s, this is really what's happening in the 2020s.

Gillespie: Where do you … It's an interesting comparison to make, where do you see the main enemies of progress, as you define it, and the future because it's obviously it's not the Soviet Union anymore. But, where are the, and even big business has changed, which isn't to say that companies like Google and Amazon or Apple or Microsoft, which do immense amounts of positive things but also have a huge amount of power, but they're not the IBMs and the Xeroxes or the AT&Ts of the 1950s. Where are the big threats that you identify to a kind of broad vision of progress in a libertarian future?

Istvan: Well, let me tell you what I think is the largest threat on the market. And just so your listeners know, I've been doing some consulting, United States Navy, so I'm a little bit up to speed on some of the more technical things. But genetic engineering is perhaps the most important science of the 21st century. This ability, to literally remake our flesh, remake our biology and turn ourselves into different types of things including augmenting our intelligence. Well, China is leading the way right now because they don't have the ethical boundaries that America has. You know, we have a conservative government, conservative Congress, conservative Supreme Court, we're kind of bound by various regulations here, where China might become the very first nation to, on a wide scale, start augmenting their children's intelligence so an entire generation of Chinese kids are literally, literally 10, 15, 25% smarter than us. That will have dramatic effects in terms of global politics down the road. In terms of things that make a huge difference in how militaries develop and who can create the most sophisticated military.

It's imperative that America gets over its regulation hurdles because if they don't, this time around, it's not fun to have another country, especially a competitor, where everybody's smarter than you. We have to keep up. That's gonna mean giving up some of our religious boundaries and saying, you know, for the sake of remaining competitive in the world market, let's also augment our intelligence, let's also do these radical things with genetic editing so that we can remain competitive and remain a world leader.

Gillespie: So, are you a big fan of the movie "Gattaca"? If so, do you think it always ends up though that the real human ends up getting the girl and winning?

Istvan: I 100% do not think that. This is crazy. It's amazing that they, you know, Disney and all these other people have made it so we have fairy tales of what technology is or it's some great dystopia. Let's be very clear, the person who merges with machines is gonna end up the winner. In probably 10 years, a quadriplegic is gonna be the very fastest runner on the planet because of either genetic engineering or exoskeleton technology. So, we're talking about fundamental changes in the human being now because of how quickly technology is innovating. I think, everyone thinks is gonna happen is gonna be much more dramatic than that.

Gillespie: So, do you think that in the future the robot-human hybrids will erect statues to Oscar Pistorius and say, "You know, his murder charges, those were … that was a small part of what he did for humanity."

Istvan: Well, you know, that's a complicated case and they'll probably tear down the statue at some point as well as I guess cultural evolution goes, but I think at the same time we are going to say, wow, some of the technologists and some of the scientists that were working on these technologies are the true heroes of the day, are the true people that have really moved us forward. I wouldn't be surprised if they erect statues to things like Siri some day because, as crazy as it sounds, we take it as a joke, in 5 or 10 years Siri might be more intelligent than our 18-year-old.

Gillespie: I can guarantee that. As the father of a 23-year-old and a 16-year-old, yes, Siri is already more intelligent than most children I know personally. We will leave it there. Thank you so much Zoltan. We have been talking to Zoltan Istvan, he is a libertarian, he is a futurist and he is a transhumanist and he is running for governor of California on the Libertarian Party ticket. Thanks again so much and let me also put in one more plug for "The Transhumanist Wager," your novel from 2013. Thanks so much for talking to us Zoltan.

Istvan: Thank you so much for having me Nick. I appreciate it.

Gillespie: This has been the Reason podcast, I'm Nick Gillespie. Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and while you're there, rate and review us and tell us how we're doing, until next time.

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  1. “You know, becoming machines is part of our destiny.”

    Whatevs, dude.

  2. I just watched Ghost in the Shell. I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was Blade Runner. And I didn’t like it very much then, either.

      1. Uh, the only one that matters. The Hollywood one.

        1. Now this is how you troll Anime freaks.

          1. Eh, doesn’t bother me. We all have opinions, I personally much preferred Blade Runner when it was still called I, Robot.

            1. You mean with Will Smith? I never really liked Alex Proyas films. ^_-

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  4. I must say, the high interest in science fiction concepts such as this is an interesting trend in many libertarians. Not one I have particularly have, but still interesting.

    1. I can’t say I’m a great enthusiast for transhumanism, but people certainly should be allowed to turn themselves into machines, or modify themselves as they choose.

  5. He’s run for president on a transhumanist platform

    I don’t understand what this means.

    1. He promised everyone robot ponies.

    2. In a nutshell, it means that he run on a platform of locating the fountain of youth and sharing it with everyone. At taxpayer expense, of course.

      1. Ponce de Leon, technocrat.

        1. Pretty much. Not sure why this guy ran under the Libertarian flag but I suspect it’s because the Commies and Progressives both thought he was too nuts to put on their ticket. That says a lot.

          While there are a few transhumanist apologists out there like Ron Bailey, the movement as a whole is pretty ‘out there’ with their opinions on basically creating an entirely ‘New Man’. I have a hard time not hearing the overtones of the ‘New Soviet Man’ when they speak, and thus I really don’t trust their intentions even while some of their idea’s sound attractive.

          Too good to be true, but attractive. Maybe one day their idea’s will become reality, I honestly can’t say, but it’s all very ‘sci-fi’ at the moment.

          1. Universal basic income, licensing parents, pure libertarian there.

            1. Yeah – holy shit. I listened to the podcast on the way home. We need government ownership of massive amounts of land so that we can fund a huge basic income entitlement by leasing the land to cronies?

              This is our Libertarian candidate for Governor of CA?


    3. It means he ran on a Monster Raving Loony Party platform, but in earnest, not as a joke.

  6. Ah, yes, Transhumanism. The Eugenics of the modern times. Good stuff, good stuff.

    Not that I have a problem with some of the technology they talk about, but their aim to fundamentally alter the human being to be something else in their image is what bothers me.

    I do notice that they’re starting to lie about that aim more and more, so perhaps they’ve finally learned that most people think they’re crazy.

    1. Human beings are ALWAYS being fundamentally altered by technology. We’re physically superior to our ancestors from 5,000 years ago because of our technology.

      I don’t know much about this guy or his movement, but he’s right about at least one thing – assuming we don’t all die in a supervolcano eruption or meteor strike, humans WILL eventually become more robotic than ‘natural’. It’s the natural progression of technology and self-improvement, and is already happening at several levels all over the world.

      I consider the constant poo-pooing of futurism in the reason commentariat (in general, not aimed at you) to be similar to the old ‘the Internet is just a fad’ spiel from the early-mid 90s. The tech isn’t there now, and myopic people are always getting pissed at those with more vision than themselves.

      1. Half the commenters are robots already.

      2. “We’re physically superior to our ancestors from 5,000 years ago because of our technology.”

        I doubt that very much. Could you spend a few days in the wilderness tracking and hunting large game armed with only an armful of homemade spears? That takes a lot of endurance. Unlike Americans of 5,000 years ago, modern ones have a problem, a big one, with obesity. That doesn’t make for physical superiority.

        We still have the same instinctual craving to gorge ourselves on sweetness and oilly things as our ancestors. You see the same thing in bears and other such large mammals. Without technology, these cravings never got out of hand. Technology, by giving us such easy access to these sought after flavours, has sprung the evolutionary trap. You can talk all you want about the future, but our animal past will always have a grip on us.

  7. Let’s emulate the Chinese, who are unconstrained by ethics!

    How did Tom Friedman wrangle a glowing interview with Gillespie?

    1. It’s awfully reductionist. I always hate when people come down on being restricted by ethics, or morality or something. I have no issue people debating which ethics and morals matter, but when someone just tries to ignore it completely that just means that they believe their own to be so obvious as to be self-evident.
      That is a far more banal than any system they feel the need to criticize.

      This is definitely a new religion though, and it is interesting.

  8. “If I could cut off my arm right now, to put on a stronger robotic arm because it’s more functional, I would do it,” he tells Nick Gillespie in the latest Reason Podcast. “My wife might not like it, but I would do it because it will help me to climb Mount Everest or help me to throw a football or whatever, or even just work and build houses….

    I work and build houses with attachments for my non-robotic arms already. They sell the attachments at Home Depot. You can get DeWalt, Ryobi, Black and Decker, Milwaukee – all kinds of attachments.

    1. Dude, that’s like real work. I want robots attached to my body that will do the work so I don’t have to.

      1. Wouldn’t it just be easier to get a robot that isn’t attached to do all your work?

        1. But then you’re not really transhumanist!

          You gotta rebuild man from the mind down, dawg. Do you even technocrat?

    2. Of course, “more functional” means what?

      Your flesh and blood arm may nit be as theoretically strong as a robot arm, but it does not need a separate power source or maintenance. A robot arm is still limited in what it can do by having to be supported by your meatsack torso. The Six Million Dollar Man was not quite realustic about the bionic superpowers.

  9. We are already machines. Some of us just want the freedom to make upgrades.

  10. Becoming machines will give control of our bodies and minds to the tech companies

    1. If they own the software that runs the machinery.

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