Meet the only US presidential candidate promising immortality

Commentary: CNET's Eric Mack speaks with Transhumanist Party candidate Zoltan Istvan about America's cyborg future and finds himself hesitant to join the borg so soon.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
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Istvan doesn't expect to be the first Transhumanist in the White House, at least yet, but he does have a statement to make. Zoltan Istvan

I'm not naming names, but in the current race for US president, there are certain major party candidates who promise to accomplish all their goals and insist they'll be just "terrific" in the process. Despite such confidence, no candidate has set goals quite as ambitious as Transhumanist Party candidate Zoltan Istvan, whose campaign promises include not just a better life, but perhaps an endless one.

I recently chatted with Istvan via Skype about his background, his platform that includes using science and technology to pursue human immortality, and his current cross-country road trip in a 40-foot rolling coffin called the "immortality bus."

Before you read too much into what I've told you about him, let's make one thing clear. Istvan -- one of 1,149 presidential candidates legally registered with the Federal Election Commission -- isn't a fringe tin-foil-hat type or a deluded megalomaniac with a sci-fi obsession. But while some highlights of his platform, such as a flat tax, legal marijuana and campaign finance reform, overlap with others in the race, it's safe to say his call for a "transhumanist olympics" does not.

Transhumanism can be broadly defined as any use of technology to augment the human experience, including common things like airplanes. But looking ahead in time, transhumanist discussions tend to veer toward the physical merging of the human body with technology, a la implants, nanobots or genetic engineering.

The Transhumanist Party is mainly just Istvan himself, and is registered under Istvan's home address in Northern California. Although he says a handful of other candidates are "planning" to entering local races, the party does not yet have registered members.

Out to make a statement

"At least for this next election cycle, we don't want to be that party that throws away our vote to some candidate (such as myself) who simply can not win," Istvan said. "So we encourage support of the party by transhumanists, but not formal membership."

The former journalist comes across as a regular family guy, and pretty polished for a rookie politician based on my hour-plus with him and videos of his speeches and interviews you can watch online. He has that prototypical, all-American made-for-TV look -- tall and broad-shouldered with a strong jawline. He may be the most classically handsome third-party candidate in US history.

In fact, his basic message about building a techno-Utopian society initially seems like one nobody could possibly disagree with. "I'm really interested in people's health and how we can make people live a lot better and a lot longer," he said.

He rattles off amazing technological advances that are already a reality, like mind-controlled prosthetics and exoskeletons that allow disabled veterans to walk again, robotic hearts taking on the epidemic of heart disease in America, and cochlear implants allowing people to hear again or for the first time -- all real and wonderful things we love to write about here on CNET's Crave blog.

It's the kind of optimistic vision that can appeal to a broad swath of Americans, but is likely to find the most resonance at either side of the political spectrum -- at that funny spot where the progressive end reaches around the mainstream to shake hands with the Libertarian end, especially when Istvan talks about redirecting resources from the military industrial complex to create a "science industrial complex."

Imagining 'a sort of super-species'

"We don't need to be involved in so many far-off wars, we can just be involved in people's health," he told me. "That's where the great battles can be fought by America today... against disease."

After painting a vivid, far-reaching Utopian panorama of our present and near future, Istvan makes a pivot to his vision of the more distant, more fully Transhuman future. At that point, he instantly becomes controversial.

"We are saying, what's wrong with becoming gods through science and technology?" Istvan told me. "I don't really like using the word 'gods,' but what's wrong with becoming a sort of super-species?"

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I pointed out that this is the place where most people -- especially those who don't take the words of Ray Kurzweil as gospel -- would stop and say "what the what now?"

"There is a divide where people freak out," conceded Istvan, who previously worked for National Geographic TV and now mostly writes for columns about transhumanism for the likes of The Huffington Post and Vice.

I made this point to him a couple of times, that it seems the more productive political strategy is to focus on pushing science and technology as transformative tools, not just for how we order pizza, but for how well and how long we live. For Istvan, answers to the short-term questions of human health and well-being are really just byproducts that come from tackling much bigger, longer-term questions that are nothing short of existential, and a little mind-melting to be honest.

"We need to find some way that the human being can ascend to a higher intellectual and a higher philosophical plane using science and tech," Istvan said. "We understand that we're going to become other types of living entities and those other types of entities might just be data, might just be pure robotics, might be a mix of just becoming cyborgs...digital immortality is probably the end game for the species itself."

Yep, I think somewhere in those sentences is the "freak out" divide that even Istvan himself acknowledges.

So far, small audiences only

Based on social-media followers and donations, Istvan estimates that the Transhumanist Party has around 25,000 to 35,000 supporters. So far, Istvan seems to be garnering the most attention from curious journalists -- his biggest speech yet at the CTIA Super Mobility conference in Las Vegas drew an audience of just a few dozen -- but he claims to have the endorsement of Robert Kennedy's grandson, writer and director Bobby Kennedy III. Perhaps that's a start.

Within the Transhumanist movement, the response to the campaign seems more mixed. An academic analysis of Transhumanist politics using Istvan as a case study concludes his arguments are inconsistent, while an editorial in Humanity+ Magazine questions the seriousness of the campaign. As recently as Monday, it appears (via a typo-laden blog post ) that the secretary of the Transhumanist Party quit, citing Istvan's "non-inclusive leadership."

Istvan acknowledges that there are divisions within the Transhumanism community, but he soldiers on. Istvan plans to spend the fall stirring the pot with appearances that emphasize both his atheism and his Transhumanist vision. He'll be making that statement visually as well.

He's driving across the country campaigning from his 40-foot (12-meter) "immortality bus" that has been remodeled to look like a huge rolling coffin. This isn't just a politician who wants to improve your health care, he wants to give you Bella's happy ending from the "Twilight" series.

The tour -- which got its start as a successful Indiegogo campaign -- will wind up in a few months at the US Capitol, where Istvan will deliver a Transhumanist "bill of rights" demanding funding for longevity science.

I can relate to Istvan and his message personally. He almost seems like the candidate I've been waiting for in my almost year-long hunt for someone to speak for the geeks and nerds of the world. But even I, a guy who basically makes his living being a techno-optimist, have a hard time getting onboard with concepts like digital immortality and living data entities, which I think many would still consider oxymoronic.

Writing this piece, I kept thinking back to my visit with Iceland's Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jonsdottir. The Pirate Party is more focused on what we could consider more traditional short-term goals like Internet freedom and universal access to information. While Jonsdottir is an unapologetic techno-optimist, she also constantly refers to herself not as a politician, but as a "poetician," making reference to her real calling as an artist and poet.

For Jonsdottir, and I think for me, the awesome potential of science and technology is as a means to an end, that end being a deeper understanding and improvement of the human condition for all of us. Surely Istvan and his Transhumanist campaign share this sentiment, but then there's this added existential addendum that says, essentially, technology is the means to an end...until it inevitably becomes the end itself.

It's possible that I just don't get it. The real Transhuman vision may be as inevitable as Istvan makes it sound and I just can't quite see it yet, probably because I haven't had the needed neural implants. I don't think I'm alone in my hesitancy. Perhaps Istvan's campaign will make it more clear for myself and others.

"My presidential candidacy probably has absolutely no chance of winning, but that's not the point," Istvan told me. "The point is to try to make a statement. Using technology is perhaps the most natural thing for human beings on the planet. That's why we became human beings."

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