Fireside Chat with Zoltan Istvan – Author of The Transhumanist Wager
This interview – really more of a fireside-chat type of conversation – with the transhumanist philosopher and author Zoltan Istvan. Zoltan is a leading proponent of transhumanism which has as its aim the extension of human life spans and expansion of our capabilities through furthering technological advances.
Zoltan’s book The Transhumanist Wager has reached a surprisingly wide audience. On the book’s one year anniversary, Zoltan continues to reach broad readership via regular articles in The Huffington Post and in many other publications. I reached out to Zoltan to see if he would be open for a chat and found that he was quite open to discussing the philosophy and intentions behind his writings.
The Transhumanist Wager is Zoltan Istvan’s visionary, semi-autobiographic and controversial sci-fi novel. It tells the story of a man who does whatever it takes to make radical life extension a reality, and along the way transforms the world. As I write this is the number one book on Amazon in the Philosophy and Sci-Fi Visionary categories
Among the topics we discussed were his path in writing his best seller The Transhumanist Wager, life extension, medical tourism, importance of communicating transhumanist ideas to a broader audience, what might stand in the way of reaching transhumanist goals, and what is next for Zoltan. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
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Zoltan: Hi Michael. Feel free to ask whatever you’re going to ask, go for it.
Michael: Thanks Zoltan. I bought your book (The Transhumanist Wager) a year ago when it first came out, but then I got sidetracked. I finished it just yesterday. So it’s fresh in my mind, and I have to say that I found that it was really impactful.
As I understand it, this book was in the making for like twenty years, and a lot of time and effort went into this. So my first question is; If you take yourself back twenty years ago, what would it have been that got you going in this whole area of transhumanism?
Zoltan: Sure, basically I was studying at Columbia University, and in English class, our teacher had brought up an issue of Time magazine. One of the articles was featuring cryonics, and it was something like “you could live forever” … you know, after you die you’d have to put yourself in one of these tanks, and they wake you up in a hundred years when they have the technology. It was my very first introduction to, I think, any kind of concept like was transhumanism related. I thought “wow”, the human race’s most significant problem is death and it’s something that might be able to be solved, or at least combated.
After that I started reading a huge amount on the subject, and basically fell in love with it right away. For me it was very much a revelation, a very quick one, where I was like “Wow, this is what I should dedicate my life to.” …but I didn’t take a normal path, like going into medical school or something, or going into doing a PhD program in gerontology or something of that nature. I decided, “Well, I’m going to write about it.”
So I ended up studying a lot of philosophy, studying philosophy very similar to the book. In fact, the first three chapters of the book are highly autobiographical. And then I eventually I went sailing for many years, kind of developing these ideas. Along the way I got involved in journalism. So I was always a part of the movement, just not really doing anything directly for it. Just sort of building a resume, and also just thinking of ideas.
I had been working at a few businesses I had started, and they had luckily done pretty well, so I was able to stop working early, at about thirty-three, thirty-four. I was done at least having to work, so I then began the plan of writing the book. It took me another four to five years to write the book. And now I’m here one year later, the one year anniversary of the book was just on March 30th. It took me five years to write the book, preceded by fifteen years for thinking about it. So that’s kind of the “real quick” of what happened in twenty years
Michael: Given that you mentioned that the first part of it is quite autobiographical, it made me wonder how closely do you personally track the attitudes and beliefs and values of the main character Jethro Knights, in the book?
Zoltan: I very much believe in Jethro and aspire towards him and his ideas. However, as a family man with two kids now, I don’t have that severe kind of aggression – I’m just a nicer human being than Jethro Knights, you might say. And that said, you know, I created him because of a number of reasons: firstly, I do believe the book can also serve as a warning.
It doesn’t just have to serve as an inspiration (as it is for me), for a huge amount of people it could serve as a warning. And if that’s how they interpret it, I’m happy to have them interpret it that way. It doesn’t mean that it’s against transhumanism. It’s just a warning that technological progress is something that needs to be considered.
My main goal in the book was to promote transhumanism, and to promote life-extension science. I thought the best way to do that was to create a type of very aggressive near-future novel that would really hopefully get stuck in a younger generation’s mindset.
As I’ve said, in other interviews, I love Jethro Knights. He’s perfect in his dedication of transhumanism. But he’s also quite harsh. He’s really lost that humanitarian side of him already, so it really wouldn’t work. But for purposes of fiction, it seems to at least excite people more, and makes them more interested in the concepts of transhumanism itself, because the book has more popular appeal.
Michael: Yeah. Although I’ve been reading about transhumanism for years, what I found personally and particularly compelling, is that your book forced me to visualize in a more graphic way, different types of aspects of how this could emerge in the world. It got me to consider how this would really work and what the reactions in the world would be.
Zoltan: Thank you for saying that, because there’s been a lot of people who’ve said this represented transhumanism. But it’s my belief that most of the readers are not going to take the book too literally. They’re going to realize that it is a work of fiction, otherwise I would’ve written something non-fiction, and what it’s supposed to do is just challenge us and get us thinking about transhumanism.
I have no idea how the world is going to unfold in twenty years, but in the book I imagine the story where one person wants to dedicate his entire energy into living indefinitely. And how would he go about that? And how could you turn that into a novel to affect people, to get them thinking, and to get them to imagine different scenarios. There are a lot of sci-fi books out there, but this is more visionary fiction, in your terms. So, I just want to present something that pushed everyone’s buttons and provoked the best in them. I know it upset some people, certainly, but at the same time it’s hopefully provoked enough thoughts. I’ve seen transhumanism grow quite a bit as a result of the book hitting a pretty wide audience at this point, and it’s great to see that.
Michael: Let me ask you, OK – here’s the main character, Jethro Knights who has this incredible dedication to life extension as his number one goal. But, at the same time, in our world right now, there is only a fringe number of people who have that as an interest.
There were some recent surveys done, I’m sure you know about, including the Pew Foundation research, and another one by C.A.R.P. in Canada that actually polled people’s attitudes towards radical life extension, and not surprisingly, the vast majority did not like the idea. I guess my question is: What do you think will really make it possible for a broader buy-in of the positive aspects of radical life extension? How do you think that might actually unfold?
Zoltan: Well, yeah, that’s the big trigger question that I always ask myself every time I try to spread the word with some of my blog posts – which by the way have had large numbers of readers. Luckily I’m spreading the word to an audience that’s generally not transhumanist. I just actually published today my latest one in the Huffington Post, and the title of it is “If you don’t want to die? Then support a one percent Jethro Knights life extension tax”.
It’s the idea that if everyone would just, in a one-time event, dedicate one percent of their net worth to life-extension science, that would be something like a trillion dollars- we would almost certainly be able to, in say ten to fifteen years’ time, conquer most diseases and probably eliminate human death itself. Most of the organizations that I know deal, if they’re lucky, work with a budget of ten-twenty million.
So if we really wanted to, we could really make some progress much more quickly than people realize. I think that’s a very important idea for an older set of people, because I think you’re right. Even my parents say “You know, I just don’t have any reason to hang around. I liked when I was here, and that was life.”
I think if we could actually make it approachable by saying “Look, I mean it! In ten years you’re going to have the means to extend life. We’re going to be able to reverse some components of aging in a real way.” You know, artificial hearts will become a much simpler surgery, much more cost effective, and the heart will be a hundred percent better than what you’re born with. And the same thing with eyesight and all of the other organs. And this kind of world is coming.
Given the timeframe now, in ten or fifteen years, I believe that heart transplants of artificial hearts will become more commonplace. And the public won’t even probably see it as transhuman technology per se. But they’ll embrace it like they embrace cellphones. If you told my dad twenty years ago “Hey, you’re going to be carrying around a cellphone everywhere,” he would’ve laughed at me. He’d say “No way, I don’t even want to touch it, I don’t even know what that thing is.” And now he doesn’t leave the house without it.
People adopt technologies based on when it becomes convenient for them and simple for them. So I think the transhumanist goal, and my goal and what I try to convey in a lot of my articles, is to promote the brilliance that we can get from the technology. I think we can get a much broader populace to accept these technologies. Not to scare them with it, but just to say “Oh! You know, everyone’s doing it, don’t worry about it.” You know what I mean?
It’s like driverless cars; it sounded crazy ten years ago, and the media’s done a really good job with talking about it, so I think a lot of people accept that that’s now on the horizon, and don’t have that many qualms with it. Whereas fifteen years ago, it would’ve seemed unimaginable to relinquish that kind of control in the face of technology. So hopefully the same thing will come to replacing our bodies with various organs and other therapies and technologies so we can live longer.
Michael: You know the aim of my own blog, which is called “RetirementSingularity.com”, is somewhat similar. I’m a professional financial planner and retirement advisor. Given the prospect of longer healthy life spans, I am working to better our future financial lives. So I’ve been engaging a wider population in my blog to think about, “If you are going to live a long time, what does that mean in terms of your personal financial strategy?” I am showing that we could actually come up with real strategies that make sense for a future of healthy life extension and technological acceleration.
So, I totally agree, that it is really important to get people aware and interested. I think your book The Transhumanist Wager is an excellent way for people to actually get a flavor of some of the themes involved.
One thing I was going to ask you is that, in your book, there is a resistance from government and religion against the motives and actions of Jethro and the transhumanist agenda. At the same time, there is what is called the “longevity dividend”. From an economic point of view, people who stay healthier longer don’t draw from the system and also can put more money into the system for longer. I wonder whether or not you personally believe that we could actually make a case to governments that furthering healthy longevity and aging research is actually in their best interest as well?
Zoltan: Yes, absolutely. You know the book was really designed to hit the twenty to forty year olds (however it’s still fun for nearly all ages). It’s really aiming to reach a whole new generation of engineers, scientists, and people just about to emerge into their professions, to try and show them that, in their lifetimes, if we did enough research, we could all reap some of these wonderful benefits.
I’m more interested in progress than any kind of qualms or fighting with anyone. I’m just a very practical person when it comes to that. So that was sort of my way to reach out and talk. Some say everyone in congress is religious. Well that’s fine. If we can get them on board, perhaps we can all embrace these technologies together even if it seems a little weird to those outside of transhumanism.
I think the same thing can be said about the article I just published, just today, which talks about how it doesn’t take much money on the government’s part to significantly enhance life extension science. The number that I proposed, one trillion dollars, is just not that much considering that we’ve spent four trillion on wars recently. One of the things that I point out is that “Wow, why don’t we have a 100 billion dollar war on breast cancer?” And it’s the same thing with diabetes or heart disease and artificial hearts.
So I’m trying to more and more hit a political agenda as I know that some politicians have been at least recognizing and reading my articles. I do believe that we should all try to reach out in that way, and get them to consider some of the concerns like longevity as you’ve mentioned. The people that live longer will work longer and put more money in the system.
Michael: Speaking of economics, in the novel, it was in a period of major economic decline, probably brought on by a debt crisis. That threat still hovers out there. Although there’s been more of a recovery in recent years, the global debt is still looming as a possible threat. Do you have any updated thoughts about how the global economic environment might affect transhumanist types of goals?
Zoltan: Sure. When I began writing the novel, I think it was around 2008 at the height of the economic crisis, I was literally in the Philippines on vacation surfing, and I would watch the DOW crash like seven hundred points. I was beginning to write the book within three weeks of that moment so, in a way, that was a little bit of my mind frame. I’ve been involved in real estate development and finance/stocks so it was a really tough time for me as well. So, that’s kind of one of the reasons that the book looks like that.
But, going back to your question, as I told people before: the number one crisis I could see, at least in the news recently, is the Russian crisis. And it’s not a crisis in terms of it’s going to globally blow up, but it’s a very symbol, or a very good metaphor, of those kinds of things that can stop the trans-humanism world in its tracks.
You know, global warming, over population … those are not things that are going to stop transhumanism in the near future. The things I really worry about are wars, or things like that that actually could direct huge amounts of thought, resources, and power to something far outside of global tech progress.
Right now what’s really important to me is that the monetary and economic systems keep intact, that the financial systems survive and thrive, that we balance ourselves and do well financially and economically. Every time the world makes more money, the poverty rate declines. Every time the world makes more money, life spans increase. Every time the world makes more money, the world advances tech and science-wise. So for me, those are the most important things that I like to think about when I think in terms of economics and transhumanism.
The worst thing in the world, I think, would be a big war between countries. Especially some kind of conflict between Europe, Russia and America at the moment. That would be a disaster, because those are the kind of things that would take away from the great initiatives that have happened recently, with Google and other researchers who are dedicating efforts to life-extension sciences.
Essentially, my book creates this conflict between religion and transhumanism – but I would do much in my power to make sure that that conflict doesn’t arise, because what we don’t need in the world is a conflict between religion and transhumanism. What we actually need is for people to allow the transhumanists to continue forward with their technology, and for all of us to be friends and head the same direction. That’s the simplest and kind of quickest way of getting to some of the goals of indefinite life-extension and transhumanism. I know it sounds a little different in my book, ha ha. But Jethro is a functionalist, as I am. And I’m interested in progress, not conflict. Conflict is only helpful if it expediently furthers progress.
Michael: That’s interesting. There is obviously a lot of momentum in medical research, not just in the U.S. However, I was talking to another author I spoke to recently was Alex Zhavoronkov who wrote The Ageless Generation. He made the point that the amount of research being done in China will surpass the U.S. as the actual leader of medical research in the world.
This opens up a practical question. That is, for people who are 50+ and who are interested in making the cut, so to speak, to life extension, that medical tourism may become an important ingredient in our life plans. Where an actual intervention or a new discovery may not be available in the U.S. or in Canada or wherever they reside, they may have to go elsewhere for it. I saw some parallels in your book where people travelled to the floating city of Transhumania for medical treatment. What are your thoughts on this area?
Zoltan: I think medical tourism is brilliant. My parents do it all the time. They have a house down in Arizona and then they go to Mexico all the time for their dental work. It’s a very simple form of medical tourism, however, it sometimes saves them thousands of dollars a year and the great thing with the globalization of the internet is that people can find the best deals everywhere and flying to these places is easier than ever.
You know, if China’s going to beat America in transhumanist research, you know, I wish them luck. Because luckily this is something that whoever’s the best- it’s not that they win- whoever’s the best just gets to it first. And then they can make money off the rest of us which is fine with me. I certainly don’t mind where the technology comes from.
I think what’s happening is it’s easier to get ahead in today’s world because, with technology growing so quickly, if you have a two year leap on someone, the two years quickly becomes four years in the next generation. This is sort of what happened with Apple once they came out with the iPhone, they sort of just ran over the industry, and they really haven’t been stopped since. I mean everyone’s caught up, but the nature of such innovation is that you do get to dominate the industry for a number of years, and as a result, they are one of the world’s largest companies right now. This is the kind of thing I could easily see happening in China with whatever transhumanist technology they create. And I would say “Well, how great. How wonderful, we’ll fly over on vacation and get fixed up with whatever have to offer.”
Michael: Exactly. That’s actually one of the key steps I write on my RetirementSingularity.com blog. That is that people should have a medical slush fund for that kind of possible need. It may be important to have access to money for that kind of medical tourism. We’re in this transition period where it’s quite possible that many people who are 50+ might actually be able to take advantage of the anti-aging and regenerative medicine – and on the other hand there are many who won’t because of their personal decisions and circumstances.
In my view, it is key to make the point that this may become a crucial real life decision. It’s like the “Transhumanist Wager”. We need to understand that there is a different set of priorities which we might be faced with. We will be much better off if we start thinking about these issues sooner rather than later.
Zoltan: Oh, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Unfortunately people who are faced with various illnesses are often faced with having to pay very large amounts of money in order to access anything experimental. And it’s very possible that in another country, the cost could have been a quarter or even a tenth of the price. And you’re right, having a slush fund for those moments could become the most important thing that they have ever done in their entire lives. It may enable them to make it to that next cut, where they live much longer. So, yeah, a medical slush fund is a great idea.
Michael: Can you say a little bit more about the sequel and what else you’re working on?
Zoltan: There’s a lot of different things about the sequel that I’m looking at. One of them is if in the future you can bring back dead people. So it’s possible that, at some point, Zoey (Jethro’s soulmate) might make another appearance in the sequel. It’s unlikely that a sequel is something that’s going to happen very quickly. I was writing to establish a philosophy, and now mostly what I try to do on a day to day basis is try to push those ideas and those philosophies, and try to spread transhumanism.
I saw the first book, not just as a book, but as a game plan for my life. And not that I’m gaming to build “Transhumania”, but I’m certainly similar to Jethro in that I certainly want to spread trans-humanism. I’m a young man and I’m trying to spread it to as many people as possible and get as many people on board, and as many resources as possible in the hands of the transhumanist scientists. So I feel like I’m doing that.
Michael: So, besides a sequel, I’m just curious about what else is going on with you as far as these kind of interviews and appearances. Any other projects that you are personally working on?
Zoltan: One thing I’ve been doing recently is, you might find this interesting, I have been reaching out to many startups specializing in transhumanist ideas/products and offering publicity services and joining certain advisory boards , private and non-profit, just to get my hand a little bit more into the business game, and the non-profit game. Being on boards gives me more of a feeling of the community and hopefully enables me to direct policy more. So that’s been really nice, and I’m definitely actively looking for those things.
I’m trying to write a lot more articles. I’ve decided that the very best policy I have at the moment for spreading trans-humanism is to use my blogs and just other articles. I’m trying to do a lot of freelance at the moment, trying to push through new ideas.
For example, this new article on a life extension tax that I just published, most have never heard about something like this before. I mean, it’s not in my book. And so, I’m definitely trying to push forth new ideas and philosophies that were not part of the original book but still fit with the overall philosophy and with my transhumanist goals.
From this kind of action I’ve had a lot of fun things happen. The last story was picked up by Google News, and another was picked up by Rediff, which is one of India’s largest websites. Then my futurist/environmental piece was picked up by many major Australian sites and papers. So it’s a good way to spread concepts, and it takes a lot of work of my time, but you know I’ll just sit at a computer and look for strategies to get out the word.
For transhumanism to broadly succeed, we must take it out to the world, to the non-transhumanist. We are spreading the message of a grand movement.
Michael: Well that sounds fantastic, and I really do believe that what you’re doing is important to get people to start thinking about this and how they get into the mainstream discussion and mindset. I wish you best of success for getting your messages out there and I appreciate your time today in talking with me.
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There you have it. My conversation with Zoltan was the result of an introduction from another leading life extension advocate, David Kekich founder of Maximum Life Foundation. I will be posting an interview I had with David in the near future.
Until then, live long, live well, and prosper!