Mechanical bodyparts are very common nowadays – a lot of humans have a hip replacement or a pacemaker. Technology helps saving our lives rather often. Some people want to take this a lot further – a philosophical and scientific movement called Transhumanism. Zoltan Istvan Gyurko is one of the most famous Transhumanists, he even ran for president in 2016. In this interview, he talks about his first experiences with Transhumanism, immortality and the future of humanity.
By Marie-Louise Timcke und Paul Klur
Why is Transhumanism important for our society nowadays?
Zoltan Istvan: Well, Transhumanism is perhaps the most important subject matter that we have actually existing in society at the moment. Because humankind has been moving forward very slowly developing science and technology. But in ways that haven’t really rudimentary changed the human being. But all of a sudden, since the invention of the microchip, humanity is changing dramatically because of data, because of the internet, because of computers, because of smartphones. And what we have seen is almost nothing compared to what we’re going to see over the next ten or twenty years. Transhumanism is the field that wants to use science and technology to modify the human being and realise this kind of digitization of the actual self. But most importantly, the next ten years are going to be completely disruptive to whatever we thought it meant to be human beings.
How did you personally get into this political and philosophical movement?
I discovered Transhumanism when I was about twenty years old. In “Time Magazine“, I read about cryonics, this field where you freeze somebody after they died and hope to bring them back with radical technology in the future. But I didn’t really get into it that much then because I was so young. However, when I was about 36 or 37 years old, I began writing a novel called “The Transhumanist Wager” and this novel was about a protagonist who wants to live forever through science and technology and he is taking it morally as far as he could to achieve his indefinite lifespan. This novel became quite popular, became a philosophical bestseller and sort of launched me as a futurist in the transhumanist community. My own career has kind of grown and I still remain that same person who really wants to live as long as possible through science and technology and probably would do just about anything to do so.
This aspect was also one of the catchphrases of your presidential campaign. You said „Make Americans immortal“. Do you think that mankind can really achieve immortality?
I am 100 percent convinced that we will to some degree achieve immortality. Probably the rich will have it first because in the end of the day, radical medicine, radical technology is often a matter of money and ressources. But it is no question in my mind, that the developed nations will have access to technology that allows them to live indefinitely probably within 25 and definitely within 50 years. I mean, it’s possible that we won’t – like if there is a nuclear war or progress in civilisation stops for some reason. But if everything continues the same way we are going, I would literally bet my right arm that within 25 years some portions of society will achieve an indefinite lifespan through the radical science and technology that exist. And that could be through genetic editing, that could be through 3D-printing organs. That could be through bionic organs, through reversing the aging process or it could be also through things as crazy as mind uploading our consciousness to machines. I’m quite sure that we’ll find at least one way to do it within 25 years.
You already said that maybe in the first years this will only be available for rich people. Don’t you think that this would be a big social problem for the whole world?
This is going to be be an enormous problem and I have predicted that you will probably have violence in the streets, you’re going to have riots, you are going to have civil strikes. But in our society, in our species, a certain percentage of the population has always reached these kinds of highs first. And then the other parts of the population come behind it. In the case of, for example, the cellphone: At first, it was only available to the very rich. And now everybody, no matter how poor you are basically in the world, still has cellphones. Many people in Africa don’t have fresh water or clean water, but they have cellphones. So, the idea is, we think that transhumanist technology will be sort of like this. Very quickly it will go down to society as capitalism will find a way to sell immortality. My own philosophy is that the government should step in and make such technology available to all people. I just think, we all have a universal right to live indefinitely, if we discover the secrets to not dying.
How would you want to deal with people who do not want to get into a higher life span and immortality?
If some people don’t want to live forever that’s of course their choice and I want to respect that choice. From the legal point of view, I want to protect their choice to not live indefinitely. Because if they choose to die, they choose to die. But in the modern day, in the modern economy, you really can’t work or find your place in society, if you haven’t embraced some of the technology that’s out there. So I have the feeling that everybody will at some point embrace pretty much all of it.
Another basic idea of transhumanism is to improve the human body by technology. Some transhumanists have undergone surgery for example to be able to see in the dark. Have you also modified your body yet?
I have done one modification that’s quite significant. I have a chip implant in my left hand and it allows me for example to open my front door without a key, it allows me to start a car without a key and it allows me to contain some information in that chip. Also, when I was running as a presidential candidate in 2016, if you came near me, you would get a text automatically sent to your cellphone that says „Win in 2016“. I haven’t done anything else yet because some of this technology is very radical but I love my chip in my hand. It’s made my life a lot better.
What else do you think are people going to modify on their bodies in the near future?
I have some friends that are thinking about cutting off one of their arms in order to put on a robotic arm. Robotic limbs have come very far in the last five years. They can tie into your neural system, so you can actually think to grab a beer and then grab a beer with your robotic arm and drink it. I feel that in five to ten years, the robotic arm might actually be even better than the real arm. You might have heating mechanisms in your hand so if you want to heat up your coffee, you could do it. The good thing about the robotic arm is that you can take it off at some point and upgrade it to other arms. I also have some friends that are considering putting chip implants into their head that allow them to communicate directly with machines. It’s very rudimentary, it’s not like the matrix yet, but it’s the very beginning of the matrix.
Do people become more and more like machines themselves by undergoing these morphological improvements?
Oh yes, their definitely becoming more like machines. But for most transhumanists, that’s welcome. We feel like the human body is a very frail system. It’s not designed very well. That’s why we get cancer, that’s why the human body must always be breathing oxygen. Thus, naturally we’re trying to merge into machines which are quite a bit more simple in terms of their survival and ability to evolve.
Do you think that at some point, humanity could be lost?
I definitely think humanity will be lost. In fact, it’s not really a question whether humanity will be lost, it’s a question of when. In the same way that the primate was lost. These things are lost because their not very efficient when you consider what life is trying to achieve. DNA is trying to achieve the transferrer of itself to become as strong and powerful as possible. And human beings are essentially comprised of DNA. We will continue to evolve until we come to a point when we no longer die, we no longer suffer from things like aging or cancer or heart disease. These are all things that must be eliminated in the system of evolution.
Would too much technology also make every human being the same, so mankind wouldn’t be that diverse anymore?
Oh no, definitely not. In fact, exactly the opposite. People tend to think that once we digitize ourselves or once we become machines, we will all become the same because it’s all ones and zeros, and that’s all there is. What they forget is that the intelligence of a machine in just ten or maybe fifteen years could be a hundred trillion times more sophisticated than a human being. The possibilities of different senses, the possibilities of different realities, the possibilities of exploring all kinds of different universes is mathematically certain. It’s not just that human beings are going to become all similar. Human beings are going to be stuck in a much larger and much more complex intellectual universe that we have to discover. And we may not be human beings, but the universe will be much larger than we have ever known because we have the capacity to understand it. In my opinion, the world is going to get much more complex and mysterious than we have ever known.
Are there forces that hold us back from developing further into a transhumanist race?
Oh, tremendously. We have a conflict in America, which is apparently the leading science station in the world, where much of the government is still very religious. And yet hundreds of thousands of scientists pay no attention to religion whatsoever. So, that’s what’s holding back a lot of money that can make science and technology develop. But the government won’t give it, if they think the technology or the science is too radical or against their religion.
But maybe finally these conflicts will be overcome in the future. Do you think that the development of the human species has any frontiers?
I think, they will be overcome and it’s quite possible that artificial intelligence will reveal new types of spirituality. The more mystery we find in the universe, the more conflict we have towards discovering that mystery. Whatever number of neurons we have in our brains, in 10 or 15 or 20 years, we’re going to be able to create machines that have more connections than our human brain. And when that happens, the complexity of the universe will naturally grow. The human brain is just a three pound piece of meat. And that is all it’s ever going to be. But we will be able to create things that are much more complex than that, and once we do, I think the realities will be much more complex as well. And then we are going to discover many new things about what it means to be alive. And I don’t mean alive as a human being but alive as a transhuman being. I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s probably not biological. It’s probably much more data-driven and machine-driven.
-Transhumanism (from lat. Trans (= beyond, super-) and lat. Humanus (=human) is a philosophical movement that focuses on the development of the human species beyond its borders.
-Transhumanists want to improve and change the human body and mind via science and technology.
-Transhumanists are willing to try radical technologies to increase human lifespan and improve the wellbeing of humans.
Und das ist die Autorin Marie-Louise Timcke studiert Wissenschaftsjournalismus mit Schwerpunkt Datenjournalismus am Institut für Journalistik der TU Dortmund. Sie ist Leiterin der Datenjournalismus-Initiative Journocode und gibt Programmier und Daten-Workshops an Hochschulen und Verlagen. Seit März 2017 arbeitet sie als erste Datenjournalismusvolontärin im Interaktiv-Team der Berliner Morgenpost.