All aboard the Immortality Bus: the man who says tech will help us live forever

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“I’ve been pegged as the antichrist, which I felt was a little unfair,” says Zoltan Istvan, the leader of the Transhumanist party and independent presidential candidate.

Istvan, a 43-year-old science fiction writer and futurist, has spent almost two years spreading his transhumanist agenda, which is to put science, health and technology at the forefront of America’s politics. Like all transhumanists, Istvan believes that through scientific advancement, humans will be able to reverse ageing and eventually death.

Though his techno-utopian ideas have gained some traction on the east and west coasts of the US, they have not gone down well in the Bible belt – there is no room for God in his transhumanist future.

“As soon as you say you’re an atheist at a rally, half the people just leave. They are not interested in contemplating a world where Jesus is not the savior any more,” he says.

The fact that Istvan has been preaching his blasphemy from an “Immortality Bus” in the shape of a giant coffin – a “pro-science symbol of resistance against ageing and death” – certainly hasn’t helped.

The politician’s interest in biohacking has led to some wild accusations from his religious detractors. The radio-frequency identification chip he has implanted in his hand to unlock electronic devices? That’s the mark of the beast. When you count the letters in each of the words that make up his full name, Zoltan Istvan Gyurko, you end up with 666. Coincidence? The icing on the conspiracy theorist’s cake is Istvan’s resemblance to an actor who played the antichrist character Nicolae Carpathia in the apocalyptic Christian movie franchise Left Behind.

“Apparently because I’m of Hungarian descent, I also have the bloodline to be the antichrist,” jokes Istvan, who lives in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, with his wife and two children.

“It’s not that I’m against religion,” he adds, flagging his Catholic background. “I believe in quite a bit of spirituality.”

“I believe there are a trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars and planets. I’m almost 100% positive that we’re not alone and there’s an advanced intelligence out there that’s far more intelligent than us,” he says.

Political aspirations

His lack of appeal in the Bible belt aside, Istvan has never been under the illusion that he would ever win – he acknowledges it’s a two-horse race. He’s held no previous political office, nor does he accept donations out of principle. He’s funded his crusade with $100,000 of his own money – the cost of a single ticket to some of Hillary Clinton’s fundraisers.

Instead, he’s used the political tour to drum up interest in transhumanism and prove his worth for a government advisory position. He’s already interviewed for the role of vice-president to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, which shows that there is at least some appetite for his brand of politics.

It’s something even Istvan’s diehard supporters acknowledge. “He’s not a viable candidate but he’s a viable possible swing voter,” says David Kekich, a life sciences entrepreneur and founder of the Maximum Life Foundation, which aims to reverse ageing by 2029.

Political analyst Roland Benedikter agrees: “Winning here means getting attention for an important topic that may become crucial over the coming decades.”

“His intention is to raise awareness for the necessity of a much broader, deeper and more differentiated debate on the future of the human being, and of being human, in an age where the human body is beginning to melt with technology,” Benedikter adds.

“It sounds a little far-fetched – ‘oh, we’re going to live forever’ – but the idea seems to be becoming a little more mainstream,” says Rachel Edler, a supporter who helped design the Immortality Bus. “I would definitely support him to be president.”

It’s hard to tell how popular Istvan is among voters since he has not featured in the major polls, but he estimates, based on back-of-a-napkin calculations that correlate Google search volumes with other candidates’ poll positions, he could get around 250,000 votes – enough to offer him some leverage.

“I would love to be an adviser on radical technology and science. All of the candidates need it but they are not talking about it for fear of being butchered. It’s too dangerous for Hillary to talk about designing babies – it’s easier to talk about Trump,” Istvan says.

The undignified tit-for-tat personal attacks between Trump and Clinton could be avoided if the country were run by an artificial intelligence, Istvan adds. This could happen, he estimates, within the next 15 to 20 years.

“It might be wise for us to put ourselves in the hands of a machine intelligence that can take the best decision for the greatest amount of people. That’s what a democracy should be about,” he explains.

In the near term, Istvan says he would happily take up an appointment with either major party. “Does that leave me as a sellout? No. The only thing I’m trying to do is increase Americans’ lifespans by using technology,” he explains.

What the future could look like

The people don’t seem ready for it now, yet Istvan hopes that by 2024 Americans will accept a transhumanist platform.

“By that point, many robots will have taken our jobs, we’ll have AI around the corner, we’ll be choosing hair and eye color and augmenting children’s intelligence. If this starts happening, politicians will have to start addressing transhumanism – and the civil rights challenges associated with it. We’re just not there yet.”

On the civil rights front, he’s referring to the emergence of a new 1% of people who can afford to upgrade their bodies and minds. “If I were in office we’d create policies so no one would get left behind,” he says. There will be a revolution, he believes, if technology such as augmented intelligence is not made available to all.

Without political intervention, more societal tensions will come from job-stealing robots, he believes. His case in point: fleets of driverless trucks.

“When 3.5 million American truck drivers lose their jobs, these are not people who will go home quietly. They will light molotov cocktails. They love their guns. They are going to pick them up and show us they aren’t happy,” he says.

The solution? Some form of universal basic income, Istvan says.

Despite the lack of granularity to his policies, Istvan plays the PR game particularly well. Thanks to his background in journalism, he’s a skilled storyteller and provocateur. “Political elections – for better or worse – have become a gameshow. The more social media, the more clickbait headlines … whatever generates a lot of buzz is one way to make our mark in an election,” he says.

Istvan has attracted countless profiles in the international press, been followed around by two film documentary crews and has secured a TV show once the election is over. It certainly seems to be benefiting Brand Zoltan. Could it all be an elaborate strategy to boost his profile and become a media personality?

Istvan understands why people might think that, but says he’s committed in the long term.

“When I asked my wife if I could run for the US presidency two years ago, it wasn’t just about 2016. It was a lifelong quest. So everything I’m doing now has so much to do with the long-term vision of ending up in the White House and, hopefully, making it so humans never have to die.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Olivia Solon in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th June 2016 12.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010