How Will Traditional Concepts of Left and Right Be Affected?
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part interview. Part I can be found here.
An Interview with Political Analyst Roland Benedikter
Summary of Part I
Technology is emerging as a social and political force in its own right. Although predicted years ago by scientists like Roland Benedikter and James Giordano, the rapidity of technological evolution has caught governments off guard and slow to recognize and deal with the changing social and political landscapes, while militaries and the private sector (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo etc.) have embraced it mainly through investment in artificial intelligence, Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI’s) and neurotechnology, further augmenting the speed of change. In parallel with these developments there is a risk that artificial intelligence may soon surpass human intelligence and become a potential threat to humanity. This risk is taken very seriously by many influential leaders ranging from Bill Gates and Elon Musk to Steven Hawking; all of whom have spoken out about it publically. Movements to “enhance” the human body and mind by integrating computational and cybernetic components into a unified being — a technoid being — in order to overcome the present human condition are springing up around the world. Last but not least, a “Transhumanist Political Party” has been established in the United States with its founder, Zoltan Istvan, considering a run for the presidency in 2016.
Roland Benedikter is the co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers concerning the future of Neurotechnology and the Ethics of Neurowarfare (2013 and 2014), several books about global strategic matters (two of those on Xi Jinping’s China) and of the upcoming book “Neuroscience and Neuroethics: Impacting Human Futures” (in cooperation with James Giordano, Springer New York) which will be published in 2015. He has co-authored the commentary Neuroculture: How to keep ethical pace with the current ‘deep’ transformations through neurotechnology? for “The Leftist Review” with James Giordano in March 2012. Katja Siepmann and Annabella McIntosh conducted the interview.
THE INTERVIEW CONTINUES…
With this in mind, the international media posed the question: What if a U.S. presidential candidate for 2016 were a transhumanist, wanting to become a cyborg?  Would the predominantly religious Americans tolerate such a candidacy?
A good question. Istvan responded to this with an ingenious manifesto in which he explains why a transhumanist should run for the U.S. presidency, even if it is unrealistic, at least for the near term. The political agenda of the Transhumanist Party of the USA is primarily threefold, as Istvan presents it: 1) To provide scientists and technologists with the means to overcome human aging and mortality within 15-20 years – an aim which, according to Istvan, a growing number of scientists regard as realistic; 2) to create a “cultural mentality” in the U.S. that assumes that: to “accept and produce radical technology” is in the best interest of Americans and humanity “as a species”; and 3) to protect citizens from the misuse of technology and to explain the planetary dangers implied by the transition to a “transhumanist era.” The latter goal of course alludes to the NSA scandal, which alarmed the general public and even led Republican Senator Rand Paul to sue the government for violating the U.S. constitution. A move which in some ways, according to Istvan, is in accordance with the third goal of the Transhumanist Party. All this suggests that the Transhumanist political movement is looking to the traditional parties to collect some votes out of their membership not only in Silicon Valley, but beyond. It’s a serious endeavour with rather traditional plays and strategies.
However, is the third goal not rendered absurd by the first two goals?
To a certain extent, maybe. Who will define the limits and the terms of protection when “radical technology” is the aim? This is just one of the potential contradictions to be found in transhumanism and therefore in Istvan’s election program. However, it shouldn’t be overvalued at this point since the party is in its first steps.
How is this to be evaluated?
The most ambitious aim of the Transhumanist Party is to overcome ageing and, ultimately, death in the next 15-20 years. I consider this period of time not quite realistic. Overcoming death will stay out of reach for the time being, even though progress towards the extension of life could indeed be made rather quickly. From a political view it seems more important that Istvan’s party tries to create a mindset in American society which views radical technologies and science as the best solution to basically each and every challenge of the 21st century. This could translate something that can already be found as a fundamental conviction in Silicon Valley (and the likes in other countries), into a concrete political platform and therefore have a nation-wide impact. In the same way as the U.S. has a Green Party, which is hardly institutionally present but does have an influence on parts of the Democratic Party, and therefore is at least a mediating factor of influence on U.S. domestic policy, the technophiles could now play a role and maybe gain increasing influence on the big popular parties of the U.S., as technology is said to be “non-ideological” and is in principle viewed positively by conservatives and liberals alike.
Is technology really “non-ideological”?
It is of course not “true” that technology is “non-ideological”, and Istvan and the transhumanists know that well. It has ideological implications, as it outlines a very particular conception of the technologization – and probably even cyborgization – of humanity as the only meaningful pathway to the future, or at least by far the most suitable. That might even be a more fundamental and radical – and, depending of its future use, also more discriminatory – ideology than those of the left and the right, as it is not only directed at social adjustment but also directly touches the future of the human body, and thus of human nature and the human being itself.
So how should the political programme of the Transhumanist Party be judged?
Istvan could be right in asserting, as he does, that “certainly (politicians) are gonna have to consider it. Transhumanism is here to stay. In the next ten years everyone is gonna be forced to deal with how we deal with Artificial Intelligence, everyone is gonna be forced to deal with longevity as people live longer, everyone is gonna be forced to deal with some of the biotics, the chip implants and the mind uploading. These are very difficult bioethial questions… and every government is gonna have their policies for.” He is also without doubt correct in claiming that “society will be greatly changed by radical science and technology in the next 5-15 years. Most people are unaware how significant these changes could be. For example, we might all be getting brain implants soon, or using driverless cars, or having personal drones follow us around and do our shopping for us. Things like anonymity in the social media age, gender roles, exoskeleton suits for unfit people, ectogenesis, and the promise of immersive virtual reality could significantly change the way society views itself.” While this is accurate, my skepticism is toward the proposed “transhumanist” answers. Should we simply and unconditionally embrace the trend towards universal technology and its global substitution of the difference of historic cultures, as Istvan and his party followers in essence, propose, or are more cautious and multi-level approaches the safer and better way? Should we as fast as possible get rid of the human being as we know it, or is it necessary to get to know ourselves better before we make irreversible decisions? In the end, humanity has just begun to explore itself. Here is the chance for the more traditional big popular parties like the Democrats and the Republicans to move toward more broadly pondered and shared views. If nothing else, it’s their strength to forge great compromises involving as many people from different strata of society as possible.
Does Istvan succeed, as he aspires, to “present transhumanism in the media in noncontroversial ways that emphasize health, wellbeing, democracy, and the upholding of humanitarian values“ in order to get as many votes as he can and get global attention?
It’s too early to judge this, but certainly the goals of the Transhumanist Party are controversial. Again, there are many contradictions in Istvan’s discourse. For example, the concept of “transhumanism” according to Istvan himself means “… beyond human. In this way, transhumanism aims to leave behind the problems and bickering the human race has been engaged in for millennia, especially ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural divisions. The language of transhumanism is science — and that language and cultural framework is universal.” That means that Istvan’s concept of “transhumanism” as such, is to go beyond human, and thus it per definitionem excludes the “upholding of humanitarian values” since it actively aims at overcoming their basis which is being “human”. Or, as another interpretation, Istvan wants to suggest that “humanitarian” nowadays means “beyond human”, which is a quite dangerous combination in times of new martyrs that are springing up in the age of fundamentalist religious politics. So if Istvan claims the Transhumanist Party “to be a bridge to a scientific and tech-dominated future, regardless what the species may eventually become,” this is a profoundly ambiguous statement. It suggests that transhumanism is going to take care of something that in the end doesn’t matter: to be human (in the accepted sense, including the ethics tied to this discourse), since regardless what the species may become, technology is the answer, independent of other considerations. These contradictions cannot just be taken as if they wouldn’t matter, since they could point to a deeper, fundamental contradiction in transhumanist reasoning that we have to explore.
This ambiguity is also found in the so-called “three laws” of transhumanism that Istvan outlined in his recent book “The Tranhumanist Wager”, that allegedly inspire the political agenda of the Transhumanist Party.
Exactly. As you know, these three laws are, according to Istvan:
- A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
- A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible — so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
- A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe — so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.
Concepts like “omnipotence” stemming from the USA with a global aspiration and outreach are not so very popular these days in most other countries. Yet the three laws’ values are very clear: first comes the individual, then “value in the universe”, i.e. first the ego, and only then communitarian and social values. This is clearly an egoistic agenda that is in contradiction with the essence of politics, which is to forge a social contract and dialogue between many, in the ideal sense all social actors. Politics is by its very nature about community, not about individuals.
But on the other hand…?
On the other hand, Istvan and the transhumanists are right in asserting that “if energetically adopted, these deceptively simple maxims ultimately compel the individual to pursue a technologically enhanced and extended life. [Transhumanists] have come to see the choice to accept or reject these principles as something far more fundamental than the choice between liberal or conservative principles.” Istvan is right that the decisions made necessary by the new “body inversive” technologies will be crucial for the future, more than most economic, political or military issues, since they touch the core of being human. The discussion is, how the related questions should be properly addressed by not simply dismissing humanism and the democratic culture and society created by it since the founding of the USA in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789 for the sake of radical technological individualism (or, as Istvan calls it, “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”). In contrast, James Giordano and John Shook have proposed a set of principles to guide the use of emerging biotechnologies that I believe to be more realistically oriented toward humanist values, and more soundly focused upon how such technologies should be ethically leveraged to sustain the relationships of individuals-in-community. Giordano and I have also produced considerations about this issue (together with John Shook and others), and our upcoming new book will also be dedicated to the related challenge which is not a merely theoretical one, but one with strong practical anthropological implications.
The Transhumanist Party’s two other goals are…
… as Istvan states, to “challenge other major political candidates, like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush: How shall America handle coming ‘designer baby’ technology? If robotic hearts can wipe out heart disease, should governments allocate many billions of dollars to it (since heart disease is the #1 killer in many countries, including America)? Will there be a global arms race for militaries around the world to develop a superintelligent Artificial Intelligence?” Second, and this is of particular importance, the goal of the politization of transhumanism is “to unite the transhumanists, singularitarians, cyborgists, biohackers (grinders), cryonicists, roboticists, longevity advocates, futurists, and all tech and science-minded groups and people out there under one banner. Currently, many pro-technology and science people don’t get along with one another… The transhumanism movement is becoming so popular, that it must try to find common ground and a single optimistic vision of the future, irrespective of differences in politics, age, and ideologies.“ That means that there is the practical ambition to indeed build a transnational, global political movement beyond cultural and civilizational borders.
You and James Giordano stated years ago that there would be a trend of transhumanism towards politics, and that this trend could prove to be more important on the medium and long term than many still think, independent of the destiny of the Transhumanist Party of the USA in the immediate future.
Yes. Independent of persons and fashions, the trend toward an increase in crucial questions at the interface between technology and the human body seems to be inherent to the present stage of evolution of our civilization: of the present phase of human development. With or without the “Transhumanist Party”, and independent of its further path, questions at the interface of humanism and transhumanism are going to be at the center of the political, social and cultural debate of the coming years. The healthcare sector has been a forerunner to a certain extent, including its recent politization in the Obama era, but the spectrum of influence and effects is rapidly broadening. We believe that if there were no “Transhumanist Party”, the issues would nevertheless come up through the ethical deliberations and decisions that will unavoidably have to be made in the face of the new options fostered by the interactions of technology, the human body, individual and collective consciousness, artificial intelligence and the self-image of the human being.
This trend seems to be the more radical, the more the combined size and outreach of the politicization of “transhumanism” on a global level is considered.
Right. To think that the politization of transhumanist thinking and ideals will be confined to the world’s most important technology-driven nation, the U.S., would be a miscalculation. The Transhumanist Party is gaining traction also in other parts of the Western world – mainly in Europe so far. Among them are the Tranhumanist Party of the UK, the Transhumanist Party of Germany (Transhumanistische Partei Deutschland) and others, all currently in the process of foundation. In all these nations, the Transhumanist Party websites are online, and their members are preparing for the next elections – in the UK, for example, for the general elections of May 7th, 2015. Apparently, these parties are being founded in an internationally (at least partially) concerted action. Interestingly, there is a response through the founding of new “Humanist” political parties in some places, for example, in Germany the Humanist Party of Germany (Partei der Humanisten Deutschlands). This is a development that hasn’t yet received enough attention by political analysis.
Some worry that the Transhumanist political movement could become a new “Internationale” – like the Communist was. Do these parties want to overcome national souvereignities (as the “Internationale” did) in order to establish a global technological order?
I don’t think this is the appropriate approach. This isn’t in principle about class struggle, even if it could be involved in some way or another, for example by creating different “classes” of who gets access to certain options and who doesn’t. It would be a misunderstanding to interpret the current transformation of the “transhumanist” movement into a (probable) international alliance of national political parties through the viewpoints of the 20th century. This is something different, and it has to be approached with new concepts and instruments.
Some fear that this could engender a new war of worldviews – in this case about the further self-concept of the human being embattled between humanists and transhumanists.
At the moment, I am not really worried about this. It might rather be a dialogue between different concepts of what the human body, and with it human consciousness,human nature, the human being and its self-concept(s) in general can and should become in the coming decades. If this will be the case, it will certainly be a very important discussion at the core of our evolving notions of progress and of the public image in technologically advanced societies in more general terms, given that the technological means to alter the human body undoubtedly are increasing with every year. In any case, there are signals that some of the “humanist parties”, for example the German one, want to go in the direction of dialogue, not confrontation. I see similar signs from the side of moderate transhumanists. The larger these movements grow by organizing themselves politically, the more they will necessarily shift to a position of inner compromise, and thus to the center: to more centrist and moderate positions. At least this would be the “natural” process as we know it.
TO BE CONTINUED
Editor’s note: Part III, the final part of this interview, will be published in two weeks.
About the interviewee:
Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., is Research Scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation Boston, Senior Research Scholar of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington DC and Full member of the Club of Rome. Previously, he was a Long-term Visiting Scholar / Research Affiliate 2009-13 at the Europe Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, and Full Academic Fellow 2008-12 of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Washington DC. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Harvard International Review and Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs, and is author of books about global strategic issues (among them two on Xi Jinping’s China), co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers and of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker’s Report to the Club of Rome 2003 titled “Limits to Privatization. How To Avoid Too Much Of A Good Thing“. Contact: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
About the interviewers
Katja Siepmann, MA, is a socio-political analyst, Senior Research Fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington D.C., Member of the German Council on Foreign Relations, Lecturer at the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Cultural Sciences of the European University Frankfurt/Oder and has written for Foreign Affairs, Harvard International Review and Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs.
Annabella McIntosh is a freelance political writer based in Berlin, Germany.
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 Cf. J. Bartlett: Meet the Transhumanist Party: «Want to live forever? Vote for me». Jamie Bartlett meets Zoltan Istvan, the man behind a political movement in America that wants to make us all more than human. The Telegraph, December 23, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/11310031/Meet-the-Transhumanist-Party-Want-to-live-forever-Vote-for-me.html.
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 J. Hewitt, loc cit.
 Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF): http://www.transhumanistwager.com/ThePhilosophy.html.
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 R. Benedikter and J. Giordano: Neuroscience and Neuroethics: Impacting Human Futures, Springer New York 2015 (forthcoming).
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 Transhumanist Party UK: http://www.transhumanistparty.org.uk/.
 Transhumanistische Partei Deutschland: http://transhumanistische-partei.de.
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 Transhumanist Party Global Europe: http://transhumanistpartyglobal.org/europe/.
 Partei der Humanisten Deutschlands: https://parteiderhumanisten.de.
 Partei der Humanisten Deutschlands: Die Transhumanistische Partei der USA – ein Partner für die Zukunft?, 2. Dezember 2014, https://parteiderhumanisten.de/die-transhumanistische-partei-der-usa-ein-partner-fuer-die-zukunft/.