Roland Benedikter Interview, June 2016
Roland Benedikter is Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Research Professor for Multidisciplinary Political Analysis at the Willy Brand Center of the University of Wroclaw-Breslau, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation and Full Member of the Club of Rome.
Unnoted by many, the transhumanist forerunner Zoltan Istvan has founded the “U.S. Transhumanist Party” and is running for U.S. president in the November 2016 election. He is touring the nation in his campaign vehicle, the “Immortality Bus,” since one of his promises is: “Do you want to live forever? Vote for me!” Like other transhumanists, Istvan aims at opening up new political perspectives, if not even a “post-ideological” political sphere characterized by technological universalism. TLR spoke with political and social analyst Roland Benedikter about the backgrounds and the perspectives. The interview builds on previous interviews and articles of Benedikter, for example HERE and HERE.
TLR: In one sentence how would you sum up Zoltan Istvan’s chances of becoming president?
Istvan has himself wisely stated repeatedly that there is of course no chance at all of winning given the current constellation of candidates and present political system. Winning here means getting attention for an important topic that may become crucial over the coming decades. On an international and global level there are transhumanist political parties coming into existence in most of the more evolved nations and technologically informed economies. Their intention for the time being is not winning elections, but preparing for upcoming scenarios of societal, civilizational and thus necessarily political transformation.
TLR: Is technology becoming political?
Yes. The impact of technology is growing exponentially and over the past decade it has become the most important adjunct to daily life. And beyond that, in the coming decades it may become the most important political factor. The intention of people like Istvan is to raise politically relevant awareness for the necessity of a much broader, deeper and more differentiated debate on the future of the human being, and of being human — which is not necessarily the same — in an age where the human body is beginning to meld with technology. That could become the single most important policy issue both within and beyond current ideologies.
TLR: Istvan compares transhumanism to environmentalism, which was a fringe issue at one time in politics and now takes center stage. In his view, something similar will happen with transhumanism: from the periphery to the center. To what extent to do you agree with this?
I agree with Istvan (and many others) that we are moving beyond the age of classical, linear, “humanistic” Human-Machine-Interaction (HMI) at the very moment when many governments, particularly in Europe, are still in the process of fully discovering that transformational moment and its implications. These governments are currently trying to develop useful scenarios and to find appropriate policy solutions for HMI. But the irony is that simultaneously, we are already beyond that. Behind the curtains of most political debates, we are entering the age of Human-Technology-Hybridization (HTH) or even Human-Technology-Convergence (HTC). Hybridization and convergence, i.e. combining and merging with technology, includes both the human body and the human mind. That is a clear transhumanist trajectory.
TLR: To what extent?
TLR: And the consequences?
Under the upcoming “transhumanist” conditions, “healing” may become less important than “enhancing” the human body and mind. Since this development will proceed, we must discuss how to steer it appropriately. Istvan is right to push the respective debate. But there are different ideas and ideologies involved: most prominent is the dialogue between transhumanism and humanism, which has not started yet at the level and quality one would like to see.
The dialogue between these two big ideologies on the future relationship between the human body, the human mind and technology shows that they have completely different conceptions of how humans should interact with technology. This dialogue will shape many socio-political issues in the coming years. So politics is well advised to better prepare for it. Istvan’s presidential campaign is a valuable contribution to raise awareness of this, appropriate for our “attention economy.”
TLR: What do you make of Istvan’s media-friendly tactics like the “Immortality Bus” — does it make him less credible as a candidate, or as an opinion-maker?
Not in my eyes, since he made it clear from the start that the goal is to raise awareness through getting attention. The “Immortality Bus” is spectacular, it’s witty, it’s lively, it’s ironic. It’s American. You probably couldn’t do that in Europe. But while deadly serious, this action has the gift of self-irony too, as far as I understand.
TLR: Do you see a future where it makes sense for a president to have a transhumanist platform?
Each and every political body concerned with real world, practical problems, will have to establish, in the coming years, a platform for transhumanist-humanist dialogue, and will have do so in much more extensive and crucial ways than we tend to imagine today. That has nothing to do with new ethics commissions. The age of traditional ethics reaches its limits when you have to decide if — and to what extent — you want to become cyborgized. Or if and to what extent you want to let AI into your life and mind. Or perhaps even, to what degree the global insurance business is allowed to be involved and set rules for your head-transplant or mind-upload. There are a million more questions, and these questions are not at a remote distance, but will be at hand in the coming years and decades.
TLR: So are the current ethics commissions and institutions coming to their end?
An example: There is the crucial question of how to make sure that the impending superintelligence that many see on the rise for mid century at the latest (as a consequence of the convergence of human and technological intelligence), does not threaten the foundations of humankind; something Oxford’s Nick Bostrom has convincingly described in his latest book “Superintelligence.” There’s little chance that the kinds of ethics commissions we have now can decisively advise on this. We need to take the political and practical policy decisions to a new level, which requires rethinking the questions and identifying the new challenges by comparing humanistic and transhumanist positions.
As the process continues, ever more specific details will emerge and decisions necessitated by those details will have increasingly greater general consequences for society as a whole, affecting how we live and conceive of ourselves. Politics needs to invest in this – and it needs to do it now. Although contrary to Istvan, because I typically avoid this term, a veritable “revolution” in dedication and investment is indeed needed here. Nothing less if we want to be prepared for what is coming.
TLR: Istvan believes he might have enough influence to swing a vote or take an advisory role. Do you agree?
To swing a vote: On a local or regional level, maybe yes, for example, where technology is of particular influence or where it is crucial to create jobs, or in a particular voter segment. Advisory role: Depends for whom. For politics in the current sense, it’s about preparing reasoned views. Thus in the first place it’s not about a single person as an advisor no matter how charismatic, but about the right combination of people to create platforms, and to locate them wisely between transhumanist and humanist ideologies. If you combine a best-selling author, activist and adventurer such as Istvan, with social engineers, political scientistis, experts on ethics and hard-core political and economic analysts, it will surely produce interesting effects. But again: It all depends on who exactly these people are. The right mix between humanists and transhumanists will be decisive to generate positions capable of integrating the largest number of options and perspectives.