AI for President

A photo of Transhumanist Party presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan standing in front of an American flag.
Photo: Zoltan Istvan

Zoltan Istvan, who represents the Transhumanist Party and bills himself as “the science candidate” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has garnered more media coverage than many third party candidates, with recent mentions in Vocativ, The Verge, USA Today, and Pacific Standard. He also writes regularly for Motherboard and The Huffington Post.

Istvan’s popularity is likely due to a combination of his quirky campaign style (he drives around in a bus painted to resemble a coffin with “Science vs. The Coffin” written above the bumper) and an unconventional platform that pushes for gene editing, human life extension, and morphological freedom (the right to do anything to your body so long as it doesn’t harm others). As a broader movement, transhumanism focuses on leveraging science and technology toward the ultimate goal of overcoming death, largely through as-yet-unproven methods such as mind uploading, in which a person’s entire consciousness would be transferred to a digital system or machine.

Istvan’s main goal in the election, he has told IEEE Spectrum, is not to win but to use the candidacy to popularize science and push for increased funding for scientific and technological research. While on the campaign trail, Istvan also advocates for a Universal Basic Income to prepare for the coming age of robotic workers, which he estimates could arrive within 30 years, and a “partial direct digital democracy” through which citizens could approve or reject specific policies with a virtual vote. He also supports providing free public education, expanding the U.S. space program, and spreading a “pro-science” culture.

Last week, IEEE Spectrum invited Istvan to discuss his platform in a Facebook Live interview with noted science journalist and author John Horgan. Following that discussion, we asked other policy experts, technologists, and futurists to weigh in on a few of Istvan’s proposals, the potential impacts they might carry on a diverse mix of people, and his decision to brand himself as “the science candidate.”

Governed by algorithms

Istvan has promoted the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies to make government more efficient. Last week, he said, “I do think running things based on algorithms would probably be healthier than running things based on people’s preferences” (at 27:30 in the video).

That statement raised questions among viewers about bias in algorithms, which has been repeatedly been shown to exist, in a search engine that returns higher-paying job ads for men than for women, and one that displays ads for arrest records more frequently when showing results for a search on a historically black name.

Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and blogger at Mathbabe and author of the upcoming book titled Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, laid out some of her concerns about handing over aspects of governance to artificial intelligence in an email:

“AI and machine learning algorithms are great at picking up on patterns and extending them. But it also means, if we follow their lead, that any mistakes we’ve made historically will be impossible to escape. If you follow this line of argument, we cannot submit to our AI overlords until we’ve created a perfect society, so probably not until well after 2040.”

Istvan said it would be important to regulate artificial intelligence, and to provide transparency into its algorithms—even suggesting that citizens would vote on the algorithms that governed their world, just as they elect candidates. Right now, many algorithms are closely protected trade secrets held by major companies. The only way to fairly evaluate them is to audit their inputs and outputs, which is often impossible, creating a “black box.

When an IEEE Spectrum Facebook Live viewer asked Istvan whether Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” would be sufficient to program human ethics into such systems from the start, Istvan suggested a utilitarian moral code would be more appropriate.

Geci Karuri-Sebina, who works from Johannesburg on improving government services and infrastructure as a manager with the South African Cities Network and director for the South African Node of the Millennium Project, said in an email she isn’t “for or against” transhumanism and that aspects of artificial intelligence make “good sense.” But she also raised questions about whether humans should assume that using such systems will necessarily lead to a higher quality of life:

“Technology (like statistics) is not neutral and I am of the view that—with all the complications they bring—our human desires and preferences matter. I’m therefore more interested in the collective consciousness than in the perfect algorithm. Our human diversity, and particularly our capacity to learn, empathize, change our minds... for me these are what make being human unique and possibly worthwhile. Otherwise a question might be: is our only purpose to replace ourselves with machines because we think they are more perfect than us? I’m not sure.”

Jennifer Jarratt, a principal with the consultancy Leading Futurists LLC in Washington, D.C. and former chair of the Association of Professional Futurists, said in an email that she thinks the greatest future challenge will continue to be persuading humans to work together to tackle global issues, rather than turning the reigns over to machines:

“Technologies change society, it is true, only never as fast as some of us expect. And then we are surprised by the long term impacts that we (or most of us) didn’t anticipate. Unexpected consequences are a critical part of futurist thinking. Our big problems, IMO, are in our ability to work with each other effectively to solve the social, political, and environmental problems we have created in the world, climate change, for example.”

Cast your votes

One of Istvan’s core platforms is creating a digital mechanism for citizens to vote directly on federal policies and spending proposals instead of relying only on elected officials to speak for them. In response to a viewer question, Istvan said he believes this approach will help to more equitably distribute power within government and lead to better decisions. 

But Steve Vanderheiden, a political scientist specializing in environmental studies with the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has concerns about that proposal. In an email, Vanderheiden called it both “intriguing and worrying.” He said though it potentially offers citizens an opportunity to be more involved in the decision-making process, there is still a digital divide in the U.S. that could limit the participation of certain types of people.

He also pointed out that Istvan’s proposal subtly shifts the weight of a democracy from a “trustee model” in which leaders are elected and afforded a certain degree of autonomy from the constant swirl of public opinion, to a “delegate model” in which they are continuously beholden to all forms of public opinion. He cautioned a digital democracy could therefore evolve to include, “the kind of knee jerk and anonymous reaction that makes other forms of digital communication uncivil and polarized.”

Melody Brown Burkins, who is an associate director of programs and research at Dartmouth College’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, said in an email that while Istvan’s goal of achieving greater participation through this mechanism is admirable, it may work against the interests of some groups.

“Though interesting, there is a reason that direct democracy is a challenging model to add to our representative democracy that relies on three branches of government with formalized checks and balances,” Burkins wrote. “One concern is that outcomes based solely on majority votes (the direct democracy model) can seriously and negatively impact minority populations.”

Finally, referring to the earlier discussion on biased artificial intelligence, Istvan hinted in the Live discussion (at 29:06) that citizens might use digital democracy to vote on which algorithms should drive their government. But Jarratt, the futurist, is skeptical of this strategy, writing, “If we think we have problems now getting people to understand government policy and political systems, good luck getting them to pick the best algorithm.”

The “science candidate”

Istvan promotes himself as “the science candidate” in his campaign and says, “My main goal is to popularize science in a very common way, to the common person, so that they get excited about it” (at 7:40 in the video).

Vanderheiden, the political scientist, acknowledged that a few of Istvan’s positions such as endorsing green technology to take stronger action on climate change would “be pretty well supported by scientists” while others, including the development of a cranial chip that would automatically alert emergency personnel if its wearer suffered a brain injury, would likely be controversial.

“This is a futurist vision, to be sure, but I would not want to cede a monopoly over what is scientific to it, nor does the use of that term guarantee that it would resonate with voters,” he wrote. Vanderheiden continued:

“I find it an interesting example of a Promethean viewpoint, where science and technology are viewed with a great deal of optimism in terms of their transformative potential. While I’m no technophobe, this legacy of Prometheanism is mixed and includes more than a few somewhat unsavory historical enthusiasms. While platforms may not be the best venue, these points need to be in conversation with more critical viewpoints on technology in order to ensure that excesses are tempered and risks identified and minimized.”

Burkins from Dartmouth said that while she appreciated Istvan’s intent to help the public understand the importance of science, she isn’t convinced the term “scientific” or its variants should be applied to any political platform. She wrote:

“ ‘Scientific’ is a term used to describe how we discover new knowledge through the gathering of evidence and testing our assumptions through a process known throughout the world as the scientific method. One important rule about the scientific method is that there are no predetermined results: It is about discovery and constantly testing our ideas and beliefs with new evidence and data. Mr. Istvan’s platform—and the philosophy of the transhumanist movement—seems to be about using the tools of science and technology to intentionally guide specific outcomes and advance predetermined policies. So, though it is a platform that calls on the tools and some ideas in the fields of science and technology, it is not a ‘scientific’ platform. I am hopeful that the public will understand the difference.”

How to live forever

Several of Istvan’s proposals focus on the primary goal of transhumanism—extending human life and eventually, cheating death. These policies promote government support for research into human life extension including gene editing (the practice of replacing a malfunctioning gene with a normal one), and new rights protecting morphological freedom so that people can sign up if such methods are ever successfully developed.

During the Live discussion (at 8:23) and in a follow-up blog post for Scientific American, author Horgan pointed out that no gene therapy has yet been approved in the U.S. after more than 20 years of clinical trials and brain implants to treat depression have similarly fallen short of expectations.

“Gene therapy has been a total bust,” he said. “Brain implants have been tested for depression, a lot of people have talked about this with great excitement. The fact is that the major clinical trials of implants for depression have totally failed.”

Even if those methods were successful, Jarratt said it’s likely that they would only be available to “a privileged few” rather than the entire society. Globally, the average life expectancy has risen since 2000 but those gains were more dramatic in some countries than in others.

For Facebook follower Mary Rogers, the idea of extending life forever raised two immediate questions: “Would we need to restrict births when everyone lives forever?” and “How would we handle social security when everyone lives forever?”

O’Neil, the author and data scientist, warned that extending human life and modern society also extends the biases and injustices in which societies are currently embroiled, unless humans find some way to rectify those. She wrote:

“If people live forever, then we’d have the same super-rich guys dominating politics and influencing ideas forever. In other words, even if you’re planning to redistribute money somewhat, in the form of a basic income guarantee, it doesn’t seem like there’s any plans to redistribute power—except maybe to the machines, who answer only to their super-rich dude creators. That’s deeply anti-democratic.”


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