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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Why Politicians Need to Stop Getting in the Way of Technological Progress

It’s telling that with the rise of AI the first instinct of many politicians is to regulate it.

Image Credit: Pixabay

I was born with a rare genetic disease called Fanconi anemia (FA), which kills too many people far too young. The life expectancy when I was growing up in the 1990s was 22. With FA, your bone marrow fails, and your body can’t produce new blood cells in order to keep you alive. A bone marrow transplant can give you a new chance at life, but it doesn’t eliminate all the life-limiting risks associated with the disease.

In 2001, I became the first person in Ireland to undergo a new type of bone marrow transplant involving the immunosuppressant drug fludarabine. I was 16 years old. My early years living with low life expectancy—and being saved by modern technology and medical science—gave me a lifelong interest in how we extend life expectancy more broadly, and in innovation.

Innovation is the fuel that powers new medicines that save lives, and new technologies that make all of our lives better. Unfortunately, today, politicians on both the left and right are more interested in restricting and controlling innovation than in encouraging its potential.

We have a left that demands “net zero,” even if it means ending air travel and bringing living standards back in time. The left is skeptical of technologies that show promise in mitigating climate change without the need for massive human sacrifice, even though technological solutions are exactly what the public want and how they think climate change should be addressed.

At the same time, the political right tells us that we can’t have lab-grown meat, as elected leaders seek to protect established industries like meat processing.

These points might seem completely separate from medical innovations and life-saving interventions, but they are not. They speak to a political culture that has come to view innovation as something to be restricted, its direction controlled, rather than allowing human minds to be free.

Case in point: when an incredible new technology like AI comes along—with all its potential to improve education, make the legal process more efficient, and save lives through better healthcare—politicians’ main concern is how to regulate it.

I believe it’s so important that voices in politics speak up for the power of innovation to radically improve human lives, even if those voices come from far outside the political mainstream.

I take this matter so seriously that this month I am publishing a book five years in the making on a political activist whose core message is innovation. It’s called Transhuman Citizen, and it’s about the wild political world of Zoltan Istvan, one of the globe’s most well-known transhumanists. He ran for US President in 2016 and 2020, and was also a Libertarian Party-endorsed candidate for California Governor in 2018.

Istvan defines transhumanism as the most extreme 10 percent of all science or innovation. It’s basically a movement that advocates for the right of humans to “transform/transition” into a much stronger species; maybe even a new species someday. It advocates for radically longer lifespans—maybe, in decades to come, the option to live forever—through genetic research and cybernetics. It includes “wacky science” like cryonics and age-reversal therapies. It also includes interventions like exoskeleton suits for paralyzed people to walk and robotic eyes for the blind to see. Elon Musk’s Neuralink implants that allow for brain-computer interfacing could be considered a transhumanist technology.

Transhumanism is certainly out-there compared to the politics of mainstream candidates, but as I detail in my new book, Istvan’s quest to make “living forever” an available life choice at least represents a uniquely bold vision of where this technological moment could take us, one that may inspire the life-changing innovations of the future. His campaigns have coincided with tens of billions of dollars from people like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Peter Thiel flowing into start-ups seeking to realize the “transhuman” vision.

Advanced technology is an immutable fact of human existence today. And yet, outside of the tech industries themselves, few people seem to be advocating for it or celebrating how it has improved our lives, or where it could take us into the future.

More likely, the media conversation is focused on mitigating the harms of technology—e.g., the mental health crisis caused by social media or the jobs that will be lost to AI.

Istvan and others in the transhumanism movement, at least, have been fighting to put science and innovation at the heart of the political conversation. They ask us to imagine radical new forms of freedom that can only exist in a world where we have more advanced technology, which gives us more options for how to live our lives.

As someone who grew up wondering if he would be alive next year, and is still alive today thanks to modern technology, I’m grateful there’s a movement out there that wants to talk about how advanced tech could extend all of our lives—and wants us to consider possible futures we may never have considered before.

Additional Reading:

Paul Krugman’s Case for ‘Technological Pessimism’ Is Weak, Lazy, and Wrong by Saul Zimet

The Ego vs. The Machine by Dylan Allman

What Matt Walsh Gets Wrong about AI and Work by Patrick Carroll

Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Education For the Better—If We Let It by Kerry McDonald