An unfortunate situation is occurring in the burgeoning transhumanism and life extension movements: There are significantly less women involved than men. I find that not only disappointing, but also unacceptable. Any growing movement—especially one as potentially impactful on the whole of civilization as the fields of transhumanism and life extension—needs diversity and a balanced proportion of advocates and leaders pushing it.
For this reason, I was glad to meet Riva-Melissa Tez and ask her some questions on the future. Riva is one of the more visible and popular young female advocates of transhumanism and life extension. Originally, it was Riva's passion for philosophy that got her interested in the deeper implications of science and technology for the human race. Riva studied Philosophy at University College London and has a track record of entrepreneurship and social innovation. She is also the founder of Berlin Singularity, a group focusing on bringing and promoting pro-longevity and futurist discussions to mainland Europe. Now she is living in San Francisco and co-runs Kardashev Communications, a German/US consultancy group focusing on better communications and funding for emerging technologies.
Q. Riva, there aren't many women that are actively involved in the life extension and transhumanism fields. Can you tell me why that is? Do you think women want to use science and technology as much as men do to live indefinitely and upgrade their bodies?
A. There certainly aren't enough women in these fields. It seems to me to be more of a grass roots problem. Only in the last few years have I seen a real conscientious effort to encourage women into engineering and certain sciences. Now companies like Goldieblox are equipping little girls with pro-science toys to try and change that at an early age. I was lucky—my dad was an electrical engineering professor and would always allow me to come into his office and play with stuff. I don't think women are inherently disinterested; maybe it's that the sort of topics that inspire people into looking outside of the present and into future possibilities are mainly promoted to men by men.
Q. It's important for almost any movement to have approximately an equal amount of men and women working toward goals and developing strategy. How can we increase female participation in the transhumanist movement?
A. At our last Berlin Singularity event there were maybe 70 people—at least a third of which were females. The after-discussion had a completely different edge. Someone should start a group or movement to promote women into futurism. Hey, that's an idea! But I don't want to be stereotypical— people are people, regardless of gender—but I've noticed that when the crowd has more females than usual, the whole discussion takes a more humble and caring attitude, even with what the men say. We are such funny animals, I love it.
Q. Riva, you recently gave a great speech at the Apple store in Berlin. Can you tell us a bit about what you presented?
A. I was asked by Apple to give a speech about the topic of the Singularity. They chose the title "What is Singularity?" which I found a little off, a bit like approaching someone to give a presentation on "What is History?" But I described what different people mean by the term 'singularity.' And what I'm referring to is the potential power of technology—from Von Neumann to Vinge, Kurzweil to Teilhard De Chardin, although quite a lot of my talk was focused on Kevin Kelly's idea of a 'Technium.' I resonate a lot with what Kelly writes in 'What Technology Wants'—he has a more encompassing view that I appreciate for being considerably wider in perspective, regardless of whether you might think he is right or not. I studied philosophy so I'm drawn to the bigger questions, discussing humanity and technology in terms of what we might perceive their goals to be. As a result, I always end my talks encouraging people to read up on Nick Bostrom/Future of Humanity Institute or getting to know MIRI (Machine Intelligence Research Institute).
A proportion of my talk was spent introducing and explaining some progresses in NBIC (nano/bio/informative/cognitive) technologies. In particular, my talk centered on certain aspects of biotechnology and machine learning. But over the last year I've grown to question how completely unfathomable it is that more importance hasn't been placed on aging research. It took a little while for me to realize and debate my own biases around the topic of extending healthy lifespans. But by the end of it, once I was able to regard the aging process free from the shackles of my own biases, I found my previous thoughts absurd. So a considerable proportion of any talk I do now will cover how I came to change my mind, as well as an introduction to some of the research on tackling aging worldwide. People find longevity research so anti-humane and egocentric, so it's interesting to tackle those views. I wrote an article about that exact topic a few months ago for H+ Magazine.
Q. What are some of your personal and professional goals in the next five years?
A. There's not really a divide between my professional and personal life—I never 'clock off.' At first I wasn't sure how to apply myself, having been compelled by my philosophy degree and yet disappointed by it, so I ended up co-founding a children's company in my late teens and then a tech start-up in my early 20s. As I read more about emerging technologies, I found what I was looking for in terms of philosophy and the ability to have tangible tools for bettering the world. There's a real fire in me to drive innovation—I feel nostalgic about the future and want the world to catch up. So to ensure innovation gets pushed forward we need better communication and outreach for these fields. And in turn that drives support and funding. So in five years time I want to look back and see I've helped some technological dreams come to fruition in whatever way I can.
The only goal I've ever had personally is to buy a large old house and transform it into a wonderland for children. I very nearly got round to doing it with a friend a few years ago. I found a dilapidated 15th century castle in England and had all these ideas—to put a slide from the third floor to the ground floor, to build a chemistry lab, to have a petting zoo. Although just a side project, business wise it would provide busy city parents with a magical place to send their children on the weekends or during holidays, but really it would serve the purpose to allow me to foster children in care. I'm happiest surrounded by children. My first two companies were about kids. It's just a different type of futurism.
Q. What are the three most important goals that you believe the life extension and transhumanist movement should aim for in the next 25 years?
Riva-Melissa Tez - Photo by Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media
Dan Taylor - Heisenberg Media
A. I'm going to say aims that everyone in the movement can contribute to—better outreach and a move towards a more intelligent approach to funding. But then, I'm going to go for something a bit more stark, which is a total upheaval of the current medical industry.
Firstly, the more people who know, understand and appreciate how powerful, exciting and opportunistic certain technologies are for humanity the better. But it's going to take more than organizing groups and promoting the discussion, not that I'm discrediting these. What I'm hoping for is certain scientific breakthroughs to act as catalysts, though we can all be individual catalysts also. As long as we can protect and help certain research, then if they get results, the discussion will automatically become more publicized. So the most important goal right now is to make sure ideas don't fall through. And the main issue I find there is ensuring enough funding goes to these tough and novel ideas. We need to work on changing how funding streams work because right now they're contradictory to innovation. That's not an easy thing at all, but at least in smaller realms right now people are targeting the issue. This is a focus of mine. And by its very nature, better funding and outreach will bring more talent and scope into the area.
I'd like to say that in 25 years, the current medical system will be completely revolutionized. I can't believe what people put up with right now, the whole industry runs on principles completely contradictory to our wellbeing. I'll do whatever it takes to play an active role in changing that. I reckon in 25 years we'll have more than just a firm grip on aging and aging related diseases, but have also completely changed public perspective on those issues and their importance. As well as that, I'm fascinated by neurotechnology and the discussions around consciousness. I look at psychology up until now and see the subjectivity of it all. The very essence of how we see humanity will change. And we're so lucky to be a part of it.
Zoltan Istvan is an award-winning journalist, philosopher, and activist. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Zoltan is also the author of the recently published #1 Philosophical bestseller novel The Transhumanist Wager. Available in ebook or paperback, the controversial novel is a revolutionary reading experience. You can check it out here.