Technology and Consciousness: A Convocation with Martine Rothblatt

(published on November 8, 2015)

Martine Rothblatt was traveling around the world with her flute, taking a break from college following the completion of her sophomore year. She began playing with a band in India and, after practice one day, she and one of the members went to see a nearby NASA satellite. Noting that the satellite was physically immense yet too weak to receive , she began to wonder about satellites as a means of communication. She returned back to college, and began working diligently on improving satellite communication. Later, Martine founded Sirius XM radio, national satellite radio software which, before Martine invented it, was believed to be premised on impossible satellite technology.

With this anecdote, Rothblatt illustrated one of her four major points of the talk: nurturing curiosity, whatever that curiosity may be. For example, the power of science is not limited to those with advanced degrees in the sciences, The highest level of academic science Rothblatt reached was 10thgrade Biology. But her passion for this made her an expert—and she pointed out to students that it is entirely possible to find one’s passion by watching and learning from university lectures on YouTube, for example.

In her conversation with President Krislov, the founder of Sirius XM radio and CEO of United Therapeutics listed three other major points that she sees as key to making positive change and overcoming seemingly impossible hurdles. After curiosity, her next major point was to “question authority.” When her daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension in the 90s, a then incurable disease, Rothblatt founded a company that found a molecule that would help open the artery between the lungs and the heart, and allow those with the disease to survive. Pharmaceutical companies, she said, were at first unwilling to search for a cure for pulmonary hypertension, because their market was so small—only 3,000 people had it at any time because one’s estimated time of life was 3-5 years after diagnosis, making for a very small market of customers. Because more people can live with the disease beyond 3-5 years with a medicine that treats it, there are now 40,000 people living with the disease—a number which, she says, doesn’t sound great, but isn’t it preferable for people with pulmonary hypertension to be alive taking medicine than not alive at all? She added that the economics behind this now made more sense: now that there are 40,000 people who can take this drug, there are more than ten times as many patients or customers who can take this drug as before, making the economics much more practical for pharmaceutical companies. Rothblatt made an analogy to a swimming pool: if there’s the same number of people getting in and out of a pool at one time, the water does not rise. However, if there are many people in the pool, its water level rises.

Rothblatt’s next major point was: do practically. This goes hand-in-hand with “question authority.” Break up bigger tasks that might seem impossible into smaller, more manageable tasks. Making her argument to pharmaceutical companies about this medicine was partially done using this methodology. So was creating Sirius XM radio: she broke down what it would take to create a strong satellite into individual parts, and then invited the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal organization responsible for what gets broadcast on American airwaves, to see that this type of satellite was in fact possible. (Rothblatt doesn’t have a background in engineering either.)

Rothblatt identifies as transgender, but even more so as “transhumanist.” People who identify as transgender, Rothblatt argued, are the pioneers of transhumanism: the idea that you are human if you have human consciousness, and the vessel containing your consciousness should have no effect on whether or not you’re considered to be human: “why should it matter what your body looks like? What matters is that you have a soul.”

She compared this to her robot BINA48, modeled on her wife Bina’s consciousness, preferences, and personality. BINA48 is revolutionary for combining other technologies, like voice and optical recognition, all into one machine to create a being that, Rothblatt argues, could be seen as conscience as her actual wife. The term “transhumanism” would apply here: BINA48 is an example of what happens when one combines these aspects with the personal mind file that everyone inevitably creates when one uses the internet—the kinds of things you like, what you don’t like, and more—essentially creating a copy of your own consciousness. When you download that into a machine, you get BINA48. To use Sirius Black’s quote that “the ones we love never truly leave us,” such robots would be another way to preserve one’s consciousness and fulfill Sirius’ quote in a very real way.

The major scientific advancements made by Rothblatt inevitably raise concerns about ethics. What if a hacker invaded someone’s consciousness? With more information (or copies of one’s identity) out there channeled into one object, doesn’t that make it easier to manipulate? Rothblatt’s optimistic view of science keeps these doubts in perspective: while one person might turn a robot evil, a thousand others might use this technology in a medical environment to help patient’s mind live on while their bodies are in recovery. One could compare this to a concept we often refer back to in academia: the marketplace of ideas, or the notion that everyone should be able to express themselves and the strongest ideas become the most potent and rise to the top. Ethics are always a concern, Rothblatt said, but “there’s no market for evil robots.” To this, she illustrated her final point: “technology without love goes nowhere.”

Rothblatt predicts that technology like BINA48 will be popularized and a part of mainstream culture by 2030. Now in 2015, this perhaps seems far-fetched—but we must remember how rapidly technology advances. Music software has evolved from tapes to small online files in less than two decades. Science fiction, often considered fantastical, foreshadows the technology of the future. InStar Trek: The Original Series, which aired in the 1960s, Captain Kirk holds video conferences with crews on other star ships. Spock walks around the Starship Enterprise holding a portable tablet to take notes on. We take Skype and iPads for granted now, but for a long time, those were inventions that might have seemed as fantastical as BINA48 might to us today. Rothblatt is clearly at the forefront of modern technological development. However, only time will tell if her rosy view of technology’s future will ring true in 2030.

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