The standoff between faith and science is hardly new. But as Silicon Valley’s tech elite make big bets on everything from new capitalist frameworks to a transhumanist future, these formerly disparate disciplines start to bleed into one another, creating a terrain as opaque and inscrutable as a cryogenically frozen corpse. Martine Rothblatt, the woman behind Sirius Radio, charts a possible way through.
Mind clones. Self-aware digital beings, reconstructed from your life’s digital footprints, able to reason, remember, and feel. Inherently, though decades away from application en masse, these seem a terrifying, Black Mirror-like concept. But somewhere, in windowless bunkers, there are scientists hard at work developing speculative technology to enable us to create our own digital mental files and with them the mind clones that will allow us, if we so choose, to evade death. One day we may have a cybernetic best friend in a clone of ourselves; one day we may live forever.
Martine Rothblatt is the person to argue about medicine with the winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine. She is the person to tell a room of seasoned experts toasting in agreement that they are all wrong. She is the person who unequivocally believes in the harmonious union of faith and science, shamelessly touting the plausibility of eternal life, if only the technology exists. That fact of being right about something that matters, which she distinguishes resolutely from being right for the sake of self-righteousness, is what drives her. She is unflappable because, more than once, she has been right. And more than once, her being right has brought life- and industry-changing technologies into the world.
Rothblatt’s list of accomplishments is long. She pioneered private satellite communications and founded Sirius Radio (later SiriusXM). She started, and remains the acting CEO of, United Therapeutics, a publicly traded pharmaceutical company founded with the express purpose of developing a medicine that would save her daughter from pulmonary arterial hypertension. It worked, and the company now boasts five FDA-approved drugs. She launched a research experiment called the LifeNaut Project to test whether “future intelligent software will be able to replicate an individual’s consciousness.” Using that software, she created a “mindfile” of her wife Bina and built Bina48—a disembodied robot bust—that has since been interviewed, as if it were a human being, by the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and God (Morgan Freeman) himself.
We found Rothblatt in Vermont at the Terasem Movement Foundation—a place that according to the website “safekeeps mindfiles and biofiles of lifenauts for future revitalization in accordance with their consents and technology advancements, while also spreading the good word that software people are people too.” We wanted to know how she reconciles the tensions between faith and science, love and business. And how, in her quest to make sense of it all, she pursues transhumanism without a hint of irony.
AR — You’ve accomplished a lot with your various business ventures. There isn’t much you haven’t done. But the notches on your belt, to me, feel like relatively disparate ventures: Sirius satellite radio, cryogenics, Terasem, cybernetics, Bina48. The list goes on. Does any one thing inspire all of it?
MARTINE ROTHBLATT — There’s not really a particular event that I can point to. I think I’ve always just had a fascination with how amazing life is—a deep curiosity. You learn as a little kid about outer space, how incredible it is that there’s 99.999999 or whatever percent of reality out there. Wouldn’t it be cool to somehow get out there? And then you learn that there are more cells in the human body than there are stars in the galaxy, that it’s possible to take a medicine through your mouth only for it to end up finding just the cells it needs to find in the human body. It just blew my mind. I truly just have a great love and fascination for life in all of its aspects.
I think of you as an entrepreneur, a scientist, a medical ethicist, a futurist, a parent. I’d be remiss to ignore the tension between some or all of these roles. With the scientific approach of a lot of your work, particularly in the spaces where you play the role of entrepreneur, you have this profound faith that these often experimental ventures are going to materialize. How do you reconcile that?
You can have faith and pursue things scientifically without being contradictory or hypocritical. I find it a little bit queer when somebody says that scientists cannot have faith. It seems to me that a scientist is someone who pursues the scientific method: you state a hypothesis and you conduct an experiment to either prove or disprove that hypothesis in a way that can be replicated by others. Each of my ventures is exactly that. I had a hypothesis that if I launched satellites at six earth radii above the equator and provided them an adequate amount of power from solar panels, and a big enough antenna to shape radio energy onto North America, then radio signals could be received by a flat patch antenna embedded into a car. All of that was just a giant hypothesis. I didn’t know if it would all work; there’s no way you could know if it would all work until you actually did it. And of course, it did work, and it’s what ended up as SiriusXM. But to get that whole process started, you have to have faith in your hypothesis. You have to have faith in people that you’re working with. You have to have faith in the rockets you’re using to launch your satellites. You’ve got to have faith every single day to get up and pursue that experiment. I never really understood why people felt that faith was contradictory with science. I think they operate in two different realms; they’re really like yin and yang.
And how about faith and business? I see the link with science, in terms of testing hypotheses and following something that is as yet unproven, perhaps un-provable. On the other hand, with business, I would imagine that it might be more difficult to compel the participation of those who don’t have a proven case for investing, financially or otherwise.
Actually, I think that faith and business are even more compatible than faith and science. For example, most people who fail in business fail because they give up, and most people who succeed, succeed because they never give up. To never give up in business takes an inordinate amount of faith, because at the start of every business venture, people are laughing at you, people are telling you you’re wrong, you’re ridiculous, you’re wasting your time¬. Until you’ve succeeded. In fact, it’s nothing but a kind of sub-religious faith that your business will be a success that keeps you going. I’m not saying that I’m any business guru—certainly, people like Warren Buffett are much smarter than me; he has much more wisdom. But if you asked me what single bit of advice I’d give an entrepreneur, just one, that might increase their odds of success, it would be to never give up.
Is it a sense of duty or responsibility that keeps you so focused?
Actually, no. This sounds a little bit arrogant—and I don’t really mean it that way—but it’s the sense that you’re right. For example, when I started developing this medicine for pulmonary hypertension, which affects my daughter, a lot of scientists said, “This won’t work.” I read the literature myself, and I thought that it would work. It was my belief against all these greybeards of certainty.
One of the medicines we developed is delivered by inhalation and a gentleman who was the chairman of my advisory board for United Therapeutics—who won the Nobel Prize in medicine—said to me, “Martine, this medicine will not work through the lungs.” This is a Nobel Prize winner. But I was certain that it would work. It’s arrogant, I guess, but it turned out I was right. We did clinical trials, proved it worked. It’s now approved in the United States. Thousands of people use it today and it’s improved their lives immeasurably. It’s the faith in one's rightness, not really in one’s righteousness.
You mentioned Warren Buffett earlier. Your story reminds me of him in that the investors in Berkshire Hathaway often contemplate his inevitable death—how much they rely on his perspective, him being right, his ability to trust himself, and their trust in him as well. They have faith that he is right. What you’re talking about here is faith in self. How does this relate to the pursuit of immortality? Is it about the continuation of self?
I think they’re related. There’s a certain set of people who believe that it’s within the realm of technology to keep people living a vibrant life indefinitely. They’re not hoping for it wistfully; they believe in it practically. They see that the average life expectancy continues to tick up and up and up. They see that there are over 100,000 centenarians. They see that the things that cause people to die are not in the realm of mysticism; they’re in the realm of cellular dysfunction.
Now, there are a lot of different ways to die—I’m sure thousands of different ways to die—so there isn’t going to be somebody snapping a finger and solving all the different ways to die at one time. But the nature of human activity is that different people go after their own niche interests. Some people go after cardiac death, while other people go after liver death or liver failure. Just last year, Hepatitis C, which caused 30,000 people to die every year, was cured with a pill that you take once a day for twelve weeks. There are numerous examples of this.
In the cyber realm, they say the brain is not a computer, in the sense that a plane is not a bird. Yet planes can fly—maybe not quite like a bird. And computers can think—maybe not exactly like a brain. But pretty good. And they get better all the time. It’s natural for people who have a faith in science and technology to think that death is something that will recede as technology advances.
But how is it that an entire movement of people all of a sudden crops up and devotes itself to defying something that has always been so natural? Why is death plain wrong to transhumanists?
To me, it’s a waste. It’s a sad waste. Whenever I listen to a record of somebody like Andrés Segovia on guitar, or see a great pianist’s hands fly over the piano keys and make beautiful music, I think about the years and years it took to get those fingers to play that stuff. And to say we have to snuff out these people because of a failure of our technology seems stupid to me, really. Life is so amazing. There’s so much to learn and treasure and cherish that, if somebody wants to take their life, it’s probably because they’re sick and in pain, physically or psychically. In either event, it’s something that could and should be treated. We’ve got an amazing world and during the course of one life, we sample just a miniscule fraction of it. To me, it’s obvious that it’s a good thing to allow people to sample more.
A huge number of the tech elite set have expressed interest in the project of life-extension: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is working on a home droid, Google employs Ray Kurzweil as part of their Calico project, Peter Thiel has invested in life-extension start-ups, and Jeff Bezos has the 10,000-year clock. Do you see these people as peers who share your perspective?
I think all of us in the noosphere—The Alpine Review, Ray Kurzweil, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, science-fiction writers, artists, musicians, people everywhere—are part of a big sea that’s bubbling up all of these amazing and positive ideas.
Let’s talk about Bina48 for a moment. What is it?
Bina48 is a demonstration project that shows that, with today’s technology, you can provide a physical manifestation of some parts of a person’s mindfile so that younger people will be inspired to make better and better robots, better and better manifestations of cyber-consciousness.
With the popular coverage of Bina48 highlighting the thesis of cybernetic intelligence, it’s hard to ignore that you appear more focused on demonstrating that personal touch, that perspective that’s informed by love. Is that intended?
That’s intended. I think you’re on base.
Bina48 is in beta right now, not yet developed to her full potential, right? You’ve compared her to a two-year-old. Is there any sort of situation in which you would consider her an art project?
I think she is totally an art project. I don’t really think there’s much difference between art and science. Art is meant to inspire. If you asked me for an explanation of why Bina and I made Bina48, it would be about inspiring.
I must say, I was a bit anxious to ask you that. But I’m surprised to hear you answer it that way; leaving out the art bit strikes me as a gross omission, on the part of the media, or on the part of the people who are doing publicity on your behalf. Why is it that we don’t hear about Bina48 and LifeNaut with that framing? Wouldn’t these projects be easier for the public to swallow and more powerful demonstrations of your outlook in that way?
I think you’re totally right. It’s really hard to pin down how and why something gets channeled in a particular way. People are a little bit reluctant to see technology as art. It takes effort. On the other hand, the people working for the Terasem movement don’t really present Bina48 as an art project. I’ve never heard them use that language. But you’ve definitely got me on the record, here and now, calling Bina48 an art project.
As the person you are, with the many complex, even frightening ventures on the go, I think of somebody in your position as somebody with great power and even greater responsibility. In that space, what’s important?
It’s important for people to always maintain consciousness around the fact that we’re all in this together, that we must act lovingly. Always act as if the happiness of other people is essential to your own happiness. I believe that that way we’ll end up with better and better technology, and it will be better and better technology that makes people happy instead of making people hurt.