Martine Rothblatt is, according to a lengthy and hagiographic introduction to her keynote conversation at SXSW, an extraordinary and accomplished woman. She is currently the highest paid female CEO in the USA, created Sirius Satellite Radio, is a highly qualified lawyer and astronomer who broke off her career to earn a PhD in medical ethics, has built a robot version of her wife with some of the most compelling AI yet developed, has formed a global leading biotech company to save the life of her own daughter, and somehow found the time to become a leading advocate for transgenderism. It’s barely an overstatement to say that she could accomplish more in a week than most people will in a career.
Her core belief, which she exercises throughout her business and personal life, is in Transhumanism – the belief in and desire to transform the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to develop and ‘enhance’ the human condition.
The main tentpoles of this new human future include:
- Mindclones – the idea that we can and should create copies of our personalities that live on digital formats; enabling us to finally ‘upload ourselves to the internet’ complete with memories, mannerisms etc
- Artificial Intelligence – Rothblatt’s vision has humans not only becoming immortal, but also easily copyable while still living; imagine having a copy of yourself to do all your work while you goof off, or having a conversation with someone who is exactly like you in every way. She has already created a robot version of her own wife, driven by AI, that has had persuasively real conversations with journalists.
- Artificial organs – Rothblatt’s organizations are advanced in developing pig-based organs to replace human ones, and sees a future where there would be enough to replace the hearts of everyone in America if needed, so our physical forms can keep living well past traditional limits
While this may seem like so much sci-fi, Rothblatt has advanced achievements in all of these, and an immense infrastructure behind her in pursuing them. In sort, she is closer to them than you might think, and is as capable as anyone of getting there.
Yet Rothblatt’s vision of the future, though arrived at with the best of intentions, is not universally popular. I am part of a team of Isobar staffers roaming SXSW this week, and we are all connected to a GroupMe to exchange comments. Some of my favorites from the group were “Breath-takingly naïve at points”, “She’s an extremist” and “I may spend the rest of the afternoon on the floor in a fetal position”. Strong reactions for sure.
So why do Rothblatt’s ideas feel so intuitively wrong? After all, she has arrived at them with the best of intentions – she speaks compellingly about Love as a driving force for her innovation, and her achievements in humanitarianism speak for themselves.
Are my colleagues and I just suffering from a form of future-shock? A natural reaction to the imminent removal of our human comfort zone? A reactionary aversion to any form of radical change?
I don’t think so. Rothblatt’s ideas are dangerous, untested and naïve.
It’s the naivety that really galls me, and it was revealed in her answers to some of the questions that came from the audience at the end of the session.
The irony of Rothblatt’s delusions is they are founded on fundamental misunderstandings of humanity. For someone who believes herself an expert in humanity, this rose-tinted vision of what we really are is self-deceiving and utopian to the point of dishonesty
She was unable in any real way to answer 4 fundamental areas of objection to her plans:
Resources – Transhumanism has immortality, or extending human life unnaturally, as one of its fundamental tenets. In a world suffering from catastrophic overpopulation and over-consumption, how does the world deal with people living significantly longer, or even forever? Her answer, that we will colonize other planets and that the universe is plenty big enough for more of us, was staggeringly blase. If a fundamental element of her belief system is founded on technologies and organizations that are nowhere near any attainable horizon, then that belief system is a house of cards.
The Democratization of Tech – Rothblatt’s ambition is to release as much of the new technology as possible to the open community, with the belief that as a species of collaborators, we will all work together to achieve a higher consciousness, and that the community will only deliver human augmentation that works in the best interests of all. While the internet can be a great force for good, every Google is balanced out by a Gamergate, every Kickstarter is balanced by a Silk Road. The notion that the Maker Community is populated by angels is the kind of notion you should only experience if you spend too long at SXSW. That’s the time to go home.
Amending the Human Experience – Human beings are uniquely fragile and complex. Rothblatt and her collaborators cannot possibly have any data on the effect on a psyche, real or virtual, that is forced to extend its existence beyond its natural cycle. Likewise, the effects of removing us from our fleshy containers would have effects we can only guess at. Rothblatt expresses firmly her lifelong attitude of ‘defying authority’, and it seems that Nature is one of the authorities she also defies. Unfortunately while she sees this as a noble crusade against mortality and disease, I believe this places her more adjacent to other attempts to defy nature, few of which have turned out well.
Regulation – When questioned on the governance of the new technologies, Rothblatt, stated, with no hint of irony, that ‘Regulation will have a role to play’. This understatement belies the fundamental truth that Regulation Always Fails. Considers some of the other seismic leaps in technology, and then think about how they have worked out for the human race as a whole:
- We learn how to split the atom, and instead of boundless free energy, we are left with Hiroshima, 40 years of Cold War, and a host of rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Israel holding the world hostage. Generations have grown up under the shadow of the bomb, with no end in site.
- We develop the internal combustion engine, promising horseless locomotion for all. This leaves us with 50% of the total surface area of cities such as Los Angeles buried under the tarmac of roads and parking lots, 4 parking spaces created for every car, and a global environmental catastrophe driven in large part by our addiction to cars
- The internet promised us free exchange of information. However we are now left with the NSA, Prism, and a debilitating generational addiction to screens
The fact is that we as a species are entirely unable to regulate ourselves – a combination of State and rogue actors, and national and corporate self-interest, combined with the endemic manipulation of regulation by powerful lobbies, all of which render Rothblatt’s faith in regulation a pipe dream.
Martine Rothblatt’s journey is one of inspiration on so many levels, and she is clearly a profoundly moral and loving person. She is also cresting the wave of human knowledge – there is no doubt that if it wasn’t her developing these new capabilities, someone else would. The fact is that there is little that we can imagine that we cannot achieve.
However, when passion and vision is not leavened by reason, it becomes obsession. When an idea becomes all-consuming, it becomes a cult.
No matter what Martine Rothblatt’s motivations are, she is determined to open the Pandora’s box of the human condition at its most fundamental level. Perhaps this is just one more facet of humanity’s race to its own demise. Or perhaps she is a necessary part of our evolution – as we render our planet increasingly incapable of supporting real life, will living through circuitry be the only choice we have?
In any event, immense credit to SXSW for bringing such an excellent and controversial speaker, and real fundamental issues to us. This is a debate which has only just begun.