When you think about the headliners at a music festival, it’s unlikely that the first person to pop into your head would be Martine Rothblatt—the founder of Sirius XM, the one-time highest-paid female CEO in the world who made a robot clone of her wife, and the founder of the Terasem religion, which believes we’ll live forever by uploading our consciousness to the cloud. But Moogfest, a four-day citywide festival of music and technology in Durham, North Carolina, was not the average music festival. Unlike other festivals that make cursory overtures to technology, Moogfest dedicated as much time to explaining how technology influences creativity as to the creative output itself, even listing headline ‘technologists’ alongside its top-billed musical acts.
On the festival’s second day, Friday 20 May, Rothblatt took the stage to talk to a packed house at Durham’s Carolina Theater, in an atmosphere that felt far more like a TED talk than a music fest. Rothblatt, who is transgender, discussed the contentious North Carolina HB2 law, which bans transgender people from using public bathrooms of the gender they identify with; the idea that creativity would be better encouraged by free college tuition; and how she got to a point where she and her company, United Therapeutics, can actually think about 3D printing new body parts, and leaving our bodies behind—if we want. “You want to win more than you want to live,” she told the rapt crowd. “You yell ‘Geronimo’ as you jump crazily into monopolistic opposition.”
Quartz sat down with Rothblatt after her talk to chat more about her thoughts on AI, living forever, free education, and what happens to the soul once we’ve made digital copies of ourselves.
You spoke today about transhumanism. I’m wondering what you see as the stepping stones, the actual machinations that we’ll have to go through, between now and the point where we’ll be able to create digital versions of the brain?
I think there are dozens and dozens of subroutines that need to be written, that each one of which addresses some aspect of consciousness. And bit by bit, especially as these get presented as open architectures that people can crowd-source contributions, you’re going to see people saying, “Okay, if I take these tree building block routines to put together, then I’ve got something that’s kind of like a rat’s consciousness, and I take these four, I get the consciousness of a bird.” And so what’s needed—and I don’t think it’s that many, I’d say it’s less than 100 subroutines probably comprise all of our consciousness. And I get that number largely from Marvin Minksy’s book The Emotion Machine. And he pretty much estimates that there’s something on the order of 100 subroutines that can account from everything from love, hate, fear, hope, and drive—all the basic motivations that underlie consciousness. Each one of which are susceptible to coding. That’s probably the harder part. The interface with a relational database that represents basically all the content that needs to be processed by that code, I think is going to be a much more straightforward problem. That part of the problem will mostly be driven by gigantic IT companies like Amazon and Google, and I expect most of the actual ‘mindware’ some will be done by companies, like the IBM Watson team and people like that. But I expect most of it will done by people in the maker movement and hacker space.
I came across this 2007 quote of yours in CNN Money: “I no longer have any doubt about the benefit of using profit motivation to develop cures.” You started United Therapeutics to find a simpler cure for the disease that plagued your daughter. Do you still believe in what you said, and how does a capitalistic structure like this work for things like free college tuition?
I’m a pretty practical person. To develop things like a medicine, you cannot really realistically develop even a simple medicine, much less a more complicated one, with less than about 100 people. Because of the rules of the FDA, you have to have people who are experts: First of all, you need chemists to actually make the medicine. Then you have to have people who know how to manufacture for quantity—not just making a little bit. Then you have to have quality assurance people. You have to have all these people, and you haven’t even started testing the medicine. So you can see very quickly that you need at least 100 people to develop a medicine.
Now, I can be motivated by saving Jenesis, my daughter; I could care less about the money—I never did it for the money—I didn’t do Sirius for the money either. Because I’m a ‘spacer,’ I want to do whatever I can to get people off the planet, and that was what I could do. But, to find myself a pre-clinical drug developer, a medical monitor, a synthetic chemist, a fill finish formulator—the only thing that’s going to appeal to those people is giving them a salary, and the way I tried to get them over other people is to say I can also give you stock, and the stock will be worth money, and maybe instead of retiring at 70 you can retire at 40. I found that money is not a sufficient motivator, but it’s a necessary motivator. You also can’t treat people like shit. You need to treat people respectfully and give them really interesting things to work on. And you need to give them a competitive financial package. The only way to complete that financial package is with some sort of profit motivation—something that is going to make the stock price go up, so that their own wealth goes up. Even when we were private, they’d have to see that there’s some way to have some sort of profit sharing, otherwise they might go somewhere else.
I’m not saying I’m against for-profit education; I’m against making students pay for it. So I really have no problem with for-profit education if it’s like for-profit highway construction. But I just don’t think you should make everyone riding the highways pay for it like a toll. If everywhere was a tollway, then poor people might not be able to get from one place to the other. And I think the whole American economy would drop drown if you had to stop like in a warzone and pay a little bounty every few miles to somebody. I don’t have a problem with for-profit education, but don’t make the students pay for it, because I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me, “I’m not going to graduate school because I don’t want to end up with a quarter-million dollars in debt.” I don’t blame them.
Now you end up with a situation, which is: the only people who can go to graduate school are children of rich people or the very few people who are willing to graduate with, like, a quarter-million dollars in debt. So you’ve taken all these people who’ve come up with brilliant, creative ideas, and you’ve shunted them all away from going to school. To me, it’s self-defeating to the whole country. If we want to have for-profit education, then I would say it’s part of what our tax dollars are paid for, that the government should pay an entity—whether it’s a Harvard or a University of Phoenix—$1,000 per student per credit. Something like that. We’d have people inspecting, just like we have people inspecting meatpacking plants, come in and inspect your educational plant, and check that you’re not teaching them basket-weaving, that the government is getting something safe for the public’s investment.
It doesn’t seem that hard to me, and it’s the way it used to be. Like, when I went to UCLA, I paid $200 a quarter, for taking as many classes as I wanted. All 30,000 people going there paid $200 for taking as many classes as we wanted. And I had a job outside of school—I used the money from delivering newspapers and waiting tables—and once a quarter, I paid my $200 to the regents of the University of California. Like I said in my talk, we have cool things like digital signal processing because that’s what was happening. And all that’s changed is that it went from the State of California paying like 90% of the cost of the University of California to today they pay 10%. And so the students now have to pay like $20,000. That’s just horribly wrong, like how HB2 is just wrong. It is just wrong, but it’s also self-defeating for North Carolina. Because already my HR department says people are calling and asking like, “Isn’t North Carolina like really prejudiced against gay people and stuff?” So already people we’re recruiting were reluctant to come to North Carolina because of the perception of HB2. So it’s self-defeating, like charging people a ridiculous amount of money to get an education is. It’s self-defeating for the whole country.
Sorry, this is one of my hot-button topics. I’m feeling the Bern on that one.
The work that United Therapeutics is now doing, aiming to 3D print human organs—how does that work in relation to your belief of digital transcendence? Is making the human body plug-and-play a stopgap to a time when we can just upload our consciousness to the internet?
I do not believe that people are ever going to want to give up their bodies. I think the body is such an amazing thing, in all of its various functions—the sense of touch, the “delecticity” of eating, smelling roses, making love, you name it. The vast majority of people are not going to want to give up their bodies, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be able to be running a parallel life and getting more done in their life having a cyber-doppelganger of themselves that has transcended their body, and is doing all sorts of cool things on the internet that their body can’t do because our bodies have limitations. For example, I’m a bibliophile—I cannot read all the books that I buy and I want to read. I am comfortable with the notion that if there was a digital version of Martine and she was reading all those books, she would be loving and reading those books. Just because the biological version of me has not read those books doesn’t mean that I’m not reading those books. I am comfortable with the notion that my identity can transcend body and digital substrate so that I would have a more full life—the total Martine—than if I was just a body or just digital.
In that case, where does the soul reside?
I think the soul resides across both bodies. And I understand that throughout history people believed that the soul is in just one place and I discussed this a lot in my book Virtually Human. Your soul is like what we could call the core of your operating system. You could almost refer to it as your source code. It’s the part of your operating system that does not change, or if it changes, it changes very, very slowly over a long time. Any change in your soul has a radical effect—like an earthquake in your consciousness. So there’s no problem with having that soul exist within both your own body, in your own mind, as well as in a digital replica or analog of yourself. It has that same soul, which means certain things are super important. Like, I love my parents, I love my wife, I believe in treating people fairly, I’ve got kind of a wild side that I like to explore—all the peccadillos of every individual can be digitally replicated, and then their soul has transcended their body and their digital self. So then what happens, let’s say, when your body smashes or your digital self collapses, your soul is going to be aware of it, because your soul won’t have fully collapsed. Your soul’s going to say, “Shit, that is fucked up! I’ve lost my body!” It’ll be like the old days with hard drives and not backing stuff up. Your soul will be fucking pissed off, but it will still be your soul. If somebody loses an arm, they’re going to be pissed off, but they’re still going to be themselves.
But at a certain point, a soul may say, ”I don’t want to exist anymore.” Suicide is not going to go away. It’s already passed automobiles as the larger cause of death. So suicide won’t go away, but I do believe that suicide is a mental health problem, and is the result of us not having enough people in society reaching out to other people who are feeling hopeless. That’s something, as society advances, we’ll spend more time on.