Off the Cuff: Martine Rothblatt, CEO and Futurist

Martine Rothblatt, Founder of Sirius Satellite Radio and CEO of United Therapeutics

Photo courtesy of Ron Levine

Martine Rothblatt, Founder of Sirius Satellite Radio and CEO of United Therapeutics

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

Martine Rothblatt is one of the founders of Sirius Satellite Radio and the founder and CEO of United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company. Rothblatt founded United Therapeutics in 1996 to find a cure for her daughter’s rare lung disease. In 2013, she was the highest paid female CEO in the United States. Rothblatt wrote her dissertation for her Ph.D. in medical ethics of xenotransplantation, the act of transferring cells, organs or tissues from one species to another species. She is also the founder of the Terasem Movement Foundation, a nonprofit with the stated mission of promoting the ethical use of nanotechnology for extending human life. She has written several books, including Apartheid of Sex on gender identity and Two Stars for Peace on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rothblatt came out as transgender in 1994. Last Thursday, Rothblatt sat down with students from various campus media organizations for an interview before speaking in Finney Chapel as a convocation speaker.

You believe it will someday be possible to upload consciousness or preserve consciousness digitally. What gives you confidence that that’s the case?

I don’t know if you guys have read books by Ray Kurzweil or have heard of him; he wrote these books The Singularity Is Near [and] The Age of Spiritual Machines. So he’s the director of engineering at Google now and has published a lot of books. He was the first person to really show that if you plot the capabilities of computers on a graph, and then plot the processing capability of different minds — starting with an insect mind, then a rat mind, then a human mind — that by around 2030, the computers cross over the human capability, based on Moore’s Law: the doubling of information processing capability every couple years or so. So I read his books and actually I found it completely persuasive, and so it persuaded me.

What really got me the most, though, was at the end of his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, he said, “People argue over whether the universe will end in fire or ice.” By that, he means, if the mass of the universe is a certain mass, gravity is going to cause everything to collapse back on itself. Or, if the mass of the universe is not enough to counter the Big Bang, it’s just going to spread out and out farther and farther and everything is just going to end up blinked out and cold; you won’t even see the stars in the sky. And then he says, “These two physical points of view completely ignore human consciousness and the fact that humans have many times figured out ways to basically use the laws of physics to transcend physical limitations” — flying is just one of countless examples.

So that, to me, was such a fundamental insight: that even the laws of physics themselves were discovered by human consciousness, and what we thought were the laws of physics, like Newton, then Einstein says, ‘Well, no, that’s actually just a special subset, there’s much deeper ones.’ I believe that human consciousness is going to get “deeper and deeper ones.” So I felt that anybody who was so smart to figure out all that stuff was probably right about the fact that consciousness itself could be digitized.

Another thing is that there’s two schools of thought in philosophy: that everything is reducible to matter in some sort, and that things are not ultimately reducible to matter — like spiritualism versus what we call materialism — that everything is some sort of material. And just in my own logical way of thinking, it seemed to me that the materialism way was the more accurate way of thinking. So I thought, if you could build the human brain atom by atom and put it together and connect all the electrons, why wouldn’t that purposely-built human brain have the same consciousness as one that just organically evolved from an egg and a sperm? So that was another reason that made me think that cyberconsciousness is possible.

If you’re right about being able to create or preserve digital consciousness, then won’t those consciousnesses have moral claims? How will we know when those moral claims are valid?

Great question, absolutely, truly, and I would say that the heart of the book Virtually Human is dealing with particularly that issue. So the best I could really fathom [is], one, certainly if cyberconsciousness values its life, it has moral claims. Then the question is: How do you know it values its life and/or if it’s not just running a clever program and is really a puppet essentially of somebody else? My best answer to that is what I consider to be the largest field of the future, the largest profession of the future, is cyberpsychology. I think ultimately there will be individuals who will be cyberpsychologists, whether they’re flesh or nonflesh, it really doesn’t matter, and they’ll be trained to understand whether or not somebody really has the feelings that they have.

Of course, that’s not really different than things are today. … In my own case, when I did end up having gender reassignment surgery, I wasn’t able to just walk into a surgeon and say, “I want my penis converted into a vagina.” They wouldn’t do that because they’d be afraid of being sued and all that kind of stuff. So I spent a year with two separate psychologists who didn’t know each other, and I talked with each of them every week or so, for a year. At the end of the year, both of them wrote their letter that they believe this person is authentically of a female gender, and that they will not regret having the gender genital reassignment surgery.

So I think it will be something similar to that, that before a person has legal rights as a digital person, that they’ll have to pass what I call in the book “a real life test” that they have to spend a period of time such as a year — that’s an arbitrary number but it’s a round number — and be able to persuade a couple of psychologists that they’re in fact authentically human in their mindset. I point out another thing in the book, that we face the same issue in the legal system as well. Every time somebody is accused of a crime that requires intent, how do we know whether or not that person really had the intent? Well, if it’s a criminal thing, there is a jury or maybe a judge that decides whether or not the person had the intent; they make a judgment. They don’t see the person for a year, but they’re on the stand, blah blah blah.

So obviously juries get a lot of things wrong, shrinks get a lot of things wrong. And I point out that one of the consequences of all this [is] that there will almost surely end up being an underclass of digital people that are in fact autonomous, do really value their life, but have not been able to persuade psychologists or the legal system of their rights as human beings. Essentially those people are in exactly the same place as undocumented people in the United States today. And the conclusion of my book is that the best way for us to be able to prepare to deal justly and fairly with digital people who claim to have consciousness is to grant citizenship to the undocumented people in America today who say that they want to be American; they’ve demonstrated that with their feet by getting to America, and they should be granted citizenship just like somebody born here.