The Grape, November 2015
“Be curious. Question authority. Act lovingly. Do practically.” So explained super-CEO, transhumanist philosopher, transgender activist, and artificial intelligence pioneer Martine Rothblatt after Marvin Krislov inquired about her secrets to a successful career and life. Rothblatt, the founder of Sirius XM and the pharmaceutical company United Therapeutics, could easily be daunting figure to share a room with. However, sitting onstage in Finney Chapel, she spoke clearly and comfortably, dissecting complex ideas in a down-to-earth, accessible manner. “I’m really excited to be at Oberlin,” she said, and her enthusiasm evident. As someone who wrote a book rejecting the gender binary over 20 years ago, Rothblatt seemed particularly at ease on a campus where science and social justice, as well as intellect and emotion, often intersect.
Rothblatt spent much of her conversation with Krislov discussing her evolution from a space engineer (creating the technology for Sirius radio), to a medical ethics lawyer, to her current role as a transhumanist scientist helping to pioneer the fields of digital consciousness as well as xenotransplantation. However, she became especially animated when asked to give advice to both students and faculty. Rothblatt quickly filled in the audience on her personal history—then Martin, she dropped out of UCLA after two years to travel the world, ending up on the Seychelle islands. “I had a flute with me,” she said. “I was just hanging out playing flute.” One day, her band visited the NASA satellite tracking station on one of the islands, in what proved to be a life-changing moment. “I don’t know if it was because I was high or what, but it totally resonated with me,” she said, to much laughter. She then resolved to find a way to make satellite signals stronger. She went back to UCLA, finished her degree, and eventually used the technology to create Sirius radio. “You waste your time in school if you don’t have a passion for what you want to do,” she advised students. “The job of the professor is to find the passion for each student, and the job of the student is to seek your passion.”
What follows is a transcription of an interview between Rothblatt and student journalists from The Grape, Synapse, and The Oberlin Review.
Willa Kerkhoff, Synapse: Could you tell us about your pharmaceutical company, UT, and why you founded it?
Martine Rothblatt: There was a molecule that seemed like it could slow the progression of [my daughter’s] disease. [Other companies] wouldn’t develop it themselves, wouldn’t do anything with it, and they wouldn’t let me develop it unless I had a pharmaceutical company. So I decided to call it United Therapeutics, and that’s the only reason I did it. Because previously, all my life I was a spacer, and I’m still pretty much a spacer, and I was head of Sirius XM and started that, and it never occurred to me, to like, run a pharmaceutical company.
Justine Goode, The Grape: You’ve worked in so many different fields over the course of your career. I was wondering if you could speak to the experience of starting over after being so knowledgeable in one area.
MR: Yeah, I mean in many ways, I would say the starting over part is something I like because I do really love to learn things. So I’d say I’m like a “learnophile” [laughs]. I find a lot of things to be really interesting, so I just like to learn about them. And to tell you the truth, I was extremely ignorant about life sciences. The last time I took biology was in 10th grade, and I was able to go all the way through college without taking life sciences; it wasn’t required in my major. So when I began to read about this stuff, I actually began to get really astonished. Like, for example, I would learn that there are ten times more bacteria on our body than there are cells based on our DNA. So bacteria are also cells, they just don’t have a nucleus, but they’re still cells. And then there’s cells that have our DNA in them. So you begin to think, “Wow, are we actually humans or are we bacteria? And are bacteria colonizing us? Or are we colonizing the bacteria?” And it gets to be a very interesting question. Just little things like that got me tripping, you know? So, I didn’t really mind it. I have started over another time—for example, I didn’t know how to fly, and I decided I wanted to learn. So I had to get my pilot’s license and helicopter’s pilot license, and that’s also starting over, because when you start you pretty much know nothing about airplanes and flying and aerodynamics. So I’m just a person who likes to learn.
Oliver Bok, The Oberlin Review: So you can correct me if I don’t have this right, but in my research it seems that you believe that it will someday be possible to upload consciousness, or preserve consciousness.
OB: What gives you confidence that that’s the case?
MR: So it’s pretty much — have you guys read any books by Ray Kurzweil? Have you heard of him at all? He wrote a book called The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines. So he’s the director of engineering at Google now, and he has published a lot of books. He was the first person to really show that if you plopped the capability of computers on a graph, and then you plop the processing capabilities of different minds—the insect mind and the rat mind and the 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 all his books, and actually I found it completely persuasive. What really got me the most though, was at the end of his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, he said that people argue over whether the universe is going to end in fire or ice, and by that he means that if the mass of the universe is a certain mass, the 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 then everything is going to end up blinked out and cold. 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 used the laws of physics to transcend physical limitations, and you know, flying is just one of the countless examples.
So that, to me, was such a fundamental insight about how even the laws of physics themselves, they were discovered by human consciousness. And I believe human consciousness is going to keep getting deeper and deeper. So I felt like anybody who was smart enough to figure out all that stuff was probably right about the fact that consciousness itself could be digitized. Another thing is that there are these two schools of thought about philosophy, that everything is reducible, ultimately, to matter of some sort, or that things aren’t ultimately reducible to matter: materialism versus spiritualism. And just in my logical way of thinking, it seemed to me that the materialism way was a more accurate way of thinking. So I thought, if you could build atom by atom a human brain, and put it together and connect all the electrons, why wouldn’t that purposefully 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 cyber-consciousness was possible.
Carolyn Burnham, The Grape: I was curious about how you view transhumanism as a way of deconstructing gender and race relations?
MR: Yeah, I really got interested in transhumanism when I saw on the website of this thing called the World Transhumanist Association-- that they were open to transgender people. Frankly, I’ve not met very many LGBT people in the transhumanist community, and that is part of the reason I wrote that book From Transgender to Transhuman. I want people to see that basically, the way I phrase it, is that mind is deeper than matter, and that what might appear to be your gender is secondary to your mind and how you see yourself. And the transhumanist people who talk about making a superhuman, or altering their bodies in different ways, I don’t think they really realize that they are just following in the wake of people doing body modification and body piercing. I would say even tattooing is a radical scientific activity, paving the way for looking at your body as just a canvas for your mind. So I look at everything from tattooing, body piercing, body modification, being transgender, all as basically forms of art.
WK: I believe you’re also currently involved in some work to grow transplant organs using genetically modified pigs. But I’m interested in, because of the way political discourse around genetically modified organisms works right now in our country, how you foresee that affecting the future of the project, and how you see yourself being able to distribute organs.
MR: It’s a great question. Of course I have no idea how everything will turn out, but I can give you some anecdotes. So when I was growing up, in my teens, the idea was that plastic was bad. Plastic was the GMO. And people would pretty much thumb their nose at everything plastic. And then it’s interesting, because when my kids grew up—they were teenagers pretty much in the 90s—I wouldn’t go so far as to say plastic was cool, but it was like, “Why are you against plastic? It’s just plastic.” They just didn’t get it all. So right now, I would say there is a mindset that genetically modified organisms are bad, if it’s GMO it’s not organic, it’s no good if it’s GM. But it is very possible that in another 10 or 20 years when it turns out everybody hasn’t died from eating GM food, that people like your guys’ kids will just laugh at it a little bit and say, “Well, if the two molecules connect to each other because of the result of three billion years of evolution, or because somebody put them together, what difference does it really make?” And if you’re against genetically modified things, does that mean you’re against, like, dogs? Because dogs were very consciously genetically modified by people. So I kind of think it’s a phase.
JG: It seems as though there’s been a sea change in the past few years with how people view gender and the gender binary, as well as an increase in the visibility of transgender activists and artists. But you published a book [The Apartheid of Sex] in which you rejected the gender binary in 1995, so I was wondering if we could get your perspective on this evolution of public consciousness.
MR: Thank you so much for referencing that book, I really appreciate it because actually of all my books, that’s my favorite one. And it’s just so funny, my partner and I were just laughing this morning because we were reading that in Texas, people don’t want transwomen to be able to use the women’s restroom. In the book in ’95, I had a chapter called “The Bathroom Bugaboo,” and it actually pointed out a lot of statistics that show that in fact, rape occurs more often in gender separated spaces, not in mixed spaces. Because if it was a mixed gender bathroom, somebody who was of a rapist mindset would be more reluctant to go in there knowing that another guy might walk in at any moment. But it’s actually just a statistic that people look for gender-segregated spaces, even if it’s just an empty space, to perform evil things. So anyways, the issue has been going on for at least 20 years, and personally my solution for this is that I think it’s very segregated to have separate bathrooms for men and women. And I think it’s easy to accommodate both genders in the same locker room. I think even “both” genders is a false word. In my view, gender is an aspect of your personality, and just like being extroverted and introverted, you’re not one or the other, there’s a whole continuum. I think there’s a whole continuum of how male or how female you are. And it’s just society that forces people to pick sides. And it would be better if people were able to develop with whatever gender personality they wanted to have.
OB: I guess in terms of digital consciousness, will that consciousness have moral claims? And how do we know when we’re there, when those moral claims are considered valid?
MR: Great question, absolutely. I would say that’s the heart of the book Virtually Human, dealing with that issue. So the best I could really fathom is that one, certainly if cyber consciousness values its life, it has moral claim. But then the question is, how do know if it values its life, or if it’s just a program that’s essentially a puppet of somebody else. My best answer to that is what I consider to be the largest field in the future, the largest future profession—cyberpsychology. I ultimately think that individuals will become cyberpsychologists, whether they’re flesh or not flesh it really doesn’t matter, and they’ll be trained to understand whether or not somebody really has the feelings that they have.
And of course, that’s not really different than things are today. In my own case, I did end up having my gender reassignment surgery, and 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. So I spent a year with two separate psychologists who didn’t know each other, and I talked with each of them every week for an hour, for a year. At the end of the year, both of them wrote their own letter saying they believed this person was authentically of a female gender, and they will not regret having 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 a “real life test,” where they have to spend a period of time such as a year, and be able to persuade a couple of psychologists that they in fact are authentically human in their mindset.