AUSTIN – In a not-too-far-future, robotic mind-clones will accompany us to the ballot box or grocery store, sit in on business meetings we can’t make, argue with us occasionally and keep our essence alive long after we’re gone.
That’s the vision pharma tycoon and futurist Martine Rothblatt shared Sunday with several thousand attendees during one of the more popular events of Day 3 of SXSW Interactive.
“There will be continued advances in software that we see throughout our entire life,” Rothblatt told a packed audience in the cavernous Exhibit Hall 5 during her keynote speech. “Eventually, these advances in software will rise to the level of consciousness.”
Rothblatt is the founder of Sirius Satellite Radio, current chief executive of United Therapeutics and was recently named by Forbes as the highest-paid female CEO in America. She is a transgender activist and a trans-humanist philosopher who believes technology will one day grant humans eternal life.
At the keynote, Rothblatt described how the inevitable emergence of cyber consciousness – when machines act with a sophistication and thought level equal to that of humans – will not be overnight but a more subtle evolution.
“Every company will try to out-Siri Siri until we have consciousness,” she said, referring to the Apple/iOS application that works as a personal assistant and navigator. “It will be like water that rises and rises and rises and, before we know it, we’re in an ocean of cyber consciousness.”
Artificial intelligence and robotics have been key – and controversial – themes at this year’s SXSW. A slew of panel discussions and keynote speeches on the topic have drawn thousands of attendees, while films screening at the film festival portion of SXSW, such as Ex Machina and Creative Control, have addressed it in their plot lines.
The themes have also prompted protests outside the conference warning of an over-reliance on artificial intelligence to the detriment of humans. In one, a group of protestors held signs reading “Stop the Robots” while chanting “A-I Say Goodbye!”
Rothblatt said robots and humans don’t have to choose sides – such as in the plotlines seen in popular Hollywood movies – but will live in a peaceful co-existence that will make them virtually indistinguishable from one another.
“It’s not us versus cyberspace,” she said. “We’re merging together.”
She added: “We don’t want to create a new slave-versus-free motif. I’m all for merging everyone together. On the level of consciousness, we’re all one.”
Rothblatt has applied many of her theories to practical experiments, including creating a lifelike robotic replica of her longtime wife, Bina Aspen. The robot, named Bina48, could answer questions and replies using the real Bina’s characteristics and mannerisms.
Robots in the future will have constitutional rights and even “cyber psychiatrists” who will ease the cyber’s anxiety of not being completely human, she said.
Through United Therapeutics, a company she founded nearly two decades ago to save the life of her daughter, who suffered from a rare pulmonary disease, Rothblatt has overseen advances in organ regeneration and the system used to ferry organs from donor to patient.
As those and other breakthroughs advance, coupled with gains in software and robotics, cyber-technology will continue to push the envelope of human existence, she said. That world, not too far off, will off the chance to keep living well past traditional limits.
“We are the species that keeps pushing further and further and further,” Rothblatt said. “There is no line in the sand at which point human consciousness has to end.”