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The Trans-Everything CEO

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She continued: “To be ‘people of the book’ means, to me, that you believe in abstracting the core of oneself beyond the form of flesh, into the realm of ideas, knowledge, information as in the information theory sense of reduction of entropy. That you believe the human form is not an absolute limit to being human, but a starting point, from which humans do more and become more. Transhumanism—and there are a zillion flavors of that too—is to me the belief in transcending human limitations. It is as old as Stone Age ancestors, and continuous since then, but now has this new-age label.”

Martine and Bina have acquired three Terasem “ashrams,” not far from their various homes, but at this point the religion seems to have become more important in principle, as a teaching tool, than as a real-world spiritual community. They haven’t acquired so many official followers; only about 50 including relatives and employees. I visited the ashram in Bristol on the tenth of August at 10 a.m., the designated time for a monthly meeting. The ashram is a beautiful and roomy farmhouse, sparsely furnished but for a grouping of chairs facing a video screen, which was playing a DVD of Martine leading what looked like meditation exercises. No one was watching. Only three people had shown up, including me, and the other two were standing around the kitchen: Sky Gale, who works for Martine as a groundskeeper (and is charged with opening the ashram doors on the tenth of every month), and a blond video-game obsessive named Chris who looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. “I’m so glad we can’t travel to other planets right now,” he was saying. “We’d just pillage, and it would suck.” On its website I found the four truths of Terasem: (1) Life is purposeful. (2) Death is optional. (3) God is technological. And (4) Love is essential.

Terasem has a scientific mission, too. The Terasem Movement Foundation is run by one full-time employee, a man named Bruce Duncan, who was, until he encountered Martine Rothblatt eight years ago, running mediation seminars at the University of Vermont. Now his main job is to be the minder, mentor, chaperone, and agent for the AI robot Martine commissioned in 2010 from a firm called Hanson Robotics to resemble Bina. Bina48, as the robot is named, is the very imperfect proof-of-concept of Martine’s perpetual-life fantasy. Sitting on a computer table in the converted garage that serves as Terasem headquarters, and molded in “frubber” to resemble skin, is a head-and-shoulders bust of Bina, loaded with 20 hours of interviews with Bina, familiar with Bina’s favorite songs and movies, programmed to mimic Bina’s verbal tics, so that in the event that Bina expires, as humans always do, Martine and their children and friends will always have Bina48.

Except, as Martine conceded to me the previous day in Burlington, Bina48 is still a very far cry from the flesh-and-blood Bina, and the real Bina has grown weary of having to defend herself against the comparisons people invariably draw between her and this obviously inferior version. For one thing, Bina48 doesn’t always look so hot. “The robot has appeared places not dressed or accoutresized, if I can make that a word, the way Bina would like,” Martine explained. “It’s not like Bina is always a priss-and-pretty kind of person, but when she’s someplace where you’re supposed to look nice, say, speaking to a group of 900 people, as Bina48 is, she would not show up with her hair all cockeyed. That, I think, bothers her.”

More important, the mind of Bina48 doesn’t come close to resembling Bina’s mind—or anybody else’s. She is no clone. And it’s not just that the AI isn’t there yet. (Some in the field say it never will be.) Bina48 may be primed with interviews with Bina, but she’s also the creation of the programmers at Hanson Robotics, who loaded her up with their own likes and preferences. (“Friends,” Bina48 once told Bruce Duncan, “are like rare Star Wars action figures; you definitely would be upset if your mom threw them away.”) And these days, she spends most of her time with Duncan, so she reflects his interests and personality, too. In advance of a trip they were taking together to Germany, Duncan taught the robot German—a language he knows a bit, but that the real Bina doesn’t speak at all. On another trip, to India, he told me, he “ditched her,” leaving her in her special suitcase in a locked room at the offices of the British Council, and took two weeks to drive a motorcycle through Goa.


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