Immortality is the new black




SXSW Interactive is a time and place where many people are extremely eager (I think the word interested is too understated for an American context) to know what the next big thing is; to get on it, to not be left behind. This desperation can lead you down a lot of rabbit holes. There are so many sessions and speakers that employ clickbait-style headlines and, of course, just don’t deliver the magic they promise. But they’re preying on the weak and vulnerable. Not the ever-declining tech or ‘maker’ presence, but us lot that are all lumped in as marketers. The gang that are usually just behind the curve, despite how we often see ourselves. We are growing rapidly in numbers at SXSWi. We are desperate to know as much as we can about topics under the broad pillars of content strategy, data, social sharing etc. And there are certainly things to be learned in these areas at SXSWi, but the great stuff is rare. Instead, SXSWi is now ideally regarded as an incredible opportunity to be inspired to think differently about the world.

Martine Rothblatt is the highest paid female CEO in the US. She used to be a he. Martine is a lawyer, author, entrepreneur, and futurist. There’s a lot of futurists at SXSWi. But I’m fairly certain she is the only transgender, transhumanist futurist. Her achievements are many, including founding groundbreaking Sirius Radio and driving innumerable medical breakthroughs, and is currently close to finding a way to have a never ending supply of transplant organs. She is a person of considerable substance and realised vision.

But it’s the current transhumanism work and thinking that she’s associated with at her company United Therapeutics that is truly gobsmacking.

Transhumanism is essentially the state in which we have digital consciousness. Our identities will transcend our bodies. If our biological selves die, our cyber selves will live on. (Though there is plenty of talk around the potential of biological lives being sustained for much, much longer than currently – UK computer science and physics legend Stephen Wolfram talked at SXSWi about having no doubt that we will achieve immortality in coming decades via a likely series of biological patches!)

Rothblatt’s team created a robot version of her/his wife of thirty years. The process is based around creating a ‘mindfile’—a digital database of a person’s mannerisms, personality, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and values gleaned from social media, email, videos, and other sources. From this they created a robot that can chat, Tweet, and even express complex human emotions such as jealousy and pain in ways that mimic the person she was modeled after.

You can imagine how the early days of the data revolution we’re seeing plays a role here. The cogent gathering of personal information and profiling is a preliminary part of the ‘mindfile’ process.

Rothblatt was interviewed in her SXSWi keynote by a journalist from The New Yorker, who spent some time with the robot wife. What she had to say was just astounding. It could articulate genuine emotions and even had a sense of itself as distinguished from its model/host/human self. I get shivers thinking about it. As Rothblatt pointed out, this was just her team’s creation. Can you begin to imagine how sophisticated such AI will be when it’s open sourced and you have millions of makers around the world contributing?

She sees the evolution of it being very gradual. Probably a case of companies trying to outdo Siri and eventually we will reach true cyber consciousness and transhumanism, and thus immortality of a genuine kind. Notwithstanding significant ethical debate, it will be the greatest mirror humanity has ever had.

Personally, I’m going to learn cyber psychiatry and will be cashing in.


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