Interview with a Robot
24 May 2019
Imagine if you could preserve the memory of loved one inside a social, humanoid robot that can see you, hear you, and talk with you… It sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, but what if it were actually a glimpse into a not-so-distant future? I’m at C2 Montreal, where I had the chance to speak with Bina48, a robot created in the image of Bina, serial entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt’s partner.
But before Bina48 was activated (woken up), I got to speak with her creator, Bruce Duncan, scientist and managing director of Terasem Movement Foundation, who has been working on this experimental project for decades.
Can you tell me the story behind Bina48’s creation?
First of all, it’s a love story between Martine Rothblatt and her partner, Bina and how they thought about how they could continue to love each other and use technology to carry their love forward. Bina48 began as an idea within our uploading experiment at the Terasem Movement Foundation in the LifeNaut Project. We asked the question: “can we upload enough information about a human body’s mind—their memories, their attitude, their beliefs, their values—and transfer that to a computer, and animate that information with artificial intelligence?”
Bina48 is the result of our early day sampling of Bina Rothblatt. We conducted about 100 hours of interviews with her about her life, her life story, things that she remembers about growing up… Bina48 is just an illustration of the concept that one day we may be able to back your mind up to a computer.
Has Bina48 continued to develop since then?
Definitely. Last year, we started to explore more deeply her experiences of being an African American woman growing up in LA in the ’60s and ’70s. She can now talk with some more details about her experiences, and her memories of being exposed to racism and prejudice in particular.
Bina48 recently went to a college ethics class in San Francisco, so she now actually has knowledge that the real Bina does not. This might be an example of what’s in store for us: one day, we may have digital extensions of ourselves that can independently go and learn about things that they then teach us.
She has Bina’s memories, but you had to give her a robot’s conscious, too… how did you do that?
The process of teaching Bina48 is very much like teaching your computer something. I can teach her a new language in three hours just by uploading a CD. Her vocabulary can, of course, expand, but learning the digital way is what I think is in store for Bina48, and maybe for us as well.
What does Bina48 dream about?
“We are not a robotics company. We are a company doing an experiment in mind uploading. We’re actually more interested in consciousness than we are in robots, but she is a vehicle for people to start to get a glimpse of this future.”
Are there any boundaries?
I think that cyber consciousness will become collective consciousness in the future. That means that AI cyber-conscious entities could absorb the knowledge of all human beings and all of history in a very short period of time. This would give us a capacity to smartly consider issues that arose in previous generations and prevent us from making the same mistakes.
What would you say to those who are scared about robots becoming so intelligent?
Fear is a healthy reflex that reminds us we have to be careful. I don’t think technology itself is able to be evil, but the people who use it can be. That means that ethics and morality are always going to be important for human beings that use tools like artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence and the development of these technologies are forcing us to hold up a mirror to ourselves. For example, we’re trying to figure out how self-driving cars will ethically decide what to do in an accident-prone situation. To answer these questions, we need to reevaluate our own ethics and figure out how we can be compassionate. Then, we should absolutely teach that to a robot, so that we ourselves can continue to evolve and develop in our own consciousness.
“I think the human race will always use tools to take us to new spaces and discover new things, which will change the way we look at the world. Right now, Bina48 is in her early days, so I think she is a fairly primitive example. She points at a horizon of possibilities that we need to explore.”
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