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TED2015

Martine Rothblatt: My daughter, my wife, our robot, and the quest for immortality

March 18, 2015

The founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, Martine Rothblatt now heads up a drug company that makes life-saving medicines for rare diseases (including one drug that saved her own daughter's life). Meanwhile she is working to preserve the consciousness of the woman she loves in a digital file ... and a companion robot. In an onstage conversation with TED's Chris Anderson, Rothblatt shares her powerful story of love, identity, creativity, and limitless possibility.

Martine Rothblatt - Transhumanist
Whether she’s inventing satellite radio, developing life-saving drugs or digitizing the human mind, Martine Rothblatt has a knack for turning visionary ideas into commonplace technology. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Chris Anderson: So I guess
what we're going to do is
00:12
we're going to talk about your life,
00:14
and using some pictures
that you shared with me.
00:17
And I think we should start
right here with this one.
00:20
Okay, now who is this?
00:23
Martine Rothblatt: This is me
with our oldest son Eli.
00:26
He was about age five.
00:31
This is taken in Nigeria
00:33
right after having taken
the Washington, D.C. bar exam.
00:35
CA: Okay. But this doesn't
really look like a Martine.
00:39
MR: Right. That was myself as a male,
the way I was brought up.
00:43
Before I transitioned from male
to female and Martin to Martine.
00:51
CA: You were brought up Martin Rothblatt.
00:55
MR: Correct.
00:57
CA: And about a year after this picture,
you married a beautiful woman.
00:58
Was this love at first sight?
What happened there?
01:03
MR: It was love at the first sight.
01:05
I saw Bina at a discotheque
in Los Angeles,
01:07
and we later began living together,
01:11
but the moment I saw her,
I saw just an aura of energy around her.
01:15
I asked her to dance.
01:19
She said she saw an aura
of energy around me.
01:20
I was a single male parent.
She was a single female parent.
01:23
We showed each other
our kids' pictures,
01:27
and we've been happily married
for a third of a century now.
01:30
(Applause)
01:34
CA: And at the time, you were
kind of this hotshot entrepreneur,
01:38
working with satellites.
01:41
I think you had two successful companies,
01:43
and then you started
addressing this problem
01:45
of how could you use satellites
to revolutionize radio.
01:47
Tell us about that.
01:51
MR: Right. I always
loved space technology,
01:53
and satellites, to me, are sort of
like the canoes that our ancestors
01:55
first pushed out into the water.
01:59
So it was exciting for me
to be part of the navigation
02:01
of the oceans of the sky,
02:05
and as I developed different types
of satellite communication systems,
02:07
the main thing I did was to launch
bigger and more powerful satellites,
02:12
the consequence of which
was that the receiving antennas
02:17
could be smaller and smaller,
02:21
and after going through
direct television broadcasting,
02:23
I had the idea that if we could make
a more powerful satellite,
02:26
the receiving dish could be so small
02:30
that it would just be a section
of a parabolic dish,
02:33
a flat little plate embedded
into the roof of an automobile,
02:36
and it would be possible to have
nationwide satellite radio,
02:40
and that's Sirius XM today.
02:44
CA: Wow. So who here has used Sirius?
02:46
(Applause)
02:48
MR: Thank you for
your monthly subscriptions.
02:51
(Laughter)
02:53
CA: So that succeeded despite
all predictions at the time.
02:56
It was a huge commercial success,
03:00
but soon after this, in the early 1990s,
03:02
there was this big transition in your life
and you became Martine.
03:07
MR: Correct.
CA: So tell me, how did that happen?
03:11
MR: It happened in consultation with Bina
and our four beautiful children,
03:16
and I discussed with each of them
03:23
that I felt my soul was always female,
and as a woman,
03:28
but I was afraid people would
laugh at me if I expressed it,
03:34
so I always kept it bottled up
03:39
and just showed my male side.
03:41
And each of them
had a different take on this.
03:44
Bina said, "I love your soul,
03:47
and whether the outside
is Martin and Martine,
03:52
it doesn't it matter to me,
I love your soul."
03:55
My son said, "If you become a woman,
will you still be my father?"
03:58
And I said, "Yes,
I'll always be your father,"
04:05
and I'm still his father today.
04:09
My youngest daughter did an absolutely
brilliant five-year-old thing.
04:12
She told people, "I love my dad
and she loves me."
04:17
So she had no problem
with a gender blending whatsoever.
04:23
CA: And a couple years after this,
you published this book:
04:28
"The Apartheid of Sex."
04:31
What was your thesis in this book?
04:33
MR: My thesis in this book is that there
are seven billion people in the world,
04:35
and actually, seven billion unique ways
to express one's gender.
04:39
And while people may have
the genitals of a male or a female,
04:44
the genitals don't determine your gender
04:51
or even really your sexual identity.
04:54
That's just a matter of anatomy
04:57
and reproductive tracts,
04:58
and people could choose
whatever gender they want
05:00
if they weren't forced by society
into categories of either male or female
05:03
the way South Africa used to force people
into categories of black or white.
05:09
We know from anthropological science
that race is fiction,
05:13
even though racism is very, very real,
05:17
and we now know from cultural studies
05:20
that separate male or female genders
is a constructed fiction.
05:23
The reality is a gender fluidity
05:27
that crosses the entire continuum
from male to female.
05:30
CA: You yourself don't always
feel 100 percent female.
05:34
MR: Correct. I would say in some ways
05:37
I change my gender about as often
as I change my hairstyle.
05:39
CA: (Laughs) Okay, now, this is
your gorgeous daughter, Jenesis.
05:43
And I guess she was about this age
when something pretty terrible happened.
05:50
MR: Yes, she was finding herself
unable to walk up the stairs
05:55
in our house to her bedroom,
06:00
and after several months of doctors,
06:02
she was diagnosed to have a rare,
almost invariably fatal disease
06:04
called pulmonary arterial hypertension.
06:09
CA: So how did you respond to that?
06:13
MR: Well, we first tried to get her
to the best doctors we could.
06:15
We ended up at Children's National
Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
06:19
The head of pediatric cardiology
06:23
told us that he was going to refer her
to get a lung transplant,
06:25
but not to hold out any hope,
06:29
because there are
very few lungs available,
06:31
especially for children.
06:33
He said that all people
with this illness died,
06:35
and if any of you have seen
the film "Lorenzo's Oil,"
06:40
there's a scene when the protagonist
06:44
kind of rolls down the stairway
crying and bemoaning the fate of his son,
06:46
and that's exactly
how we felt about Jenesis.
06:52
CA: But you didn't accept that
as the limit of what you could do.
06:56
You started trying to research
and see if you could find a cure somehow.
06:59
MR: Correct. She was in the intensive
care ward for weeks at a time,
07:04
and Bina and I would tag team
to stay at the hospital
07:08
while the other watched
the rest of the kids,
07:12
and when I was in the hospital
and she was sleeping,
07:14
I went to the hospital library.
07:17
I read every article that I could find
on pulmonary hypertension.
07:19
I had not taken any biology,
even in college,
07:24
so I had to go from a biology textbook
to a college-level textbook
07:27
and then medical textbook
and the journal articles, back and forth,
07:33
and eventually I knew enough to think
that it might be possible
07:37
that somebody could find a cure.
07:41
So we started a nonprofit foundation.
07:43
I wrote a description
asking people to submit grants
07:47
and we would pay for medical research.
07:51
I became an expert on the condition --
doctors said to me, Martine,
07:54
we really appreciate all the funding
you've provided us,
07:57
but we are not going to be able
to find a cure in time
08:01
to save your daughter.
08:05
However, there is a medicine
08:07
that was developed at the
Burroughs Wellcome Company
08:09
that could halt the progression
of the disease,
08:14
but Burroughs Wellcome has just
been acquired by Glaxo Wellcome.
08:17
They made a decision not to develop
08:22
any medicines for rare
and orphan diseases,
08:24
and maybe you could use your expertise
in satellite communications
08:27
to develop this cure
for pulmonary hypertension.
08:32
CA: So how on earth did you get
access to this drug?
08:37
MR: I went to Glaxo Wellcome
08:40
and after three times being rejected
and having the door slammed in my face
08:42
because they weren't going
to out-license the drug
08:47
to a satellite communications expert,
08:51
they weren't going to send the drug
out to anybody at all,
08:54
and they thought
I didn't have the expertise,
09:00
finally I was able to persuade
a small team of people to work with me
09:03
and develop enough credibility.
09:10
I wore down their resistance,
09:12
and they had no hope this drug
would even work, by the way,
09:14
and they tried to tell me,
"You're just wasting your time.
09:17
We're sorry about your daughter."
09:20
But finally, for 25,000 dollars
09:22
and agreement to pay 10 percent
of any revenues we might ever get,
09:25
they agreed to give me
worldwide rights to this drug.
09:29
CA: And so you put this drug on the market
in a really brilliant way,
09:34
by basically charging what it would take
to make the economics work.
09:40
MR: Oh yes, Chris, but this really wasn't
a drug that I ended up --
09:45
after I wrote the check for 25,000,
09:49
and I said, "Okay, where's
the medicine for Jenesis?"
09:52
they said, "Oh, Martine,
there's no medicine for Jenesis.
09:54
This is just something we tried in rats."
09:57
And they gave me, like,
a little plastic Ziploc bag
10:00
of a small amount of powder.
10:03
They said, "Don't give it to any human,"
10:05
and they gave me a piece of paper
which said it was a patent,
10:08
and from that, we had to figure out
a way to make this medicine.
10:12
A hundred chemists in the U.S.
at the top universities
10:15
all swore that little patent
could never be turned into a medicine.
10:18
If it was turned into a medicine,
it could never be delivered
10:23
because it had a half-life
of only 45 minutes.
10:26
CA: And yet, a year or two later,
you were there with a medicine
10:30
that worked for Jenesis.
10:34
MR: Chris, the astonishing thing
is that this absolutely worthless
10:38
piece of powder
10:43
that had the sparkle of a promise
of hope for Jenesis
10:45
is not only keeping Jenesis
and other people alive today,
10:49
but produces almost a billion
and a half dollars a year in revenue.
10:54
(Applause)
10:58
CA: So here you go.
11:02
So you took this company public, right?
11:05
And made an absolute fortune.
11:08
And how much have you paid Glaxo,
by the way, after that 25,000?
11:11
MR: Yeah, well, every year we pay them
10 percent of 1.5 billion,
11:15
150 million dollars,
last year 100 million dollars.
11:19
It's the best return on investment
they ever received. (Laughter)
11:22
CA: And the best news of all, I guess,
11:25
is this.
11:28
MR: Yes. Jenesis is an absolutely
brilliant young lady.
11:29
She's alive, healthy today at 30.
11:34
You see me, Bina and Jenesis there.
11:36
The most amazing thing about Jenesis
11:39
is that while she could do
anything with her life,
11:42
and believe me, if you grew up
your whole life with people
11:45
in your face saying
that you've got a fatal disease,
11:48
I would probably run to Tahiti and just
not want to run into anybody again.
11:51
But instead she chooses to work
in United Therapeutics.
11:56
She says she wants to do all she can
to help other people
11:59
with orphan diseases get medicines,
12:03
and today, she's our project leader
for all telepresence activities,
12:05
where she helps digitally unite
the entire company to work together
12:10
to find cures for pulmonary hypertension.
12:13
CA: But not everyone who has this disease
has been so fortunate.
12:16
There are still many people dying,
and you are tackling that too. How?
12:19
MR: Exactly, Chris. There's some 3,000
people a year in the United States alone,
12:24
perhaps 10 times that number worldwide,
12:28
who continue to die of this illness
12:31
because the medicines
slow down the progression
12:33
but they don't halt it.
12:36
The only cure for pulmonary hypertension,
pulmonary fibrosis,
12:38
cystic fibrosis, emphysema,
12:42
COPD, what Leonard Nimoy just died of,
12:45
is a lung transplant,
12:48
but sadly, there are only enough
available lungs for 2,000 people
12:50
in the U.S. a year
to get a lung transplant,
12:55
whereas nearly a half
million people a year
12:58
die of end-stage lung failure.
13:01
CA: So how can you address that?
13:03
MR: So I conceptualize the possibility
13:06
that just like we keep cars and planes
13:09
and buildings going forever
13:12
with an unlimited supply
of building parts and machine parts,
13:14
why can't we create an unlimited supply
of transplantable organs
13:19
to keep people living indefinitely,
13:22
and especially people with lung disease.
13:25
So we've teamed up with the decoder
of the human genome, Craig Venter,
13:27
and the company he founded
13:33
with Peter Diamandis,
the founder of the X Prize,
13:35
to genetically modify
13:38
the pig genome
13:40
so that the pig's organs will not
be rejected by the human body
13:42
and thereby to create an unlimited supply
13:47
of transplantable organs.
13:50
We do this through our company,
United Therapeutics.
13:52
CA: So you really believe that within,
what, a decade,
13:55
that this shortage of transplantable lungs
maybe be cured, through these guys?
13:58
MR: Absolutely, Chris.
14:03
I'm as certain of that as I was
of the success that we've had
14:04
with direct television
broadcasting, Sirius XM.
14:08
It's actually not rocket science.
14:11
It's straightforward engineering away
one gene after another.
14:13
We're so lucky to be born in the time
that sequencing genomes
14:17
is a routine activity,
14:21
and the brilliant folks
at Synthetic Genomics
14:24
are able to zero in on the pig genome,
14:26
find exactly the genes
that are problematic, and fix them.
14:28
CA: But it's not just bodies that --
though that is amazing.
14:32
(Applause)
14:35
It's not just long-lasting bodies
that are of interest to you now.
14:38
It's long-lasting minds.
14:42
And I think this graph for you
says something quite profound.
14:44
What does this mean?
14:50
MR: What this graph means,
and it comes from Ray Kurzweil,
14:51
is that the rate of development
in computer processing
14:55
hardware, firmware and software,
15:00
has been advancing along a curve
15:03
such that by the 2020s, as we saw
in earlier presentations today,
15:06
there will be information technology
15:10
that processes information
and the world around us
15:13
at the same rate as a human mind.
15:16
CA: And so that being so, you're actually
getting ready for this world
15:20
by believing that we will soon
be able to, what,
15:23
actually take the contents of our brains
and somehow preserve them forever?
15:27
How do you describe that?
15:34
MR: Well, Chris, what we're working on
is creating a situation
15:36
where people can create a mind file,
15:40
and a mind file is the collection
of their mannerisms, personality,
15:43
recollection, feelings,
15:47
beliefs, attitudes and values,
15:48
everything that we've poured today
into Google, into Amazon, into Facebook,
15:50
and all of this information stored there
will be able, in the next couple decades,
15:56
once software is able
to recapitulate consciousness,
16:02
be able to revive the consciousness
which is imminent in our mind file.
16:07
CA: Now you're not just
messing around with this.
16:12
You're serious. I mean, who is this?
16:14
MR: This is a robot version of
my beloved spouse, Bina.
16:17
And we call her Bina 48.
16:22
She was programmed
by Hanson Robotics out of Texas.
16:24
There's the centerfold
from National Geographic magazine
16:28
with one of her caregivers,
16:31
and she roams the web
16:34
and has hundreds of hours
of Bina's mannerisms, personalities.
16:36
She's kind of like a two-year-old kid,
16:41
but she says things
that blow people away,
16:43
best expressed by perhaps
16:46
a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist Amy Harmon
16:49
who says her answers
are often frustrating,
16:53
but other times as compelling as those
of any flesh person she's interviewed.
16:55
CA: And is your thinking here,
part of your hope here, is that
17:02
this version of Bina can in a sense
live on forever, or some future upgrade
17:06
to this version can live on forever?
17:12
MR: Yes. Not just Bina, but everybody.
17:15
You know, it costs us virtually nothing
to store our mind files
17:17
on Facebook, Instagram, what-have-you.
17:21
Social media is I think one of the most
extraordinary inventions of our time,
17:24
and as apps become available
that will allow us
17:28
to out-Siri Siri, better and better,
17:32
and develop consciousness
operating systems,
17:35
everybody in the world,
billions of people,
17:38
will be able to develop
mind clones of themselves
17:41
that will have their own life on the web.
17:45
CA: So the thing is, Martine,
17:47
that in any normal conversation,
this would sound stark-staring mad,
17:49
but in the context of your life,
what you've done,
17:53
some of the things we've heard this week,
17:56
the constructed realities
that our minds give,
17:58
I mean, you wouldn't bet against it.
18:00
MR: Well, I think it's really nothing
coming from me.
18:04
If anything, I'm perhaps a bit
of a communicator of activities
18:07
that are being undertaken
by the greatest companies
18:14
in China, Japan, India, the U.S., Europe.
18:17
There are tens of millions of people
working on writing code
18:20
that expresses more and more aspects
of our human consciousness,
18:25
and you don't have to be a genius
to see that all these threads
18:29
are going to come together
and ultimately create human consciousness,
18:34
and it's something we'll value.
18:38
There are so many things
to do in this life,
18:40
and if we could have a simulacrum,
a digital doppelgänger of ourselves
18:43
that helps us process books, do shopping,
18:47
be our best friends,
18:50
I believe our mind clones,
these digital versions of ourselves,
18:52
will ultimately be our best friends,
18:55
and for me personally and Bina personally,
18:58
we love each other like crazy.
19:00
Each day, we are always saying, like,
19:02
"Wow, I love you even more
than 30 years ago.
19:03
And so for us, the prospect of mind clones
19:06
and regenerated bodies
19:09
is that our love affair, Chris,
can go on forever.
19:11
And we never get bored of each other.
I'm sure we never will.
19:14
CA: I think Bina's here, right?
MR: She is, yeah.
19:17
CA: Would it be too much, I don't know,
do we have a handheld mic?
19:20
Bina, could we invite you to the stage?
I just have to ask you one question.
19:23
Besides, we need to see you.
19:27
(Applause)
19:28
Thank you, thank you.
19:35
Come and join Martine here.
19:36
I mean, look, when you got married,
19:39
if someone had told you that,
in a few years time,
19:44
the man you were marrying
would become a woman,
19:47
and a few years after that,
you would become a robot --
19:49
(Laughter) --
19:52
how has this gone? How has it been?
19:55
Bina Rothblatt: It's been really
an exciting journey,
19:59
and I would have never
thought that at the time,
20:01
but we started making goals
and setting those goals
20:03
and accomplishing things,
20:07
and before you knew it,
we just keep going up and up
20:09
and we're still not stopping,
so it's great.
20:11
CA: Martine told me something
really beautiful,
20:14
just actually on Skype before this,
20:17
which was that he wanted
to live for hundreds of years
20:19
as a mind file,
20:25
but not if it wasn't with you.
20:28
BR: That's right,
we want to do it together.
20:31
We're cryonicists as well,
and we want to wake up together.
20:33
CA: So just so as you know,
from my point of view,
20:36
this isn't only one of the most
astonishing lives I have heard,
20:39
it's one of the most astonishing
love stories I've ever heard.
20:42
It's just a delight to have you
both here at TED.
20:45
Thank you so much.
20:48
MR: Thank you.
20:49
(Applause)
20:51

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Martine Rothblatt - Transhumanist
Whether she’s inventing satellite radio, developing life-saving drugs or digitizing the human mind, Martine Rothblatt has a knack for turning visionary ideas into commonplace technology.

Why you should listen

After creating satellite radio with a startup that went on to become Sirius XM, Martine Rothblatt was on the verge of retirement. But her daughter’s rare lung disease inspired her to start United Therapeutics and develop an oral medication that changed the lives of thousands of patients. Now with the Terasem Foundation, she’s researching the digital preservation of personality as a means to enable the contents of our minds to outlast our bodies.

Rothblatt’s books include The Apartheid of Sex, which (inspired by her experiences as a transgendered woman) takes on conventional wisdom surrounding gender. Her latest book, Virtually Human, explores human rights for the digital lifeforms just over the horizon.

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