Yahoo's Marissa Mayer is a female CEO whose fame rivals some Hollywood movie stars, but Martine Rothblatt, the highest paid female CEO in the U.S.--whose life story sounds a lot like a science fiction film--is nowhere near as famous.
The 59-year-old founder of pharmaceutical company United Therapeutics, Rothblatt earned $38 million in 2013, but far more interesting than her financial success is the fact that she is a futurist who spent the first half of her life as a man. The subject of a recent profile in New York magazine, Rothblatt believes technology will help humans achieve immortality. Her latest project--a work in progress of sorts--involves building a robot clone of her wife.
By way of background, before founding her $5 billion company, Rothblatt was a lawyer named Martin Rothblatt and an expert in the law of outer space. He quit his job at a prominent law firm in 1983 to launch car-navigation system Geostar, and in 1990 he founded satellite radio company Sirius.
Rothblatt began the transformation process to become a woman in the early 1990s, after fathering four children. She published a book in 1995 called The Apartheid of Sex, in which she argues that gender categories should be overhauled. She writes in the book that:
"There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities...Genitals are as irrelevant to one's role in society as skin tone. Hence, the legal division of people into males and females is as wrong as the legal division of people into black and white races."
While Rothblatt's belief that humans will one day achieve immortality through technological advances may sound ambitious (to say the least), she is something of a pioneer in the area of extending lifespans. During the 1990s, Rothblatt created a foundation to find a cure for primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), a rare, fatal disease her son was diagnosed with in 1991. This led to the creation of her pharmaceutical company, United Therapeutics, which had the goal of creating a pill to treat PPH so that patients would not need 24-hour intravenous drug therapy.
There is still no cure for PPH, but last year Rothblatt got FDA approval for the drug in pill form, and patients today can live longer thanks to drugs developed by United Therapeutics and other companies.
In Rothblatt's new book, Virtually Human: The Promise--and the Peril--of Digital Immortality, she argues that the progress made by humans to extend life--from penicillin to organ transplants--will reach the point where life can be prolonged indefinitely. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, shares her belief.
Perhaps Rothblatt's wildest endeavor, however, is a related project to create a robot clone of her wife, Bina, that will live forever. In 2010, Rothblatt commissioned a firm called Hanson Robotics to build an artificially intelligent robot based on her wife. The concept of what Rothblatt calls "mindclones" involves the creation of digital replicas of humans. As reported in the New York piece, these replicas would be based on "video interviews, photographs, personality tests and the entirety of their digital lives--Facebook posts, tweets, Amazon orders. These mindclones would exist in a parallel with their flesh--and-blood originals but act, judge, think, feel, remember, and learn on their own."
Rothblatt's wife's robotic clone, called "Bina48" (based on her wife's age at the time of the clone's creation) includes a head-and-shoulders replica of Bina and was programmed using 20 hours of interviews with Bina.
While Rothblatt concedes that Bina48 is a "far cry" from the real Bina, who knew that a female CEO running a $5 billion company could also help advance the field of A.I. and robotics as a hobby?
For Rothblatt, her life's work goes far beyond being a successful entrepreneur. As of today, she seems to be making a lot of progress blurring the lines between science fiction and reality.