In the book Virtually Human: The Promise--and the Peril--of Digital Immortality, Martine Rothblatt explores the scientific and ethical consequences of artificial consciousness. In the following edited excerpt, she outlines how biotech companies are producing empathetic robots to take the place of human assistants.

Biotechnology companies are well aware that over 90 percent of an average person's lifetime medical expenditures are spent during the very last portion of their life. Lives are priceless, and hence we deploy the best technology we can to mechanically keep people alive. Medical cyberconscious mind support is the next logical step in our efforts to keep end-stage patients alive. The potential profits from such technology (health insurance would pay for it just like any other form of medically necessary equipment) are an irresistible enticement for companies to allocate top people to the effort. Consequently, brain-mapping projects are among the largest joint government-industry biotech projects in both Europe and the United States.

Health-care needs for older people are also driving efforts to develop the empathetic branch of cyberconsciousness. There are not enough people to provide caring attention to the growing legion of senior citizens. As countries grow wealthy their people live longer, their birthrates decline below the replacement rate, and, consequently, their senior citizens compose an ever-larger percentage of the population. Today there are five younger people to care for each older person, whereas in four decades there will be just two workers to care for each older person. There is a huge health-care industry motivation to develop empathetic robots, because a minority of young people actually want to take care of older people.

The seniors won't want to be manhandled, nor will their offspring want to be guilt-ridden. Other than importing help from developing countries--which only postpones the issue briefly, as those countries have gestating dependency ratio problems of their own--there is no solution but for the empathetic, autonomous robot. Grandma and Grandpa need--and deserve--an attentive, caring, interesting person with whom to interact. The only such persons that can be summoned into existence to meet this demand are manufactured software persons with robotic bodies, i.e., empathetic, autonomous robots with a physicality that mimics a flesh-and-blood person. Companies are putting expression-filled faces on their robots, and filling their code with the art of conversation.

There is much debate over whether the expression-filled faces of digital health-care assistants should be humanlike. Dueling robot scientists from Japan have taken opposing positions on the "uncanny valley" hypothesis. The uncanny valley is a posited sociopsychological threshold: People like expression-filled robots until they look too human, and then they freak people out. Masahiro Mori believes that "when they get too close to lifelike without attaining it, what was endearing becomes repellent, fast." Whereas Hiroshi Ishiguro "is interested in pushing not just technological envelopes but philosophical ones as well. His androids are cognitive trial balloons, imperfect mirrors designed to reveal what is fundamentally human by creating ever more accurate approximations, observing how we react to them, and exploiting that response to fashion something even more convincing." My experience leads me to believe that the uncanny valley is a myth. I have not seen anyone repelled by the verisimilitude of BINA48 [the humanoid robot based on my wife, Bina Aspen, after hours of interviews].

The information-technology industry itself is working on cyber-consciousness. IBM is sponsoring the Blue Brain project of Henry Markram, which is using supercomputer resources to create functional digital simulacra of portions of animal and human brains. The mantra of IT is "user-friendly," and there is nothing friendlier than a person. A cyberconscious house that we could speak to ("Prepare something I'd like for dinner," "Turn on a movie I'd like") is a product people would be willing to pay a lot of money for. It's getting closer: The Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon-monoxide alarm that talks to you in a calm human voice to warn of smoke or carbon dioxide in a room before sounding a loud alarm. Users can't talk back yet, but they can wave their hand to silence the alarm if it's simply a matter of burning the roast. A personal digital assistant that is smart, self-aware, and servile will outcompete in the marketplace PDAs that are deaf, dumb, and demanding. In short, IT companies have immense financial incentives to make software as personable as possible. They are responding to these incentives by allocating floors of programmers to the cyberconsciousness task. That's one reason why, in December 2012 Google hired, wisely in my opinion, master inventor Ray Kurzweil, the author of How to Create a Mind, as its director of engineering. In 2012, the company bought Boston Dynamics, a major player in the robotics industry, and in Janaury 2014 Google acquired British artificial-intelligence company DeepMind for about $500 million.

Note how rapidly programmers have arrogated into their programs the human pronoun "I." Until cyberconsciousness began emerging, no one but humans and fictional characters could call themselves "I." Suddenly, bits and building blocks of vitology are saying, "How may I help you?," "I'm sorry you're having difficulty," "I'll transfer you to a human operator right away." The programmers will have succeeded in birthing cyberconsciousness when they figure out how to make the human operator totally unnecessary. From their progress to date, this seems to be the goal. Add to this Darwinian code, and conscious vitology has arrived.

A sixth and perhaps ultimate group devoting itself to creating conscious vitology is the "maker movement." A grassroots movement of people devoted to bridging the gap between software and physical objects arose in the early years of the twenty-first century. They call themselves "makers" and come together annually in different cities around the world at annual Maker Faires and related local gatherings. BINA48 attends the Vermont Maker Faire, where she is one of the most popular exhibitors, conversing with all who stroll by amid a veritable sea of homemade robots and 3D-printed objects of every sort.

Empowered by twenty-dollar computer boards called Arduinos that can be simply programmed to do almost anything (e.g., a plant can tweet via an Arduino in its soil when it needs water), the makers are passionate about building bridges between the virtual and real worlds. Dramatically dropping prices for 3D printers enable makers to envision printing bodies for minds, and a culture of open-source software lets the makers rapidly share and improve their mindware. There is nothing cooler to make than a person, and nothing happens faster than when countless thousands of people crowdsource solutions. It is perhaps unsurprising that The Economist has called the maker movement the harbinger of a "new industrial revolution" not unlike the "original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s."

Excerpted from Virtually Human: The Promise--and the Peril--of Digital Immortality by Martine Rothblatt (2014, St. Martin's Press.)


Published on: Sep 9, 2014