Bina 48: Why uploading yourself can't be dismissed as science fiction

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Martine Rothblatt’s Bina48 project is to capture her partner’s consciousness digitally, in case she should die. Rothblatt hopes that she will be able to communicate with her partner even after death. The project throws up a raft of moral and ethical issues, writes VCCP’s innovation lead Will Harvey.

There’s an increasing crossover between biology and technology, with advances in processing power and the continual micronisation of computers helping feed the boom in the consumer digital health sector.

The availability and affordability of wearable tech over the past five years is a key example of this. Startups such as 23andme help sequence your DNA, facilitating a better understanding of the state of your body and allowing you to make informed changes to your living and eating habits as a result. It’s fairly commonplace now to use smart devices that measure blood sugar levels, movements and even heartbeats. The convergence of biology and technology is truly upon us and has an exciting (but scary?) future.

I was lucky enough to hear a recent talk by Martine Rothblatt of United Therapeutics, author of Virtually Human and one of the highest paid female chief executives in the US. Her background was originally in broadcast and space communication. But after her daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition in the late 90s, she has been exploring the world of medical biotech. Her drive and curiosity about the potential mix of technology and the medical industry, and the ethics linked to those topics, eventually led to Bina48.

Bina48 was commissioned in 2007 and released in 2010 as an artificial intelligence project. Designed to test the ability to capture and download a living person’s consciousness into a non-biological body, the aim was that that entity could then hold a conversation with a living person. Bina48 was designed and created by Martine to capture the consciousness of her partner, Bina Aspen Rothblatt, as the template. By digitally capturing her memories, feelings and beliefs, Martine hoped to ensure that in the event of Bina’s death, her digital conscious would still remain.

Working in innovation, I’m constantly exposed to ideas which strive to change the way we think and perceive the world around us but this saturation of ideas means that it takes something pretty outrageous to surprise me. Martine’s work does just this, challenging us, to think deeply about the cultural impact this could have and the reaction that people will have towards Bina48.

There are a raft of moral, ethical and security issues thrown up when looking at capturing detailed information about people’s identities in this truly holistic way.

What rights would it have? How would your family feel interacting with it, rather than you? Who is in control of the data, what can they do with the information?

This can’t be dismissed as simply science fiction.

The quantity of data that we produce every day is vast. 8,000 tweets per second. 100,000 Skype calls per minute and today three billion people will access the internet around the world. Our current behaviour on social media already captures our lives in minute detail, sharing it openly, instantly with the world. Photos of our experiences, articles we like and connecting with people regardless of geographic location.

Our virtual selves are now only a small leap away from our real-life selves, making the risk of true identity theft, not just financial, a very real possibility.

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