DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — Dr. Martine Rothblatt has a message for would-be creative types and entrepreneurs alike: Don’t give up. Specifically, don’t let anyone get in the way of your idea. And you can bet that lots of people will try.
“When I started SiriusXM, virtually everybody said it was a fool’s errand,” Rothblatt said in her keynote speech at Moogfest 2016 on the future of creativity. During her talk, she delved into topics as diverse as transhumanism, the controversial HB2 law, and 3Dprinting organs.
Make no mistake: Rothblatt has an incredibly impressive track record. She started both Sirius Radio and GeoStar satellite navigation, and then founded biotech behemoth United Therapeutics in 1996, which has offices both in Silver Springs, Maryland and Research Triangle Park here in Durham.
SiriusXM and chasing your dreams
Rothblatt drew her sharpest inspiration and commentary from her experiences in founding satellite radio.
“All of the wireless engineers who were in charge of the radio frequencies said I would never find any empty frequencies, especially in this particular section of the band, where they go through the atmosphere as would be necessary for a satellite communication system,” Rothblatt said. “[I was told] they’ve all been gobbled up in the 1930s and 40s. A lawyer said I would never get approval from the FCC, because there would be vitriolic opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters, which includes CBS, NBC, and ABC. They have a gigantic building in the middle of Washington DC and wine and dine all of the officials.
“[But] most disheartening for me was that other technologists said it was impossible to receive a high-quality satellite signal from a flat dish embedded in a car roof,” Rothblatt continued. “All of the receiving dishes at the time were really really big. Even satellite television dishes were as big as the largest pizza pans. How would that even work with a moving object like a car? Finally, because I had to get people to invest in this concept, businesspeople, including the current chairman, said there was absolutely no market for people to pay to listen to radio.”
As we all know, she pulled through and started Sirius Radio (now SiriusXM) anyway, and the rest is history. Today, SiriusXM has 30 million subscribers.
“When you think about the future of creativity, unfortunately these are the kind of realities you end up running into,” she said. “But it’s amazing to see how quickly things can change. Don’t let lawyers tell you it can’t happen, don’t let businesspeople tell you it can’t happen, and don’t let technologists tell you it can’t happen, because it can.”
Rothblatt said there were two essential ingredients for SiriusXM that could apply to any revolution in technology, and that both of them have the same acronym: DSP. The first is dogged, single-minded persistence: “Get yourself into a nonviolent war, but nevertheless war, with everyone that wants to stamp out your ideas and tell you you’re stupid… Ultimately, [success] means you want to win even more than you want to live.”
Then there’s the DSP many ExtremeTech readers are already familiar with: digital signal processing. Rothblatt implied that it’s not so much the technology itself, as the idea that you have one to begin with. “It’s the secret weapon: the technology, the innovation, that you’ve come up with and no one believes in it, but you know it’s real,” Rothblatt said. “You’ve run the simulations, you know the physics, and you’ve done the back-of-the-envelope calculations.”
Rothblatt rattled off incisive turning points in technological history: Alan Turning’s program that could decrypt Nazi Enigma transmissions. The invention of radar. “For me, it was software codes that could convert bandwidth-hogging analog signals into very slim and slender and audibly equivalent digital data streams,” she said. “The secret weapon of DSP that was able to get the powerflex density down low enough that our satellite signals could be received on the flat surface of a driving car with a palm-sized antenna.
“It’s some technology you’ve developed, coupled with dogged, single-minded persistence, that won the war for SiriusXM. [And] it could win the war for whatever you’re working on.”
The persistence of memory
Rothblatt reserved her deepest insights, and perhaps most controversial, for the possibility of immortality — maybe not in our lifetimes. But at some point, Rothblatt said she believes it could be possible to transfer the sum total of our memories and knowledge to an inhuman computer format that could effectively let “us” live forever. And that in a way, if it were ever possible, it would still be “us,” even without our physical human form.
This is the idea of transhumanism, which this editor doesn’t believe in as a practical possibility, but that excites a lot of readers (maybe yourself included!). At the very least, it’s a fun thought experiment.
“There’s no battle between mind and machines, bytes and brains,” Rothblatt said. “Every computer ever made is but an extension of our cognition and consciousness. A human mind running on mindware is still a human mind.”
Rothblatt also talked about what would happen as we gained a billion-fold increase in processing power — not a crazy thought, given what’s on the horizon now with quantum computing. She likened the change from processing signals into music, to processing signals into minds. “Instead of each song will be available everywhere, each mind will be available everywhere,” she said.
“Since mastering fire, technology has liberated us from being fixed in space and time. Fire was one of the very first technologies.” Rothblatt cautioned against knee-jerk opposition to new technologies. She said that while people may have burned to death in huts for eons, we wouldn’t be as advanced as we are without the invention of fire. “It’s not justthat [new] technology can be used for something bad.”
Reimagining organ transplants
On a slightly more practical note, Rothblatt then talked more about what she’s doing at United Therapeutics — specifically, what could be possible in medicine in 10 years. And it’s pretty amazing, if it can be pulled off.
“Millions of people die every year because of failure of some part of their anatomy: hearts, kidneys… These are incredibly complex machines honed by mother nature and natural selections over hundreds of millions of years, and at the cellular level, over billions of years. Would it be possible to manufacture replacements? It would not be possible with 20th century technology. As Dr. McCoy said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, ‘Goodgrief. We can’t leave this patient to the mercy of 20th century medicine!’”
Instead, her company is envisioning something better, and that could be possible within as little as 10 years: 3D printing an unlimited supply of transplantable organs using a sample of the patient’s DNA, and then delivering them to doctors and hospitals as needed with autonomous drones. (Embedded below is a video on the specific drone she would use.)
Then she played a video from Morgan Freeman’s new series that features Dr. Martine Rothblatt, her spouse, and a cloned robotic version of her spouse. “The afterlife has something that has fascinated us since the dawn of religion,” Freeman says in the video. “There’s still no way to escape physical death. But scientists may soon still achieve internal life by other means. What if you could store your memory in a machine.”
“The future of creativity is using the power of digital signal culture to spread our consciousness everywhere,” Rothblatt concluded. Whatever your feelings are on transhumanism and chasing immortality, we get the distinct feeling she’s not done redefining what we know about technology and what’s possible. Her latest book,Virtually Human, is available now on Amazon.com.