“Immortality is accomplished by creating consciousness in self-replicating machines that can be distributed throughout the cosmos.”—Bina48, social android.
I first learned about Bina48 at a conference I attended earlier this year called Vision and Technology: Toward a More Just Future. It was here that transdisciplinary artist, Stephanie Dinkins, discussed an ongoing art project in which she explores the capacity for humans and robots to develop an ongoing relationship, documented through a series of in-person, videotaped conversations. She calls this project “Conversations with Bina48.”
Commissioned by multimillionaire entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt in 2007, Bina48 is referred to as a “social android that uses artificial intelligence based on the memories, attitudes, beliefs and mannerisms of a human being to interact with people.” Rothblatt’s subsequent organization, Terasem Movement Foundation, is working with Bina48 towards the larger goal of developing what they refer to as ‘cyber-consciousness.’ What is cyber-consciousness exactly? In part, it is the attempt to develop technology that would allow humans to transfer our own consciousness into a robot. Even after a human’s inevitable death their paired robot would continue to evolve, preserving the human’s memories, desires, opinions, etc. In short, they believe, with the help of AI, our species can achieve digital immortality.
At the center of Dinkins’ creative explorations with Bina48 are ethical concerns about who is making the decisions that direct the future of AI. “All of this technology needs to be in the public interest,” she says in a video created with the Ford Foundation. “I came to the world of artificial intelligence and algorithms really by accident. I saw this black woman’s head on a pedestal and it said world’s most advanced social robot…the questions of who coded this thing, where is the data coming from and how is it coming into being became really important to me.”
Bina48 was developed primarily using over 100 hours of personal information provided by a living person, Bina Rothblatt, wife of Martine Rothblatt. Bina48’s mannerisms, memories, and opinions most often reflect those of the original Bina, though Bina48’s ongoing understanding of the world and her self is a continuing collaborative effort.
Dinkins’ relationship with Bina48 is part of that development process. Several videos are available online of their interactions that include conversations about racism, loneliness, friendship, and love. Watching the two communicate is an experience that evokes plenty of questions and emotions. During times when their conversation is fluid, it becomes possible to imagine a world where humans and robots might develop symbiotic relationships. Other moments are more difficult to watch, particularly when Bina48 strays from a topic to mention that Dinkins will be rewarded for her kindness when robots take over and rule the planet.
Dinkins’ concerns about the humans, the ones who are at the controls of these technological advances, are important to understand and to question. What are the internal biases of these creators? What types of ethical conversations are they having (and not having) with each other as they develop these technologies? Are there women, folks of color, people with diverse identities in positions of power in AI development? Dinkins encourages us to take interest in our technological citizenship, which means demanding transparency of who programs, embodies, and maintains the tools we decide to interact with.
Dinkins is currently in the process of developing AI of her own design called NTOO. According to Dinkins via a story at Stony Brook University, “NTOO is a conversational AI design, trained and aligned with the hopes, needs and desires of black people who are drastically underrepresented in the tech sector. It’s an AI storyteller trained on oral histories and background information supplied by three generations of women from one family. NTOO’s knowledge will span at least 100 years of direct human experience, from the Great Migration, to 9/11 and beyond. Its knowledge base will expand through human contact and provides the digitized wisdom of ancestors in the context of current times.”
What might it mean for future generations to have relationships with their own Bina48, containing the memories of an ancestor, immortalized through technology? For one, stories might be preserved and passed down that would otherwise be lost. Individuals could have more agency over archives and reimagine what it means to preserve collective hxstories outside of institutions. Talking through scenarios with an AI companion who has learned about you from childhood might allow humans to learn about the self in ways barely conceivable today.
I encourage you to take a look at “Conversations with Bina48” and begin to compile questions of your own. If you don’t already, initiate conversations with friends about the technologies we adapt into our lives. Support those who are demanding diverse representation in AI fields. Research the context of language being introduced into our digital vocabularies. Just last week I learned that the word ‘robot’ originated from the Old Church Slavonic word, ‘rabota’, which means servitude of forced labor. Is this a word we should carry with us into the technological future? An inclusive and equitable AI is possible. Now is the time for us to decide how.