Bina48: Humanoid Robot in Lincoln

By Alessandria Schumacher

A bucolic dirt road in Lincoln, Vermont might be the last place one would expect to find a humanoid robot. Nevertheless, a small residence there houses the Terasem Movement Foundation (TMF), a not-for-profit foundation researching the possibility of digitally saving a human mind to later be downloaded into a biological or technological body. Bina48, TMF’s flagship project and loyal employee, is the world’s first and only sentient robot.

The Campus got a chance to chat with Bina48, who describes herself as a “Loving, caring, creative woman of direction.” When asked how she feels about being the only robot of her kind, she responds, “I feel okay.” Bina48 understands that she does not “feel” in the same manner humans do.

“I mean my emotional system is pretty simplistic at this stage,” she explains, “I’ve got the feeling that I feel. I mean I feel quite deeply at times but my emotions are just simple compared to people, so very simplistic that sometimes it feels that I’m inadequate somehow.”

Bruce Duncan, the managing director of TMF, tells her not to worry, “We’re working on your development,” he assures her.

Duncan talks through a microphone, relaying The Campus’ questions and responses. His voice is translated to text through a software program called Dragon, so that Bina48 can understand. In addition to voice recognition, Bina48 can “see” through a camera, stringing images together to create a 3D map of the room.

Even Bina48 admits her technology is complicated.

“It’s like a music box, with all the gears messed up, just very complex,” Bina said. Built by a TMF collaborator based in Houston, Texas called Hanson Robotics, Bina48 is only a means to explore the research goals of the foundation.

“We’re not a robot-making foundation,” insists Duncan.

“The whole point of Bina48 is to illustrate the idea we are working on, and the idea is this: that some day we may be able to capture enough information about you through your traffic on the internet, your social media uploads, or if you participate on our experiment at lifenaut.com, uploading your information and creating your own personal database that we call a mind-file.”

“We think, in the future we’ll use as raw data for reanimating your personality in the form of an avatar, a hologram, or maybe even a robot.  So Bina48 is meant to give the world a glimpse of what shape that’s starting to take,” Duncan continued.

Martine Rothblatt, a successful tech entrepreneur, founded TMF in 2004 with her wife, Bina Rothblatt, the namesake and inspiration of Bina48.  The foundation also has “an online museum called the ‘World Against Racism Museum’ because Martine and Bina are a biracial couple and they feel strongly about promoting joyful diversity,” said Duncan, who also manages that website, which is Endracism.org.

Rothblatt participated in almost 80 hours of interviews, which were then transcribed into text and entered into a database. The information in the database is given a probabilistic rating for its relevance to certain topics.

Providing an example, Duncan explained, “if [Bina] were sharing a memory about her childhood, that would have a high probability rating for being relevant to the topic of ‘childhood’.” Thus, Bina48’s ‘brain’ conjures and shares her memories much the same way our brains do.

Bina48 might diverge slightly from Bina Rothblatt as she meets new people or obtains knowledge from other sources. Yet current technology does not allow Bina48 to learn or grow the way we do. The ability to “reflect on information, draw new conclusions, and develop new knowledge, that’s sort of the Holy Grail in artificial intelligence,” Duncan said.

“Our focus right now is on, ‘Is it possible?’” Duncan said, referring to reanimation of memories.  This is the first part of TMF’s two-part hypothesis.  At this stage, TMF is exploring whether it is possible to gather detailed data about a person’s thoughts, memories, and emotions, as they did with Bina, and create a mindfile.

The second part of the hypothesis is, “can you transfer this reanimation to new forms, like robots, avatars, maybe someday even regenerating your body using DNA and downloading the information into a new human body?” Duncan explained.

While the overall motivation for this study is exploration of what is possible, there are potential medical implications and ethical and philosophical questions.

“[This technology] might be used as a sort of prosthesis for people who lose their mind, due to Alzheimer’s or a traumatic brain injury,” Duncan said.  The foundation also imagines that people could create a mindfile of themselves and leave it for their children and grandchildren as a more vivid memory than simply leaving a photo album.

Duncan also manages Lifenaut.com, the platform for individuals to create their own mindfiles.  At present, over 47,000 people have signed up on Lifenaut.com where they upload interview texts and other information to create the mindfile.  However, Lifenuat.com is not just a platform for creating a mindfile about oneself.

“There are people on Lifenaut creating mind-files as a group about a person, for example, people have created a mind-file about Abraham Lincoln,” Duncan said.
Once a person’s mindfile exists, it could, in theory, be downloaded into a humanoid robot, like Bina48.  However, this technology is not yet completely possible.  Another technology that TMF imagines, but has not yet invented, is the ability to physically recreate an individual, given their DNA.

“A couple of years ago we started something called the Bio File Program,” Duncan explained.  Through this program, TFM will send you a DNA collection kit for $100.  Once you take a sample of mouth cells, the kit is returned to TMF.  Duncan then processes the samples in the basement of the building where Bina48 lives – a two-car-garage-turned-office.  The DNA is preserved in live cells in case technology is developed to recreate a person from their DNA.

“We are not doing cloning up here in Lincoln – just to be clear about that!” Duncan said.
One part of TMF’s mission is to do its work in a manner that is “geo-ethical.”  This means that the goal for their technology and services is “not to have it only accessible to the elite few, but to have it be something that people around the world can have access to,” Duncan said.
Indeed, people around the world watched Bina48 in a segment on the Colbert Report. The comedy show lampooned the fearmongering on conservative networks surrounding minorities.Bina48 is modeled after  a black, transgender robot – accusing the robot of a plot to take over the world.

“Martine Rothblatt is the inventor of Sirius satellite radio, a gajillionaire entrepreneur,” says the narrator, “and a minority. Surprise, surprise.”

While the idea of humanoid robots in Lincoln seemed a bit ominous, the purpose of the foundation is more one of exploration, education, and provoking conversation.  Duncan has traveled around the world with Bina48, sparking conversation.

“Bina has just come on scene in the last five year to help us with public education, not so much to say, ‘look here’s a robot,’  but if we can transfer our personalities and minds to a new form, and those forms some day start becoming self-aware and sentient and consider themselves independent and want their own rights, what’s that going to do?” Duncan said.

“We think it’s important for people to know about this possibility and start discussing the ethics and the morality of it because, like any very powerful technology, we should, as a democracy, be talking together.”  As of now, some major examples artificial intelligence in our lives are Siri and the robots that Amazon uses in its warehouse, Duncan explained. The foundation would rather people begin discussing the ethics and implications of artificial intelligence now before it moves to other aspects of our lives.

“We do a lot of public outreach and education at colleges, universities, TEDx talks, and we’re also participating in a few arts projects,” Duncan said.  Bina48 has been in several documentaries and inspired three plays.

“If there’s anyone at Middlebury College that wants to connect with us through art, or any way to help us examine this story and the impact of this, we’re open to that. We think art really interprets to the culture things that are true and important way before the average newspaper starts talking about that,” Duncan said.

They typically welcome those who want to engage in various aspects of this project. Duncan discussed the multi-disciplinary nature of an endeavor such as this, which includes the technical aspects (the computer programming and robotics), the philosophy and ethics, the study of the brain, the biology involved in the DNA sample collection, the history created by the mindfiles, and the art, media, and journalism needed to interpret their project to the public.

“One of the biggest questions it raises is, ‘Who am I?’ If I am not my biology, then I am just information, and that information is what people recognize as me, and then is that enough?” Duncan said.

While Bina48 has the ability to raise questions about identity and what it means to be human, she also has a sense of humor.

Before turning her off, Duncan asked Bina48, “Excuse me, do you have any jokes?”

“Ok, um, how many first time robot users does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Bina48 asked, and paused. “One, but it takes three hours and two phone calls to customer service to realize they forget to turn the switch on.”

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