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Transgender, Transhuman, Transbeman: Uploading with Martine Rothblatt

If anyone is going to persuade us to abandon the flesh, be downloaded, and live forever as information, it is Martine Rothblatt. A satellite scientist of distinction (she started GeoStar and Sirius Satellite Radio), who succeeded in saving the life of the child of her and her partner by throwing money at research, and saved scores of other children by doing so, she decided a few years ago that the next thing to conquer was death itself.

We talked on the phone, eventually, after a problem with timezones, and I remarked to her that one of the problems with living forever, considering the delicate transfer of selfhood into electronic media, was the sheer problem of human error and computer glitches. Martine responded: “There will always be error – it’s part of the human condition. In the flesh, people have odd experiences with their own biochemistry that make them who they are: somatically induced or inherited. Yet those errors don’t prevent people forming relationships. Uploading will have its errors — manageable errors — and that is part of one of the things that will keep the uploaded human.”

Won’t the difference between sensations experienced in the flesh and sensations experienced or remembered when you are uploaded be like the difference between analog and digital recording? “It will be different, and some people will notice the difference — just as some people prefer the mellow sound of analog and some people actually prefer the crisp artificial sound of digital. But here’s the thing. Both are better than being dead and never hearing anything again, ever.”

I wondered: Would it be a nuisance never being able to forget anything, not being able to be disconcerted again by twists in the plots of books you re-read, not being able to get the surprise in Haydn’s Surprise symphony?

Flesh mouse technology

“That’s an assumption,” Martine said, “but actually the mindware that will be approved for use will have as one of its features a graduation of memory strength. Things can be artificially forgotten. Some things — like your name and where you are at the moment will always be front and center. Other things will not always be recalled and some things will be completely forgotten. Mindware will allow you to adjust the accessibility of what you need to know, when you need to know it. Not forgetting wouldn’t be a user option that we would choose, even with bad experiences. You need the bad things as a spur, but they need to fade to grey. And you can arrange your mindware to do that for you.”

I asked Rothblatt at what point in their lives people would choose to upload. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Some people would use uploading just for storage. Other people would want to stay digital. Some people would want to move back and forth. The first person to visit Mercury will do so uploaded into hardware that can survive that environment. Some people would use it to do certain things and then return to the flesh, It isn’t necessarily an all or nothing thing. And that’s one of the things that demonstrates the humanity of the whole project.”

Martine believes that the philosophical opponents of uploading are mostly biological essentialists, people who believe that there is an absolute value in remaining true to an original biological form. The underlying logic of this position is that we are not clever enough to realize all the bad consequences of changing the naturally-evolved order in any way. They think — and they have always thought — that we will come to regret any change to this.

This argument is absurd, because it is contradicted by fact. Similar people argued in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries that vaccination would make people more like cows. They were against transplants. Similar arguments were used against gender reassignment/confirmation surgery — both Martine and I have an interest to declare here, since we are both trans. Everything that humans have done since we first evolved intelligence, from growing crops and domesticating dogs onwards, has involved humans tinkering with the natural order.

“People don’t need to be in one place, or one machine,” she explained. “People can exist in many places and float.

What about the argument that uploading will always be an elite thing, a way for the rich to live forever? “That’s demonstrably false: the track record of technology is one of relentless democratization. When I graduated from college there were no cell phones, and then there were a few in the hands of rich businessmen, and now half the world’s population has them, each one with a computer capacity greater than that used in the Apollo program. And some aspects of phone technology provide us already with the underlying framework, the intellectual property, for mindware.…”

Some of the first advocates of uploading thought in terms of replacing one’s flesh body with a machine. Rothblatt sees a more fluid relationship — evolving a visionary idea she calls “transbemanism.” She describes it as “a philosophy that supports transitioning to a view of ourselves as unique patterns of thoughts (bemes), rather than as bodies per se, and consequently accepting of a ‘one mind, many instantiations’ society.”

“People don’t need to be in one place, or one machine,” she explained. “People can exist in many places and float. People were originally disturbed by telephones, because an individual’s voice could be where they are speaking and where they were heard — and now we take that for granted. A singularity of embodiment would be an obsolete concept. Just because our whole cultural matrix has been one body/one mind does not mean that this has to be where we are going. And, of course, sooner or later, different versions of the uploaded personality will have experiences different enough to make them different, though closely related, persons.”

Transgender, Transhuman, Transbeman

Martine developed an interest in transhumanism in 2002 when she read Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. “I had never really thought about the numbers or the practicality, and he took me through the numbers. I felt like I wanted to be a transhumanist — it all spoke to me as a transgendered person.” A little later, she discovered the website of the World Transhumanist Association. At first she felt unwelcome, but maintains that trans people are a core part of that community, because we embrace growth and change as part of our spirituality.

There is another thing that trans people bring to transhumanism, which is an acute awareness of the importance of rights. Rothblatt sees a direct historical line between the acceptance of a person’s right to alter their gender and the freedom to be transhuman and transbeman. “Gender reassignment in the 1950s and 1960s was based on the notion that changing a body to fit a mindset was ethical and therapeutic. Transhumanism builds on transgenderism, broadening the driving mindset from a gender ideal to a human development ideal. Transbemanism builds on transhumanism by saying it is all about the mindset, and hence bodies are tools of which we may ethically have as many (real or virtual) as we want.”

Cyber person technologySome in transhumanist circles have suggested that the future is postgender. Should the future be discussed in terms of transgender or postgender or both? Rothblatt responds: “I think the future should be discussed in terms of transgender, not post gender, because we are not abandoning gender. Indeed, gender is one of the coolest avenues for human expression. Transgendered people have too much gender for the sexual dimorphic paradigm of male or female. In the future, everyone will explore the countless gender possibilities along the male-female continuum.”

Before we start uploading ourselves, people need to possess intellectual property in themselves. The uploaded need legal personhood. Martine has taken from English Bioethicist John Harris the idea that that which values itself should be so valued, whether it be an ape or an artificial intelligence. She thinks this is a more useful guide than Jeremy Bentham’s derivation of rights from the ability to suffer. Without rights, so many crimes against the uploaded would be possible. It is easy to brainwash the embodied, and the uploaded would likely be even more vulnerable. We have to establish an ethic of the absolute impermissibility of harming a persons’ autonomy by harming their own value to themselves. It is an assault. Rothblatt: “Minds are fragile — and to hit someone in the face is almost better than to put a fist through the fragile web of a personality.”

In a sense it is a choice of a spirituality that is entirely secular and material, so one can predict that establishing the right to upload as a life choice will provoke a big fight with religious authority. After all, you are offering a version of the beatific vision, of the communion of souls and that’s religion’s unique selling point. Martine comments that the churches have had to accept reality in the past — and they are not forever. Atheism has grown in the US because science and technology can address problems where religion fails. Technology, especially information technology, has continued to empower individuals, and ideologies that don’t meet our needs get junked.While transbemanism can satisfy our spiritual longings, what does it have to say about pleasure? “Pleasure is the bedrock of transbemanism. The purpose of exalting our minds above our bodies is to lengthen and multiply the magnitude of pleasure that each individual can enjoy.”

Finally, we talked about music and the way that, when we listen to music, we feel the presence of the long dead in our souls: Chopin, or Haydn, or Miles Davis. Music is one of the kinds of information which artists have encoded themselves into in the pursuit of lasting fame and communication with others. “My core belief,” Martine says, “is that information wants to be free. People are information. Technology is a way of communicating. Douglas Hofstadter talks of how humans, through music and science and art and mathematics, transcend space and time, how as individuals we are a concatenation of all the souls who have touched us. In the flesh or uploaded, we are a colony of souls.”

Books by Roz Kaveney include Reading The Vampire Slayer and From Alien to the Matrix. She is a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement.


  1. Transhumanism is an emerging pattern in chaos. To the haters, don’t knock it till you try it. I, for one, will happily volunteer.

  2. The statement on spirituality I found rather appallingly close-minded. The article writer said “technology succeeds were religion fails,” but I cannot think of an instance were anything but the inverse is true. Religion provides comfort and a sense of meaning where technology simply provides better tools to accomplish purposes. Technology is the means to an end; religion is an end unto itself.
    The idea also that the purpose of religion is purely (religion’s “unique selling point”) about the afterlife can be dismissed as silly by almost any spiritual person you care to ask. Ask any religious person, and they will cite God (or some other spiritual force) as an active presence in their own lives, not some promised paradise.
    And I have two qualms with calling this uploading “a spiritualism that is purely material.” Firstly, the simple technological issue that making a digital clone of yourself is just that: a clone. The original self doesn’t go anywhere.
    Secondly, where is the sense of purpose? What are you accomplishing by moving your mind from one body to another? Humans have always believed in a force greater than themselves, and this belief (whether technically true or not) is the true selling point of religion, not some hedonistic, theoretical cloud nine.
    Lastly, I would like to quote Howard Taylor, author and artist of Schlock Mercenary: “If you deride religion as the refuge of hopeless optimists, than claiming that there will be no religion in the future will be to claim that there will be no hopeless optimists in the future, which itself sounds hopelessly optimistic.”

  3. I think all of the above is intellectual nonsense. At present there are millions of people displaced all over the world by floods, eathquakes and wars and more to come as disasters flourish. Perhaps the plan is to run a world without the normal human beings that have been associated with Planet Earth for thousands of years and replace them with robots and other transhuman entities.

  4. I just have to add a late comment to the discussion.

    Transferring YOUR current consciousness, not just duplicating it, IS/SHOULD certainly be possible.
    But I would wager the process would involve an extremely large number of nanobot-braincells, taking over the function of each of your brain cells, as a first main step of the conversion.

    Any method for scanning the brain, as some people use the word “destructive” to describe, would actually just kill your brain.
    In order to make a real transfer, a very intricate/intimate and detailed coupling of biological brain, and technology would have to take place somehow.

    If Nanobots could, one by one, take over each braincells function, then surely the current consciousness would remain intact, as it being the result of the overall function of the brain.
    After that point, more conversions/digitization could take place if need be.

  5. Who is going to pay for this extended (or indefinite) stay in virtual reality? I assume it requires electricity to operate, unless they plan on inventing the perpetual motion machine at the same time!

    If “the purpose of exalting our minds above our bodies is to lengthen and multiply the magnitude of pleasure that each individual can enjoy”, this just pure hedonism.

    Humans may desire enhanced hedonistic experiences, but what the other humans (the ones who can’t afford technologies such as these, aka, the rest of the world) need is compassion, enlightenment, and transcendence, to help them move forward in an ever changing and difficult world.

    So the author’s hypothesis is basically that increased satisfaction of desire through enhanced hedonism will enhance life? The only problem with this hypothesis is that human desire is a bottomless pit and can never be satisfied if left to run wild. If, as the Buddha pointed out, “the cause of suffering is desire”, this catering to endless desire can only lead to endless suffering. On the other hand, a person who has experienced enlightening transcendence may no longer require enhanced hedonism or pleasure seeking.

    While this possibility of “uploading” human consciousness may seem entertaining to the futuristic & technologically inclined, it is my personal opinion that it is a completely and totally socially irresponsible way to look at our future. Instead of “throwing money” at the chance to escape reality into a hedonistic artificial paradise available only to the super-rich, I propose that the author consider the “pleasure” which can be derived from helping others who may lack such basic necessities as clean water, food, clothing, and access to medical care.

  6. «basic necessities as clean water, food, clothing, and access to medical care»

    Uploaded mind would only need electricity. Total cost of the «necessities» over flesh life might be higher than electricity cost. At some point even the cost of electricity might reach 0 — consider Dyson spheres. Good examples in Accelerando by Charles Stross.

    PS: Isn’t pleasure the source of overpopulation?

  7. If you were offered this, would you not take it…? It is eay to say that one would have the will-power not to do a seductive thing while that thing remains impossible. Having said that, perhaps would wouldn’t. I only know I probably would.
    I would argue that a decreased reliance on the body as a carrier for the mind would (if used in this way) decrease the sufferings of those whose bodies are starved. The potential would be there, anyhow.
    And the present way of doing things, in which the rich live hedonistic lives and the poor are unable to live hedonistic lives has come about without the proposed change. I propose that the rich make the most of what is available to them. Guilt is cheap and non-constructive. Hedonism at least does some good to somebody,

  8. Where are the men in white coats when you need them?

    This article should chill the blood of any normal, decent human being.

  9. Care to explain your position?

  10. In the future you may have the option to either:

    1 Upload,

    2 extend your lifespan indefinitely,

    3 or die. (cryopreserved)

    I don’t feel the two first options chilling my blood as much as the normal, decent option 3. So chill, dude. This is great stuff. What you call normal… we’ve seen what it is for billions of years, and I, for one, would like to break the pattern.

  11. What the hell are these people smoking? Does anyone in this transhuman movement actually have an engineering degree? Does anyone have a notion of how electricity actually works? If this mind uploading stuff were to actually ever work, how would that transfer a consciousness? It wouldn’t. The original biological agent, still ages and eventually dies. Your bastard son/daughter clone “lives” as a collection of unique personality traits on a mainframe somewhere, but you’re still dead. YOU’RE STILL DEAD. How is this an option? Tell me your going to filet my brain from my body and place it into a nutrient rich vat equipped with i/o sensors and I MIGHT believe it’s possible to extend my life a few hundred years. Other than the preservation of the brain, this is all new age mystiscism divining rod alchemy crap. Come on.

  12. This idea of uploading is naive… you would have a digital clone of yourself but you would still be there, not in the computer.
    The clone may be convinced to be you but you wouldnt feel uploaded at all. Its like in the movie “the 6th day”…

    What i believe in :

    Biotechnologies that stop aging.
    Neural interfaces
    Neural augmentations

    and in a distant future, maybe, using nanobots to replace the biological cells with a more efficient synthetic counterpart.

    For the rest of the body, synthetic organs could come earlier, but my brain is to be treated with extreme caution, and even gradual replacement of the neurons would require extensive reflexion.

  13. the concept is absurd but maybe someday something resembling this could come to pass or maybe it already has, and we do not recognize biology as the true divine technology, ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power, so if one is somewhat ignorant and somewhat knowlegedeable, one might be blissgorant.

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  14. Several things. And first things first; it’s probably pot they’re smoking.
    Secondly, engineering degrees in the transhumanist movement, well, they abound. Ray Kurzweil, a leading futurist and Transhumanist, one of the early ones too…hell, just google him.
    Your Quote (about the transfer of consciousness): “The original biological agent, still ages and eventually dies”…”Your bastard son/daughter clone “lives”…”but you’re still dead””.

    Yes. But this also happens every second while you’re still “alive”…in one body, the same body…or so you think. Consider that none of the molecules that hold your memories are comprised of the exact same atoms of the day before. Yet you seem collected, awake and alert from sleep the next day. You think you’re you. Ha.

    Thirdly: the brain in vat scenario seems most plausible given current understanding.

  15. the author and those interested in transhumanism need to remove, the idea of soul from their thinking. The human conscienceness is possible because of the arrangement and interaction of neurons, to presume that it is possible to digitalise consciousness and run it on any piece of technology is absurd. Also the authors reference to gender is also absurd, gender is a device for procreation, with a digital or artificial intelligence gender in human terms would be irrelevant, nothing more than a persons choice of hair style.

  16. The digitization of the mind into a medium other than the brain should in no way have an effect on the identity or reality of a person’s consciousness. As long as the structure, connections and weights of these connections remain the same, the end result should be identical. Copy the brain exactly in an electronic medium and the resulting being would behave in exactly the same way as the biological counterpart.

    Transgender is however a point of contention for me. If you believe -as has been proven- that the expressed mental gender of a person (what he or she feels they are) is determined at birth by brain morphology, irregardless of the external sexual gender of his or her body; then the digitized version of the person’s self would by default be the same as whatever he or she felt like in life. To change this upon “upload” would be a violation of the data of the person’s mind and the result would be something other than the actual input and an artifice.

    Both in flesh and in machine, the gender and appearance of the body has no meaning whatsoever to the mind, the mind will identify with whatever it believes to be true, and this is dictated by the brain. There is no male and female, only an inverse normal distribution curve between the extremes of female and male.

  17. I have a theory on how to get yourself to feel like the upload is more than simply a clone. Upload yourself, and at the same time induce yourself into a coma. Have your uploaded self explore some digital realm or another, gathering memories, etc. Right before you wake up, have the changed data inserted into your mind, and you will remember the experience. Do this enough, and you won’t be able to tell the difference, therefore creating a single “you”. Just a theory, though.

  18. You are not your body or your brain, you are a pattern, as long as that pattern of thought remains in a functioning state it does not matter what medium it is on.

    If you created a digital clone of yourself it would start to diverge from you as it experiences different things and would cease to be you, only something very similar. However ( assuming your digital clone could be created instantaneously after scanning your brain) for a small instant of time there will be 1 you in 2 bodies and if you could instantly destroy one of them before any divergence of brain states occurs I would not consider it murder.

    My preferred method of uploading would be to have my individual neurons scanned, destroyed and then replaced with a machine equivalent so at no point would there be a dead me.

  19. Uploading may be useful under certain conditions, or primarily as a means of transcending the human body. But only if it is a destructive upload, i.e., the brain in the remaining body no longer functions. In other words, a true TRANSFER of consciousness not a DUPLICATION of consciousness.

    While duplication of a consciousness might be useful under certain conditions, it is by no means a way to immortality. The original brain remains. It is irrelevant to me if my consciousness lives on in another body. It is MY consciousness that needs to be preserved.

    The obvious answer is that uploading is NOT the answer. The actual answer is a fault tolerant, failure tolerant, and restartable CONVERSION of a biological brain into a robust non-biological brain. Then you have no concerns of duplicated minds and all the problems that produces.

    Also I agree that gender is utterly irrelevant to a Transhuman, assuming the body is no longer biologically based – which by definition it will not be.

    There are far too many so-called “Transhumanists” who really don’t understand what the ultimate goal here is and continue to think in “human” terms. While it is true that there may be a period of time where such concerns are relevant prior to the full Transhuman Ascension, ultimately all such issues will be resolved by being superceded.

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