HR Administration

Martine Rothblatt Interview: Welcome to Cyberia

By Max Mihelich

Dec. 21, 2014

Martine Rothblatt photo by Danuta Otfinowski

Much of the talk these days regarding HR technology revolves around big data, wearable devices and bring-your-own-device policies. Such current technological concerns could be mere child’s play compared to cyberconsciousness and how it could alter the workforce of the future. This obscure concept is brought to you courtesy of Martine Rothblatt, an unrelenting force in business.

As if practicing law and working for NASA weren’t enough, Rothblatt also launched several satellite communications companies, the most famous of which was Sirius Satellite Radio in 1990. For most people, that would constitute a full career. But Rothblatt didn’t stop there. In the early 1990s, after her daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, an illness for which there currently is no cure, Rothblatt left Sirius and started biotech company United Therapeutics Corp. in hopes of eventually finding one. 

‘Cyberconsciousness is being aware of yourself as a feeling,
caring, living being — with that awareness being based in software rather than a human brain.’ 

—Martine Rothblatt

Oh, and Rothblatt, who recently published her latest book, “Virtually Human: The Promise — and the Peril — of Digital Immortality,” happens to be the highest-paid female CEO in the United States and a transgender woman.

Rothblatt and her employees at the Silver Spring, Maryland–based United Therapeutics are dedicated to developing medical products that address the unmet needs of patients with chronic and life-threatening conditions. In June 2001, Rothblatt received a doctorate in medical ethics from Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, a constituent college of the University of London.

In addition to publicly traded United Therapeutics, which reported $1.1 billion in revenue in 2013, Rothblatt also launched the nonprofit Terasem Movement Foundation, whose employees, under Rothblatt’s stewardship, are pioneering research in cyberconsciousness.

“Cyberconsciousness is being aware of yourself as a feeling, caring, living being — with that awareness being based in software rather than a human brain,” said Rothblatt, 60.

Although cyberconsciousness is a relatively low-profile area of computer science, if Rothblatt’s predictions for cyberconsciousness ultimately come to pass, the workforce will look vastly different 15 years from now.

“I think it’s going to be transformative in terms of how it affects the workplace. I think it will be a huge productivity multiplier. I think it will actually create a great deal of new employment for noncyberconscious people,” Rothblatt said. “And many jobs that do not require the use of hands or legs could be done by cyberconscious people.”

Customer service, bookkeeping, legal research and writing jobs could all be done by cyberconscious people in the future, according to Rothblatt. Even a vast amount of national security and other government jobs could be carried out by virtual people. If such developments occur as predicted, there will be a new aspect of diversity that organizations will have to consider for their business strategies. Likewise, managers will have to learn how to manage a workforce composed of both organic and virtual employees.

“I think managers are going to have to develop skills to manage cyberconscious people, just like we’ve had to go to workshops to manage a diverse workplace,” Rothblatt said. “It’s another skill set that needs to be developed, but there’ll be no shortage of workshops on managing your cyberconscious employees.”

Cyberconsciousness Explained

Rothblatt was introduced to the idea of cyberconsciousness after a friend gave her prominent futurist Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Age of the Spiritual Machines.” Rothblatt credits Kurzweil with sparking her interest in cyberconsciousness. Kurzweil, who declined to be interviewed, sits on the board of directors at United Therapeutics.

In her latest book “Virtually Human,” which was published in September 2014, Rothblatt argues that by 2030, cyberconsciousness will be a reality and people will be able to download their brains to create virtual “mindclones.” Theoretically, immortality may soon be a possibility. In the future, it also could be possible to create entirely new virtual people and resurrect others.

In order for people to create cyberconscious versions of themselves or others, they will need a robust file of mannerisms, personality, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values, Rothblatt explained.

It’s “sort of like 20 years’ worth of Facebook postings, stored Internet chats, Instagram photos and personal YouTube videos,” she said. That mindfile would then be uploaded to a mindware program that examines every saved digital memory to determine an operating system of parameters to reflect the personality shown over the timespan covered by the data. A cyberconcious person would be a digital mindclone that thinks of itself as a human and is its own entity.

Currently, the primary limitation to creating fully cyberconscious people is the mindware that will eventually make cyberconsciousness possible is not yet powerful enough to do so.

However, the Terasem Movement has developed a “proof of concept” robot called BINA48, which is named after Rothblatt’s wife, Bina, and was featured on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” last year. BINA48’s mindfile is based on Rothblatt’s digital reflections.

BINA48 “is just a proof of concept of how the technology is getting closer and closer to being cyberconscious. She’s like a souped-up version of the Siri app,” Rothblatt said. “She’s, in fact, not conscious. But she’s a very good learning tool for the whole topic of cyberconsciouness.”

The Terasem Foundation further tests the creation of cyberconscious people through a project called LifeNaut, where teams of high school students compete to resurrect historical figures.

The development of cyberconscious technology carries interesting implications for the future of business. Theoretically, it may not be long before a company’s contingency plan consists of creating a mindclone of its CEO in the event of his or her untimely death to oversee the company until a successor is named.  Or, even go on running the company forever.

“All of these things are falling into place very rapidly because there is a large market demand for software that is evermore user-friendly,” Rothblatt said. “Whoever has more user-friendly software has a bigger market share, and to make software more user-friendly you have to make it more human.”

Heaven Is a Computer

Inevitably, many people are skeptical of Rothblatt’s work in cyberconsciousness. Some people simply question the possibility of cyberconsciousness; some question its morality, asking whether this is a field of scientific study that humans should be working on. Other critics claim sacrilege.

Rothblatt doesn’t see it that way.

“All religions teach the immortality of the soul, and all religions teach our life is not limited by our body. Cyberconsciousness seems to be very consistent with traditional religion,” she said. 

‘In the future, I think robots will be more like partners in the workforce. Human displacement will occur, but I don’t think we will be taken over by machines.’

—Michael Coovert, psychology professor, University of South Florida


Skepticism of cyberconsciousness is also driven in part by the societal fear that advancements in robotics will one day erase the need for human labor. Think HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Human displacement is an inevitable consequence of technological developments, said Michael Coovert, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida and author of several books on the effects of technology on workers and the workplace. If cyberconscious people eventually appear in the workforce, they will most likely take over jobs previously held by organic people similar to the way ATMs have replaced large numbers of bank tellers.

“We already use machines to make our lives easier. Spell check or calendar organizers are great examples of this,” Coovert said. “In the future, I think robots will be more like partners in the workforce. Human displacement will occur, but I don’t think we will be taken over by machines.”

Given that programs like spell check and Outlook have made mundane tasks easier to manage, if trends continue, the everyday tasks of human resources professionals should be aided by advancements in HR technology.

“Human resources will benefit from developments in applicant tracking systems and recruiting software,” said Garry Mathiason, a senior shareholder and co-chair of the robotics, artificial intelligence and automation practice group at law firm Littler Mendelson.

Mathiason believes the use of robots in HR departments is closer than many think. He pointed to a “cute, 2-foot-tall” robot named Sophie that interviews human candidates as an example. Sophie, the product of a partnership between La Trobe University Business School in Melbourne, Australia, and NEC Corp. in Japan, is intended to be an objective interviewer, which can help employers minimize risks created by interviewers who may ask discriminatory questions to candidates, he said.

“Sophie is programmed to not only ask and respond to questions, but to also measure an interviewee’s physiological responses and compare results with the top 10 percent of the existing workforce,” Mathiason wrote in a 2014 report titled “Five Transformational Impacts of Robotics on Human Resources, the Workplace and the Law.”

Human labor displacement aside, technological developments also create new jobs and expand the need for existing industries. Rothblatt expects cyberconscious people to demand equal rights under the law, such as the right not to be killed or to be protected from discrimination. This would create a new legal practice for lawyers. Similarly, some cyberconscious people will likely need psychologists to look after their mental health, opening up a new area of practice for mental health professionals. Rothblatt also believes cyberconscious employees will expect benefits packages.

“There’ll be huge job openings in cyberpsychology to adjust cyberconscious parameters if virtual people are feeling like they’re remembering too much. They’ll have fears — all the things that cause us to go to the psychologist are going to cause virtual people to want to go as well,” Rothblatt said. “And businesses would likely have to offer benefits for cyberconscious people. Business should not discriminate against cyberconscious people in the future. We’ve paved the way that nowadays you cannot discriminate against mental health.”

Transgender Activism

The advent of fully cyberconscious people is still years away. So while the Terasem Movement works toward a cyberconscious future, Rothblatt also devotes herself to causes that affect today’s workforce. Since undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1994, she has become a vocal advocate for transgender rights. In 2010 she and her wife, Bina, received the Vicki Sexual Freedom Award, given by the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual freedom as a fundamental human right.

In her interview with Workforce Rothblatt downplayed the significance of her transgenderism in the business world, saying, “It’s really nothing that special. I’ve been accepted as a transgender woman without people really caring. There are almost 1,000 employees here, they all know their CEO is a transgender woman and feel it’s irrelevant.”

While she was accepted as a transgender woman by her colleagues, not all transgender employees are fortunate enough to be in the same social or professional positions as Rothblatt, who earns $38 million annually as CEO of United Therapeutics (She is followed by Oracle Corp. president and CFO Safra Catz at $37.7 million).

In many states a transgender employee can be legally fired simply for being transgender, making it difficult for such employees to feel comfortable being open about their gender identity in the workplace.

However, with the help of activists like Rothblatt, that’s slowly changing.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have laws explicitly protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer workers from being fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Three other states protect only sexual orientation. Further, 91 percent of Fortune500 companies already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 61 percent prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Additionally, with a July 2014 executive order, President Barack Obama amended two existing executive orders to extend similar employment protections to all federal workers as well as federal contractors and subcontractors who do more than $10,000 in government business in one year. The president’s amendment to Order 11478 added gender identity protections to all federal employees. The amendment to Order 11246 added sexual orientation and gender-identity protections to federal contractors and subcontractors.

The amended executive orders allowed the president to provide employment protections to some LGBTQ workers after the Employment Non-Discrimination Act failed to pass the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year. The law would have prohibited discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Although there is not a nationwide ban on employment discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity, the amendments will still cover a large portion of the country’s workforce. There are approximately 26 million government contract workers, which accounts for 22 percent of the total civilian workforce. Additionally, case law developing around sex discrimination under Title VII continues to offer more protections for LGBTQ employees.

“I hope my career of success with satellite communications and biotechnology can be helpful in opening up the workplace to transgendered people,” Rothblatt said. “Because transgendered people have the benefit of seeing things from both a male and female perspective, I think we can often be uniquely valuable employees. And I hope people can look to my example for why they should welcome transgender employees and not feel that they have to terminate an employee that comes out as transgendered.”

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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