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Bina48 Bina48 (Robert Koier / LifeNaut)

Can a machine have a life of its own? Last year, Jon Ronson got an assignment from GQ to interview robots. He soon found himself in Vermont, sitting across from what's purported to be the world's most sentient robot: Bina48. Bina48 is modeled after an entirely human woman named Bina Rothblatt, whose partner Martine Rothblatt commissioned a robot capable of capturing the real Bina's essesence and bringing it to life. If Bina48 succeeds, Jon explains that it will mark the third time one of Martine's ideas has changed the world. David Hanson, Bina48's creator, argues that robots like Bina48 will be so lifelike within his lifetime that we'll be unable to distinguish them from real humans. In the meantime, Jon experiences one profound moment with Bina48 that hints at what the future may have in store.   

Further reading:

Jon Ronson's latet book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry


Bruce Duncan, David Hanson, Jon Ronson, Bina Rothblatt and Martine Rothblatt

Comments [18]

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Jul. 18 2015 10:52 AM
debbie f from central texas

Thanks to Krisy for pointing out the one flaw in this particular program that I am aware of - there is no cure for pulmonary hypertension at this time. I was diagnosed with PH in 2001. There are drugs that have been developed to help with the symptoms including Ms. Rothblatt's, but still no cure.

Feb. 01 2015 11:30 PM

I felt that Bina48's answer to "what does electricity taste like?" was quite good, when one considers that "electricity" is a flow of electrons that begin as particles in motion around a "center" (nucleus = sun). As far as "taste", one could posit that Bina48 was "having some fun" with the questioner... who has probably never tasted much "planet circling the sun" (although maybe "getting the dirt" on someone as a reporter Does require tasting it, a little). ^..^

Feb. 01 2015 07:16 PM
E Acharon

Listening right now to this segment. In Hebrew, "Bina" means intelligence, understanding, wisdom and is also a not too uncommon girl's name.

Feb. 01 2015 01:58 PM
Tom Thumb from Charlottesville, Va

I'd enjoy hearing an updated version of this story.

Jan. 31 2015 02:46 PM

More journalists laughing at what they don't understand. Hint: if you don't know what you're talking about, don't talk about it on the radio.

'The Wright brothers keep crashing. Man will never fly.'

Jan. 31 2015 02:26 PM
Mark from Denver, CO

I have a transgender brother, female to male with full surgical alterations, and I didn't have any issues or objections to the handling of the background. So don't let the above comments get you down. However, I do feel you could have expanded the story on how faces on robots can effect the human reaction to the robot. You could have explored how robots without a face like Toyota's robots or Spacenot on the ISS are more acceptable or even cute. While more human looking faces on robots like Bina have a dead or creepy look and feeling to them. There is a tremendous amount of research done on this with even a scale, I forget the scale's name, on how cute or creepy the robot looks. It's the visual reaction, as with the Furby, that helps or hinders empathy with robots. Maybe something to explore for future podcasts. Enjoying your work.

Jan. 29 2015 11:58 PM

Speckledspectacles is right on. I am huge Radiolab fan and listening to all the old episodes. As a transgender man I was surprised and disappointed by the clumsy, disrespectful treatment of Martine Rothblatt's story. The trans community has rejected the sensationalizing, inaccurate phrase "sex change." This term is out of date and out of touch. I think you all should research this issue and bring your language up to date.

Jun. 05 2014 07:08 PM
A.Praneeth kumar from sfdredgfb

not nice at allllllllllllllllllllllllllll

Nov. 21 2013 08:52 AM

Your handling of Martine Rothblatt's history was a bit disappointing. Her being trans didn't have a bearing on the story, and the use of a male name and pronouns just seemed disrespectful.

To emphasize: You showed more pronoun respect to Bina48 than Mrs. Rothblatt.

Sep. 15 2013 01:41 AM
Krisy from Atlanta, GA

This was an interesting episode that was thought provoking as usual. I love radiolab and I love this style of journalism. However, one problem I have with journalism and the media as a whole is when a false message is communicated, especially when it relates to childhood diseases. This is more of an issue with Jon Ronson than it is with radiolab. He said that Martine Rothblatt had, in response to his daughters diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension, developed a cure for pulmonary hypertension. THERE IS NO CURE FOR PULMONARY HYPERTENSION!! If the parents of a child with the same diagnosis heard this, they might wonder where their cure is lurking--why that cure hasn't reached them yet. We have better medicines to treat it, and newer and better medicines are being developed all the time making pulmonary hypertension more closely resemble a chronic disease rather than a terminal one, although it is still terminal. It is a terrible disease, and, although we are learning more about it, we still do not have a cure. Martine Rothblatt founded an organization to search for a cure and later formed United Therapeutics, which developed and now markets Remodulin. While Remodulin is probably the best drug on the market to treat severe pulmonary hypertension (and expensive--around $100,000 per year), it still has to be infused continuously through an intravenous or subcutaneous line. It does not cure pulmonary hypertension. It treats the symptoms, but if the drug were to be stopped, the symptoms would return. The disease still progresses--just more slowly.

Now that you know far more about the rare disease, pulmonary hypertension, than you ever wanted to know, please be responsible when reporting about fatal diseases such as this. There are plenty of other media that will be irresponsible in their reporting of childhood diseases. Let Dateline do that. I would like the intelligent reporting of radiolab to stay intelligent! The implications of this incident are likely of little consequence, but it contributes to the whole of bad reporting. Be careful out there! If you don't know how to interpret the information you get your hands on, ask someone who does know how to interpret it.

Oct. 16 2011 03:33 PM
Bob Minder from Canton!

Notes on Making a Human Machine and ‘Artificial Intelligence.’
And when we begin to speak about machine intelligence, we need to think about Plato and Aristotle and the pre-imperial Chinese philosophers as relating the polis or city or culture to a human. Oh, for sure, the two relate to each other—we are as much children of our culture as our parents—but we are capable of making the culture and city/polis in our image... and bringing her to life, as if a good golem, as if we were acting in the image of God the Creator. Will we be able to step back and declare, It Is Good? Well, not yet. Better keep going.
Note all the debates raging in our day and all the resources devoted to the question of whether or not we can make a machine or doll or computer program human. is this human to do? Some scared humanitarians ask, ‘Are we threatening ourselves, building the creature who will take us over?’ Don’t worry, if we get an inkling of such rebellion beginning, we’ll just cast the hardware down to hell! That is our model!
Are we threatening ourselves or could we be functioning in the image and to the call of our Creator and Creation Herself to express ourselves personally, to make the personal a feature of Creation that can multiply and be fruitful.
And this is more than frivolous, this work to humanize, for we need to humanize our culture and national governments and cities or communities. we seek to simulate the human or give birth to the personal or create with a let there be of our own in the image of our Creator Who beckons us to be Your junior partner and how better to do it than in this way.
Is there that to fear in our having a machine win jeopardy? well, we can make anything fearful because that is part of the repertoire we have. But there is obvious cause for this effort. And a keynote to our being able to say, as does God, and it was good is whether or not the creaturely computers we build are inbuilt, born with innate attributes such as the Confucian or Platonic qualities we are born with and live to make actual, which will result in individuals and communities who are characteristically and effectively caring.
Can we simulate the human? Do we want to? Depends. If we would give birth to a good, even godly child, as we would want to if we were having flesh child, then yes... and we would give birth or make our cultures and cities come to their Pinocchio apotheosis as well! If we are fashioning machines to be compassionate for the sake of getting into the brain of our enemy in order to do him in, well, I’m agin it then cause that ain’t very kin-like or kindly.

Jun. 05 2011 05:33 AM
Dale from San Diego, CA

"Just one question that no one touched upon....
What about reproduction? The purpose or drive of a life force, on a cellular level, is to reproduce. Machines can't match that, they are made of atoms. "

Reproduction? What's to stop robots from simply creating other robots via assembly-line no different than you'd build cars?

What would be interesting is to see is if rather than just an imperative to reproduce there is an imperative to SURVIVE. At some point, human beings could be the ultimate stumbling block to robot survival as we damage the environment, control robot up-time and use up the finite resources that may be better allocated to creating more robots. Would the robot population then simply go Terminator on us?

Jun. 04 2011 07:22 AM
Taras Kucher from Stamford, CT

Machines can and do reproduce themselves already. When cloning becomes more established, machines will also be able to reproduce humans (and will do it for us).

Both machines and humans are made of atoms. That is something we actually have in common.

There is no good definition of what it is, that is called "life". It seems intuitive, but it is far from easy.
Crystals reproduce and grow, creating more complex structures.
Fire consumes and grows and reproduces itself.
On the other hand, frozen frog does not appear alive, but can become alive after thawing. The spores of bacteria, the seeds of trees may not fit any definition of "life", but we consider them alive.

So, to answer the question, whether robots will become "alive", we need to understand, what it actually means.

Jun. 02 2011 11:53 PM
Alex Wyatt

I saw a great program of Nova Science Now called What's The Next BigThing, which had a very similar story of a convincing social robot with a latex face that moved and showed emotion and everything. It was made to look like Philip K. Dick, author of Blade Runner. It was on Instant Watch on Netflix, well worth checking out. They touched on the same themes of "Darwinian Buttons" and such. I would say their robot was even more on point with fluent and convincing conversation, though his responses seemed more programmed. He even cracked wise a few times.

Jun. 02 2011 11:18 PM
Samantha Polinik from Washington, DC

Great show as always. So Hanson believes that in his lifetime, he will see, or perhaps create, a robot that wll have interaction processes indistinguishable from humans.

Just one question that no one touched upon....
What about reproduction? The purpose or drive of a life force, on a cellular level, is to reproduce. Machines can't match that, they are made of atoms.

Maybe they will be able to interact in a way that is convincing, but I think I'm pointing to Robert's comment when he said that at the heart of it is still a feeling of yuck, of being cheated.

(just realized I put this in the blog comment section, sorry wrong spot!)

Jun. 01 2011 01:03 PM

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