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Reinventing the World

By Delan Bruce

Published Sep 14, 2018 8:00 AM

When Martine Rothblatt sees a roadblock, she stops at nothing to remove it.

Photo courtesy of Martine Rothblatt.

Growing up in Southern California, Martine Rothblatt ’77, M.B.A. ’81, J.D. ’81 was fascinated by books — often, biographies of extraordinary people who questioned authority, came up with breakthroughs and realized their dreams. Then she became one of those people.

In 1990, Rothblatt launched Sirius Satellite Radio, changing the world of satellite communications. In 1996, she founded the biotech firm United Therapeutics in order to develop a cure for her youngest daughter Jenesis’ rare lung disease. The successful drug treatment that resulted was approved in 2013.

Rothblatt, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in the early ’90s and has written books on transgender issues, is now working toward creating an inexhaustible supply of transplantable human organs.

Q: Which of the biographies you read was most memorable?

A: Jim Thorpe was a Native American athlete who became a decathlete and gold medal winner in the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics. He questioned authority and accomplished what people thought he couldn’t do. I’m inspired by the story of Thorpe to this day. I don’t remember what my thoughts were 20 years ago when I was working on the medicine to save Jenesis, but it’s like Jim Thorpe was in the shadow, motivating my thoughts.

Q: Did you have a favorite professor at UCLA?

A: Yes. I had a wonderful instructor in communication studies who encouraged my creativity named Andrea Rich ’65, M.A. ’66, Ph.D. ’68. She would often speak about the future possibilities of technology. I spoke to her about my vision of connecting the world with satellite communications. She said to me, “Why don’t you write a paper about the furthest implementation of that that you could imagine?”

This was in 1975. I wrote a paper called “Interstellar Communication” about the possibility of putting satellites all around the orbit of the sun and communicating by sending signals out to other stars and forming, in essence, a giant transmitting antenna, using the entire orbit of the Earth as the baseline.

Another very inspiring teacher was Harland Epps, an astronomy professor. I’ve remained friends with Harland to this day. Last year we went up to Madras, Oregon, with our families and watched the solar eclipse together. He narrated the eclipse, which was such a treat.

Q: How do you choose which dreams to pursue?

A: I try to pursue a dream that, first of all, seems practical. Today, I’ve made the first electric helicopter, and I’m making more and better electric helicopters. Before I made the first one, I went to every helicopter manufacturer, and they all thought it was impossible. But I did the calculations that convinced me it was not impossible. It was something that I could jump over that little gap to make happen.

The dream also has to be something that I feel will make a lot of people happy. An example was when I brought about launching satellites that could connect people across large distances. [And] I knew that spreading music across the whole country on dozens of channels to every nook and cranny would. I knew making medicines would.

Q: How did it feel to produce the drug that helped save your daughter’s life?

A: It was exhilarating. It was a sense like, if my life ends right now, it’s been worthwhile. I had accomplished the purpose of my life. When you do something good, it feels good.

Q: What is the most important thing you’re working on now?

A: Creating an unlimited supply of transplantable organs. Because when things are rationed, you always end up with somebody choosing who gets something and who doesn’t get something. And it always seems like injustice inevitably follows from that kind of a process.

Q: How far off is the transplanting of pig organs to humans? 3-D printable organs?

A: If I had to pick dates, I’d say the first pig organs will be transplanted into people at the beginning of the 2020s, whereas the first 3-D printable organs could be available for transplanting in people by the middle of the 2020s.

Q: What was the inspiration for your first robot, BINA48?

A: When it was proposed to me that this could be done by somebody who had read my articles about mindfiles, mindware and mind cloning, I asked my wife, Bina, if she would be the subject of the robot. And she said, “Sure, that sounds like fun.” I think that, as a woman of color, she feels that African-American women are always kind of redlined out of technology or minimized, or just erased. I think she saw this as an opportunity to present an image of an African-American woman at the height of cognitive computing technology, and that’s an important statement to be made. A big part of BINA48 now is talking about the need to be sensitive to racism in cyberspace.

The idea itself came from [futurist] Ray Kurzweil. I came across him after I’d already started United Therapeutics. [Before] I read his books, such as The Age of Spiritual Machines, the notion that we would be able to replicate the human mind had never occurred to me. I found myself doing research to expand upon his ideas and to create a practical way for people to build mindfiles of themselves so that in the future, as this exponential growth in technology continued, their digital mindfiles could acquire a life of their own and achieve a kind of digital immortality.

Q: How do you address issues of diversity or gender parity in the tech world?

A: With sensitivity and awareness. We don’t have the level of diversity in our company that I would like, but when there are opportunities to hire a position, we try as much as we can to be aware of not thinking that the people who look like ourselves will be the best employees. There’s such a bedrock of hundreds of years of a dominant white male culture that it’s hard to change something like this overnight. But I’m really happy that the heads of drug development, the two most important positions at United Therapeutics, are both women. It could be much better, and that’s an important part of my job.

Q: What is your vision for a utopian future?

A: As someone involved in artificial intelligence, I shake my head in sadness that we spend so much effort on artificial intelligence, and yet have billions of examples of natural intelligence we don’t even make the effort to educate. The biggest roadblock is a lack of education. I think it’s a lack of organization, and if we do a better job of educating everybody in the world, I believe that level of organization will emerge.

The main charity that I devote myself to is called FIRST Robotics. The word FIRST is an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology. It was formed by Dean Kamen to create STEM technology in a fun, accessible way for everybody — girls as much as boys, impoverished neighborhoods as well as wealthy neighborhoods, neglected countries as well as well-off countries. FIRST Robotics has been an extraordinary success story, and the purpose of it is to be like an enzyme in a body, to accelerate the rate by which people communicate with each other and organize their activities so that we can create a world that is organized for universal happiness.