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The Profile Dossier: Martine Rothblatt, the Futurist Creating Life-Saving Technology
“Persistence is omnipotence. If you don’t give up, you won’t fail.”
Martine Rothblatt has led an extraordinary life. She is many things — a lawyer, a serial entrepreneur, an advocate for transgender rights, and a futurist aiming to clone the human consciousness.
In the 1990s, Rothblatt was known as a hotshot founder. She had conceived of an impossible-seeming idea: create worldwide satellite radio. Well, she did it and you might’ve heard of her revolutionary company: SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Rothblatt led it to an IPO in 1993, and she left the company shortly thereafter.
And then came one of the biggest moments of her life. Rothblatt, who was born male and formerly known as “Martin,” sat down her wife and children and told them that she had always felt her soul had been female, but she was afraid to express it outwardly. “I always kept it bottled up and just showed my male side,” she says.
Each of her family members had a different take. Her wife Bina said, “I love your soul, and whether the outside is ‘Martin’ or ‘Martine,’ it doesn’t matter to me because I love your soul.” (They are still happily married 40 years later).
Her son asked, “If you become a woman, will you still be my father,” to which Rothblatt responded with “Yes, I will always be your father.”
Her youngest daughter, who was 5 years old at the time, told people, “I love my dad, and she loves me.” Rothblatt says, “She had no problem with gender blending whatsoever.”
And then tragedy struck. Her daughter Jenesis was having trouble walking up the stairs when doctors diagnosed her with a rare disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension. The Rothblatts were told it was a terminal lung condition.
So Rothblatt, who has been called “a perpetual inventor” decided that she would find a cure for her daughter. While Jenesis was in the hospital, Rothblatt went to the hospital library and began reading everything she could find on pulmonary arterial hypertension. She progressed from reading biology textbooks to college-level textbooks to medical textbooks to medical journals. “Eventually, I knew enough to think that it might be possible that somebody could find a cure,” she says.
Ultimately, she founded United Therapeutics, a cutting-edge biotech company that develops life-extending technologies for patients in the areas of lung disease and organ manufacturing. The company she founded created the drug that saved the life of her daughter (and the lives of many others) suffering from pulmonary hypertension.
Today, Rothblatt is working on technology that would take the contents of our brains and preserve them forever. She calls it “a mind file,” which is a collection of a person’s mannerisms, personality, recollection, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and values. The hope is that software will one day be advanced enough to revive our consciousness via our mind files.
In partnership with Hanson Robotics, Rothblatt has developed a humanoid version of her spouse Bina. (You can watch Bina, the robot, meet Bina, the human, for the first time in 2014 here.)
Rothblatt explains how her love for her wife inspired her to begin working on a companion robot that would preserve her essence. “For us, the prospect of mind clones and regenerated bodies is that our love affair can go on forever,” she says.
As I’ve researched Rothblatt, I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s truly one of the most interesting original thinkers of our time. Take a peek into the future with the Dossier below.
On a remarkable life: Rothblatt has done so much — from founding Sirius to developing an FDA-approved pill to flying airplanes to playing the piano to running half-triathlons. Take a look at the remarkable story of how Rothblatt bet on herself time and time again.
On becoming a futurist: Rothblatt sees herself less as transgender and more as what is known as transhumanist, a particular kind of futurist who believes that technology can liberate humans from the limits of their biology—including infertility, disease, and decay, but also, incredibly, death. Here’s how she tinkers with ways that technology might push back that ultimate limit.
On techno-immortality: When Rothblatt’s wife Bina was 48 years old, they developed ‘Bina48,’ a humanoid robot, consisting of a bust-like head and shoulders mounted on a frame. The AI is based on 100 hours of the real Bina’s beliefs, memories, attitudes, commentary and mannerisms. “Some time in this century, for sure and maybe in just like two or three decades, I think that there will be a digital copy of a person [that’s] like a digital doppelganger of a person who will claim to be the original person,” Rothblatt says. This is a must-listen.
On her formative childhood event: When Rothblatt was a child, her dad was in a bad car accident that left him paralyzed. Suddenly, he could no longer make a living as a dentist as he was unable to move. But then he decided to take part in an experimental surgery available at the Mayo Clinic. The procedure was successful — the doctors restored his spine and he was able to walk again. This event had a lasting impact on Rothblatt because she concluded that technology cured her dad. “Technology has given me my life back,” she remembers her dad saying.
On promoting ‘co-opetition:’ Rothblatt says that the more challenging the technology, the more careful you have to be about hedging your bets. So at United Therapeutics, Rothblatt created multiple teams working under a motto of what she calls “co-opetition.” Each team competes with each other to manufacture organs while cooperating on the same goal.
On limitless possibility: In this wide-ranging conversation, Rothblatt shares her powerful story of identity, creativity, and limitless possibility. She explains that social media has been one of the most radical technologies of our time, and it’s given way to us uploading our consciousness online for free. What would happen if we took control of it?
Identify the ‘corridors of indifference:’ Rothblatt once said, “Identify the corridors of indifference and run like hell down them.” What she meant by this is to try and find a market that has been largely ignored. Rothblatt quotes a fellow business school colleague who said, “If you can’t be number one or number two in the market, don’t even try, because you will have to spend an amount of money equal to the revenues of the number one or number two in that market to become the number one or number two in the market.” So for Rothblatt’s company United Therapeutics, developing a COVID vaccine was not a corridor of indifference. But focusing on the COVID “long-haulers” who are likely to have chronic lung problems could be a corridor of indifference. So ask yourself: “What unmet need could I solve using my unique skills and talents?”
Generate ideas by ‘connecting the unconnected:’ Rothblatt reads 10 to 15 books at the same time and relies solely on serendipity to guide her. By cross-referencing and combining the books, she boosts her creativity because it allows her mind to make new connections. If you focus on two subjects for a period of time, you will naturally begin to see relationships between them that will trigger new ideas. Exposing yourself to a wide range of reading material has the power to improve your content diet and spark fresh ideas. “When you discover something, what’s happening is that gazillions of neurons are lighting up in your brain, and it’s lighting up the pleasure centers too, so I really believe that there’s nothing more exciting than having a realization about something, coming to an inspiration about something, which is why books and reading are so magical,” she says.
Find immediate hope by asking this question: If you’re feeling hopeless and lost, Rothblatt has one question that could change your perspective instantly. In times when people don’t see a way out of their circumstances, Rothblatt recommends staying in touch with your ancestors. She says, “How much worse it must’ve been in the past?” She says she thinks about the great-grandmothers who had to bear children in the worst of possible circumstances. Rothblatt adds, “What do I owe to my grandparents and great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who suffered and toiled, who barely managed to survive to produce another generation? What do I owe to them? I owe it to them to make the absolute most possible out of my life and that’s what I’m going to do.”
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"People should be valued the way they value themselves.”
“Identify the corridors of indifference and run like hell down them.”
“Persistence is omnipotence. If you don’t give up, you won’t fail.”