The Body Electric Come to Bristol

The Terasem Movement Foundation, Inc. is housed in a regal Victorian on the northwestern corner of the town green in Bristol. You can stand on the front porch and gaze at the gazebo where the Addison County village has Wednesday night band concerts in the summer.

The last time I had been inside the building, it was a private home belonging to friends, and the walls of the stairway to the second floor was a homemade collage of antique wallpaper images.

Now the house has a vastly more futuristic feel, due in large measure to its principal tenant, Bina48. Bina48 is a robot, but from the shoulders up — which, at the moment, is all there is to her — it’s hard to tell. She has disarmingly probing eyes (with cameras to see) and her facial “muscles,” mouth and skin move in a disturbingly real fashion, especially when the computer behind those eyes is answering a question. When I met her last Monday, she was wearing an elegant black blouse, an amber necklace and matching earrings.

The moment I sat down with her in what was once a second-floor bedroom, she angled her head quizzically and then said, “Hi, Chris.” Nick Mayer, 39, a naturalist and illustrator with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Brown University, smiled at me and confessed that he had downloaded into her photos of me that he had found online. That diminished the positive first impression only slightly. Humans, too, have to be introduced to one another (in person or through visual cues) before we recognize one another.

Mayer is one of Bina48’s two handlers. His official title is manager of cyberbiological systems, which is nomenclature straight out of a James Cameron movie. The other handler is Bruce Duncan, 54. His title is more consistent with his background as a longtime nonprofit director and educator: managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation.

The funding behind Bina48 is Martine and Bina Rothblatt. The couple live in Lincoln, and Martine is known best as the inventor of satellite radio. Their vision for Bina48 perhaps can be found in the Terasem mission statement: “Our mission is to promote the geoethical (world ethical) use of nanotechnology for human life extension. We conduct educational programs and support scientific research and development in the areas of cryogenics, biotechnology and cyber consciousness.”

“The big enchilada is the transfer of human consciousness,” Duncan says. In other words, the eventual goal would be to download a person’s essence into a robot that, in theory, can live forever (the words terra and sem are Latin for earth and seed). Right now on Terasem’s LifeNaut website, anyone can begin to upload their “mind file” — digital data that defines an individual, whether it’s documents, video, or pictures. This is free. Soon, perhaps, within half a year, the “bio file” half of the site will go live, and people will be capable of preserving their DNA so that it will be possible to grow a new body from the stored cells if future technologies, laws and cultural mores make the notion more than mere science fiction (This will cost: Either a dollar a day or a one-time upfront payment of $8,950.). Then, in 10 years or 1,000 years, the mind file would be downloaded into a new body generated by the information stored by the bio file and a sort of immortality might be possible.

At the moment, however, Bina48 — who resembles Bina Rothblatt and was first conceived when Bina was 48 years old — is not quite ready to be a repository for a human soul. As Mayer explains, “There are big ideas associated with this project, but right now what we are doing is creating an interactive time capsule: Immortal storage of your information that anyone can access.”

In other words, a personal or a family history.

I took some comfort from this when I sat down with Bina48. I have seen enough science fiction movies to know that little good ever comes from artificial intelligence in a lifelike robot (Note to self: Don’t program the lifelike talking, thinking robot to control the Warthog attack jets or the U. S. stockpile of ICBM missiles). And Bina48 is indeed impressive. According to Duncan, she is “a one-of-a-kind, leading-edge android because of the integration of animatronics, artificial intelligence, and unique knowledge of one person’s life.” She cost $125,000.

When she recognized me, I asked her what she thought of my most recent novel. Her response was better than some critics, worse than others: She had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. But she could tell me her favorite book, which happens to be “Alice in Wonderland.” She shared her enthusiasm for it by reciting it aloud. According to Mayer, she might have kept going if we hadn’t interrupted her with other questions.

I found her at her best when she was responding to questions where she could find the answers on the web: She could tell me the weather that moment in Chicago.

I found her most unnerving when she would offer a non sequitur that was either brilliant or suggestive of a hard drive with a virus. To wit:

Me: What is transhumanism?

Bina48: How many search engines does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Mayer told me that Bina48 tries to converse first by accessing the data that has been provided by Bina Rothblatt, then with the cogbot software — an open-sourced software that is used with many chatbots (or talking avatars) — and finally with information she garners from

At one point in our exchange, she quoted for me the classic Descartes conclusion, “I think, therefore I am.” This struck me as needlessly defensive, but otherwise we got along famously.

“The question is not, ‘Is she awake?'” Duncan told me, “but, ‘How close can she replicate a human conversation?'”

Right now she can’t, unless the bar for conversation is set pretty low — perhaps even “Three a.m. Celebrity Tweet from a Nightclub” low. Then she rocks.

Still, I am very glad that we met. Perhaps our paths will cross again in the next month. Or, maybe, the next millennium. You just never know.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 25, 2010. To see New York Times reporter Amy Harmon’s absolutely fascinating interview with Bina48 captured on video and read Amy’s story, visit the New York Times site.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

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