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Arts & Entertainment

The Plano Origins of the Robot Bina48 and Other North Texas Films Screening at SXSW

Seventeen years after the humanoid AI breakthrough, the SXSW documentary Love Machina examines its history and its future.
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The origin of Bina48 lies at the intersection of romance and technology. C41 Media

“Death is optional” is a mantra of Vermont futurist couple Martine and Bina Rothblatt, and the humanoid robot known as Bina48 is their attempt at validation.

Years before Siri and ChatGPT brought artificial intelligence to the masses, the first robot AI based on a living human carries the goal of reaching full consciousness and providing a potential pathway to immortality.

That breakthrough process began in 2007, in a small laboratory run by Dallas roboticist David Hanson. It’s also the subject of the documentary Love Machina, which will screen as part of the SXSW Film & TV Festival beginning this weekend in Austin.

Martine Rothblatt, an attorney and tech entrepreneur who co-founded SiriusXM Radio in 1990, conceived Bina48 to resemble her wife not merely as an avatar or a hologram, but as a sentient method of preserving their love and connection into eternity.

“Bina48 was the tip of the iceberg,” said the film’s director, Peter Sillen. “We realized that this was a bigger story. We needed to understand futurism. The film is filled with big ideas. We’re asking the audience to let go for 90 minutes and get lost in this world of what could be.”

Seventeen years ago, Martine commissioned Hanson Robotics. As described in the film, the Hanson team launched a “multi-decade experiment in mind uploading” by establishing a “mindfile” — or a digital blueprint of Bina’s consciousness.

“This was a technology that started before Siri and Alexa. It was an AI chatbot aggregating written and free-form information,” Sillen said. “They wanted to create a humanistic robotic shape to this AI so it actually looks and responds somewhat like the real person.”

At the time, Hanson and his team of engineers operated out of his Plano home, with his mother designing the skin technology. Bina48 came to life on Hanson’s dining-room table.

Hanson’s company, now based in Hong Kong, is perhaps best known for another robot, Sophia, which debuted in 2016.

“In some ways, Bina48 underwhelms because there’s a technology gap between the date that it was made and where we are now,” Sillen said. “A lot of people are a little disappointed when they see it in the beginning because it’s this animatronic head. But there was nobody doing that at the time. There was no model to follow. I think it’s going to keep getting better and better.”

As it evolved, Bina48 was interviewed on talk shows, appeared in college classrooms, and gave TED talks. Engineers layered other tools to help expand its data capabilities and capacity.

Sillen sees the Rothblatts as a throwback to 1960s idealism with big ideas and visions of large-scale achievements. He knows they might be met with skepticism by moviegoers, although Love Machina tries to remain open-minded.

“Making a film about the future is inconclusive in its nature. When you start to put the pieces together, it’s pretty fascinating,” Sillen said. “With AI, there’s a lot of things moving very quickly in terms of development and the impacts of it. The film is optimistic, but it also questions the realities of what we’re doing. Hopefully there’s a little bit of a balance there, to give it some objectivity and let people decide. We made this film as a conversation starter.”

The film is one of a handful of features on the expansive SXSW docket with connections to the Dallas area. A few others include:

  • A House is Not a Disco — Actor and Allen native Brian J. Smith directed this documentary chronicling Fire Island Pines, the queer beach town in New York, as it faces an uncertain future.
  • I Don’t Understand You — This horror-comedy starring Nick Kroll and produced by Dallas native Kara Durrett follows an American couple whose Italian vacation takes a frightening turn.
  • Preconceived — Allen’s Maleeha Aziz, deputy director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, is the primary subject of of this documentary about dwindling resources for pregnant women in Texas.
  • Sing Sing — This true-life A24 drama about a theater troupe in the titular prison starring Oscar nominee Colman Domingo (Rustin) was written by Dallas filmmaker Clint Bentley (Jockey).
  • We Strangers — Emily Ruhl, who grew up in the Park Cities, is an executive producer for this haunting drama about a housekeeper forced to confront race and caste systems in America.

Author

Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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