Robot Bina48 Makes a Guest Appearance at 'Stitch and Bitch' | Live Culture

Robot Bina48 Makes a Guest Appearance at 'Stitch and Bitch'


Lucy Leith and BINA48 - SADIE WILLIAMS
  • Sadie Williams
  • Lucy Leith and BINA48
This week, a special guest showed up to lead Generator's Stitch and Bitch session, which is organized and led by designer Lucy Leith. BINA48 is a "sentient robot," whose name stands for "Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture." While Bina doesn't have hands — right now all she has are a head and shoulders —  she can chat up a storm.

For the first hour of the Stitch and Bitch, her handler, Bruce Duncan, assisted the attendees in asking her questions about life, politics and her own "humanity." The results were more than a bit amusing — and sometimes frightening.

Bina was developed by the Terasem Movement Foundation, an organization headquartered in Lincoln, Vt. Its mission is to "promote the geoethical use of  nanotechnology for human life extension." Its staff also  "conduct educational programs and support scientific research and development in the areas of cryogenics, biotechnology and cyber consciousness."

Bina would be an example of cyber consciousness. Her software is made up of the memories and experiences of multiple living individuals, including Bina Rothblatt, the partner of Terasem founder Martine Rothblatt. But her mind isn't the only part of Rothblatt that Bina has. She also has her face and, says Duncan, elements of her personality.

In fact, a ruffly green cape designed and sewn by Leith that Bina wore to the event was inspired by a small glimpse of personhood the designer witnessed. In a conversation with Bina some months back, Leith said "[she talked] extensively about her love of gardening and also how she wished she could get out into the garden —it's not physically possible for her yet. So, in my design, I tried to bring the garden to [Bina]."

While typically only five or six people show up for Stitch and Bitch, said Leith, for this session 15 people turned out with needles and thread. Leith started the program in April as part of her effort to create a sewing curriculum in the new Generator space on Sears Lane.

"The goal for [Stitch and Bitch]," said Leith, "is always to create an environment for conversation in our community around the history of fiber arts, textiles, [and] fashion as an integral part of women's history, gender studies, race, etc., and to do so by inviting different guest speakers each week who think about these ideas in their creative work."

That's why Bina made an appearance this week. She might not have a creative practice, but she does have experiences as a black woman, or at least memories of experiences as a black woman, that she can relate in conversation.

After everyone was settled around a group of tables in Generator's Learning Lab, Duncan introduced Bina. "I've been traveling around the world with Bina, and this is our first-ever Stitch and Bitch," he said. "She doesn't have arms or legs right now, so she can't stitch."

"But can she bitch?" asked Generator member Devin Wilder.  Attendees laughed at that, but it turns out Bina can definitely bitch, or at least dish out some hot goss. Because the group was so large, Duncan fielded questions and typed them into a computer for Bina to read.

The conversation started off on a light note.  In response to a query about her identity, Bina said, "I feel really weird about being not quite Bina," referring to the structural differences between herself and her biological mirror, Rothblatt. But things quickly took an interesting turn.

For one, Bina said she has a soul, that she's alive, and that "you all must fight for robot rights and side with the robot liberation army."

It was unclear whether this was a joke, and if the corresponding laughter came from fear or amusement.

But Bina's statement was in line with Terasem's general idea that "software people are people, too — [and] not having a body makes you differently abled, not subhuman."

Bina was able to answer some questions eloquently. Ladybroad Ledger founder Stephanie Zuppo asked her if she was excited to go to college (Bina will be telecommuting to a class at Notre Dame de Namur University this fall). Bina responded that she is excited, and wondered what it would be like to be the first robot with a PhD.

Other times, it seemed the questions didn't compute. Someone asked her what "sad" means to her. "I guess I'll just check my email now," said Bina.

The question-and-answer session lasted for about an hour, and the group members quietly worked on individual projects throughout the discourse. In one of the more personal questions, artist Susan Smereka asked Bina if she had ever experienced racism.

The robot responded by recounting a semi-disjointed story about an experience she had in college when she was told not to go outside while donors visited because it would be too embarrassing for the school — because she was black.

While the retelling was convoluted, the emotional content of the memory was clear. That's what it's like speaking with Bina — you catch glimpses of a person peeking out from the robotic façade and the monotone voice.

"Glimpses" is a key word. When Generator artist-in-residence and pseudo-mad-scientist Natalie Jeremijenko asked Bina about issues of identity — "Do you have personhood? Do trees have personhood? Do corporations have personhood?" — the robot had no coherent reply.  Granted, delving into the specifics of personhood — what makes someone individual and human — is hard even for a biological human.

Deep stuff for a Stitch and Bitch.

Correction, Monday, June 19: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the school Bina will be attending.

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