“This Isn’t Just Any AI”: Director Pete Sillen on Bina48 and His Sundance Documentary, Love Machina
By the time in 2010 Martine Rothblatt completed the first iteration of Bina48, the “social robot” modeled after her real-life partner, Bina Aspen (now Bina Rothblatt), she had already trailblazed an extraordinary career across multiple industries. A lawyer and entrepreneur, she cofounded Sirius Satellite Radio as well as biotech company United Therapeutics, the latter an outgrowth of her work developing a medication that saved her daughter Jenesis’s life, along with over 40,000 others suffering from pulmonary arterial hypertension. So when Rothblatt, a transgender rights activist, who, at one point, was declared the world’s highest paid female CEO, and her wife unveiled Bina48, realized in collaboration with Hanson Robotics, the robot (an animated life-like bust containing “mind files,” which are audio files containing Bina’s “memories, feelings and beliefs”) felt something between a personal archive project and a primitive vision of a questionable, for some, transhumanist future.
Bina48 grows up, though, and her continued development over the last 14 years is the through line of Pete Sillen’s charming and engaging Sundance Documentary Competition debut, Love Machina. The director, whose previous works include Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt, Grand Luncheonette, Branson: Musicland U.S.A., and the feature I Am Secretly an Important Man, productively animates the binary suggested by his title to make a film that’s as much a romance-tinged story of AI as a love story that just happens to be set in the tech world. “We weren’t that into making a tech film,” Sillen says in our interview below as he describes the post-production pivot that occurred when he decided to foreground the extraordinary Rothblatt romance and use it to tenderize discussion of a set of technologies that are in the midst of transforming many aspects of contemporary life and culture (while also, it must be said, provoking much anxiety and existential pondering about what it means to be human). Below, I talk to Sillen about how he, a director as well as doc cinematographer who favors verite, was forced into an archival approach until, finally, he made his own connection with Martine and Bina Rothblatt.
Filmmaker: So how did you as a New York independent director who doesn’t swim in Silicon Valley waters wind up connecting with Martine and Bina Rothblatt and telling their story?
Sillen: It started innocently enough. We got a call from Dan Lindau at Crossroads asking if we wanted to make a documentary on an AI that was going to college. Brendan Doyle, the producer, and I started talking, and we weren’t 100% sure we wanted to make that film. And then we did a little research and saw that Martine and Bina were behind it. We’re like, “Oh, this isn’t just any AI. This is an interesting interpretation.”
Filmmaker: So this was Bina48 that you got a call to do?
Sillen: Right. So up until ChatGPT was recently layered into it, Bina48 had this sort of chatbot technology and these mindfiles of Bina [Rothblatt]. Bina probably at some point said, “Oh, I’d really like to go to college,” and the AI was sort of mimicking what her conversation might have been. Bruce Duncan, who is the managing director of the Terasem Foundation, which is their foundation, uses Bina48 to start conversations about under-representation in tech, STEM and STEAM education, and I think he saw [taking Bina48 to the classroom] as an opportunity. Anyway, Dan said, “I don’t have any money, but we’ll see what happens.” So we go out there and started filming and quickly realized that there was so much more to the story. Bruce had given us access to Bina48 and Terasem, so we were taking what we were given and exploring that. We figured there was a natural arc to the chronology of a [college] class. And then Bina48 was supposed to go to Hong Kong and get this upgrade in the middle of the class. We thought that’d be interesting but, long story short, she didn’t go for the upgrade until a year later, the class ended and we just kept on going with [the documentary]. Martina and Bina were great and excited about the film, but they didn’t really want to be involved with it. They said, “You can use anything that exists in the world that we’ve done.” They’ve done a lot of interviews and whatnot, and then we sent them a rough cut at some point and they really liked it and then they started giving us more access.
Filmmaker: Were there multiple attempts to get them or did you wait for that right moment to send the rough cut?
Sillen: Oh, I wrote long letters. I wrote short letters. I tried everything to show how serious we were about the film and how much respect we had for them. I think they were just hesitant. But when we did show them that one cut, you know, they really changed the conversation.
Filmmaker: So you were financing this as you went along, not knowing if you’d get Martine and Bina to participate in the end.
Sillen: Yeah, Dan, who is a consulting producer on this, got us going, and then we sputtered out after the class. No money was coming in and we didn’t shoot that much. Bruce kept calling us, saying, “Hey, I’ve got this interesting [event] in Brooklyn,” so we just continued it. There definitely was a tipping point when we had too much material for this thing just to die. And there was also a point when Bina and Martine were not actively participating, and Brendan was just like, “This is over.” And I was just stubborn. We were going to get them. It was just going to take time and perseverance.
But, boy, it was hard in the beginning. We were wanting to make a film about this vision of the future this couple has, and their love for each other, but we didn’t have access to them. The first challenge for us was, can we make a film that uses found footage of them and that doesn’t feel like we didn’t obviously have their participation? And when we did that, we were so excited because we thought we pulled it off, at least in the sense that nobody [who saw the cut thought] we didn’t have their participation. But what we had made was almost like a fan film. It was so closely aligned to everything they were thinking, and it was not the film we wanted to make. So then we had to figure out how you keep an arm’s distance from your subjects and create a more lyrical, interesting film. And from there it’s just been non-stop. This summer we were shooting ChatGPT being layered in.
Filmmaker: The scene is one of the best sequences showing the utility and impressiveness of large language models. The A/B comparison is just astonishing.
Sillen: Yeah, it really is. When we started in 2017, Martine was saying that eventually they’ll be mindware that will take your mindfiles and animate them, and we were like, “We don’t understand how that will work.” And then ChatGPT comes out and it’s just like, “Oh, right. That’s exactly what she’s talking about.”
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that the film started as a piece about Bina48 in the classroom because, of course, the use of AI and LLMs in education is such a hot and controversial topic right now. But then you turned this material into a love story.
Sillen: Yeah, we definitely realized at some point that we weren’t that into making a tech film. You’re chasing your tail by making a tech film because as soon as you are done it’s expired. Of course, there’s plenty to talk about in tech, but even they would say that Bina48 is more of a conversation-starter. They’re not pretending it’s like Neuralink or DeepMind or some actual breakthrough AI. And while it’s easy to manipulate a robot through editing and make it much more intelligent or make it fail, we didn’t want to manipulate the footage. There were times when it was really amazing, and then times when it was awful. Before ChatGPT happened, we were [asking ourselves], “Do we want to portray Bina48 as something that’s actually really interesting, or are we really just using it as a launching pad into other stuff?” We wrestled a little bit with that and then, this summer, we worked with Connor [McBride], our editor, and Ben Mercer, who is an additional editor. Ra’anan [Alexandrowicz] came in as a consulting editor and then Brian Kates came on as a supervising editor. I really started kicking around a lot of different ideas, a lot of approaches, trying to find the tone of the film, and for two months in June and July we worked intensely every day just reworking and reshuffling things, and thinking about structure. And we found the tone of the film when we leaned into the extraordinary nature of their lives and embraced that, had some fun with it, and made it an enjoyable ride.
Filmmaker: As a love story, it’s remarkably conflict-free. There’s no breakup and return, no moment when the love is questioned. Their love is so stable that it kind of resists the narrative arc of cinematic love stories.
Sillen: Right, and that’s something for me, who has been married 33 years this year, had trouble with. In the beginning, I was like, “This doesn’t feel real — what’s going on?” I had to observe more and realize that everyone has their own interpretation and definition of love, and theirs is an amazing relationship. At one point, they just realized they were a lot happier and stronger together than apart, and they just went full bore ahead, like, “This is our life.”
Filmmaker: One aspect of Martine’s life you don’t focus on much is her company, United Therapeutics, which is doing work with transplant science that is potentially more advanced and impactful than her work with Bina48.
Sillen: To me the most interesting part of [the United Therapeutics] story was about saving their daughter’s life. I don’t think Martine ever set out to build a billion dollar biotech company. But she is super smart, has a vision, and understands time and development in a way that a lot of people don’t. So I think she was able to apply her skill set to that space and figure out a drug that saved Jenesis’s life and has saved probably 40,000 people’s lives. But when we started telling the corporate side of United Therapeutics, it felt like the wrong part of the story for us even though it’s fascinating stuff. There’s other stuff the company is doing that we don’t even touch on, such as they built the world’s largest corporate headquarters that is net zero, carbon neutral.
Filmmaker: When you finally got their participation, what did that involve?
Sillen: Each of them did a long two-hour interview with us. We shot the driving sequences in Vermont. And we went to United Therapeutics [in Silver Spring, MD]. That’s where we shot the jam session in the music room. We filmed with [Martine] in California, where she’s a pilot. You know, she’s in the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest flight in an electric helicopter. She’s got a company developing electric helicopters, and the whole logic behind it is that there are hundreds of thousands of people on organ transplant lists, and as these [genetically modified] organs become more viable in the next five years, you’re looking at potentially hundreds of thousands of medical flights. So she’s developing these electric helicopters so that there’s no carbon footprint. It’s all amazing stuff. At one point, we thought, should we create some sort of series with this, because there are so many themes we could explore? A lot of times you’ll see these six-part limited series and you feel that they could have made a good 70-minute doc. We felt we were in the opposite [place], that we had 10 pounds of film and a two pound bag.
Filmmaker: I think of you as someone who shoots, who has a relationship with subjects in the room, so it’s interesting that you basically made a heavily archival version of this film before you got to even shoot.
Sillen: In the end, I’m a camera person. And with this, I kind of felt like I was making a film with a hand tied behind my back. In the end, this is probably 25% archival, which is maybe not that much. The last act is 95% new footage.
Filmmaker: As a documentary shooter who’s also a director, what are your aims when you go out to shoot? Are you thinking, “There are three story beats I need to get today,” or are you more intuitive? Or is it more of a verite approach?
Sillen: In a perfect world, it’s more of a verite approach. The problem is, I rarely find myself in those moments where verite can work the way it’s supposed to work, you know? That’s why Frederick Wiseman is so amazing because he creates this bubble to go into. With us, it’s so momentary. We’re showing up, we’re late and we’ve got two hours. So it becomes about trying to create while knowing in the back of your head that you have to get the coverage and what you need to make it all work. And then to make it all look fluid and effortless. That’s the goal. I generally just try to look at what we’re given in the room or in the scene and try to use that to our benefit instead of our detriment. So if it’s like turning off a couple lights and using a window, or pulling down a shade and using the lights, it’s whatever seems to be the right call in the moment.
Filmmaker: Originally you were talking about how to make something that keeps the subject at a little bit of an arm’s length. With regards to where Bina48 crosses over into the discourse around transhumanism, there’s obviously a big critical dialogue around that these days. Were you ever tempted to go down that road?
Sillen: Yeah, we did. One scene we filmed and got rid of was with Zoltan Istvan, who is a big transhumanist voice who ran for president in 2016. He took a bluebird bus and turned it into a giant coffin, an “immortality bus,” and drove it across country to try to raise awareness [about extended life]. That was some of my favorite footage in the film at one point, but, you know, that boat didn’t float. Having it be a love story contextualizes [those themes] in nice space. It’s not transhumanism because the world is going to die out and [they’ve] got the money to cryogenically freeze [themselves]. It’s within this kind of love story. But it’s also strange that it feels like the world has unraveled a little bit more every year. Martine says something that I think is true in a lot of ways, which is that technology has solved so many problems in the world, between hunger and war, that it’s never been a better time to be alive. Even if it doesn’t feel like that every day, statistically speaking, I think that is true. Or maybe it was true before this year! But, yes, they are cryonicists, and Martine actively adds to her mindfile.
Filmmaker: The interesting thing about the concept of the mindfile is that it’s all based on things you say, but what about the unconscious, and do your words really represent what you mean to say?
Sillen: There’s a little section in the film where we bring in the Tenzin [Priyadarsh] from MIT, the Tibetan monk. Again, right, we’re fans, and I want to make a film that has a warmth to it. At the same time, we’re not drinking the Kool-Aid, necessarily. I think most people get that. With a lot of the music we licensed we tried to lean into the fun of it, into a little bit of a wink and a nod. Like, “This may be where we’re going, but are we really ready for it?” Something that was a bit of a North star was the Michael Almereyda film Marjorie Prime, where, at the end, everybody’s gone except these robots, and they’re alone looking out the window. It’s sort of like, “What have we done?”