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Interview with Mike Perry
by Jonathan Despres. Go to the Interviews.
Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what current projects are you involved in?
By training I should be working in the computer field (Ph.D., computer science, U. of Colo. Boulder, 1984). I do work some in that area but not exactly as I thought I’d be doing a quarter-century ago when I was getting my degree. I work at a cryonics facility (Alcor, Scottsdale, AZ), where I am involved in everything from checking on the patients/donors every day, to, currently, working with Mathematica to develop an alogrithm for estimating the amount of ischemic damage in preserved brain slices. On the side I’m working on a new edition of my immortalist philosophy book, Forever for All, and am involved in numerous other things that keep piling up (one being to complete this interview).
What are your goals for the next decade?
I hope to complete a scientific study of brain preservation covering various techniques both chemical and cryogenic and considering such issues as how well and how stably the structure is preserved versus cost both short- and long-term. I hope to be involved in an effort to offer low-cost alternatives to expensive cryopreservation that would still offer hope of reanimation. On the philosophical end I hope to complete the revision of my book and to carry out a more mathematical study of personal identity and survival from an informational standpoint. I still retain an interest in artificial intelligence, which was my dissertation area in graduate school, and would like to do more work in the field, particularly in view of the vast improvement in computing capabilities that has occurred. Beyond this I’m sure there will be many things to occupy my time and interest—way too many; as usual I will have to do as best I can.
When do you think we will achieve real life extension?
“Real” life extension for me means basically at least a cure or remedy for biological aging and now-terminal diseases, with the possibility of extending an individual’s life for many centuries. Guessing “when” is hazardous of course, but my gut feeling is sometime around the mid 21st century to early 22nd century, say 50-100 years from now.
Your vision of the future?
I am cautiously optimistic that we will “get there” in style, that is to say with at least near-immortality, though I do not think it will be “easy.” I foresee certain sweeping changes to accompany a state of existence in which the individual is not progressively deteriorating until death intervenes. Probably such things as sex and reproduction, as we understand them today, and which are so important in so many lives, will fade into history. Instead perhaps society will come to resemble in some respects religious notions of heaven and an afterlife with people “living like angels.” We will have to create this techno- psyco- cyber-heaven, dominated I think by love, mutual respect, and benevolence toward one and all, and again it will not be easy. But with effort we can do it, and the rewards will be great.
Do you believe in cryonics and when will it succeed?
I am optimistic about cryonics, a field I have been working in now for more than 20 years. To me its workability boils down to whether enough information is captured in preserved brain tissue to reasonably reanimate the donor with memories and other personality elements substantially intact. I think we will know within a few decades whether this degree of preservation has been achieved, which I think it has, at least in the better cases. At about this time the first reanimations of people preserved by today’s methods will occur, and relatively soon afterward, the more difficult cases. As above, I would estimate 50-100 years for this to happen. All cases will be salvageable to at least some degree I think, with outside information or reasonable guesswork to reconstruct memories and other identity-critical elements where missing.
What kind of jobs did you have when you were younger and what is the important things you learned from this?
I remember my first “real job”—if you call it that—was as a dishwasher at a small eating place when I was fifteen (in 1962). After that I did work as a computer programmer and mathematical analyst until becoming active in cryonics in the 1980s. So now I can look back on a near half-century of employment—or in some cases unemployment. One lesson I have learned is that we badly need a world where “jobs” as we understand them today will be obsolete and everybody will be “unemployed”—though busier than ever and happily doing things that are both fun and useful all around. Again it gets back to the self-engineered heaven concept. We can make life what it ought to be, but it will take hard work and involve sweeping changes. We must not shrink back from this but carry it through in a proper manner.
Why isn't the science of cryonics progressing at a rate commensurate to other sciences?
Besides not knowing how to reanimate a cryopreserved human (or animal) we lack such basic knowledge as how memories are stored in the brain. So we are really in a primitive state with cryonics today. We can do little more than preserve people as best we can and work to achieve better and/or cheaper preservation—which in turn must be judged by the limited means we now have.
Do you believe in a God?
Not as traditionally understood, that is to say, as a supreme, conscious being and, in particular, someone to whom you can send messages through prayer or other activities and in some cases expect responses. As long as there is something rather than nothing, however, there is what can be called an Ordering Principle with properties or workings we can understand and employ to our benefit.
What extropian values do you prefer the most and why?
Wikipedia defines extropianism as “a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactionary approach to human evolution and progress.” I certainly favor a proactionary approach to the main problem transhumanism is trying to address, of how to break ourselves out of the biological treadmill we are on, in which individuals are born, reproduce, and die on an overall predictable schedule. I agree with the general extropian view that advances in science and technology will allow people to live indefinitely, and I favor this as a good and noble undertaking. I also think persons of today have at least a reasonable chance of surviving to such a time through cryonics if nothing else. So making cryonics arrangements—or at least having some sort of preservation strategy place in case of clinical death—is for me an essential part of the proactive stance called for by extropian principles. (I have had cryonics arrangements myself for many years now, actually longer than “extropianism” has existed as such.)
What do you think we should do to advance the quality of life of everybody?
Overall I think we should advocate a healthy philosophy of life, with emphasis on reason, science, and objectivity, and on the other hand, values including respecting the basic worth of the individual and the desirability of overcoming limitations on life including the finite lifespan. We should think of our ascent to immortal beings as a supreme labor of love that ought to be carried out for the highest of moral reasons. And we should act accordingly, those with special talents and opportunities using their knowledge and skills to advance medical and other technologies for human betterment. Finally, everybody ought to be committed to a personal preservation strategy in case of clinical death. For those unable to afford cryonics, a less expensive option such as chemical preservation, or even just a cell sample and personal data such as diaries, photographs, or a video recording, is better than nothing. I do, of course, also advocate working for the more mundane sorts of human betterment: peace, prosperity, good nutrition, good health, and so on. Such efforts can take many forms and each person should do whatever he or she is able.
Do you see a future for biology? (considering bionics, ai, mind uploading, robotics)
Probably limited overall—important now of course, but eventually (and soon on the scale of history) we will likely transcend what we call “our biology” and take up life in housing of our own making.
The man or the woman that is a model for you? Why?
Some people I have admired for special qualities of heroism, talent, wisdom, character, or various combinations of these, but no one person comes to mind as a general model.
What would you love to accomplish before you die?
“Before I die” to me mainly means before I am cryopreserved. I am now (Jan. 2008) nearly 61 so maybe I have 15-30 years left (or less), barring the ever-hoped-for medical breakthroughs that would happily moot this whole issue. (Needless to say this is not really much time.) Certainly I hope in this time to finish the projects outlined earlier. If that takes a decade or so, and I have another decade or so, I’m sure it will be full of projects too, way too much to really finish, but I will as usual do what I can and hope for the best. Finally though, when it’s clear that doom is approaching and if it looks threatening for the old gray matter, I hope I will be able to deanimate on my own (say through self-dehydration/starvation if nothing better is available) and not just let nature take its course.
What are the languages of the universe for you?
I’m interested in all languages and cultures, wherever they may originate. But all should coexist in harmony and mutual respect.
Is competition good in cryonics?
Yes, I’m sure it is.
Imagine yourself as a space navigator and you discover a smaller, less advanced civilization on a planet, what would you do with them?
Off the top of my head I’d be concerned whether they had achieved liberation from their own biological limitations or in other words, are they immortal? If not I would want to stop the senseless slaughter and probably attendant suffering that they are subject to and would consider what steps would be appropriate for rescue or otherwise helping them. (This I realize could be more complicated than it seemed at first.)
What do you think biological simulations will do to cryonics, aging or nanotechnology?
I think computer simulations can be a useful tool to speed research, but you have to deal with the real world too—there’s no substitute.
What kind of mathematics would be used in aging, cryonics & nanomedicine?
Everything from linear algebra to category theory to whatever—who knows what will prove useful and in what ways?
What will be the best (central), most important tool in molecular manufacturing? And why ?
To attain a mature nanotechnology allowing molecular manufacturing along with many other things: probably advanced AI, because that would be the great stepping-stone to further advances along a broad front not excepting AI itself. More restrictedly, when we have made the major preliminary advances, a general-purpose nanoassembler will be the most important tool, I think, simply because of its general nature and, of course, because I think it is feasible.
Which path should we take for immortalism, nanomedicine or biogerontology or something else?
For now a preservation stragegy such as cryonics is imperative and of first importance for each individual. Beyond this I think we should focus on how to make the brain less vulnerable to destruction. Two rather different approaches to this would be biological advances and, on the other hand, implantable devices capable of absorbing or downloading memory information and otherwise assuming brain functions in case the original parts fail. Both I think are some distance away from being able to substantially help persons today, but certainly should be pursued. More distantly I look forward to reworking or redesign of our basic housing to optimize our survival chances and our quality of life.
What first attracted you to the idea of physical immortality?
I think a combination of wanting to escape death and disbelief in supernatural approaches, together with a gut feeling that science could actually make great progress in this area, if pushed hard enough. I have since early childhood been impressed with the ability we humans possess to accomplish the seeming impossible through some sort of rational approach. Fabricating things out of hard metal, radio and TV, powered flight, and on and on—all seemed to require “magic” or the supernatural—only they don’t and we can master techniques that make these things possible. So eventually I arrived at the position that eliminating aging and death should similarly be possible and we should work toward these goals too.
What can a company do to become successful in the life extension business?
At this point we are still at the level where basic research in many different areas is critical, even including nonbiological areas such as artificial intelligence, and this is what must be our focus. It’s not time yet to start a company offering substantial “life extension” and I am skeptical of any claims of anyone having achieved it.
What do you think of the Paradise Engineering idea?
Overall I agree with David Pearce’s idea that we should try to engineer a cruelty-free world in which all sentient life forms can find happiness and joy. I see reason for caution in that pleasure as an end in itself could be devastating and a kind of death in its own right. (One is reminded of Larry Niven’s “wirehead” scenarios in which a mindless fixation on extreme pleasure replaces all ordinary conscious experience.) The proper course for each life form, as I see it, is open-ended advancement and increase in capacities so that all eventually surpass any given level, and all find deep meaning along with simple joy and benevolence toward all others. I also think some hardship and suffering, kept within reasonable bounds, might enhance one’s overall life experience over what could be obtained through “gradients of pleasure” only, though this remains to be determined.
What do you think about the singularity, when will it happen?
I look forward to a technological singularity when, among other things, AI will exceed the human level and we can then use it as a stepping stone to immortalize ourselves and also speed our own advance in many ways, including becoming smarter ourselves. I’d like to believe Kurzweil’s estimate of 2045 as “when it will happen.” More conservatively, perhaps it will happen a bit later; I will offer my usual time estimate of 50-100 years.
What would be the great inventions/ideas of the future?
One very important innovation I think would be a self-sustaining habitat to free us from the kind of drudgery that occupies so many today as they struggle to “earn a living.” But along with this must come growing capacities and talents so people can find meaningful and useful ways of occupying themselves without such things as “wage slavery.” All of this should be possible.
What should we do to improve/clean our ecology?
Though lacking expertise I’ll offer that lessening our dependence on fossil fuels is a matter of prime importance, and beyond that, lessening dependence on burnable fuels. We should also try to be less wasteful overall and recycle our waste rather than just “throwing it out.” I’d advocate even eating everything on your plate—rather than the old custom of leaving a little to show you were “satisfied” or otherwise throwing away food. (As a calorie restricter myself I notice things like this.)
Do you think molecular manufacturing (or anything else) could clean up pollution on earth and in space? If so, when and how?
Yes it could. Again this is not an area of expertise with me. Probably useful progress is happening now, as with technology to clean up oil spills based on “self-assembled monolayers” or SAMs, and certainly should be encouraged.
Your best movie ever is?
Actually I’m not a great movie-watcher (or haven’t been yet), and don’t have a single, all-time favorite. But for the films I have seen, two that paricularly stand out are Rain Man and Pay It Forward. Some other honorable mentions are Star Wars #1, Forbidden Planet, The Ten Commandments, Saving Private Ryan, No Time for Sergeants, Some Like It Hot, Life of Brian. (You see I’ve included comedies as well as more serious.)
Your favorite song, and your favorite style of music are?
I’ll take these in reverse order. Favorite style: 18th-century baroque. Favorite song: in the more recent pop genre, I think my favorite, from the early sixties when I was growing up, is “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens. Second and third place would go respectively to “Tambourine Man” as done by the Birds and “Please Please Me” by the Beatles. Mainly I would listen to these songs (and others) for the melodies rather than the words or “message.” I have also done some instrumental composing myself, where I use a computer to create and perform the compositions, which are in a more-or-less baroque style that avoids major thematic repetition.
Your religion is?
Universal Immortalism, which is based around the hope that all persons (not just humans but sentient beings more generally) may eventually be restored to life through future scientific means, and then go on to experience eternal joy and happiness in a Heaven all have made for themselves. (See http://www.universalimmortalism.org .) This is a non-supernatural, immortalist philosophy that I and others feel qualifies as a fully rational religion. (You will also note its affinity to the Paradise Engineering idea.)
Your political view?
I’m a libertarian sympathizer but not a “pure libertarian” for various reasons. (I would stop short of an unrestricted right to own weapons for instance.) In general I agree with Churchill that democracy is a poor form of government but the others are substantially worse. I think people should have rights over their own bodies, which would include the right to a premortem cryopreservation. I’ll also mention that I’m an opponent of the death penalty (and also a vegetarian, though not a vegan).
Web page and contact information?
One webpage: http://lifeboat.com/ex/bios.r.michael.perry ; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you know a good person that I should interview?
I don’t have anybody particularly in mind—just search the Internet for transhumanist types who invite you to contact them.