Friday, March 22, 2002

Interview with Robert Ettinger (March 2002)

I copied here this old interview, published on the Transhumanity Magazine of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity +) in March 2002 (link).

Giulio Prisco, March 22, 2002

We offer you this interview with Robert Ettinger, the visionary thinker and writer who, with his two seminal works "The Prospect of Immortality" and "Man into Superman", contributed to building strong foundations for modern transhumanist thinking. Bob is also the pragmatic businessman who founded the Cryonics Institute and kept it afloat in difficult times. The Cryonics Institute is today one of the two major cryonics service providers. In this interview we discuss Bob's views on the status of cryonics today, mind uploading, and the problem of identity. Please see the web site of the Cryonics Institute ( for more information.

Q - "By working hard and saving my money, I intend to become an immortal superman". This first line from the preface to "Man into Superman" is frequently quoted as a great opening line, but is it to be taken seriously? Do you really think that we, here and now, have the option to become immortal supermen?

A - It was a bad line--and a bad book--from the standpoint of selling cryonics. Most people think radical change is either impossible or frightening. Even "immortality" sounds too grandiose, although I use it merely in the sense of eliminating "natural" death. But it is true that, if we live long enough, radical change is almost certain.

Q - Now many have heard of cryonics, but it was not so when you wrote "The Prospect of Immortality" in 1962. Did you develop your ideas entirely by yourself, or did you use the work of earlier scientists and writers? What were your sources?

A - I believe I was the first to put it all together in an organized way, but of course there were many precursors. In particular, suspended animation is an old theme, at least in fiction. Reversal of aging had rarely been taken seriously. The relativity of death, and sub-micro repair capabilities, were also ideas seldom encountered.

Q - Your wife is cryonically suspended, and you have declared your intention to also be "frozen". Do you believe you will see her again? When?

A - Actually, both my wives are among our patients now. I think we have a good chance of revival within 50-200 years. And to the inevitable question of what happens if all three of us are revived, I usually remind people of the old saying--the rich have their problems and the poor have their problems, but the rich have a better class of problems. If we are all revived, I will consider that a very high class problem.

Q - Since you founded the Cryonics Institute, it has grown into one of the two main cryonics service providers, the other being Alcor. In one sentence, how would you differentiate your service offering from Alcor's?

A - That's a complicated question, and I'll just refer the readers to our web site, where we discuss it in detail ( This is a rapidly changing arena. CI is the only cryonics organization with a full time professional cryobiologist (Dr. Yuri Pichugin) as director of research.

Q - The Cryonics Institute charges 28.000 US dollars for full suspension to life members. What are the hidden costs? Is there a catch?

A - No hidden costs. About $20,000 of the suspension fee is invested to produce income for long term maintenance. (We also have other sources of revenue.) At revival time, that $20,000 will be freed up for revival and rehabilitation, and we expect our general resources to increase over time as well.

Q - Why don't you offer a cheaper head only option?

A - We think the "neuro" option is a negative for public relations, and in many cases for prospective members' intra-family relations.

Q - Your operating model is having on call teams and funeral houses able to ensure the short response times required. Have you thought of alternatives, for example a hospital for terminally ill patients with on site cryonic suspension facilities and personnel?

A - The closest we can come to that at present is to have the patient die under hospice care, which works very well.

Q - What happens to suspended patients if the Cryonics Institute has to cease its activities due to financial problems?

A - We are probably the soundest financially of all the organizations. In unforeseen emergencies or contingencies we will just do the best we can for the patients. I cannot envision any realistic scenario that would shut us down, short of nuclear war or a plague.

Q - It has been said that funding cryonic suspension with an insurance policy can be a problem for Europeans. Do you think this is true? Does the Cryonics Institute accept funding by non US insurance companies? Can Europeans choose any insurance company, or must it be a company that has specific agreements with the Cryonics Institute?

A - No problem that we have encountered so far, and no agreement between CI and the insurance company needed. (Alcor for a while refused to accept foreign insurance, but has reversed course on that.)

Q - Anther worry for Europeans is the time between death and the arrival of a qualified cryonic team. In Europe you rely on the services of a funeral house in London. Can you confirm that they can fly anywhere in Europe with a few hours notice?

A - Albin's can usually get anywhere in Europe within a few hours, if previous arrangements have been made. Local funeral directors can also be lined up. There is also a British volunteer group that can help in some cases.

Q - I believe European branches of a cryonics service provider, physically located in the country and familiar with the local medical and legal systems, could do much to facilitate solving these and other problems. Does the Cryonics Institute have any plans to establish European branches?

A - Volume will not support a storage facility in Europe any time soon. Initial preparation facilities do exist as previously mentioned, and will be improved from time to time.

Q - Do you think "The First Immortal" by J. Halperin gives a realistic account of how things may be? Do you recommend reading the book to those who are considering cryonics? What other fiction would you recommend?

A - His treatment of the (then) present was well researched. His conjectures about the future were reasonable but of course still conjectures. There have been countless books and stories involving cryonics, a few of them centered on cryonics. One of the most recent is PALMER LAKE, a murder mystery by Thomas C. McCollum III (Shoji Books, Charlottesville VA).

Q - In "Man into Superman" (1972) you were already thinking of the concept that is now described as "mind uploading". Referring to suggestions made by Arthur Clarke, you wrote "human personalities will be copied and stored electronically, perhaps in several locations, conferring essential immortality and near invulnerability", but then expressed your lack of enthousiasm for this concept: "... assuming that identity is preserved when this is far from clear". Did you do any further thinking in the last 30 years? What is "identity"?

A - The problem of identity, or criteria of survival, has not been solved. I doubt that a computer could live (have subjective experiences), but the discussion is a long one. Yes, I have written a good deal on that in recent years.

Q - Even with no evidence, I am willing to bet that identity (whatever that is) is preserved by "running" a brain scan sufficiently complete. I also think that while the technology to "run" the brain scan may not be available for some decades, the technology to acquire it may be available much sooner, perhaps in one decade. So can brain mapping develop into a viable alternative to cryonics?

A - See above. It's possible, but in my opinion unlikely, even in principle.

Q - Will the Cryonics Institute offer brain mapping/storage services when the technology becomes available, perhaps as an add on to cryonics services?

A - That's not something we worry about now.

Q - Your life work has been dedicated to ensuring the survival of the self after death, using technologies available today. Did you stop to think that perhaps the survival of the self is already ensured, either by some unknown natural mechanism or by the purposeful intervention of a future "Omega Point" civilization able to exploit vastly superior technologies to reach into the past and "rescue" stranded minds?

A - I have discussed many of these possibilities in various venues, and in my book in progress, YOUNIVERSE. Some scientists believe that "you" are already immortal, with many versions of you alive right now, and in the past and future, in various forms or in various "universes." But these ideas remain speculative, while cryonics is by comparison down-to-earth practical.

Q - I hear you are writing a new book. What can you tell us about it?

A - It is primarily a book of philosophy in the classic sense, which has never heretofore been realized--viz., to provide personal guidance based on rigorous science.

After the interview Bob Ettinger sent the short note below to clarify his views on the problem of identity:

In preface, if you were vaporized in an explosion, but then somehow rebuilt with high fidelity, would "you" survive? There is no agreement--plenty of opinions, but no proof one way or the other. Maybe the question itself has little meaning. It's just too soon to be sure. Involved are questions about the nature of time and other hard problems.

But today's topic is whether "you" could survive as a computer simulation or emulation, and the case for this is much weaker--so weak that I think the answer is almost surely negative. In a nutshell, the negative case can be made in either of the following two summaries:

1. The map is not the territory.

2. A description of a thing (or an event) is not the same as the thing or event itself, and not "just as good" except for limited applications.

A map may be just a piece of paper with some marks on it. The marks can be interpreted to provide information about the corresponding territory. In some cases, the map is better than the territory--e.g. if you are traveling by car, a map is more useful than an aerial view of the terrain, since the aerial view has no street labels etc. But no matter how detailed the map is, or how often it is updated, it is not the same as the territory; you can't walk or live in it. (Yes, extremists may claim that a "map person" or description of a person could "live" in a map, but that is just an empty assertion.)

A computer simulation or emulation of a person is very much like this. All the digital computer does is generate successive sets of numbers, which can be interpreted as descriptions of a person and his activities and even feelings. But no matter how detailed and faithful, it is still just a description. A Mickey Mouse cartoon shows "feelings" on a character's face, but the character as well as the feeling is counterfeit.

Now the extreme position of the "uploaders" or "isomorphists" is that correspondence (isomorphism) is everything--nothing matters except relationships between symbols. A pool of water simulated in a computer won't get you wet, but it will seem wet to a simulated person, they say. But this is only a conjecture or postulate, not proof of anything.

There are many other problems with the isomorphist position, of which I'll mention just one before stopping. That is the nature of qualia or feelings or subjective experiences. The essence of life as we know it is in feeling, the capability of subjective experience.

Its anatomy/physiology are not yet known; it is in some subset or aspect of the brain and its activities. But it clearly must bind (span) space and time; a quale cannot exist at a geometrical point or an instant in time. Possibly it is something like a modulated standing wave of some sort. But until we know what it is, it is premature to assume that it can be duplicated outside of organic matter, let alone as an abstraction in a computer.

We can speculate until the cows come home, and one speculation is that we are right now just simulations in some super-being's computer. (There are ways to check on that, however.) But common sense dictates we use what is likeliest and easiest, and that means to try to save yourselves through cryonics, not vague hopes of uploading.