Mike O’Neal

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics May-June 2017

By Nicole Weinstock

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Mike O'Neal

Travel with us to Louisiana to meet computer science professor, cat lover, tech startup founder, longtime cryonicist, and Alcor Board Member, Mike O’Neal.

“Cats think they’re higher on the food chain than you are,” says Mike on the other end of the phone, as his reportedly bigbellied, tawny pet of 15 years settles down for a nap. “He’s the cat and you’re the monkey. You gotta put it this way: he doesn’t clean my cat litter so you tell me who’s right.”

Life wouldn’t be the same without JC, Mike’s pet cat named after a former roommate (JC is short for “John’s Cat”).

A wry sense of humor and a weakness for feline strays are just a couple of qualities that round Mike’s very accomplished résumé, not to mention his weakness for sous vide steak.

Southern by birth, Mike grew up on a farm in rural Louisiana in the town of Oak Grove. Though populated by just 1,700 people during his childhood, it now holds a unique claim to fame in northeast Louisiana: Oak Grove’s downtown landmark, the Fiske Theatre, is the region’s oldest operating movie theatre, dating back to 1928. It is a fitting juxtaposition of city-meets-country, much like the union of Mike’s parents, who met in New York before moving to Louisiana.

“My mom was from Brooklyn originally, and my father was from the south. They met as a result of World War II. He was in the navy. She spotted a cute sailor across the way in Central Park and told a girlfriend she was gonna marry him at some point.”

Mike and his mom lean in for a photo. She was close to 90 years old at the time.

They did indeed marry, having two children quickly thereafter, and four more several years later. Mike was born in those later years, along with his brother Eddie, who was one of his earliest students.

“I was probably destined to be a teacher early on,” Mike admits. There was no kindergarten at the school that he and his siblings attended, just first through twelfth grade, but he did his part to keep everyone’s schoolwork on track. Thanks to his patient and dedicated instruction, his younger brother Eddie had already learned the standard kindergarten curriculum by his first year in school (first grade).

Fast-forward to 1987: Mike is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Louisiana Tech University, a Tier 1 national research university that conducts research for the likes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Defense (DoD). To say that it is known for its engineering and science programs is an understatement.

Interestingly enough however, computer science was Mike’s second love, and in the end, surfaced by way of his first: space. Born in 1960, three years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the space race began, Mike was one year old when President JFK expanded the space program by several billion dollars to safely get an American to the Moon and back. He was two when John Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit Earth. And, perhaps most importantly, Mike was nine years old when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. His pre-teen years were, quite literally, filled with space.

“If you had asked me at 12 years old where I’d be living at 40, I would’ve told you β€˜on the Moon,’” says Mike. “But I’m five foot two with terrible eyesight, so that wasn’t in the cards.”

His passion for space converged with the seed of interest in computer science in Stanley Kubrick’s epic sci-fi movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). “It was a mindblowing experience for me. I wanted to build a HAL computer.”

For those of you who may not know—no spoilers!—HAL 9000 was a Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. A now famous example of artificial intelligence as depicted in cinematic history, HAL is a principal character and central antagonist in the movie. He controls the operation of a spacecraft en route to Jupiter, interacting with the human crew onboard by voice, his only physical characterization being the red or yellow light of a camera lens.

For Mike, the fascination with HAL and the desire to replicate this sentient computer went deeper than an interest in space travel.

“People tend to think that computer science is for boring people, but the truth of the matter is that it’s a very creative kind of thing. It’s extremely precise but very creative. When you build something and you run it, and it takes on a life of its own, that’s a very empowering experience. I was completely hooked on it because of that. You get to feel creation.”

When you have a PhD and a sense of humor, the average birthday cake just won’t do.

Though less prominent than the theme of artificial intelligence, cryogenic hibernation was another element of 2001 that struck a chord in Mike. But over the years, despite his growing repertoire of science reads, he couldn’t find any real world work on the subject. When he reached graduate school in the mid ’80’s, he decided to devote an afternoon to the hunt for some kind of scholarly coverage of cryonics. His efforts resulted in a few disappointing articles on cryobiology.

Fortunately for Mike however, serendipity took hold just a few months later. After reading a copy of Free Inquiry—a magazine that he accidentally subscribed to—he saw an ad on the back page that included the words “Physical Immortality” in bolded letters. Like any good scientist, Mike reacted with no small reservations:

“I literally laughed out loud that someone would post so preposterous an ad. Reading a bit farther though, I saw the word ‘Cryonics’ and ‘Alcor Life Extension Foundation.’ I was highly skeptical, to say the least, but the ad offered a free information package for those interested.”

He wrote off for the package, which included an issue of Cryonics. It covered the work of Mike Darwin and Jerry Leaf, who, at the time, were carrying out deep hypothermia experiments in the canine model.

“What impressed me was that Alcor was truly trying to do science. And it wasn’t just that. They were approaching it from a very professional way, and I had mad respect for that.... What I especially liked that made me take it seriously was that they were very careful not to make claims that were unsupported. You can attract a crowd to anything by telling people what they want to hear. Alcor and cryonics are brave enough to tell people the truth and what they need to hear. It takes a lot of integrity to do that.”

Mike became a member at Alcor just a few years later, when he began his position as Assistant Professor at Louisiana Tech. He was the only dot in Louisiana on Cryonics magazine’s member heat map for a good chunk of his now nearly 30 years of membership.

As of 2016, Mike is also one of two recent additions to Alcor’s board. One of his central areas of focus is cost control over the long term, with hopes of slowing any increase in the organization’s cryopreservation minimums. His drive to mitigate costs is motivated by a deep desire to make cryonics an affordable option to all who support it.

“There’s a certain tragedy in the world of people who pass away and do not embrace the cryonics idea. Religious people have an answer to that, but if you are an agnostic [like me] or you are an atheist, death is final unless you choose the cryonics option. So to me, the thing that’s even sadder is someone who embraces the idea, and for financial reasons, is unable to pursue that. That is a tragedy of epic proportions.”

While Mike works hard to influence the feasibility of cryopreservation for any interested party from within Alcor, he also urges members to take initiative in their wishes and embrace cryonics as a longterm commitment. The recent passing of his mother weighed heavily in shaping this attitude.

“By 21st century standards she didn’t suffer and was surrounded by people she loved. But it made me think about the fact that, you know, you really need to have your duckies in a row. You need to be prepared for contingencies since you yourself can’t provide for them at the end.” This is also, as Mike is quick to add, a reason to make your wishes known to others that are near and dear, so ignorance and foul play are avoided when your time comes.

He encourages members to approach cryonics from a long-term lens, minding finances, yes, but also giving thought to just what type of arrangement you should select.

“Try to plan your finances accordingly,” urges Mike, “so that when you are most likely to need the services you can still afford them. If you are young and are funded through term insurance, think about switching to whole life. If you are middle aged, think about saving not only for retirement, but also putting away some extra money as a hedge against potential future inflation of cryopreservation minimums.”

Though financing your future is important, Mike also touches on how this long-term lens can influence the ideological landscape of your cryonics arrangements. He encourages members to give whole body cryopreservation fair consideration. Though it is more expensive than neuro preservation—Mike is the first to empathize with this, which is one reason why he is so dedicated to cost control in his board member responsibilities—he shares some very compelling arguments in favor of this arrangement. [To review them in detail, you can read, β€œThe Case for Whole Body Cryopreservation,” originally published in Cryonics magazine, and later revised and co-authored with Aschwin De Wolf for publication in Preserving Minds, Saving Lives.]

One point that Mike raises is the potential value of the body in maximizing information about the person. If the identity of the person emphasizes their physicality in some special way, there could be a distinct advantage in cryopreserving the rest of the body along with the brain. “I’m not a musician,” Mike admits, “but I can imagine a musician. That’s all muscle memory. And if your brain was transplanted into a different body, making all of those connections back, I have a hard time believing that it’s just going to be a seamless process, and you’ll wake up and feel exactly the same.”

Mike also raises the value of whole body cryopreservation as a backup source of information in the event of a complication in your neuro cryopreservation or resuscitation. “Neuro is a lower bar to entry, but one that doesn’t really have a safety net. It doesn’t really have a fallback plan.”

Ever the economist-inclined computer scientist, he also urges whole body consideration for pragmatic reasons. In the event of drastic market change and, accordingly, shifts in cryopreservation minimums, “[whole body cryopreservation] forces you to put aside more money for cryonics. On neuro,” he continues, “individuals can find themselves in a very uncomfortable place.”

Apart from targeted cost control, Mike is also focused on growing Alcor over time. This, in and of itself, can help reduce member costs, but more importantly, it helps keep the organization alive. As Mike puts it, “Any group that’s not growing is dying. There’s no in-between.” Yet growth, and more specifically, change, generally runs counter to human nature. What’s the antidote? “The way organizations grow is they need new people who come in with new energy and new ideas. You get both of those things from the young.”

For Mike, the value of young people extends beyond the realm of cryonics into his daily life, where they are a welcome source of inspiration and camaraderie. “I learn more from my students and from friends of mine who are younger than me sometimes than what I teach.”

In fact, he credits his first use of the World Wide Web to these relationships. “I can remember the day when one of my students rushed into my office to tell me about this new thing called the ‘World Wide Web’. I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘It’s this hierarchical way of organizing information, and one article can link to another article.’ He brought up a website in Mozilla I think it was—in beta—and I said, ‘No Don. You’re wrong, this has turned the Internet into magazine pages.’”

Mike studies the digital horizon during the dot com years of his life.

Another interest that’s kept Mike in the know is gaming. He played video games quite heavily in the ’90s, including the famous Myst (1993) and its sequel Riven (1997). “I loved those games,” says Mike, “but I was waiting for the moment when you could break out and actually explore a 3D environment.”

Real Myst (2000) was the answer to his wishes. According to his description, it allowed players to explore the whole environment instead of just pre-rendered scenes. But after downloading the demo and playing for an hour, Mike ended up with a case of video game induced seasickness, and had to stay away from this hobby for several years, until a slow reintroduction allowed him to partake in Heavy Rain (2010). Since then, he has played a host of third person games and RPGs (Role-Playing Games), tending toward complex storylines that empower the player with the ability to determine the game’s direction.

“It’s absolutely fascinating to me that we’re at the point where characters have their own simulated lives.... And you can see the thread there, because it takes me back to AI. AI in gaming is something that I do find fascinating.” This thread of futurism runs deep in Mike’s movie preferences as well. Akin to the blog, Paleo Future, he too is drawn to the theme of past visions of the future; indeed, this forms a unique critical lens for some of his favorite films. In Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) for example, Mike notes the rather extensive relationship between the alien technology that was discovered and its functions—or rather, lack thereof:

“There was a different device for every single function. There’s a power-indicating device, there’s a modeling tool device—there are all these separate devices. And you look at today and we don’t think of things that way anymore. We’ve evolved in the way we think about objects and technology. Look at your phone. We call it ‘technology,’ but what is it really? I have a clock, a weather app, a calculator, a map program.... And that’s just the first couple.”

Speaking to his own life, Mike senses change on the horizon. “I’ve been teaching for about 30 years, and Louisiana, when I started, had a wonderful retirement system. So I’m eligible to retire here in two years at full salary. I’m thinking the West Coast.” He has fond memories of the Pacific-adjacent states of the U.S. ever since his sabbatical to Los Angeles in 2000. During that time he and his nephew created a web startup company together, giving him ample opportunity to enjoy the sunshine state. “The weather is perfect,” he says. With a smile on his lips he asks, “How do they afford to air condition the outdoors there?”

Friends are an important part of Mike’s life, whether they’re sharing a backyard BBQ or relaxing in the Bahamas as seen above.

Like many cryonicists, the future has many meanings for Mike, the most important of which extend beyond typical notions of tomorrow, or even years from now. In his own words, “I would love to live to see Man in general, and Mike in particular, explore the galaxy to see what’s out there. Signing up for cryonics is the only practical step one can currently take to improve one’s chances of seeing such a future.” And take it he has.


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