Last update:June 4, 2004 at 4:32 PM

Minneapolis transhumanist hungers for eternal life

Kay Miller, Star Tribune
June 5, 2004 TECADD

"I'm very curious about what the future holds. And what humanity might accomplish," said Matthew Gress, 34, an independent computer contractor who lives in Minneapolis and is a member of the World Trans humanist Association.

All around us Gress sees incremental technological changes that put us on the cusp of transhumanism. He lists:

• Researchers are growing neurons on biochips.

• We're in the first phases of replacing damaged nerve cells with artificial ones.

• Cities are deploying low-temperature gear in ambulances so they can cool stroke and heart attack patients, improving their chances of survival.

The time will come when we will be able to preserve sick people until a cure is found for their diseases, he said.

"People are very afraid of technology. They're afraid they're going to break it, do something wrong or seem stupid," Gress said. "We're a nation full of people who want the neat, fast thing, but we all have 12 flashing on our VCRs."

That will change as we develop computers that we operate just by talking and that talk back in the languages our minds use.

"It turns out that there are several parts of our brain, and they all talk to each other really fast. Because they talk to each other so fast we think we're one person. The question is, 'When my Palm Pilot goes from being able to talk to me in regular language to talking to me via my nervous system in the same language that my brain uses, what happens to my perception of self?' "

Most exciting to Gress is the idea of extending life indefinitely -- restoring people to whatever degree of youth they desire and keeping them there for as long as they want.

"I'd like the option to live as long as I care to," Gress said. "And I believe that if technologies appear to do that, if you are a religious or spiritual person you are morally required to pursue them."

Gress was raised Catholic and educated by Jesuits. While he values that moral code, he's not involved in organized religion. But he believes these changes are consonant with the Christian idea of bringing heaven to Earth. Given the chance, Gress would keep the mind he now has but store it in the body of a 20-year-old.

"I'm OK now. I'm 34. I was better before I went on the road for 3 1/2 years and ate out all the time and couldn't exercise on a regular schedule.

"I like music, I like art, I like travel, I like experiencing cultures. I have a degree in history from St. Olaf. And I love to travel with my father and see ancient cultures.

"There's so much amazing stuff out there that it's going to take me longer than we consider a normal human life span to see everything. I think people get good at living and then it's over.

"It is a crime -- it is an absolute atrocity that human beings don't live a lot longer. Human beings are amazing, and they deserve the opportunity to live as long as they want. If nothing else, you can learn a lot even if you make a lot of mistakes early.

"You see people who are 80 and having figured it out, right? They're saying, 'Forget it. I'm going to be a jerk for the rest of my life because my life is almost over.' If you're going to live a lot longer -- and choose to -- you have more opportunities to become a good person."

Kay Miller is at kmiller@startribune.com.

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