Can technology and science add to our human existence? Transhumanists think so

Sitting in his office at the UA on a recent afternoon, 35-year-old Richard Leis Jr. exudes a palpable inner peace. As an operations specialist, he downloads and processes images taken by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A man in control of his own destiny, he tells me what will happen when he dies.

"The Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale will send a team of trained EMTs to collect my body and bring it back to their facility, freezing it in liquid nitrogen. My body will be (preserved) in the hopes of using science and technology to bring me back in the future."

Leis isn't phased by the Alcor/Ted Williams debacle, which made headlines after the media revealed how the baseball great's dead body was placed in storage with other bodies and severed heads. Leis admits that, after all, there is only an outside chance that he will be revived.

At the time of his death, Leis doesn't believe there will be angels awaiting him at a heavenly gate. Absent from his mind is my view, that we are spiritual beings in a physical body. He smiles as I talk about the afterlife and politely nods.

"I don't fear death. Death is oblivion. It is the end of existence. Once I'm dead, that's it for me. I don't want that to be it for me. I would like to continue as long as possible."

Leis is an immortalist--someone who sees aging as a disease, and death as the failure to cure that disease.

"The immortalist view is that there are a lot of things to enjoy and so much to do. ... Wanting to live longer is a good thing."

As I internally cringe at the idea of living past the century mark, Leis shares his expanded view.

"It's not just about living longer. It's about living longer with a high quality of life. Aging becomes an enemy we want to defeat."

How to defeat the aging process is just one of the topics Leis discusses with other members of the club he co-founded in the fall of 2006, called h+ Tucson ( h+ is a symbol for transhumanism.

Transhumanists explore enhancing the human condition and body through the use of science and technology. They look toward a possible transition from human to posthuman--a state that goes beyond our current limitations.

Leis is both an immortalist and transhumanist. His group meets most Fridays at 4 p.m. on campus, where guest speakers have included a roboticist and LASIK eye surgeon. Group members have discussed artificial intelligence, human augmentation, technological advances and more.

"Not only do I want to live as long as possible through science and technology, but at some point, I am going to want to enhance particular capabilities, like adding memory to my brain and other future cybernetic capabilities."

The thought of adding technology to my body initially has scenes of Iron Man flashing through my head, but Leis sums up both the film and human nature with an astute comment: "The typical transhumanist view is technology itself is not good or bad; the people who use it are good or bad.

"Transhumanists have been known kind of as a group of geeks who get together and talk about the far future. Transhumanism really isn't all about that. Its focus is how technology can help us ... how science and technology will affect neighborhoods, families and the whole human race.

"Yes, technology will become more invasive and will get closer to our person and eventually move inside our person."

Leis points out technological advances that have already taken place, such as hearing aids and pacemakers.

"(Technology) is going to happen anyway. You can either fear it or decide how you are going to deal with it. ... It's about choice: how you want to interact with technology and whether or not you want to change."

But underneath the discussion of cryonics, extending life and new technologies, change is really the common denominator here. And it's not only about changing the body; it's about changing a mindset and how life can be viewed.

I walked into Leis' office wondering why someone would want to live "forever." But within my question lies the answer and an alternative perspective: Immortalists and transhumanists such as Leis don't view life as something to be dragged on. They want to live, really live. A body is a vehicle to be spruced up, tuned up and modified. Life is to be expanded and enjoyed.

Yes, there will be extremists in these lines of thinking, but taken at the most basic level, it's about the desire to live a full, pleasurable life. And that's something we can all appreciate.

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