Monday 26 September 2011

Luxury Humans

"Luxury Humans" was published in Luxury Briefing in September 2011.


Luxury Humans
by Alexander Gallé

Warren Buffett once made the following analogy:

If you were given a car on your 18th birthday and told it could be whatever car you wanted it to be - the best looking, best performing car - but you were told this was the only car you would ever have, wouldn't you read the manual at least a few times? Wouldn't you look after it obsessively, fix any problems - no matter how small - as soon as they arise? Wouldn't you generally try to keep it clean and functional as long as possible?

Well, now replace the word "car" with the word "body" and you'll know what to do.

The "best looking, best performing" cars are, of course, supercars or luxury cars and it befits a magazine like Luxury Briefing to discuss how they are made.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and write an essay about the best looking, best performing bodies (including the brain). And, given that my domain is design and technology, I'm going to talk about the ways in which technology can help us arrive at a place where these super-humans turn into luxury-humans.

Let's start with a crude definition of the typical luxury product: longer, faster, better. Luxury cars last longer (Mercedes, for example, typically last over 200,000 km). They are faster than your average car, any supercar will easily beat 300 km/h and go from 0 to 100 in under 4 seconds. They are better built, respond better to the driver, hold the road better, provider a better driving experience overall.

In the context of human bodies, lasting longer means living longer. There are three key technologies that will help us achieve this:

1. cell regeneration, including neurogenesis, which means our brains get to not shrink by the current 30% over the course of our lives. Cell regeneration technology will ensure that the cells our bodies generate when we are 100 are of the same quality as the cells they generate when we are 10 i.e. no DNA damage from mitochondrial exposure and oxidation, and no telomere reduction on cell division. Aside from lasting longer, this means our bodies won't actually age, or at least not at the same rate they do today.

2. body parts replacement. Just as an old luxury car sometimes needs a new carburetor, we may need a new liver that is made-to-measure. The best way to do this is by using our own body's stemcells and grow a new one.

3. nanobots. 40 years ago, your typical computer would have been the size of a large dining hall and had little more power than today's pocket calculator. Today, computers with 1,000 times more power occupy spaces 1,000 smaller. Even a significant decrease in the rate of progress will ensure that, within 10 to 15 years, computers the size of our bloodcells will operate inside our bodies, monitoring and repairing biological damage at the smallest level, fighting viruses and bacteria, complementing and perfecting our own body's immune system.

A faster computer, with a faster connection, allows you to do more, to do more than one thing at the same time, to process more info without having to wait for the processing time itself. Faster bodies means we get to live more in the same amount of time. The idea of enhancing the brain, especially, is very appealing. For example, a combination of chemical and nano-technological processes that would enable you to learn anything at degree-level within just a few days, simply by enhancing the current system of serotonin-based positive neural feedback that forges new links between different neurons and leads us to enjoy learning new things, or by integrating nanobot 'prosthetic neurons' that take over connections between various parts of the brain.

Being better humans is what it's all about. Since the earliest Greek philosophers, we've been looking for ways not just to live better lives, but also to be better humans. Over the last few thousand years, we have effectively been improving our software at an exponential rate, focusing particularly on the information that exists between us in the way of shared knowledge (broadly speaking: culture). It seems logical that improving the human hardware to match the rate of improvement in human software would be the next step in our evolution.

I'm aware that some of these ideas may seem somewhat far-fetched, yet many technologists have put forward estimates that these technologies I have written about here will be available, at least in their early forms, within the next 20 years. If there is one sector where such a timespan sits perfectly comfortably within the bigger picture, the luxury sector is it: many luxury brands have been around for five or even ten times longer. However, there is another variable that will be highly critical for luxury brands, which it hasn't so far: ephemeralization. I mentioned this term in my last essay, but didn't go too much in depth.

The word "ephemeralization" was coined by Buckminster Fuller, who used it roughly in the sense of "doing more and more with less and less until you can do everything with nothing": a gradually smaller and smaller amount of materials and effort are needed to accomplish more and more useful functions. We get better and better at using materials in more sophisticated ways, so we need less and less quantity of materials and effort. A classic example would be that it took Magellan two years to sail around the planet in a wooden sailing ship in 1520. 350 years later it took a steel steamship two months to do the same. 75 years later a plane, made of metal alloys, took 2 weeks to fly around the planet. 35 years later a space capsule, made of exotic metals, takes 1 hour to circle the planet.

Not only can we do more with less, the rate of doing-more-with-less-ness is increasing. There is an acceleration taking place. That acceleration is the reason why the coming 20 years will be far more exciting, but also far more critical for luxury brands than the previous 20: there comes a point where luxury brands will need to transcend the philosophies they've been exploring over the last couple of centuries, where technology will redefine what it means to live a life of luxury, a luxury-human life.

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