Innovators, use your powers only for good!?

In his article, Robots Without a Cause, in The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries laments frivolous and consumer-oriented innovations such as 3G cell phones and luxury cars that recognize their owners by fingerprint. His thesis seems to be that there are better, more noble, uses for the brain power of our smartest engineers and scientists. The problem with his argument is that one could easily envision the same argument against the invention of the solid-state transistor at Bell Labs 50+ years ago, after all, the most visible product of this research was tiny, hand held, transistor radios, a consumer item, and who really needs to carry their radio around with them, when the radio on the shelf in the living room works just as well? Of course, the solid-state transistor has transformed our lives, and enabled innumerable useful and important inventions.

To be fair, Jeffries claims he’s not opposed to all innovation, and cites Trevor Baylis’s crank-powered radios as an example of a good invention, because they were designed to bring news, health, and weather information to people off the power grid in the third world. He also cites the wheel, powered flight, and the telephone as important developments about which one could get excited, but surely these things, too, were luxuries at one time.

What Jeffries doesn’t seem to realize is that Baylis’s purposeful, moral invention is an anomaly not because of the frivolous nature of modern westerners, but because it’s very difficult to predict what uses new inventions will be put to, or what new ideas they will generate. The seafloor of technological history is littered with the sunken wrecks of bad gadget ideas. It’s only in hindsight that we see the good ideas that make it to the far shore. Perhaps the fingerprint ID system on the luxury Audi will sink to the bottom too, or maybe the reason it’s a luxury toy is that it’s not yet economical enough for more high-minded uses, like locking handguns so that only their owners can fire them, or locking our computers and data, but someday it will be.

Jeffries spends a sizable chunk of his article railing against 3G phones as an example of a useless, consumeristic luxury gadget. Ironically, this article appeared on the BBC.com today: Picture phones save doctors time. It describes how doctors in Wales use 3G picture phones to consult remotely with orthopedic specialists by sending them pictures of x-rays. The specialist can then recommend treatment over the phone, meaning quicker treatment for the patient. I’d bet that this use was not envisioned by the inventors. Serendipity is the scientist’s (and technologist’s) best friend.

The greater, and more subtle, irony of Jeffries piece, however, is that in railing against consumeristic technological innovation, he uses essentially the same logic that’s often used lately to justify cutting funding for basic scientific research, namely the what’s it good for? argument. If it doesn’t have some immediate useful application, the argument goes, there’s no sense in funding it. In fact, practical applications of basic scientific discoveries often take years after an initial discovery, and are generally built on the interlocking works of several scientists. When Niels Bohr was working on his model of the atom in 1913, who could have predicted that it would lay the foundation for quantum mechanics, which would ultimately lead to the solid-state transistor, integrated circuits, microcomputers, Moore’s Law, etc? Viewed in the eyes of his non-scientific contemporaries, his mathematical model of the hydrogen atom must have seemed deeply arcane, with no practical applications.

No one, not even Stuart Jeffries, can see where the paths of innovation will lead, and engineers have to eat, too. If they can do that by selling picture phones and biometric car door locks to people who want them, more power to them.

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