Simplify Technology to Simplify Our Lives

Nov 28, 2016

I am sure one of the most dreadful experiences one can have on the way to their workplace would be a flat tyre. I have had this experience and luckily I was experienced enough to fix it and reached my school on time. That’s it, problem solved. But that got me thinking, what if I did not have the tyres on my car.  What if there were no tyres, or wheels in general? How would I have commuted? How would planes land? How would turbines work?

The invention of the wheel was the first major technological achievement. Our lives now flow smoothly because of it, and yet we take it for granted. I believe that is how the technological inventions should be. The most impactful tech businesses sell products that are simple in design, but have far-reaching impacts. The invention of the wheel was the first stepping stone for other technological inventions that followed. While the way in which technology is constructed appears to be more complicated, the continuous optimisation of existing inventions illustrates that, in many ways, modern technology has begun to revert to the age-old mantra: “Keep it simple”.

Manu Sharma, a McArthur Fellow for the year 2016, is known for inventing Foldscope, an optical microscope that is made by folding a single sheet of paper with lenses and electronics which costs less than a dollar. Foldscope is used to identify the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests in India, to screen for a harmful pathogen, detect fake currency and medicine among thousands of other uses. Who would have imagined in the era of the 20-megapixel camera with stabilizers, an invention this simple would make so much of difference in the developing world? No matter how evolved the technology is, its success is ultimately measured by its utility. 

Elon Musk, the man known for SpaceX and Tesla, based his designs on making sure that even if his methods make use of highly evolved science, the invention itself does not become complicated. Tesla’s battery driven car is the best example of this. Compared to an internal combustion engine that consists of a spark plug, piston, engine blocks, carburettor, fuel pump, gear box and auxiliary electronic components, the battery driven car is simpler, drastically reducing the number of components, thereby reducing the chances of failure and maintenance cost.t  This video of the reusable Falcon 9 rocket of SpaceX landing in the middle of the ocean illustrates not only a new era in space technology, but also an example of how the complexities of science are used for simple and cost-effective solution. 

The world-renowned inventor Steve Jobs was known for the simple and sleek design of his products. Apple’s iPod changed the way we listen to music: One simple pocket-size device that could store a thousand songs made Sony’s Walkman obsolete overnight. The evolution of technology towards useful and simple solutions is a collective effort. The invention of Apple’s iPod would have not possible without the invention of the electronic chip it uses. Similarly, batteries were invented more than a century ago, but to make a low maintenance and high-performance battery driven car required the invention of not only an efficient and safe battery, but also lighter and stronger material used in building chassis and frames for the car. It seems that the secret of the technological entrepreneur is to make use of existing technology to create innovations that simplify everyday life.

Making life simpler and less tiring has been the cornerstone of human evolution. With the invention of the machine and electronics, people have started writing fantasy stories  about how robots will take care of household chores while we are enjoying a movie or taking care of other important work. This fantasy has come true to some extent with inventions like home automation and self-driven cars. One key theme in all successful inventions thus far has been the more simple the technology is; more users it will find. And while tech startups seem to be the most popular, only the businesses that embody this truth will be truly successful in advancing society.

By Padmanapan Rao

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