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We don’t need more technology, we need better ways of using it

17 February 2019

8:25 AM

17 February 2019

8:25 AM

I’d like to propose a new scientific institution: the IUT, or Institute of Underrated Technology. Rather than trying to invent yet more bloody things, it will instead be devoted to helping us derive greater value from things we can do already using technology which already exists.

Innovation is a two-stage process. First you discover something; then over time people discover how best to use it. Many ideas fall at the second hurdle: the Chinese invented gunpowder but used it only for fireworks; early Mesoamericans invented the wheel, but attached it only to children’s toys. In recent times, the internet seems to have delivered a lot more in entertainment value than in productivity. What we need is not more technology, but better uses for it.

Why do so few people buy electric cars, for instance? The IUT will ask whether this is a technological issue or a psychological one.

I suspect the latter. People seem strangely paranoid about the range of electric cars, even though in reality many of us drive more than 200 miles on barely a handful of days each year. On those rare occasions, I suspect I’d quite enjoy the nerdy thrill of planning a mid-journey recharge. (And, be honest, which of us wouldn’t secretly relish the mild arseholery of turning up at friends’ houses and insisting on threading a power cable through their kitchen windows?) No, all I need before I buy an electric car is a new kind of insurance policy, which lets me periodically swap my electric car with a friend’s petrol car. After all, if asked ‘Can I borrow your car to go to Manchester and you can have my Tesla while I’m away?’, few people are likely to say no.

One other problem: before buying an electric car, you’ll want to install a 7kW charging point at home. There is a £500 OLEV grant for this. But to receive the grant, you must prove that you already own an electric car. (Clearly nobody at the Office for Low Emission Vehicles has read Catch-22.)

Another area where existing technology has a great deal more to offer is video-conferencing. If the internet had never been invented, but we had only invented video-conferencing, we would have regarded it as the crowning technological achievement of the age.

Instead it came free with the internet, like a cheap toy stapled to the front of a magazine. We have duly failed to invest time or money in using it properly. But it can be amazing.

Last Friday I worked from home, with a meeting in Sydney at 9 a.m. and one with a New Yorker at 8 p.m. The street sounds outside the American’s office sounded peculiarly unlike New York (which sounds exactly like it does in the movies). ‘Where are you?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I’m in Peru.’

Then it occurred to me: the reason home video-conferencing is such a game changer is only partly about the video. Much of the magic is in the quality of the sound.

Bizarrely, despite a 1,000-fold increase in bandwidth, the sound quality of a phone call has not improved in 50 years. Mobile phone and landline networks still compress and frequency–chop the human voice to within an inch of its life — to a point where words are just about intelligible, but where timbre and resonance are completely lost. This is a horrific technological failing.

High quality audio changes everything. Think about it like this: nobody would listen to Radio 4 for ten minutes if all speech was of telephone quality. This is why telephone conference calls are so awful.

But now, with no more than £100 spent on decent equipment, you can talk to — and see — people in Peru in broadcast quality. In my next column, I’ll explain how.

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