When most of us explore a new piece of technology, it's pretty straightforward: rip open the packaging, start it up and start hitting buttons until it does what we want. Maybe we use a friend's new gadget or a demo model at a store for a few minutes before deciding to buy. When we run into problems, we might call a help line, visit the Genius Bar or do a quick Internet search to see how others have solved the same issue. In short, when most people interact with technology, they do it in haphazard ways, using intuition, luck and a little bit of concrete knowledge to get the outcomes they're looking for.
We expect inventors, scientists and innovators to be more rigorous and deliberate when they explore new technological frontiers. As it turns out, exploring new technologies is a traditionally messy process. While there are some uplifting traditions, like crosspollination and society-wide benefits, exploring technology also involves things like risk, failure and delayed payoffs. Keep reading to learn more about the messy and inspiring traditions for exploring technology.
Crosspollination isn't just something for bees and flowers. In exploring technology, crosspollination refers to how ideas and applications spread from one area into other areas that are seemingly unrelated, resulting in new applications and benefits.
Take a system that could be sitting on your car's dashboard or on your smartphone right now: GPS navigation. The GPS in GPS refers to global positioning system. GPS systems use satellites to give a specific location – regardless of weather. Prior to GPS, if you wanted to navigate without landmarks, you needed to be able to see the stars. With GPS your receiver simply needs a clear line to at least four GPS satellites. There are currently 31 GPS satellites in orbit, all maintained by the U.S. government (other governments either have or are working on their own systems). Each GPS satellite constantly transmits the time and its current orbit position. Using that info, the GPS receiver can work backward and figure out where it is – allowing you to navigate through an unfamiliar city or inhospitable terrain.
That working backward is key to GPS, but it wasn't the first step in developing the system. In 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, stunning America into the space race. Sputnik constantly transmitted information and two scientists, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics laboratory decided to listen in on the transmissions on their own. Based on the transmissions, they could chart Sputnik's orbit – something the USSR wasn't able to do. From Sputnik's orbit, they also determined how they could work backward, figuring out the position of their own receiver. That desire to listen in to what the USSR was doing in space lead to the first step in creating a navigation system that was first reserved for military use, but now powers much of civilian live. GPS helps us navigate on vacation, helps delivery companies manage fleets and fuel use, allows for tours without tour guides, online applications like foursquare and the ability to tag your photos with the exact location they were taken. That's not exactly what the Soviets had in mind when they launched Sputnik, but exploring technology means taking opportunities from one realm and applying them in as many other areas as possible.
If we all played it safe, not much would get done. Baseball players wouldn't swing for the fences, we'd never see a Hail Mary pass and we might not be able to have books, diapers, clothes and toys delivered right to our doors.
Taking risks is something that new technology is all about. Think about e-retail giant Amazon. When the Internet first gained in popularity, it wasn't seen as a vehicle for commerce. It was seen purely as a conduit for sharing information. Selling goods across the country and across the world seemed like too much of a logistical nightmare for most businesses. Enter Amazon, with its focus on selling books – and only books, at first. Using a high-tech online system for selling a book, one of the most low-tech ways to get information seemed counterintuitive to a lot of people. But Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, took the risk. Today Amazon is the world's largest online retailer and is at the forefront of new technology, like eReaders, to keep it that way. Without Bezos taking the risk of using online technology to connect consumers with concrete goods, Amazon would have never been born.
No one likes to fail, but your tax dollars go to support a whole lot of it. No, we're not talking about Congress. We're talking about DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency. DARPA is part of the Department of Defense and takes on high-risk, high-reward projects. Of course, a lot of those projects fail. Others, however, pay off in big ways. DARPA work developed much of the Internet and GPS system we use today. It's also getting pretty close to developing driverless cars.
To DARPA and innovators everywhere, failure isn't the end of a project. It's a necessary step, one that can teach just as much as success. While success feels good, we often learn more from failure.
In August of 2011, DARPA failed in a public way. The agency was working on a hypersonic aircraft – one that could fly from New York to L.A. in about 12 minutes. The unmanned Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 or HTV-2 could travel at 20 times the speed of sound (that's about 13,000 mph). The goal of the project is to develop a craft that could be anywhere in the world in an hour, allowing for fast military strikes. On Aug. 12, DARPA launched its test vehicle on a Minotaur 4 rocket. The idea was that the craft would go into suborbital space, and then glide back into the Earth's atmosphere before entering the Pacific Ocean.
About 20 minutes after launch, DARPA lost contact with the HTV-2. Failure? Well, DARPA didn't meet the goal of the operation, but it did learn more about how hypersonic flight works, and it can apply those lessons to the next test. To put the failure in perspective, the HTV-1 lost contact with DARPA after only nine minutes. In just the second launch, DAPRA more than doubled the time was in control of the vehicle.
If you haven't played with an iPad or other tablet computer yet, it's tough to appreciate just how much computer power has gone from machines that took up multiple rooms in academic buildings, to bulky desktops in corporations, to machines that sat on our desks at home to computers that now fit in our laps, hands and pockets. But technology that doesn't seem widely applicable at first often just needs time.
The personal computer is a great example. The first computers were huge bulky machines, but in 1977, a group of technological innovators got together and built the first widely available computers that were suitably sized and powerful enough for consumers to use at home: the Apple II.
Most people today would say that the Apple II is a pretty pitiful machine. By today's standards, the graphics were clunky, the processor was slow and it could only handle a limited amount of data. But the DNA in the Apple II grew into the technology that powers today's iPhones, iPads and iPods. Even if you're not an Apple fan, the idea that computers could be affordable and easy to use helped launch the PC revolution, contributing to the Windows operating system you might be running now and your Android-powered phone. If there's one thing technological exploration has shown it's that something that seems like a toy, such as a home computer, or listening into Sputnik can become something that changes the world – if you give it enough time.
It's rare that exploring technology doesn't lead to improving lives, even if those improvements apply to only a handful of people.
Take robots, for example. To most people, having a robot to clean the house or walk the dog would be nice, but we can function without them. And the robots that most consumers could afford are simple. They might vacuum the floor and dance. While those features are fine, it's hard to argue that they improve our lives greatly.
The thing is that if robots were more human they could improve lives – particularly the lives of people with disabilities and children. Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab focuses her work on creating robots that can interact with people in natural ways. Her goal is for robots to read and respond to human expressions, know how not to hurt people and how to help teach children. If she accomplishes her goal, responsive robots could help people with different abilities lead independent lives. So far, Breazeal's work is finding that responsive robots can not only help people with mundane tasks, but also enrich lives. Personable robots have been found to be better at helping people lose weight than a simple online tracking program, because the robots, for lack of a better term, had that human touch.
While helpful robots are a way off, the exploration of technology -- with its delayed gratification, successes from failures and crosspollination -- marches on. And no matter if we're talking about personal computers, GPS navigation, hypersonic flight or getting the latest bestseller on your Kindle, exploring technology is as natural to the human race as breathing. The difference is, we breathe the same way we did thousands of years ago, but our relationship with technology keeps progressing.
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- Belfiore, Michael. "Flight Failure Won't Stop 'Mad Scientists.'" CNN.com. (Aug. 15, 2011) http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/08/15/belfiore.hypersonic.flight/
- Bosch, Tori. "Cynthia Breazeal, Director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab." Slate. Aug. 2, 2011 (Aug. 10, 2011) http://www.slate.com/id/2299990
- Johnson, Steven. Where good ideas come from, the natural history of innovation. 2010. New York: Riverhead Books
- Malik, Tariq. "Mach 20 Test Goes Awry, Military Craft Lost." CBS News. Aug. 11, 2011. (Aug. 14, 2011) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/08/11/scitech/main20091239.shtml
- Manjo, Farhad. "Jeff Bezos: Founder and CEO of Amazon.com." Slate. Aug. 2, 2011. (Aug. 10, 2011) http://www.slate.com/id/2299851