Peter Cochrane's Blog: What's the next component to be optimised? Us

Gradually, we're being integrated into our own technology...


Intuitive and haptic interfaces aid our sub-optimal senses, mental and physical abilities, to make us part of the operating loopPhoto: Shutterstock

Written in my Paris hotel room and dispatched to via a conference LAN later the same day.

All the products we buy and use are a pale shadow of their initial conception and engineering build. Production processes, market forces and human limitations temper everything negatively.

One of the most important lessons any engineer and technologist can learn is there is always a big gap between what they design and develop, and the production version supplied to the market. At the design stage there is an opportunity to choose components, optimise designs and layouts to obtain the best results.

Unfortunately, the production process has to accommodate the limitations of machine assembly and the statistical spread of low-cost component tolerances. All these considerations are largely defined by the cost limits set by markets - plus, of course, by production engineers who like to shave off a few pence here and there.

Sub-optimal devices

So, every device and item we own is sub-optimal. And yet the performance of mobile phones, cameras and computers is still, by and large, staggering. However, what we commonly observe is the odd camera that seems just that bit sharper than the rest, and the mobile phone that has three bars when everyone else in the room has zero.

Given enough money, it is possible to make devices and instruments with truly exceptional performance. Indeed, there are people who do this for specialised applications.

However, the past 40 years has seen a fascinating trend in the performance gap between the market average and the best of the best, as it has gradually closed. In the 1960 and 1970s the vast majority of our hardware was man-made, while today machines dominate.

There is also another dimension we have to recognise. The distance between hardware and software has closed and we now think in terms of systems. A net result is that the limitations of mechanical and electrical and electronic engineering are often continuously tuned out and minimised by software.

This phenomenon is manifest in, for example, our automobiles, cameras, domestic appliances, mobile phones, lifts and automated production lines. It is an innovation that subliminally changed and improved everything.

Intuitive and haptic interfaces

So what is the next step, the next component to be optimised? Us. A bit at a time we are getting integrated into our own technology. Intuitive and haptic interfaces augment our sub-optimal senses, and mental and physical abilities, to make us part of the operating loop. And how good it feels.

I can now operate complex machinery that would have required a specialist, or at least a long, detailed training course, just 10 to 20 years ago.

Some people object to all this change but I think it is far more subtle than it first appears. We all get an opportunity to be great photographers, movie, music and application makers with the least pain possible.

In the past few decades more human creativity has been unleashed than ever before, and the results overshadow everything in the past. And in the future we might reasonably expect that trend to accelerate.