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The Fundamental Purpose Of Technology

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A fortnight ago, on the 24th of February, it would have been Steve Jobs’ 60th  birthday. There is no doubt about how awesome a technology guru and entrepreneur he was. He developed very novel technologies and disrupted four industries in the process: computing, film and animation, telecommunications, and the music industry. “Pick any awesome adjective and put it here”, that’s Steve Jobs.  

Besides being into, and involved with, technology and engineering myself, there is one idea – amongst a host of many- I found I could relate to the late Apple co-founder with: the true nature and purpose of technology. I firmly believe that the purpose of technology is to “amplify” human effort in helping humanity be more efficient or realize its full potential [or get very reasonably close to that].  

For the vast majority of people who embrace technology, they believe that a.) technology is the end goal, or b.) technology is a panacea that can be thrown at any problem as a solution – e-education and the whole way its currently being done is one example of the latter. Most people do not get that it all begins with people, no matter what technology solution you may propose to solving a problem. Merely giving a child a computer pre-loaded with learning material will not solve our education crisis nor the world’s dearth of school leavers adequately skilled in maths and science. We’ve had this maths and science problem for over two centuries now – its just become more “in your face” towards the end of the last century due to the modern world’s increasing reliance on technology, hence the hype. It will take a “systems engineering” approach to solving this problem, amongst many others, and implicit in that is putting people at the center of any proposed solution [that hopes to have a reasonable chance of success].  

Around the time of Steve Jobs’ birthday, I found myself watching an old, hour long interview where Jobs was the interviewee. This interview took place a year before his second stint at Apple, while he was CEO of NeXT. He expressed a point very similar to the one I made above about the purpose of technology, and I think the story he shared and the analogy he used capture this point perfectly.  

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Jobs and Gates: incidentally the other IT wunderkind is also turning 60 this year.

The computer is to the human mind what the bicycle is to human motion
In this interview Jobs recounted a study published in Scientific American about the efficiency of locomotion of various species on the planet, including man i.e. which species covered the most distance per kilo-calorie of energy expended in moving from point A to B. According to that study, the most efficient species turned out to be the condor (a type of bird), while man fared relatively poorly in the rankings coming in a third of the way into the list. However, in the same study, the efficiency of man using a bicycle to move from point A to B was measured. The results were a massive improvement and man topped the chart by a big margin. Jobs juxtaposed the purpose of the bicycle, a tool for motion, to the function of a computer, a tool that speeds up computing and processing of information – a function of the human mind!  

The point is objects we deem as technology/technologically advanced objects are tools that exist to amplify human capabilities. The bicycle speeds up the time it takes to get from point A to B, with man only having to expend a fraction of the energy they would spend walking from point A to B. The computer has a similar purpose, it enables man to process complex and large amounts of information in a fraction of the time it would take people to do the same thing manually. Thus, resulting in various advantages.  

A good example is the US Air Force’s efforts at developing a stealth aircraft. The idea of stealth technology was initially conceptualized by Russian mathematicians in the 1920s. However, during the Cold War the Russians could not build on that knowledge to develop a stealth fighter aircraft because, they did not possess the tools (computers) to work out the complex mathematical equations needed to inform the design of such an aircraft. Juxtapose this fact to the engineers at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, who were based on the US west coast close to what we call Silicon Valley today. The access to abundant – and advancing – computing power enabled them to process these equations and ultimately gain the capabilities to develop stealth military aircraft. The resulting advantages the US Air Force gained was having stealth aircraft in their fleet and gaining 40years+ experience in operating these type of aircraft. The Russian Air Force on the other hand will introduce, into operation, their first stealth aircraft sometime in the next decade – about a century after Russian mathematicians bequeathed the country, and the world, this idea.  

To borrow from Maths… “The Fundamental Theory of Technology”
The points above illustrate, I believe, what the purpose of technology really is: tools that amplify or enable people to be more effective and efficient, and unleashing further potential. Therefore, technologies that aim to remove people from a particular process are dumb; technologies that aim to further empower users and put them at the center of a particular process are winners. That is why Apple keeps winning, and companies that espouse this value will continue to grow. Running counter to this, is the reason why Gold Fields’ South Deep gold mine fails to gain momentum; the company’s vision for South Deep was to replace workers with machines, not to empower workers to be more productive using 21st century technology. Its only during 2014 that someone realised that, “its the people, stupid!”

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