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Monday, April 18, 2005

Triumph of Technology

Every year the BBC broadcasts a series of radio lectures by a distinguished speaker, known as the Reith Lectures. The lectures for 2005 are called The Triumph of Technology, and are given by the engineer Lord Broers. Transcripts, audio and podcasting are available after each broadcast from the BBC website.

The BBC is currently running a popular vote to identify the greatest invention of the last 200 years. Lord Broers' vote goes to the transistor.

At the end of the second lecture (April 13th), Lord Broers was asked to predict the most important innovation of the next 50 years. He suggested that it would be really useful to have a laptop computer that you could roll up and put in your pocket, like a newspaper. Well, that would be nice, but hardly seems to rank in importance with the great innovations of the past. Elsewhere, there are more ambitious (and perhaps more interesting) predictions. For example, Hans Moravec, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, expects robotics to develop in interesting ways.

"Robot controllers double in complexity (processing power) every year or two. They are now barely at the lower range of vertebrate complexity, but should catch up with us within a half-century. By 2050 I predict that there will be robots with humanlike mental power, with the ability to abstract and generalise." (Guardian, April 14th, 2005)

In his second lecture (April 13th), Lord Broers talked about Collaboration. His main thesis was that technological progress comes from distributed teams of different experts, working at the leading edge of a given field. There is apparently no room in Lord Broers' world for the enclosed laboratory, with researchers working in isolation from their peers. But there is perhaps also no room for the gifted maverick or the chance discovery, or for the complex social processes described by W.E. Bijker in Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (MIT 1995).

Lord Broers' third lecture (April 20th) was on Innovation and Management.

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