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Broadening Technology’s Reach

Researchers should switch from the race for the best to bringing new technologies to rest.
August 19, 2008

We have become obsessed with the extreme. To be interesting, a tech­nology must be the fastest, the smallest, the biggest, the thinnest, the highest precision, or the lowest tolerance. We often invest immense resources in achieving these extremes. And while such work is essential to the progress of science and technology, its high cost has the unfortunate result that only a tiny fraction of the world can participate in it or benefit from the results.

When focusing purely on research goals, it is all too easy to overlook opportunities for reducing cost or eliminating complexity, because pursuing them might lower performance. But simple ideas that trade a bit of performance for a substantial saving in cost can have surprising and often powerful results both scientifically and socially. Finding ways to put new capabilities within the reach of thousands–or millions–more people than was previously possible creates change on an immeasurable scale. Even beyond the direct bene­fits of usage are the indirect consequences of giving ­people power they never thought they would have. More people means more ideas–always a good thing in science. People become inspired. They become excited about exploring the potential of their new abilities. They choose to participate, to contribute, to create, to share with those who are like themselves.

I realize that I have not cited any specific examples. This is because I want to encourage you to think about how this idea could be applied in your own work, whether you are doing fundamental research or developing commercial products. Try asking yourself, “Would providing 80 percent of the capability at 1 percent of the cost be valuable to someone?” If the answer is yes, perhaps it is worth exploring whether that goal could be realized using alternative approaches.

Of course, the impact of a technology depends greatly on the context of its application. But I can say that I have been fortunate enough to witness several occasions when my own work had broad effects. And the diverse types of research and development that have benefited from the principle of dramatic simplification continue to surprise me. While it may not always be possible to apply that principle in your field, you can take pride in any effort you make to share the vast technological capabilities you possess.

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