by Jay Johansen | Jul 7, 2015
Every now and then I see a list with a title like "coming (or recent) inventions that will change your life". I often question whether the technology to make these inventions reality is really there. But an even bigger question I often have is whether these inventions will really change my life. In many cases I doubt I'd cross a room to pick one up if someone was giving them away for free.
Often such lists include items that might be useful, but that are far too specialized or trivial to make a lot of difference.
One such list that I was just looking at included such life-changing items as a fork with a built-in motor to make the fork tines spin, making it easier to pick up spagetti. I don't know how well it really works in practice, but even if it's great, I wouldn't say that someting that saves me the effort of having to twist my fork all by myself while eating spagetti is going to "change my life".
Another item on that same list was a double bowl, one nested within the other, intended for use with nuts or berries: you put the item in the upper bowl, and then as you eat them you discard the shells or pits in the lower bowl. Cute, I suppose, but I've solved that problem in the past by having two bowls. Convenient? I guess. Life changing? Umm, no.
Some of these supposedly life-changing inventions seem to me to have no value at all.
No less than three lists of life-changing inventions that I found while working on this article included the same item: a toilet with a built-in light on the back of the rim so you can find it easily in the dark. I can't say I've ever had a problem with this. I have a clever little trick that I've used for years. I'll share it with you now absolutely free of charge: I turn on the bathroom light. I am hard pressed to think of a reason why I would want to go to the bathroom in the dark.
The inventions that amuse me the most are the ones that seem technically feasible, that is, they might really do what they promise, but where the inventor has apparently not considered how things work in the real world. They take some real-life challenge, solve some hugely simplified version of the problem, or some specialized sub-category of the problem, and apparently think that they've solved the real problem.
The "intelligent refrigerator" would read RFID chips so the refrigerator would always know what was in it. When a container is removed from the refrigerator and not put back, it concludes that that product is used up. It then periodically contacts an on-line grocery store over the Internet and orders replacements for the used-up items. Thus, the article gushed, you would be freed of the burden of making shopping lists. Your refrigerator will automatically not only make your shopping list for you, but order the items.
RFID chips are tiny radio transmitters put into many product containers today that broadcast a product code. Stores and warehouses have receivers that listen to these transmissions to know exactly what products they have in stock. About 45% of products manufactured in the U.S. today have RFID chips; I'd guess fewer for the kind of products you put in a refrigerator. So there might be a practical issue there. But whatever.
Let's just assume for the sake of argument that on-line grocery stores that will receive these shopping lists exist in your area or spring up as this technology spreads.
The huge catch is that it's not at all valid to assume that I want to automatically replace everything I put in my refrigerator and then use up. Yes, there are some foods that I cycle through regularly, like milk, bread, and eggs. But there are plenty of things that I buy only on special occasions. Like in my family, we pretty much only eat turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas. When we're having guests we'll buy larger quantities of food. I don't want to automatically replace the large quantity after the guests leave. Sometimes I buy things just to try them, and then we decide we don't particularly like them. Some foods, like fresh fruit, are only of good quality at a reasonable price at certain times of year. Etc. I suppose the computer could see that I bought an unusually large quantity of food this week and so that must be for some special occasion and should not be replaced. But how would it know how long family were staying for? How would it know whether we liked a food item that we had bought as an experiment? How would it know that someone in the family has started a new diet and so we'll be making a number of changes?
I could tell it, of course. It could have a complex set of rules that I must program in: These are foods we buy only on certain holidays or at certain times of year. We're having family visiting from this date to that date so all quantities should be increased, except Uncle Bob can't eat A, B, and C for medical reasons so don't increase the quantity of that and get D and E instead. We're having a party so we'll need extra of snack items and soft drinks. We're having friends for dinner so we not only want extra quantity but also higher quality cuts of meat. Etc.
At that point, it would surely be simpler to just chuck the whole automatic thing and say that I'll simply specify extra items or quantities or other changes when I want them. But that would mean that the whole idea of automatically ordering food would be out the window. I'd have to manually review the shopping list that it created every time, and delete the things I don't want to re-order and add other things that I want. At which point, what have I really gained? Okay, the magic refrigerator could tell me that I'm out of milk and eggs. But I can tell that by opening the door and looking in a couple of seconds.
Instead of keeping off the rain with a plastic or fabric canopy, the invisible umbrella uses a fan to create air pressure to push the rain away, creating a canopy of air.
Okay, cute. How is it better than an old-fashioned umbrella? I've never actually used one, so I don't know if it really works. But even assuming it does, so what? As people have long since figured out how to make umbrellas that fold up, the invisible umbrella is no more compact or portable than a regular umbrella. It requires a battery, and when the battery runs out its useless. Other than the golly-wow factor, does it have any advantages over a traditional umbrella?
Perhaps the best-known example of an over-hyped invention is the Segway. Before the Segway was on the market, reputable technology experts were saying that it would be bigger than the personal computer, bigger than the Internet, and that cities would be redesigned to accomodate it. As you probably know, this didn't happen. Why not?
The inventors and marketing people apparently never asked, "Who will use this product, and where?" It's not useful for long trips: It's far too slow and has a range of 12 to 24 miles before its batteries need to be recharged. It's not useful for shopping because it can't carry much of any cargo. It's not useful for taking children anywhere because it has no room for passengers. Theoretically you could use one for very light shopping -- where you're just picking up a couple of small items -- or appointments. But how would you get it to the store or office? It weighs almost a hundred pounds and has to be partially disassembled to fit in a car. The effort of taking it apart and putting it in the car, and then taking it out of the car and putting it back together, would likely outweigh any convenience. If you don't have the strength to walk around a store on your own, you don't have the strength to heft a hundred pound item in and out of the car.
So what's left? It's only really useful for people who have to regularly run around a large building, while not having to carry much. That is, around one large building, not moving from one building to another. So ... security guards at malls and warehouses. Messengers in big office buildings. Some people run Segway tours as an alternative to walking tours. That's about it.
I think the problem with a lot of these over-hyped inventions is that the inventors got all excited about what an interesting technical challenge it is to get this thing working, how much fun it would be to work on it, and forgot to ask who would buy it, and why.
Or they get caught up in how they can solve a theoretical problem, and ignore all the practicalities that come up in real life. There are lots of problems that are easy to solve if you take a simplified version and ignore all the things that really make it hard. Like the intelligent refrigerator example: If we assume that you always eat the same foods in the same quantities, that you never vary your menu for holidays or just to get some variety, that you never have guests or a party, etc, than we can produce automated shopping lists for you. But those assumptions are absurd.
There are a lot of inventions like this that I think, Wow, that sounds like it would have been a fun project to work on as an engineer. But I wouldn't want to be the salesman.
© 2015 by Jay Johansen
geek17 Jul 11, 2015
Another problem with the intelligent refrigerator: You often don't want to wait until a container is empty before buying a new one. I keep a tub of margarine in my refrigerator. If the refrigerator waits until I throw away that tub, then adds margarine to the shopping list, then it sends the list off to the grocery web site a couple of days later, then there's another day or two until I really get the groceries, I'm going several days with no margarine. In real life I buy a new one when the current one looks like it's getting low but before it's empty. Same for milk, eggs, bread, lots of things.
sally Jul 11, 2015
You say "two examples" and then you give three.
Jay Johansen Aug 20, 2019
@sally: There are 3 kinds of people in the world: Those who can count, and those who can't.