Tuesday 23 July 2019

Mobile phone inventor calls for sector to smarten up

Inventor Marty Cooper is jetting in for technology conference Photo: Doc Searls
Inventor Marty Cooper is jetting in for technology conference Photo: Doc Searls

One of the world's greatest living inventors is thinking about a new device. "I'm wondering about a translator for the Irish brogue," he says, from his home in California. "I have an Irish friend who rings me up. I have to tell him to slow down and it's then that I always think I could really use the functions of a digital Irish translator."

If anyone could do it, it's probably Marty Cooper. Forty years and one month ago, Cooper showed off a radical invention to the world: the mobile phone. It was a Gordon Gekko style unit, manufactured by his then employer, Motorola. People said he was crazy. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that mobile phones would only ever be needed by a few thousand technical people. Now, 40 years later, most Western countries have more phones than people.

Cooper himself uses mostly Android phones, now.

"I have a (Motorola) Moto X which I can use it to call by voice and because it tries to adapt to my personality without being obtrusive," he says.

"But I think phone manufacturers still have a long, long way to go to make anything close to a perfect phone. For example, having a phone with a million apps is ludicrous. So the first principle has to be customisation. A phone ought to ask simple questions and look at your habits."

Although now aged 85, Cooper shows little sign of retirement. He is chairman of a US telecoms firm, Dyna, and advises US government bodies on telecoms policy.

He is also a keen advocate of education reform. Later this month, he will be one of several keynote speakers at a two-day digital education conference in Dublin called 'Excited'.

"I really believe that we're on the verge of seeing an education revolution," says Cooper.

"It's almost pointless for a professor to stand in front of a class and teach when students have iPads and tablets and all the information in the world. They can learn a lot faster and more frequently outside the classroom. I think we're getting to a point where classrooms should be reserved for collaboration. With the right tools, we're going to end up with a smarter population."

This echoes a point that the digital educationalist and founder of KhanAcademy.org, Salman Khan, made to the Irish Independent last month: classroom time should be reserved for expert assistance rather than primary information dissemination.

"I call it the flip classroom or the inverted classroom," says Cooper. "Its most important requirement is something that captures the attention of the student as an individual and not as a statistic."

Although educational reform in a country like Ireland – where tweaking a single exam causes industrial unrest – might appear to be an uphill battle, other public policy matters currently interest Cooper. He recently weighed in on the issue of using phones in cars.

"I think the whole idea of people texting while they're driving is insane," he says. "I can't think of anything more dangerous."

Cooper being Cooper, he has a solution.

"There is a technology that I was involved in that can focus radio frequency energy at a specific point in space at a very low cost," he says.

"In other words, you can focus on a single area around a car driver's headspace. And any phone in that area cannot dial or text or receive messages. Every car could be configured with this device for no more than a few dollars per vehicle."

He says that he's open to further discussion on the issue, if anyone asks.

"If you're an inventor, you try and solve a problem," he says.

Cooper now has many honours to his name. He even has a telecoms 'law' named after him. 'Cooper's Law' states that the number of phone calls – or other transactions – made in a single tranche of radio spectrum doubles every two and a half years.

Being an expert on spectrum management exposes Cooper to other areas of existing telecoms controversy. One of these is 'net neutrality', the endangered principle whereby telecoms operators are not allowed to favour one website's traffic over another for money or any other consideration. (See column below.)

"You have to have an opinion in it," says Cooper. "This thing about establishing a reasonable price... Nobody knows how to establish a reasonable price. So I think it's a little premature. Anyway, there has to be a better priority on how to use the internet than cost and price. So before we tamper with net neutrality, we need to increase the capacity of the internet so that anybody who wants access to anything can have it. It's about priorities."

Although Cooper's work obligations are limited to one or two events here, he intends to spend a week in Ireland.

"It's my first time. I'll be in Dublin and I'm going to the west (to Achill Island). I've a feeling I might need that translator."


* Marty Cooper will be speaking at a two-day digital education conference in Dublin Castle on May 30 and 31. The event, called 'Excited', describes itself as "a digital learning movement for innovation and inspiration in digital learning". Other speakers include Oscar-winning producer David Puttnam and Rene Tristan Lidiksen, managing director of LEGO Education Europe. Further inform tion at www.excited.ie. This event is supported by the Irish Independent.

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