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The Other News Round-Up: The mother of invention

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the left-of-centre news from South Africa and the world. This week: inventions – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s also a matter of opinion and circumstance. In the last few days, it’s been reported that researchers in Singapore developed “virtual” lemonade, which is probably not a life-saving invention unless one is a virtual diabetic in a virtual reality game, sitting in a virtual desert with virtual low blood sugar. Or if life is so bad it hasn’t even handed you the proverbial lemon.

Nonetheless, these inventors found a way to combine electrodes and LED lights to simulate the experience of drinking lemonade, which Pakistan Today says “could one day allow people to digitally share drinks over the internet”. Or which could allow dieters to experience the same sensation as eating or drinking high-calorie treats with zero calories, which I find only slightly less disconcerting than the idea of love-struck teens abandoning the traditional Formica booth to share a good old-fashioned milkshake date via electrode. Puts a new spin on your Archie comics, doesn’t it?

In Japan, meanwhile, the brain is telling a story of a different kind, and it’s a compelling one. The Toyohashi University of Technology released a statement saying it has found a way to (sort of) read people’s minds, with life-changing potential for people with locked-in syndrome. The Independent called it “only partially effective”; rather rude, I thought, considering it had a 90% success rate when trying to recognise numbers from zero to nine. Researchers said a device, or “brain-computer interface”, to read people’s thoughts and communicate them effectively to others, was possible in the near future. Which – judging by the number of pointless arguments people get into on the internet – suggests it may be useful for people without locked-in syndrome as well.

So yes, necessity is in the eye of the beholder. Or the nose, as it turns out. A couple of other strange inventions have drifted in and out of the headlines in recent weeks, months and years: A little less recently, designer Dominic Wilcox came up with the face-mounted nose stylus, which would allow smartphone users to use their devices hands-free. Wilcox – like Archimedes before him – made his discovery in the bath, when he realised it wasn’t ideal to swipe with wet fingers. Initially, he tweeted with just his nose, but that didn’t work either, reported

“In Wilcox’s inaugural nose-tweet from the bath, he wanted to type ‘Hello I am tweeting with my nose’, but due to the phone’s auto-correct it came out as ‘hello I am meeting with my nose’,” the publication reported. “Apparently this caused him to lose two Twitter followers.”

Then there is Google’s car glue, an awkward mix of Halloween movie and good intention, which allows pedestrians to stick to the bonnet of a car rather than being run over in the event of a crash. HushMe, God’s gift to many an office worker, a neckband that muffles loud phone conversations. A washable caddy to end the mystery of missing and mismatched socks. (And here I was relying on my elastic bands.) A baby monitor for piglets. (Depressing reading: they’ll be slaughtered later.)

Going back a little further, there are those ideas that worked (the wheel, the ancient Greek alarm clock) and those that didn’t: Texas inventor James Williams’ ill-fated mousetrap pistol of 1882, which reportedly took its inspiration from the burglar alarms of the time. (Pity the burglars, too.) Several years before spring-loaded traps were used, Williams loaded his trusty .50 calibre onto a lever “so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached”. For some reason, few customers bit. Equally strange, perhaps, the 1930s revolver camera, which took a photo every time the trigger was pulled (a friendly reminder? A souvenir? Receipt for assassins?)

Why do we invent? To make life better, certainly. These school pupils verbalised the need to improve the lives of others, making everything from a first aid kit vending machine to a delivery slide from household objects. But scientists are also examining it on a deeper, evolutionary level, more deeply ingrained than we could have imagined. Santa Fe Institute researchers have been holding a series of meetings in recent years to investigate the subject of invention, culminating in an upcoming conference. reports that theoretical biologist and historian of science Professor Manfred Laublicher and his Arizona State University colleague Jose Lobo are working towards understanding “the appearance and persistence of novelty in an April workshop, during which they hope to begin formalising a general theory of invention”.

“This theory, they expect, would offer an overarching framework that encompasses evolutionary steps in biology and chemistry, technological breakthroughs, and cultural revolutions,” explains the report. This model will tie together seemingly disparate patterns; specifically because “not all of necessity’s offspring bear obvious likenesses. Superficially, the new-fangled gadget for your smart phone seems pretty far removed from a bird species’ unique beak”.

“At SFI, we are always looking to take qualitative insights and make quantifiable, predictive models,” adds Laublicher. And these predictable models, which we find in modern innovations, can be seen in natural evolution as well.

The idea is that – regardless of enduring success or failure, or superficial appearances – the process of invention follows certain pathways. Underlying patterns exist, across inventions in technology and biology, culture and economics. And it’s this that in the upcoming workshops, Laublicher and Lobo will attempt to model with researchers from biology, chemistry, physics, anthropology, engineering and economics.

“Truly new ideas are rare,” argues the report. “Most inventions are recombinations of past inventions. A smart phone, for example, is a merger of a telephone, a camera, and a data processor, among other core technologies.”

A fuller understanding of invention – a model of its processes – could isolate what creates genuine novelty, believe Laublicher and Lobo. Which could help analyse which inventions survive and which don’t. And, more importantly, help understand which conditions should be reproduced in order to create truly novel, truly life-changing inventions. Now that – not necessity – might be the mother of invention. DM


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