Wireless can change the world — just ask Marty Cooper
LAS VEGAS — The man who changed the world by leading the team that invented the cellular phone three decades ago yesterday challenged the wireless industry to harness its collective power to change it again.
Indeed, Marty Cooper not only changed the world, it could be argued that he turned it upside down. If you doubt the veracity of this statement, just look out your window. What you will see are people tethered to their mobile devices, incessantly chatting, texting and in many cases e-mailing, watching video and all sorts of other things. Cooper said in a keynote address he delivered yesterday at the International Wireless Communications Exposition (IWCE 2012) that there are roughly 5 billion cellular phones in use worldwide, nearly one for every person on the planet. "No consumer device ever has that kind of penetration," he said.
Cooper shared some history about how the cellular phone was born. Motorola, for whom Cooper was toiling, was in a race with AT&T to develop such a device. According to Cooper, AT&T's approach to mobility was focused on the car phone.
"There was a time when our phones chained us to our desks," Cooper said. "Cellular telephony was supposed to set us free, but the phone company wanted to tie us to our cars."
He was confident that he knew a better way, and history shows that he was correct. But the ability to communicate whenever, wherever, is just the tip of the iceberg in Cooper's mind. He suggested that wireless technology could have a profound impact on medical care in the U.S. — and needs to.
"Currently, we're spending 20% of our GNP on medical care … and that's going to creep up to 30% in the next five to 10 years," Cooper said. "We can't sustain that."
The solution is to use wireless technology to prevent disease, which is in stark contrast to the medical community's current focus, which is to cure disease. "Every disease is preventable, if there was a way to sense it early enough to nip it in the bud," Cooper said.
It's already beginning to happen. Cooper showed the audience two wearable patches that transmit biometric data collected from the wearer. One can alert a wearer — and, more importantly, his doctor — that he is about to suffer congestive heart failure — 12 hours before it happens, which is ample time to take remedial measures to prevent a catastrophe. Not only would a life be saved, but also a lengthy hospital stay might be avoided, which circles back to Cooper's point about the mounting cost of health care.
But there's an even bigger problem — poverty — that Cooper thinks can be attacked using wireless broadband. "One solution to addressing poverty would be to somehow redistribute the world's wealth," he said. "But much better would be to make the pie bigger, and we have the tools to do this. That's the next revolution."
For instance, Cooper suggested that such technologies will make collaboration easier and more effective, so that organizations can assign the best people to the task, regardless of what it is. Perhaps more important is that such technologies will enable them to hire the best people no matter where they are. This already is beginning to happen. Recently, I stumbled upon an item about IBM holding an online virtual job fair to staff its African operations. In a similar vein, wireless broadband will take education to a new level, by making information and instruction available to those who want it, on a 24/7 basis, no matter where they call home.
At one point, Cooper held up the device that started it all, the very first cellular phone, which weighed 2.5 pounds. It also had a battery life of only 20 minutes. "That really wasn't a problem," Cooper joked. "You couldn't hold this thing up for 20 minutes."
I and some of my colleagues had the privilege of having dinner with Cooper the evening before his keynote. If you are fortunate to spend any time with him, you will find him to be a very humble man. He joked that he had a difficult time years ago trying to get his mother to understand what a wireless engineer did. "She was hoping for a doctor, lawyer or astrophysicist," he deadpanned.
For my money, doctors, lawyers and even astrophysicists are a dime a dozen. Being the father of the cell phone is another matter entirely. After all, how many people honestly can say that they truly changed the world? Cooper can — even though you likely won't hear him say it.
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