Research and development is being wasted while our society seeks solutions for its most pressing problems
It’s finally here, folks. What we’ve all been waiting for. The very cutting-edge of human engineering and scientific research. Yes – it’s the voice-activated selfie feature! Available only with the Pixel 2 and Google Assistant smartphone.
No, but really. One wonders what was going through the minds of Google Executives when they signed off this product. Anyone who runs a business will know how much time, effort and money it takes to develop and launch a new product that you are sure your customers will want to buy.
Here’s a few educated guesses on what Google must have mobilised:
Firstly, product engineers – to ensure the phone casing was suitably ergonomic enough for the selfie-takers. Secondly, software engineers – to design, test and roll out the software to ensure every human-speakable version of the haunting phrase “take a selfie” would be recognisable. Thirdly, marketing & branding teams – to devise the most creative way (see featured image) to sell the feature to new customers who probably already have a smartphone but are willing to part cash to replace it prematurely, so they never have to tap a button to take a selfie in their life again. And following thousands of hours spent on product conceptualisation, development and testing, the latest must-have gift to buy for your friend or family member is born!
The combined intellectual efforts of the research and development department (R&D), the creative efforts of marketing consultants, and the financial resources of Google – one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world – cannot seem to think of a better way to direct the efforts of its resources and staff.
Weapons or wind turbines?
I struggled with this question while at university studying Mechanical Engineering. In my final year I watched many of my fellow students apply to and go on to work for Defence Sector corporations to design and make missile systems, tanks and military jet engines. I wondered if they spared a thought for where the products they were making would eventually be used.
And why were they attracted to these companies? The answer, of course, was that companies like BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics could afford to pay vastly higher starting salaries to graduates to design and make weapons to kill people, than, say, an R&D engineer for Vestas, Siemens or Goldwind to design and make wind turbine blades to better harness renewable energy (even though the skills needed for both are quite similar).
Time is of the essence
Whether we like it or not, as a society we collectively have limited resources – financial and intellectual – and it’s up to us to decide where to spend it.
We pay marketing & branding consultants millions of pounds to think up adverts designed to sell products that people simply don’t need, while forgetting our social responsibility to design marketing campaigns than encourage us to cook healthier dishes to address childhood obesity or produce less waste to reduce landfill.
We pay software programmers to design yet more video games that teach kids to shoot their enemies or steal cars, while we fail to spend those same software programming efforts to produce software that helps children engage in creative art or explore their career pursuits.
What’s more, we pay engineers billions of pounds to develop submarines that can fire nuclear missiles, or we support in the creation of fighter jets and training programmes for shady Middle Eastern governments, when we can take a fraction of that money and knowledge to pay engineers to develop water systems that do not leak, to work on more efficient public transportation systems or to roll out solar energy in lesser-developed countries faster. In the words of the late British politician Tony Benn, “If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.”
As a collective society – from the Private Sector to Governments to NGOs – we choose where to spend our limited financial and intellectual resources. There are literally thousands of products and ideas waiting to be developed, tested and produced to help humanity develop and advance. The voice-activated selfie is perhaps not one of them.
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