The Economist released a fascinating series of articles in their Technology Quarterly issue this week. Despite traversing many technology disciplines, a common thread ties together many of the articles: the search for inexpensive, simple solutions to problems previously solved by high technology.
- The costs of high power transmitters inhibits sensing structural vibrations on buildings and bridges. Students at Berkeley reduced cost by 85 to 96% by using mesh networking to transmit data from sensor to sensor, totaling about 50 hops to eliminate the need for a high power transmitter.
- Modular nuclear reactors replace one massive 2 gigawatt reactor with several smaller, cookie cutter 500 megawatt reactors. These smaller reactors are less complex, modular to enable rapid expansion based on power demand and 50% cheaper to produce. A bit of trivia: there is only one machine in Japan which can manufacture gigawatt nuclear reactors.
- The US military, among others, is purchasing turboprop planes to replace jet fighters. Turboprops are 16 times cheaper to buy and operate, much more resilient to antiaircraft fire, and can be built and repaired by an entry level machinist. Moreover, they solve the needs of fighting wars where the opposing military has no air force.
- A 30 year longitudinal study of aspirin demonstrated regular doses reduces cancer risk by 20% at less than one dollar per year. Compare that effectiveness of aspirin, discovered by the Greeks who used the extract of the willow tree to treat pain 3000 years ago, to Avastin, a $6B drug with more than $2B invested in development over a decade with questionable effectiveness at $7500 per pill.
Simplicity works. Occam would be proud.