Fundamentally, the goal of humankind is to save time – Marcus Weldon

7 Jul 2017

Marcus Weldon, president, Bell Labs, and corporate CTO, Nokia. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Every invention and every technological revolution have come about to achieve one thing, according to Bell Labs’ president: save time.

What’s the greatest ever idea posed by creators of science-fiction? Is it aliens visiting Earth? Humans developing superpowers? Time travel?

The latter could well be the answer, with Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs, adamant that saving time (or even creating time) is humanity’s sole goal.

Speaking at Inspirefest, Weldon argued that every single invention has come about with one ultimate aim: create time.

A car, for example, gets us from A to B faster than walking. This saves time and, in that saved time, we can be more productive. Planes could be considered the same, with Weldon noting the printing press as a perfect example of time-saving done right. Even NASA’s Hubble Telescope was mentioned.

“What’s the alternative to seeing somewhere? Going somewhere,” he said, claiming Hubble’s gaze and zoom reveal places to us 5,000-times faster than any tangible, travelling alternative.

Leading Bell Labs is no easy task, with the 92-year-old company at the forefront of invention and innovation. Even though it has been lauded with Nobel prizes, national medals of science and technology, Grammys, Emmys and Oscars throughout its history, Weldon thinks of these awards as mere luck.

“We win them by accident,” he said. “What we try to do is solve the problems that confront humanity. How does humanity have to exist, or how should it exist, in the future?

“What is it that humans should be doing then, to live better existences? We look at the technical problems that exist, and we solve those. When you do that, you win Nobel prizes.”

The particularly interesting thing about how Weldon and Bell Labs see the world in 10 to 20 years, is that it will be “a creative, aesthetic, humanistic” environment. Claiming we’re not in that world yet, Weldon thinks instead we’re in a “techie world”, one which is not really helping us prosper.

“Technology is acting like a drug dealer, making us more consumed by data and applications that, perhaps, aren’t providing pre-eminent human value.” They’re addictive, but they are a distraction.

So the next revolution will see some big changes, led by internet of things, big data and artificial intelligence. Fundamentally, Weldon said, this will again be about automating things, as with previous revolutions.

“What we’re going to automate, though, is the mundane things, not the creative things. Machines are good at doing repetitive things, not creative things. That’s the one thing humans are good at.

“Why do you automate? To create time. That is the only reason.”

Then, with that freed-up time, we get to do everything else.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic