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First mobile phone made 75 years ago; what it takes for tech to go from breakthrough to big time

By Daniel Bliss for The Free Press Journal

I have a cellphone built into my watch.

People now take this type of technology for granted, but not so long ago it was firmly in the realm of science fiction. The transition from fantasy to reality was far from the flip of a switch. The amount of time, money, talent and effort required to put a telephone on my wrist spanned far beyond any one product development cycle.

The people who crossed a wristwatch with a cellphone worked hard for several years to make it happen, but technology development really occurs on a timescale of decades.

While the last steps of technological development capture headlines, it takes thousands of scientists and engineers working for decades on myriad technologies to get to the point where blockbuster products begin to capture the public’s imagination.

The first mobile phone service, for 80-pound telephones installed in cars, was demonstrated on June 17, 1946, 75 years ago. The service was only available in major cities and highway corridors and was aimed at companies rather than individuals. The equipment filled much of a car’s trunk, and subscribers made calls by picking up the handset and speaking to a switchboard operator. By 1948, the service had 5,000 customers.

The first handheld mobile phone was demonstrated in 1973, nearly three decades after the introduction of the first mobile phone service. It was nearly three decades after that before half the U.S. population had a mobile phone.

Big history in small packages

As an electrical engineer, I know that today’s mobile phone technology has a remarkable number of components, each with a long development path. The phone has antennas and electronics that allow signals to be transmitted and received. It has a specialized computer processor that uses advanced algorithms to convert information to signals that can be transmitted over the air. These algorithms have hundreds of component algorithms. Each of these pieces of technology and many more have development histories that span decades.

A common thread running through the evolution of virtually all electronic technologies is miniaturisation. The radio transmitters, computer processors and batteries at the heart of your cellphone are the descendants of generations of these technologies that grew successively smaller and lighter.

The phone itself would not be of much use without cellular base stations and all the network infrastructure that is behind them. The first mobile phone services used small numbers of large radio towers, which meant that all the subscribers in a big city shared one central base station. This was not a recipe for universal mobile phone service.

Engineers began working on a concept to overcome this problem at about the time the first mobile phone services went live, and it took nearly four decades to roll out the first cellular phone service in 1983. Cellular service involves interconnected networks of smaller radio transceivers that hand off moving callers from one transceiver to another.

Military necessity

Your cellphone is a result of over a hundred years of commercial and government investment in research and development in all of its components and related technologies. A significant portion of the cutting-edge development has been funded by the military.

A major impetus for developing mobile wireless technologies was the need during World War II for troops to communicate on the move in the field. The SRC-536 Handie-Talkie was developed by the predecessor to Motorola Corporation and used by the US Army in the war. The Handie-Talkie was a two-way radio that was small enough to be held in one hand and resembled a telephone. Motorola went on to become one of the major manufacturers of cellphones.

The story of military investment in technology becoming game-changing commercial products and services has been repeated again and again. Famously, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed the technologies behind the internet and speech recognition. But DARPA also made enabling investments in advanced communications algorithms, processor technology, electronics miniaturisation and many other aspects of your phone.

Looking forward

By realising that it takes many decades of research and investment to develop each generation of technology, it’s possible to get a sense of what might be coming. Today’s communications technologies – 5G, WiFi, Bluetooth, and so on – are fixed standards, meaning they are each designed for a single purpose. But over the last 30 years, the Department of Defence and corporations have been investing in technologies that are more capable and flexible.

Your phone of the near future might not only fluidly signal in ways that are more efficient, enable longer ranges or higher data rates, or last significantly longer on a charge, it might also use that radiofrequency energy to perform other functions. For example, your communications signal could also be used as a radar signal to track your hand gestures to control your phone, measure the size of a room, or even monitor your heart rate to predict cardiac distress.

It is always difficult to predict where technology will go, but I can guarantee that future technology will build on decades upon decades of research and development.

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Speech recognition technology translates brain waves into sentences

By DRS. NORBERT HERZOG AND DAVID NIESEL for Galveston County The Daily News

I remember many years ago when speech recognition software was introduced. It was astounding. Spoken words appeared on your computer screen without the assistance of a keyboard. This was an amazing innovation at the time.

Recent studies have taken this a step further: translating brain waves into complete sentences. Scientists report the error rate is as low as 3 percent, which is much better than my speech-to-text software many years ago.

Although we still don’t know much about how the brain works, we’re making some significant progress at understanding some of its complex functions. For example, scientists have been able to map our memories to precise regions of the brain.

In animal models, scientists identified the brain cells where specific memories were stored and then altered them by manipulating those cells. This is amazing, and it may sound to some like the beginnings of making “The Manchurian Candidate” a reality.

In other work, we’re beginning to be able to harness brain waves or signals for practical use to help people who’ve become incapacitated. Recall the media stories on paralyzed patients who can use their thoughts to control a sophisticated mechanical arm to feed themselves or move objects. This ability to use the brain to interact with the outside world holds great promise for humans in restoring lost functions.

Some recent work has achieved yet another leap forward. Scientists have developed a way of decoding sentences by examining brainwaves, also called neural signals. This is a challenge that scientists have been working on for many years.

Previous studies explored translating brain waves into words using the component sounds, or phonemes, that make up words which was subject to a high error rate. For this work, they used an approach that has been successfully used for years in the translation between different languages. This uses neural networks, which is an incredibly accurate system. It’s the same technology as the language translation apps on your smartphone.

For the study, the scientists used electrodes in subjects to read their brainwaves. The subjects read sentences while the electrodes recorded their brain waves into a computer. The scientists set the neural network in the computer to use the brainwaves as the first language, and they set the sentences the subjects read as the second language. Brilliant.

After this, the computer could translate brain waves just like another language. The accuracy of the translation was as good as what you could expect from professional language translators. In the study, the subjects read 50 sentences that had about 250 unique words.

The technique will have to be expanded to include more words and phrases. One promising attribute was that the machine learning was trainable, meaning that accuracy improved after pretraining the machine software. The machine learning also was transferable person to person, so a system could pre-learn brain waves that would work for different people.

As you can imagine, this would be a huge advance to help disabled people who have lost the ability to speak. Look for many more advances in this area soon.