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In Defense of Dumb

Gadgets don't necessarily get better when you give them brains

3 min read

I am a technologist,” says Donald A. Norman in his brief and insightful book The Design of Future Things . ”I believe in ­making lives richer and more ­rewarding through use of science and ­technology. But that is not where our present path is taking us.”

Norman, a ­professor of ­electrical ­engineering and ­computer science at Northwestern Univer­sity, became famous for his book The Design of Everyday Things (first published in 1988 as The Psychology of Everyday Things ). In it he called for ”user-centered design,” a way to make everyday products easier to use and more foolproof. Now he turns to seemingly futuristic technologies that in fact may not be so far away. Many of Norman’s examples involve automobiles. For example, some new cars are now equipped with an adaptive form of the familiar cruise control. Like the old form, it keeps the car going at a constant speed; unlike the old form, it automatically slows the car when it gets too close to the car in front of it.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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