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The future of the cell phone, according to the man who invented it

Martin Cooper on 5G, AI, and why sometimes in tech it's helpful to have an enemy.

Martin Cooper

Martin Cooper with his original DynaTAC cell phone.

Photo: Ted Soqui/Getty Images

Martin Cooper helped invent one of the most consequential and successful products in history: the cell phone. And almost five decades after he made the first public cell phone call, on a 2-pound brick of a device called the DynaTAC, he's written a book about his career called "Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity." In it he tells the story of the cell phone's invention, and looks at how it has changed the world and will continue to do so.

Cooper came on the Source Code Podcast to talk about his time at Motorola, the process of designing the first-ever cell phone, whether today's tech giants are monopolies and why he's bullish on the future of AI.

The following excerpts from our conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

I want to get to the phones, but before we do I want to talk about pagers, because I have this deep obsession with pagers. I think pagers are a much better example of the direct predecessor to the cell phone than landlines. Even though you couldn't make phone calls, it seems like spiritually, pagers were cell phones before they were cell phones. You made pagers, and they were huge. And I guess my big question is, why didn't pagers get their due? We kind of skip over them, but it feels like they were a big thing.

Well they were, at the time we did it. In the U.S. there were, at the peak, over 50 million pagers. And the principle is freedom. Our biggest customers were people like doctors, who were trapped next to their patients because they have to be available. And the pager set them free! They could go play a game of golf and know that they could get a beep and be at the hospital at 10 minutes. So the concept of freedom, I don't want to beat it to death, is really the essence of what portability is.

And since you brought the subject up, one of the battles that I'm engaged in today has to do with education and the need for broadband for education. And the solution that the FCC is proposing is wired broadband. Cable! We're going through the same thing all over again. And I am trying to persuade them that if you want to solve the digital divide in education, it's going to have to be with wireless broadband.

I agree. And one of the other things you're involved in right now is 5G stuff, right? I spend all of my time talking to people in tech who are, let's say, overzealous about the potential of 5G. Everybody has spent five years telling me that 5G is going to change everything, that it's the panacea of technology, and I'm not sure that I see it. Tell me what you think about 5G: Is it as big of a change in how all of this stuff works as some people like to make it out to be?

Not really. I think you put your finger on it: 5G is an incremental change. It introduces a couple of new capabilities to what existed in 4G. One of them is the use of millimeter-wave where there is a much bigger bandwidth, but a big handicap is the fact that the millimeter waves don't travel very far. There are other things that are done that reduce latency.

So it turns out that those two characteristics — very high speeds and low latency — are very useful in things like running a robot. If you've got a factory and you want to run robots, you're going to need those kinds of things. Unfortunately, for people like you and me, 5G does essentially nothing. You have to understand, I think 5G is a wonderful thing, and we have to keep progressing. But I don't appreciate being deluded. And the carriers have done that: They talk about having remote operations and autonomous cars and things of that nature. And guess who's paying for the 5G? It's you and me.

OK, let's go back and talk about the DynaTAC stuff. My favorite scene in the book was when you're at a restaurant in Chicago, and a bunch of people have brought you prototypes of this cell phone. And nobody has any idea what a cell phone is supposed to look like. What's that day like?

Well, you have to start at the beginning of that, because two weeks previously, I approached Rudy Krolopp. Now, Rudy didn't work for me. He ran the Industrial Design Group for this division. But he was a visionary. I told him where we were going to build a cell phone, and he said, "What's a cell phone?" And I described what a portable phone was like, and he reassigned all the people in his group to come up with their concept of what this portable phone might look like. And so I felt I had to reward them in some way. And that's why I invited them to dinner.

Each of these guys got up and presented what his vision was, of what a portable phone would look like. And they all ended up being a vision of what actually happened. There was a slide phone, there was a flip phone, and there was what they call a capsule phone. These guys were just remarkable.

We ended up picking what we called the shoe phone — for obvious reasons — because it was simple.

You say you picked the shoe phone because it was simple, but it doesn't seem like it would necessarily be obvious that it was simple, because again, nobody had ever done this before. Most of the parts that were required didn't really exist yet. What's your criteria for thinking, "this is the one we can do?"

It was mechanically simple. It was just the box. Anytime you put hinges and sliders, things of that nature, they're going to break. We actually ended up all agreeing that this was the way to go. And I wanted to make sure that I appreciated the efforts of these other guys. So even though I picked this one, we selected this as a group. Everybody agreed that this is the way to go.

I guess it makes sense to say, "We have to invent 1,000 things just to make this work. Why invent 1,001 that we don't have to?"

That's exactly right. [Pulls an original DynaTAC model out.] Calling this "simple" … the insides of this phone are incredibly complex, much more so than a modern phone. A modern phone has a million times the power of this box that we're looking at now. But the complexity, the number of parts — there are like 10 times more parts in the old phone, and they were all hand-soldered together. It's close to a miracle that we got one to work. And they actually got two to work!

The timing of all this is interesting to me, because you're in the middle of this fight against AT&T. It seems like there was something about that fight, and that moment, that made this whole project go. And I was wondering, if Motorola had been super successful, doing fine, under no real threat from AT&T and the FCC, does a project like this happen? Or does it take this kind of existential threat to push something like the phone forward?

How could I ever have persuaded my management to start investing? They ended up pretty much betting the company, between 1969 when the Bell System announced their desire to continue their monopoly on cellular, and 1983 when we actually have service. This battle that we engaged in lasted 13 to 14 years, and the company spent $100 million of 1970 dollars. So how would I ever have persuaded them, if we didn't have an enemy? If we didn't have to bet our whole company against them, because they would have put us out of business?

You really don't think you could have pulled it off by yourself? You had a lot of power and trust and autonomy at Motorola.

We would have come up with a phone, but getting the FCC to move really took a huge amount of effort. The Bell System had 200 lobbyists calling on the FCC alone. They had two guys assigned to each of the nine commissioners. At that time, our total lobbyists force in Washington was three guys, who called on the FCC, the Congress and all the government agencies. So it really took that kind of challenge to make this thing happen.

So let's talk about monopolies. You've truly been in the center of fighting against one, and now we're having these same arguments again, about Google and Amazon and Apple and Facebook. What do you make about the antitrust fight happening right now? Does it rhyme with history to you, as you see all this stuff happening?

It's a different problem. But it's still a problem.

There's no question in my mind that some of the practices that Google and Amazon exercise are anti-competitive. And so we've got to do something about it. But there's a difference between that and a regulated monopoly where the government decides what the price is going to be and the monopoly just makes all the decisions, and they have no competitive pressures. That's what Bell Systems did.

The whole process was different. Bell Labs — which by the way, was an extraordinary organization — had all the funding that they wanted, because they had a monopoly supporting them. And they would invent something, and they would think, "Oh, this is interesting, let's make a product." And they would turn the product over to Western Electric, which was part of the monopoly, and they would make them all and then they would turn that over to the operating companies. And the operating companies would come to you and say, "David, this is what you want, right?"

That's exactly backwards from what we do today. Marketers today look at what people need and want, what problems they solve and they work backwards through that process. The research guys work on, hopefully, what are going to solve human problems.

But then on the flip side, then come questions about how power works differently. And especially as we get to privacy and data collection and all this stuff. Bell Systems felt like a monopoly: You could just look at it and be like, "this is clearly a monopoly." It feels messier now, but maybe not any less consequential.

I think the real problem is not Google and Facebook and Amazon. It's the people that think they're getting something for nothing. They're not getting anything free, they're giving up their information, which has value, and they're getting less value in return. When people start realizing that and that they have alternatives, the problem is going to get solved. So once again, it sounds like I'm being overly optimistic. And it may be that the government has to intervene in the process, but the real solution there is education.

Speaking of the privacy and society side of all of this, when you were in the early days of the cell phone, were you thinking about "what does it mean for society when everyone has a phone like this?" You wrote the book that you imagined that when everybody was born, they'd be given a phone number. And were you guys asking this sort of philosophical question?

No.

You know, it's one thing to be a visionary. And I really think that we were visionaries. We stuck our necks out on that thing. But when people asked me what I was thinking of when we made the first public call, it was, "I hope this thing works."

Before I let you go, I want to talk about AI. Because I think that's another place we have a lot of optimists and a lot of pessimists, and the way you seem to think about where artificial intelligence and humanity meet is about as optimistic a take as I think I've heard. So convince me that the future of AI is mostly good news.

When I look at a product, I define the usefulness of a product, or at least the interface, as bad, good and optimum. A bad interface is one where you need an instruction manual to work something. If you have a device or a service that is intuitive — you look at it, and you could figure out what to do without looking at an instruction manual — that's pretty good technology. The optimum technology is invisible. It's there, it works for you, it solves your problem. You don't even have to think about it. Well, if you're going to do that, something has to be behind the scenes, making decisions for you. And that's artificial intelligence.

There are people that are very optimistic about how quickly that's going to happen. And it turns out that there are some things that the brain does that we haven't even figured out how to copy. It doesn't compute very well, it doesn't remember very well. But other things? It can abstract in ways that machines cannot. And so I think it's going to be a slow process, where the machines are little by little going to take over more and more of the routine things in our lives, are going to make us more efficient.

Society is much more resilient than people think. People are more resilient. People keep saying, "Oh, no, we are going down the tubes, because the kids aren't talking to each other anymore." Yes, I do see lots of cases where kids sit around the table all looking at their cell phones, but most of them are texting each other. And it takes time for society to embrace and understand new things.

These things are all new, it's going to take a generation for us to accommodate them. But human minds are very flexible. The brain is amazing. It's going to be many generations before artificial intelligences take over. And when they do take over, we won't even notice it.

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