The father of the mobile phone sees dark sides – and hope – in new technology

BARCELONA, Spain – The man credited with inventing the cellphone 50 years ago had only one concern back then about the brick-sized device with a long antenna: Would it work?

Martin Cooper, the inventor of the first commercial mobile phone, with a Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, at the Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona, ​​Spain, on Monday. Joan Mateu Parra/Associated Press

These days, Martin Cooper worries like everyone else about the impact of his invention on society—from the loss of privacy to the risk of Internet addiction to the rapid spread of harmful content, especially among children.

“My most negative opinion is that we have no privacy anymore because everything about us is now recorded somewhere and available to anyone who has an intense enough desire to get it,” said Cooper, speaking to The Associated Press at the telecommunications industry’s largest fair in Barcelona, ​​where he received a lifetime award.

Yet the 94-year-old self-described dreamer also marvels at how far cell phone design and features have advanced, and believes the technology’s best days are still ahead of it in areas like education and healthcare.

“Between the cell phone and medical technology and the Internet, we will overcome disease,” he said Monday at MWC, or Mobile World Congress.

Cooper, whose invention was inspired by Dick Tracy’s radio wristwatch, said he also envisions a future where cellphones are charged by human bodies.

It’s a long way from where he started.

Cooper made the first public call from a handheld portable telephone on a New York City street on April 3, 1973, using a prototype that his team at Motorola had begun designing just five months earlier.

To reach the competition, Cooper used the Dyna-TAC prototype—which weighed 2.5 pounds and was 11 inches long—to call his rival at AT&T-owned Bell Labs.

“The only thing I was worried about was, ‘Is this going to work?’ And it did,” he said.

The call helped spark the cellphone revolution, but looking back on that day, Cooper admits, “We had no way of knowing this was the historic moment.”

He spent most of the next decade working to bring a commercial version of the device to market, helping to launch the wireless communications industry and thus a global revolution in how we communicate, shop and learn about the world.

Still, Cooper said he’s “not crazy” about the shape of modern smartphones, blocks of plastic, metal and glass. He believes that phones will evolve so that they will be “distributed on your body,” perhaps as sensors that “measure your health at all times.”

Batteries could even be replaced by human energy.

“You consume food, you create energy. Why not have this receiver for your ear embedded under your skin, powered by your body?” he imagined.

While he dreams of what the future might look like, Cooper is attuned to the industry’s current challenges, particularly around privacy.

In Europe, where there are strict data protection rules, regulators are concerned about apps and digital ads that track user activity, allowing tech and other companies to build rich profiles of users.

“It’s going to be resolved, but not easily,” Cooper said. “There are people now who can justify measuring where you are, where you make your phone calls, who you call, what you access on the Internet.”

Smartphone use by children is another area that requires restrictions, Cooper said. One idea is to have “different internets curated for different audiences.”

Five-year-olds should be able to use the Internet to help them learn, but “we don’t want them to have access to pornography and things that they don’t understand,” he said.

As for his own phone use, Cooper says he checks email and searches online for information to settle dinner table arguments.

But “there are many things that I have yet to learn,” he said. “I still don’t know what TikTok is.”

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The father of the mobile phone sees dark sides – and hope – in new technology

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