​I can see clearly now…

iangunn Jan 9th, 2020

Around three quarters of people in the UK wear spectacles, myself included. Without them we would lead less productive and fulfilling lives, and we would be a lot poorer. This is an example of a relatively simple technology, which has been around for hundreds of years. It was spurred on by the invention of the printing press and therefore a need to read.

However, it has been estimated that around the globe as many as 2.5 billion people who need glasses don’t have them. The resulting impact on quality of life and economic performance is likely to be very significant, and yet the relatively low-cost solution seems to be out of reach.

If your work involves fine detail, near perfect vision is required to carry out tasks with precision. Tim Harford, an economist and broadcaster, tells the story of a technician at Lockheed Martin, whose job involves making a particular curved panel for a spacecraft. Until recently, it took him around two days to measure the 309 precise locations for certain fasteners on the panel. Now the same job takes him a little more than two hours. What changed? He started wearing glasses.

Of course, these were no ordinary spectacles: they are Microsoft’s ‘Hololens’, launched in 2016. They scan the panel, make calculations and show the technician exactly where each fastener should go.

The point here is that productivity gains sometimes come from unexpected sources: Google Glass was launched as a consumer product. They turned out to be a commercial flop and the few early adopters soon became known as ‘glassholes’. However, it seems Google was just looking in the wrong direction.

It will be fascinating to see how widely this technology spreads, and what it does to occupations and earnings. Will the productivity gains result in higher wages, higher profits or some combination of the two?