James Dyson Talks About "Tinkering"
James Dyson believes we will soon be living in a world where home appliances function without human interference.
Imagine living in a house that anticipates your every need. Temperatures are plunging outside but you haven’t noticed because the central heating turned itself up. You burn a piece of toast but you can’t smell it as the purification system switched itself on at the first sign of unusual particles in the air. You drop a bowl a cereal and it is cleaned up by a robotic vacuum cleaner by the time you’re out of the shower.
This is no unrealistic utopia, it is the near future according to British inventor James Dyson — a Knight Bachelor with a net worth of £3.2 billion who is responsible for redefining the way we think of home technology. Before he came along, there wasn’t a market for sleek vacuum cleaners, robotic fans, super-speed hand dryers and almost-silent hairdryers. But he single handedly created one, and it’s big — as evidenced by the fact that sales of his products exceeded £2 billion last year alone.
“Our mission is to engineer solutions to everyday problems — problems that frustrate us,” says Dyson. “Frustration is the mother of invention. We find it in everyday technologies: in vacuum-cleaner bags; choppy fan blades; weak hand dryers; poorly engineered hair dryers; and the list goes on.”
Dyson’s career has been about solving these frustrations to make our lives easier. Just 50 years ago, domestic work kept many women chained to the home, and technology has proved critical in reducing this burden. And Dyson believes we can go one step further, so that within the next two decades we will be living in a world where home appliances function without human interference.
“The Dyson digital motor, combined with a technology-led approach, has allowed us to radically disrupt various product categories with our high-performance machines,” he says. “But we must now also look beyond hardware. We are now looking to bring software and intelligence into our machines. Artificial intelligence, hand in hand with robotics, has the power to transform cities, homes and workplaces, and to improve lives.”
Dyson has already made headway with robotic vacuum cleaners and air purifiers that can be pre-programmed or worked remotely via app. But he wants to create products that require no instruction at all, and in order to tackle a world that is still largely unknown, he is investing a significant percentage of his upcoming sales into researching how artificial intelligence can be brought into the domestic arena.
This includes £250 million into a technology campus in Wiltshire, £330 million to the Singapore Technology Centre, £200 million to manufacturing expansion in Southeast Asia and £1 billion into new technology research. This important work will be carried out by 3,500 of the brightest minds in engineering and will include a pioneering exploration into the world of vision robotics, needed to equip robots with sensors and cameras that allow them to navigate and interact with their environment.
“Our journey in solving everyday problems through engineering and technology has brought us from floor care, to environmental control, and now, personal care,” says Dyson. “This is made possible through investment in technology, an obsession with technology and a relentless sense of perfectionism.”
Interestingly for a man who has spoken passionately in favour of Brexit, a large sector of his artificial intelligence research will take place in Singapore. “About 10 years ago we began our journey in Singapore,” he says. “We had just 10 engineers here, and our task was to develop the world’s first high-speed, digital, electric motor. We chose Singapore because it is one of the few countries in the world that offered the skills to develop such a sophisticated motor… It is no coincidence that to realise out technology ambitions, we are deepening our commitment to Singapore. It has some of the world’s brightest minds, and world-class hardware and software engineering schools that provide us with the best talent.”
This will take place alongside his pioneering research into battery technology, which has been a central goal since his 2015 purchase of battery start-up Sakti3 for US$90 million. “We have always been interested in developing better core technology — critical components that will allow us to unlock new levels of performance in everyday technology,” he says. “We are developing the next generation of connected air purification technology. We are researching battery and electric motor technology that will contribute to a cleaner energy future.”
And like all immensely successful men and women, Dyson himself is slightly obsessive and astonishingly dedicated. And in his quest to create entirely original products, he has turned into a perfectionist of note. Which helps explain why many of his products have taken decades to reach the market — for example, his work on robotics began 17 years before the company’s first automated vacuum cleaner, the Dyson 360 Eye, was launched in 2015. And this makes it difficult to predict when these inventions might hit the market.
“Time is always a challenge,” says Dyson. “Patience is key. You can have an idea of what you want your machine to be capable of thinking of doing, but to make it work requires a lot of time and investment. Engineering a machine that learns as it works is a painstaking process. We are tinkering and experimenting. But, most importantly, we are unafraid to make mistakes.”