Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 15/04/2002Lest we forget, BT is still a company that believes in research. It may not be entirely obvious what it's researching or why -- although last time I looked, half of the Martlesham Heath R&D labs were given over to the security services, military intelligence and other shadowy organisations.

Monday 15/04/2002

Lest we forget, BT is still a company that believes in research. It may not be entirely obvious what it's researching or why -- although last time I looked, half of the Martlesham Heath R&D labs were given over to the security services, military intelligence and other shadowy organisations. It even once had its own dedicated link into the Early Warning System at Fylingdales, called -- rather disarmingly -- Teabag. But seeing as it's hard to guess what the unclassified bits of BT research do, there's no hope for the secret squirrel side. No wonder this country has been unable to supply its troops with working radios for more than a decade.

Anyway, enough cynicism. BT R&D breaks cover today, in praise of the noble fruit fly. This much overlooked insect has lessons for the cellphone industry: the cells on its back work out whether to be bristles or exoskeleton for themselves, based on what chemical signals they get from their neighbours while the fruit fly is growing up. No central organising unit tells what cell to be what, but nonetheless they end up in just the right mix of hair and chitinous plate, in just the right places.

This impresses BT no end, which spends a lot of money trying to centrally plan what mobile phone transmitter operates on which frequency, in order to get on well with its neighbours. Make frequency allocation something the base stations work out for themselves by listening to their neighbours, say the engineers, and everything will work better and for much less hassle.

All well and good -- I'm a great fan of taking lessons from nature. But why the fruit fly? This form of chemically mediated cell differentiation is well known to embryologists: it happens in everything. BT could have named the majestic lion, the awesome blue whale, even the beautiful peacock.

A decent psychoanalyst could have a field day with this. Me, I'm just going to note that any story which links BT with some form of annoying insect that lives off decaying pulp and just won't go away is guaranteed to get my attention.

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