Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.


Interesting that Toshiba Elevator and Building Systems Corp. will use so-called mag-lev technology in an elevator for the first time.

Mag-lev allows near frictionless movement by suspending objects in midair through a combination of magnetic attraction and repulsion, but the story's kicker is that while the mag-lev elevators will be quieter and more comfortable, Toshiba said conventional elevators can travel more than three times faster.

Meanwhile, Fujitec has announced a system to organize elevator riders in order to stop bottlenecks and speed the flow of people to the correct floor. I have seen such systems in Hong Kong's municipal buildings. They are annoying at first ("Elevator 3 will now go to the 14th, 17th and 18th floor. Take elevator 4 to the 9th, 11th and 14th floor"), but they are efficient.

Regulating passenger flow is pretty low tech compared with suspending elevators on magnets, but that system seems likely to get you to your floor much more quickly. Are there any other notable low-tech solutions for high-tech situations?

(I cross-posted this conversation on the International Herald Tribune blog)


In reality, the category is very broad. Take, for example, traffic laws. It would be incredibly difficult to make a computer system that tracks every car, truck, train, pedestrian, and bicycle that uses or crosses the street, and determine the correct speed and heading of each individual person or vehicle such that there are no collisions. Such a technological system would be mind-bogglingly large, complicated, and expensive, with huge problems involved in accurately gathering and disseminating information. Instead we have traffic laws, which inform us that you should drive on one side of the street, walk on sidewalks, stop at stop signs, etc. Making simple, non-conflicting rules and requiring that everyone follow them is much cheaper and more effective than trying to track and manage every possible object on the streets.

You can apply pretty much the same reasoning to almost any complicated human endeavor that ISN'T run by a computer.

Long story short - it is extremely common that there is some low-tech solution based on rules for human behavior that is far cheaper or more effective than a possible high-tech solution for the same problem. It's just easier to notice in this story because elevators are obviously a form of technology, and the corresponding human rule is one that isn't already in place everywhere. When we're already used to the human rule, we don't notice that it could've been done with technology instead. Example: When you're trying to get into the elevator just as it closes, and somebody puts their hand in the door to keep it open. That's much easier than installing a camera in front of every elevator and writing a program that determines if somebody is running down the hall to catch the elevator before it goes.

It also leads to one of my favorite societal insights, although I've forgotten where it was that I first read it. It was an economist, though, and the insight is: "Organization is a form of technology." After all, if traffic laws work better than The TrafficBot 3000 MegaBrain Computer, doesn't that mean that the traffic laws are just as good, and occupy the same space in human society? In this view, human institutions like democracy, capitalism, and limited-liability corporations are all technology, and inventing them was beneficial in the same way and for the same reasons that inventing the automobile was a good thing. And in that case, there is no such thing as a "low-tech" solution to a "high-tech" problem; it's just whether your tech comes as an electromagnet or as a directory listing.

Low-tech couldn't come any lower or older than the pater-noster design that is used in some buildings in Europe. It is a continuously running open cab, that lets you step on and step off like a San Francisco cable-car. They are dangerous, no doubt, but they actually move people much more efficiently than the elevators with doors that move people in batches. One of the more famous buildings to use pater-noster elevators is the I.G. Farben Building in Germany. Because pater-noster elevators do not allow anyone with disabilities to use them, they are not allowed in he vast majority of buildings being built today. But the idea of a no-wait elevator that runs continuously is very interesting.

Please note, if you post your comments on the IHT blog (link above) we may publish it in the newspaper. Tomorrow we have our first print version of the IHT blog in the newspaper.

I would argue that traffic management isn't low tech per se, it is a matter of implementation.

I think the Fujitec implementation can actually be improved with appropriate use of high(er) tech.

Given that many new office buildings now integrate electronic security and tracking systems which are often implmented at the lobby level as electronic turnstiles where you either swipe your magnetic ID card or the more high-tech version using a non-contact RF/microwave card, it would not be that difficult to link that information to the elevator control mechanism which would require one less interaction step (and taking into account the time that it usually takes to walk from the security gate to the elevator lobby, it could cut down the time required to wait for the elevator, by directing users to the appropriate elevator (and there can be a whole bunch at a big skyscraper) at the turnstile).

[Added advantage for integrated companies/groups who do both security solutions and elevators ( you can market the solution as a integrated solution - off the top of my head, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric, and Toshiba groups would all would fall into this category]

This assumes of course that the card has information about which floor the card owner works on (not difficult to implement at all), and that the card owner does not go to any other floor.

[Taking this a further step, I recall that Sony FeliCa technology is advertised for use in security/tracking applications (and is so used in some Sony facilities as well as other companies), and this technology is already widespread in Edy (rechargeable e-cash for use at stores) and SuiCa (JR East's e-pass/ticket and e-cash) systems, which are integrated into a number of newer mobile phones from NTT DoCoMo.
Perhaps it could be technically possible for mobile phone users with the required spec phone to even have a default floor setting which can be overridden on a case by case basis using the phone UI prior to entering the electronic turnstile (to save those extra seconds), and perhaps have an additional terminal at the elevators to manually override (within allowed security parameters for a given user) for people who forget to change their destination floor and for people using a card rather than their phone to get through the turnstile and need to go to a different floor than normal]

I can't help but remember the scene in the movie "Sneakers" wherein Redford's character comes up against a cipher lock. After seemingly complicated procedural advice over the phone with his support, he merely kicks the door in.

Low tech solution better and quicker than high tech one.

High tech does not necessarily equal complicated. Again, that is a design and implementation failure.

I personally don't want the company to know how many times I went to the toilet or how much time I was spending in the smoking room. As if tracking time at the desk is a reliable indicator of productivity (I admit that for some jobs it might, but not mine). It all smacks of Big Brother....

We had an electronic lock mechanism at one of the offices I used to work at, and someone just kept jamming the door open, much to the repeated consternation of the office administration people....

Hong Kong's Cyberport, where Outblaze has its offices, has an interesting way to do this - all the lifts go to all the floors. But you have numeric keypads outside the lifts. Punch in the floor number you want to get to (say 11) and it'll automatically pick a lift - six of them from A to F - and flash the lift that'll take you there.

So that traffic management is computed on the fly depending on which is the closest lift / which can stop on the maximum number of floors for a single trip etc.

And the lifts are classy inside as well - two LCD screens, one with CNN or something playing all the time and another with floor information.

One simple innovation which I like is how many newer elevators in Japan allow you to push the button again to turn it off if you make a mistake.

Joi, that's an excellent innovation! I've botched button-pushes more than once myself, usually in elevators that have "mirrored" button arrangements on either side of the car.

Incidentally, for anyone near New York City, visit the 46-floor Marriot Marquis and try their Miconic 10 elevator system. (More info about the Marriot install.)