In which my excitement turns to dismay as I read poorly argued support for patents

Every once in a while, I read some argument that boggles my mind. This is one of those situations.

The name drop (IBM’s not Manny’s) left me excited me to hear what IBM’s Chief Counsel would have to say about something I’m very interested in… I figured I might learn something. In the first few sentences of Manny Schecter’s opinion piece in Wired, my brain was already was reeling. What follows are my notes as I read the article:

And they’re nothing new: Similar skirmishes have historically occurred in areas as diverse as sewing machines, winged flight, agriculture, and telegraph technology. Each marked the emergence of incredible technological advances, and each generated similar outcries about the patent system.

Paraphrase: Patents are great because they’ve always created outcries!

“We are actually witnessing fewer patent suits per patent issued today than the historical average, according to economic historian Zorina Kahn. The rate of patent litigation was twice what it is today compared to some decades in the mid-19th century.”

Paraphrase: Patents are great because they’re not rigorously enforceable! There are so many patents, we don’t even know what is patented! noted later, in 2011 40% of patent suits are brought by ‘non-practicing entities’… not companies that build devices or software

“Economists also tell us that 75 percent of a company’s value is attributable to its intellectual property (IP) - and that IP-intensive industries contribute \$5 trillion per year to the U.S. economy. These industries account for about 35 percent of gross domestic product and 40 million jobs, including 28 percent of the jobs in the United States.”

Paraphrase: Patents are great because the industries they protect make tons of money (that presumably wouldn’t be made if there weren’t patents). This is a specious argument: the fashion industry makes a SHIT TON of money on similarly iteratively, innovative products.

“But six of the 10 companies globally with the highest software revenues are U.S. companies, including the top three. In other words: The success of the U.S. software industry correlates with its use of software patents to protect its innovations. If patent litigation caused by the U.S. patent system stifled innovation, U.S. software companies would not be the most successful in the world.”

Paraphrase: Patents are great because Correlation = causation! Again, software is, by necessity, built iteratively, on the backs of other’s work. Patents inhibit that creative loop. It seems to me that if we buy that software should be protected, that a copyright protection makes better sense for software… it’s written, after all.

“And it’s not just software-focused companies. Software is increasingly the way innovation is implemented in all industries. Consider for example an automotive fuel efficiency invention that manages engine cylinder operation. A purely mechanical implementation would add too much weight, offsetting the improvements and eliminating the environmental benefits. But using software-controlled microprocessors results in enhanced efficiency, reliability, and safety … all at reduced cost.”

Paraphrase: Patents are great, because (for the next seven or fourteen years) only one car company can develop a software solution to save gas… regardless of whether they develop it on their own. We’ll protect the idea of using software to control fuel economy.~~ It’s been brought to my attention that I’m not doing a good job of explaining myself here, so I’ll let the rest of my comments stand while retracting this one.

“If an invention is novel, the idea that it should be patent-protected in hardware but not in software makes no sense.”

Paraphrase: Software patents are great because other patents are great!

“Denying patent protection for software will cause these developers to look for other ways to protect their IP investment - resulting in code that is less open, less accessible, and less interoperable.”

This is specious and circular. It relies on the argument that “ideas” are “IP” to be protected by law (something i’m willing to consider, but something which I don’t buy outright) … which is the argument in question. Copying code is hard… millions of copies of windows exist but very very very few people have access to the ‘source code’ which is why linux doesn’t look much like windows (more like osx, which copied most of its codebase from unix). It’s hard to imagine something less open, accessible & interoperable than iOS… which is owned by Apple, a huge patent portfolio.

“We’ve just begun implementing the America Invents Act: the most significant U.S. patent reform in our lifetime. Passage of this legislation required many years of hard-fought negotiation and compromise among patent system constituents. It was truly a bi-partisan, cross-industry accomplishment.”

I don’t know anything about the America Invents Act but I’m interested to learn more. Another day, perhaps… I’m going to read this rebuttal now.

In the interest of spirited debate, please let me know what you think.

Autonomous drivers & swarms of unemployed, professional motorists

My brother hasn’t gotten a drivers license yet… and even in his mid-twenties he doesn’t feel like he should have to get one (more power to him!). So, my dad sends us this letter:

Okay - you don’t want to get a driver’s license. Here’s a possible solution from Google that will drive your car for you.

but how does it work out these solutions?

  • its turn at a 4-way stop?
  • its opportunity with heavy cross traffic?
  • reading a stop light?
  • if there are lots of these cars on the road?
  • if a ball rolls out into the road?
  • can it tell if you are drinking when it brakes?

My response follows:

The specifics of how it can tell the difference between a bouncing ball, a sprinting two-year-old, newspaper trash, tumbleweeds, or the neighbor’s irritating dog are complicated for sure. So, without directly answering your questions about how the machines to their magic, I would like to add that these vehicles have been driving autonomously on public roads for the last few years. Albeit, with a human at the wheel prepared to prevent troubles.

It will surely be unfortunate for a lot of gainfully employed truck- & taxi-drivers. But automated supply chains will - through greater efficiencies & 24/7 operation - drastically reduce the fuel and labor costs of the many services we use every day. Google already uses autonomous golfcarts @ their california campuses…

There are some other neat applications for this sort of autonomous technology:

  • Consider the case of the quadrotor helicopters or airplane drones being used to deliver medicine, food, and wireless connections to terrifically disconnected areas in emergencies or by special request. A doctor-without-borders (or a medicine man) with a tricorder-type iPhone app could call in prescriptions or vitamin deliveries.
  • A swarm of quadrotors, equipped with cameras/routers/transmitters/etc… could be deployed to create a detection & communication network over a collapsed building or destroyed neighborhoods after an earthquake/typhoon/tsunami. They could be used to detect leaking gas, fires, body heat… or deploy smaller ground-based, automated sensor-equipped drones to crawl/swim/sift through the rubble to help itentify survivors.

Geez… this is gonna be a massive change!

Total Control Through Cognitive Computing

(wow, this thing sat in my drafts folder for 3 years… nobody’s going to want to mimic my brain)

it’s sometimes said that the human brain only uses about 10% of it’s total capacity. nobody i know is authorized to make statements about that sort of thing, so i’m going to veer off topic and quickly get down to the business of predicting the future.

Ready? Go.

with new ways to model the behavior of brains in computers, we’ll be able to sell ourselves to the highest bidder in an effort to make more clever media campaigns. these campaigns will be designed to get us to eat more fish sticks and vote for this guy or the other, but instead of testing them in traditional focus groups they’ll be done much more quickly and effectively with human brain mockups.

computers that can mimic the way the mind works will, as soon as they’re available, be used to simulate the expected outcomes of ad campaigns with you and your like-minded friends as the targets. just as labs will be able to mimic the brain’s interactions of the next generation of focus enhancing drugs in silica, so will intelligent marketeers quickly adopt these utilities to test their next set of flashy cola ads.

since we have all the data in place on our social media services, we’ll be able to quickly share a model of ourselves with a market research firm who can simulate a brain with our history and friends list and likes… and perhaps we’ll get a kickback for sharing our data. or perhaps we won’t even know that it was shared in the first place.

in any event, you can bet that i’ll be investing in fish stick factories.

peep this video:

that was awesome!

… well if you watched the video, you might have cause for chicken-littling. (is that even relevant?)

Plants are self-compiling programs that make enormous structures out of nano-particles

Until last week, I’d never planted a tree that I can remember. Planting a tree is pretty simple, but the experience was much more interesting than just getting dirt on my knees and under my fingernails. My tree had been sitting in a bucket of water since Arbor Day, waiting for somebody to stick it into the ground. As I knelt in the dirt, with the rainwater soaking through my jeans, I dangled the roots of my little tree into the hole I’d scooped out of the earth. Pouring a little of the water from the bucket, I then broke apart some of the dirt clods I’d pulled out of the hole, dribbling the broken up dirt back into the hole around the tree… and that’s when it hit me.

The tree I was placing would likely be in the place where I left it for many many years. Hopefully not, but perhaps, more years than I would be around. And so what I had done, by pushing this sapling into the dirt? What hit me so powerfully then, was that the tree I was placing was more like a program. I didn’t write the program, but I certainly helped to execute it. I’d clicked on the button that would build a tree. I had instantiated a CherryTree function.

This Cherry tree machine will take a while to compile itself. But it will eventually turn itself into a large stack of cells, rings of bark, and limbs, and leaves, and fruiting and pollenating bits. Beautiful! I’d made a permanent mark on the world that wouldn’t be realized for many years. This program will run continuously until it dies or is incapacitated by an axe, or a saw, or a bark beetle.

I certainly enjoyed the experience. I highly recommend tree planting to anybody interested.

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