Author: Deven Desai

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Yep, There It Is, Amazon Embraces 3D Printing

In the mists of yore (i.e., December 2, 2013), I wrote that Amazon seems well-placed to embrace 3D printing to cut labor costs and offer same-day and/or back-catalog things, as in physical goods; now Amazon has. Similar to Amazon’s move of buying one of the major on-demand publishers of books, it has partnered with 3DLT which has been called thethe first store for 3D products. Amazon has also opened a 3D printing store-front. WaPo’s Dominic Basulto gets the point that Gerard and I have been making in our paper Patents Meet Napster, and I keep seeing in so many areas of technology. Basulto notes that just in time retail could take on a new meaning. As he puts it:

[T]he future is one in which users simply upload or download 3D design files and print them out with 3D printers. Everyday consumer products, in short, will eventually follow in the wake of plastic toys and plastic jewelry. In this radically new business model, Amazon would be selling the 3D design files and the 3D printers and the 3D printer filament, but wouldn’t be selling actual “products” as we currently think about them. The consumers would print the products, not buy the products.

Yep. That’s about right. And as Gerard and I argue, this shift will highlight questions about patents and also trademarks. Folks may want to know that the files and the materials for the things they print are safe and trust-worthy. Enter brands and enter Amazon (and eBay to be fair) which have been brilliant at setting up online trust-systems so that we can do business with random company in random place and have a high probability that the deal will occur, be as promised, and not leak our credit cards (Amazon does this by not sharing your credit card with third parties last I checked).

Now all we need is nano-goo-fueled replic– er uh, excuse me, 3D printers — and the Diamond Age will be here.

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Digital Futures, Why Bother?

I enjoy thinking about the implications of technology but some recent “Theses about the digital future” at Pew are not satisfying as compared to a recent article by Neil Gershenfeld and JP Vasseur called “As Objects Go Online.” Pew does some excellent work, but this one is rather odd. The predictions are vapid, and some contradict each other. In contrast, the Gershenfeld and Vasseur piece focuses on one idea, The Internet of Things, and offers much more. My work on 3D printing with Gerard was partly inspired by the digitization of things. The idea there is about digital mapping and reproducing tangible goods. Gershenfeld and Vasseur are looking at how we are already networking objects:

Thanks to advances in circuits and software, it is now possible to make a Web server that fits on (or in) a fingertip for $1. When embedded in everyday objects, these small computers can send and receive information via the Internet so that a coffeemaker can turn on when a person gets out of bed and turn off when a cup is loaded into a dishwasher, a stoplight can communicate with roads to route cars around traffic, a building can operate more efficiently by knowing where people are and what they’re doing, and even the health of the whole planet can be monitored in real time by aggregating the data from all such devices.

The connection between Gershenfeld (also a leader in 3D printing) and my ideas is the drive to show that many battles will be about “command-and-control technology [versus] distributed solutions.” Gershenfled and Vasseur believe open, distributed ideas will win. I am hope they do. I am not as certain that such outcomes are necessarily where we are headed. That is why even with its somewhat thin offering the Pew Report may help. The collection of obvious observations may help draw attention to pressing issues of today, not Digital Life in 2025, as Pew has dressed up its report. The descriptions are decent but not prescient. They are below in case you want to see them here. THe key take away, I think, is that anyone who thinks the implications of digitization have been addressed, understood, and solved by our experiences with copyright and privacy to date is mistaken. This world and the one coming are quite different. I must admit that I can’t pinpoint exactly how and why it is different. That is my goal over the next several years. But I can say don’t expect the analogies, frameworks, and laws of old to make much sense as we move forward. That does not mean all is lost. Rather it means we get to shape what happens next, just as folks did at the dawn of Western capitalism and individualism in England and at the Industrial Revolution. Should be fun and frightening; so buckle in.

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Data Driven Ag Science Helped Wine, Now Truffles and Why Not More?

Truffles (the fungi not the chocolate) are infamous as difficult to find and quite expensive that may soon change thanks to data and science. Truffles can range from $400 to $800 a pound depending on whether they are from the U.S., France, or Italy. Methods to find them involve voracious pigs, expensive dogs, and rakes–all of which are expensive and can destroy the treasure sought. But as with wine, cheese and other luxury items, farmers are finding ways to expand the supply. I am sure some will say that the quality of the truffle from new areas such as Chile or New Zealand won’t be up the same. But as with wine and whiskey and cheese, with some science and perseverance, it turns out many areas are able to make some damn fine, if not better, offerings than the originals. Just as UC Davis turned wine-making into a science-based industry, a company is turning truffle growing into an industry too.

The company, Symbios, identified some of the most “successful producers of black Périgords in both Europe and Australia.” They analyzed the areas along about 19 variables, and so had metrics for what a good truffle region would have in place. Then they used geographic data from Google Earth and other sources and mapped which areas would be best suited for truffle growing. Apparently 2.2% of Tennessee is good soil, and other states are on tap for mapping. This approach could change much more than the truffle world.

Imagine having rich data about current agricultural, water, mineral, and other interests and systems. Property values might reflect that data. Agriculture at all levels could benefit. Rather than going with monoculture crops, farmers may be able to see that their land is best suited for other crops which would cost less to grow or may be high value crops for rare foods. Of course subsidies would need to change. But there too we might start to ask whether growing crops in certain areas is wise. Some might try to alter land to mimic ideal conditions. I doubt that is smart. But the better outcome of being able to know more about whether a specific plot of land is where to start your dream vineyard of pinot or cabernet or truffle farm is a super cool step forward.

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A Slower Boat From China: Pilotless Ships and Changes to Labor and the Environment

A slower but powerful change is coming to a less familiar part of transportation: shipping. The Economist Tech Quarterly headline on Ghost Ships caught my attention because I know the term from piracy and a script I wrote about the subject. Ghost ships in modern terms refer to ships where a pirate crew has gotten rid of the crew, painted a new name on the ship, and/or set it adrift. The new ghost ships will also lack a crew but for a different reason. The autonomous cargo vessels the article describes are an extension of insights from autonomous cars. The returns to this shift could be as important. Shipping has operator errors: “Most accidents at sea are the result of human error, just as they are in cars and planes.” And costs will come down. Not only would a ship not need a pilot; it may not need a crew.

With pilotless ships, a company could almost eliminate the crew. Costs drop not only for labor but for fuel, because ships could move slower for certain goods. “By some accounts, a 30% reduction in speed by a bulk carrier can save around 50% in fuel.” That saving is lost when paying for people and a ship that has to house and feed people. Plus less fuel burnt should result in environmental benefits. And as the article notes, there is a piracy connection. The human cost of piracy would go down quite a bit. I suppose pirates could still try and take over a ship. But holding the crew hostage would not be an issue and so retaking a ship is simpler. Plus I can imagine that a ship going off course and controlled from afar may be more difficult to commandeer. A pirate might not be able to restart engines or take the ship to destinations unknown. The shore control could have a kill switch so that the ship is useless.

As with my thoughts on driverless cars, the new labor will be those who can operate the ship by remote. A shipping center could house experts to monitor the ships and take over as needed. Instead of months at sea, sailors would be, hmm, landlubbers. Not sure I like the sound off that, but then like has nothing to do with what the future is.

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More Rule of the Clan Over at Cato

Those of you who enjoyed our symposium on The Rule of the Clan should check the latest on Mark Weiner’s excellent book over at Cato. The event called The State, the Clan, and Individual Liberty. Mark’s initial essay is up. Essays by Arnold Kling, March 12; Daniel McCarthy, March 14; and John Fabian Witt, March 17 will follow. It promises to be another round of heady discussion about core questions on how we order our society.

Here Mark’s opening to get you started:

Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” explained President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, calling the principle “as neat and predictable as a law of physics.” This view is especially pronounced among libertarians, and for libertarians of an anarchist perspective, the opposition between the individual and the state is fundamental and irreconcilable.

I believe this view is significantly mistaken. From the perspective of comparative law and legal history, it represents a dangerous illusion characteristic of citizens who already enjoy the benefits of modern liberal government. Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.

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How Is Privacy Not a Class at all Law Schools?

Privacy law does not exist, but it should be taught at every law school. There is no one law of privacy. That is why I love teaching Information Privacy (Solove and Schwartz (Aspen) is the text I use). The class requires students to reengage with and apply torts, Constitutional law (First and Fourth Amendment at least), and statutory interpretation. It also lends itself to learning about sectoral approaches to regulation in health, finance, commerce, and education. Given that the idea and problems of privacy are everywhere, there are jobs in them thar hills. Yet, schools often see the course as a luxury or somehow part of IP. That is a mistake.

Schools should not pander to skills and job training demands, but sensitivity to areas of practice that have large needs is not pandering. Much of the skills, ready-to-practice rot comes from a small segment of the legal practice (i.e., big firms with huge profits who are not willing to pay for training their employees). That said, law schools tend to use the same playbook. For example, the rarified world of public corporation law is a standard part of business associations course materials. Yet according to the Economist, the number of public companies peaked at around 7,888 in 1997. Of course folks will say “Don’t teach to the bar.” Amen brothers and sisters, but why teach for a tiny portion of students in a core course? To be clear, I love teaching business associations and think it is useful, because agency and limited liability forms are so important. They are important, because being able to compare and contrast the forms for a client makes the attorney worth her pay. Grasping the beauty and nuances of the system unlocks the ability to be a true counselor. There are many, many businesses that are not, and may never become, public and that could benefit from having an attorney set up their project from the start. Privacy is similar. It reaches across many aspects of our lives and businesses.

Privacy issues come up in such a large range of practice that the course can allow one to address doctrinal mastery while also moving students beyond the silo approach of first year law. Seeing how property and trespass ideals reappear in criminal procedure, how assumption of risk permeates issues, and so on, shows students that the theories behind the law work in not so mysterious, but perhaps unstated ways. The arguments and counter-arguments come faster once you know the core idea at stake. That is the think-like-a-lawyer approach working well. It does not hurt that along the way students pick up knowledge of an area such as HIPPA or criminal procedure and technology that will make them a little more comfortable telling an employer or future client “Yes, I know that area and here’s how I’d approach it.”

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Protecting the Precursors to Speech and Action

The Constitution cares deeply about the pre-cursors to speech. Calo wondered where my paper, Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding, parts ways with Solove; it does and it doesn’t. On the one hand, I agree with Dan’s work and build it out. I of course look to the First Amendment as part of understanding what associational freedom is. I also want that understanding to inform criminal procedure. On the other hand, I think that the Fourth Amendment on its own has strong protection for associational freedom. I thus argue that we have missed that aspect of the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, since Solove and after him Kathy Strandburg, wrote about First Amendment connections to privacy, there has been some great work by Ashutosh Bhagwat, Tabatha Abu El-Haj, John Inazu, on the First Amendment and associational freedom. And Jason Mazzone started some of that work in 2002. I draw on that work to show what associational freedom is. Part of the problem is that when we look to how and why we protect associational freedom, we mistake what it is. That mistake means Fourth Amendment becomes too narrow. We are stuck with protection only for speech acts and associations that speak.

As I put it in the paper:

Our current understanding of associational freedom is thin. We over-focus on speech and miss the importance of the precursors to speech—the ability to share, explore, accept, and reject ideas and then choose whether to speak. Recent work has shown, however, that the Constitution protects many activities that are not speech, for example petition and assembly, because the activities enable self-governance and foster the potential for speech. That work has looked to the First Amendment. I show that these concerns also appear in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and work to protect us from surveillance regardless of whether the acts are speech or whether they are private.

In that sense I give further support to work by Julie Cohen, Neil Richards, Spiros Simitis, and Solove by explaining that all the details that many have identified as needing protection (e.g., our ability to play; protection from surveillance of what we read and watch) align with core ideals of associational freedom. This approach thus offers a foundation for calls to protect us from law enforcement’s ability to probe our reading, meeting, and gathering habits—our associational freedom—even though those acts are not private or speech, and it explains what the constitutional limits on surveillance in the age of data hoarding must be.

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It’s About Data Hoards – My New Paper Explains Why Data Escrow Won’t Protect Privacy

A core issue in U.S. v. Jones has noting to do with connecting “trivial” bits of data to see a mosaic; it is about the simple ability to have a perfect map of everywhere we go, with whom we meet, what we read, and more. It is about the ability to look backward and see all that information with little to no oversight and in a way forever. That is why calls to shift the vast information grabs to a third party are useless. The move changes little given the way the government already demands information from private data hoards. Yes, not having immediate access to the information is a start. That might mitigate mischief. But clear procedures are needed before that separation can be meaningful. That is why telecom and tech giants should be wary of “The central pillar of Obama’s plan to overhaul the surveillance programs [which] calls for shifting storage of Americans’ phone data from the government to telecom companies or an independent third party.” It does not solve the problem of data hoards.

As I argue in my new article Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding:

Put differently, the tremendous power of the state to compel action combined with what the state can do with technology and data creates a moral hazard. It is too easy to harvest, analyze, and hoard data and then step far beyond law enforcement goals into acts that threaten civil liberties. The amount of data available to law enforcement creates a type of honey pot—a trap that lures and tempts government to use data without limits. Once the government has obtained data, it is easy and inexpensive to store and search when compared to storing the same data in an analog format. The data is not deleted or destroyed; it is hoarded. That vat of temptation never goes away. The lack of rules on law enforcement’s use of the data explains why it has an incentive to gather data, keep it, and increase its stores. After government has its data hoard, the barriers to dragnet and general searches—ordinarily unconstitutional—are gone. If someone wishes to dive into the data and see whether embarrassing, or even blackmail worthy, data is available, they can do so at its discretion; and in some cases law enforcement has said they should pursue such tactics. These temptations are precisely why we must rethink how we protect associational freedom in the age of data hoarding. By understanding what associational freedom is, what threatens it, and how we have protected it in the past, we will find that there is a way to protect it now and in the future.

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Radio Shack – Will 3D Printing Help It Reach 100? Maybe RS Will Be MakerLabs at Scale

Few companies last more than 50 years. The 100 year mark is even rarer. IBM stands out as a company that has done that. But who knew that Radio Shack is nearing that mark? And some are noting its possible death knell, because of the recent announcement that it is closing about 1,100 stores. The pundits have gone over the mistakes and decried Radio Shack’s inability to play n the modern tech space. I think there is hope and mistake.

Radio Shack appealed to techies. It needs to return to that. My dad made me read the basics of stereos before I could get his old stereo. It was a Radio Shack book. Mobile phones and the like are not for hobbyists. Radio Shack has been at its best helping folks who want to deal with early tech that is tipping consumer. Radios, hi-fi stereos, wires, circuits, transistors, early computers (some might recall when folks took them apart and played with them).

Given my focus on 3D printing I may be biased. Heck. Sure. I am biased. But I am pretty certain RS could re-invigorate itself if it hires relatively savvy people to help with the next wave of home tech. As Nest, 3D printing, and more mean we are automating and tinkering, RS could be a great source for parts and knowledge where no one is competing. (Unlike the mobile market). That is where RS thrives. Of course when I went to one and knew more about speaker wire than the floor person, it was clear RS has lost its way. But there’s a time to reap and sow. Now is the time to sow. RS could be a place for drone, maker, and other tech hobbyists/enthusiasts. The core community is used to online discussions and help. But as the tech goes mainstream there is a gap between I dig it but need help and brainless consumer purchase. RS should embrace that. That is value many consumers who are starting to play with this technology would love. Or at least I would.

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Does Apple Reject That Education Has To Train Skills?

Apple’s Your Verse ad campaign poses an odd and maybe cynical offer to us. Don’t pay attention to the call of law, business, or medicine. Be a poet. Be a creator. Contribute your verse. What are we on American Idol? Or as Monty Python put it maybe all we want to do is sing. Apple panders to the look at me right now world. The film is about free thinkers. Maybe that is the same as being a poet. And as Kevin J.H Dettmar argues at The Atlantic, the film is “a terrible defense of the humanities.” He points out that the film celebrates enthusiasm over any critical thought” “Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm.”

Having gone to a prep school, I am less upset by the film than Dettmar. But then I may project my experience onto the film’s gaps. Even before prep school I went to a grade school where the boring “Latin—Agricolam, Agricola, Agricolae, Agricolarum, Agricolis, Agricolas, Agrilcolis” was part of the curriculum in eighth grade. That teacher happened to have done his own translation of Caesar’s Road to Gaul. He’d re-enact charges of legions and evoke swords. In high school we had many inspiring teachers. They kicked our butts for fake enthusiasm. Larry McMillin once asked me a question about Shaw’s Man and Superman. I came up with some ramble. He said “That’s not Shaw. That’s just Desai,” in his Southern gentlemen’s voice that somehow had scorn yet support. Support. For what? He called me out but made me see that I could do more. How?

Rigor. To the waste bin with brownie points for showing up. Be gone empty claims of it’s good, because I said it. Learn the fundamentals. Master the material. As Phillipe Nonet said to my class in college when someone started a sentence with “I think”, “That you think it, does not matter. It matters what it says.”

It turns out that free thinking is much more difficult than Keating realizes. The rigor of learning the fundamentals allows us to be liberated. Liberal arts are about freedom and how we are unmoored from habit. But knowing the foundations is how you might see where they may not operate anymore. So sure contribute your verse. But if you want it to be a good one, let alone a great one, let alone one that might allow you to eat, put in the work. Grab everything you can from college and post-graduate schools. Contrary to recent pushes from big law (note that with 30-505 margins the big firms can absorb training costs), law schools training people to think in sharp and critical ways are providing an education that connects to the law and much more. But that requires diligence, drudgery, and didactic moments. Those happen to turn into gifts of knowledge, skill, and the ability to learn on your own. At that point, your verse might be worth something.