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Category: Innovation

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Public Service Announcement for Google Glass Team

The Google Glass team has a post about the so-called myths about Google Glass, but the post fails to see what is happening around Glass. That is sad. Instead of addressing the issues head on, the post preaches to the faithful (just read the comments). As Nate Swanner put it “We’re not sure posting something to the tech-centric Google+ crowd is really fixing the issues though.” Google and other tech companies trying to do something new will always face challenges, fear, and distrust. The sad part for me is when all sides line up and fail to engage with the real issues. Some have asked what I did when at Google. Part of the job was to present the technology, address concerns, and then see where all of us saw new, deep issues to come. I loved it, because I knew the technology was driven by high-standards. The problems flowed from not explaining the tech. This post highlights talking past each other. Furthermore the truly wonderful advances that might be possible with Glass are not discussed. That distresses me, as no one really wins in that approach. But I will show what is not great about the post as a possible public service announcement for the Glass Team and others in the tech space.

First, the post sets an absurd tone. It starts with “Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL. A tooth placed in soda will dissolve in 24 hours. Gators roam the sewers of big cities and Walt Disney is cryogenically frozen. These are just some of the most common and — let’s admit it — awesome urban myths out there.” Message: Glass critics are crazy people that by into extreme outlying beliefs, not truth. And if you think I am incorrect, just look at this next statement: “Myths can be fun, but they can also be confusing or unsettling. And if spoken enough, they can morph into something that resembles fact. (Side note: did you know that people used to think that traveling too quickly on a train would damage the human body?).” Hah! We must be idiots that fear the future.

That said maybe there are some myths that should be addressed. Having worked at Google, I can say that while I was there, technology was not done on a whim. I love that about the company and yes, the Glass Team fits here too. Furthermore, as those who study technology history know, even electricity faced myths (sometimes propagated by oil barons) as it took hold. Most of the Glass myths seem to turn on cultural fears about further disconnection from the world, always on or plugged in life, and so on. But the post contradicts itself or thinks no one can tell when its myth-busting is self-serving or non-responsive.

On the glass is elitist issue: Google is for everyone, but high priced, and not ready for prime time. Huh? Look if you want to say don’t panic, few people have it, that is OK and may be true. But when you also argue that it is not elitist because a range of people (not just tech-worshiping geeks) use Glass; yet nonetheless the $1500 price tag is not about privilege because “In some cases, their work has paid for it. Others have raised money on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. And for some, it’s been a gift” the argument is absurd. That a few, select people have found creative ways to obtain funds for Glass does not belie the elite pricing; it shows it.

The surveillance and privacy responses reveal a deeper issue. Yes, Glass is designed to signal when it is on. And yes that may limit surveillance, but barely. So too for the privacy issue. Check this one in full:

Myth 10 – Glass marks the end of privacy
When cameras first hit the consumer market in the late 19th century, people declared an end to privacy. Cameras were banned in parks, at national monuments and on beaches. People feared the same when the first cell phone cameras came out. Today, there are more cameras than ever before. In ten years there will be even more cameras, with or without Glass. 150+ years of cameras and eight years of YouTube are a good indicator of the kinds of photos and videos people capture–from our favorite cat videos to dramatic, perspective-changing looks at environmental destruction, government crackdowns, and everyday human miracles. 

ACH!!! Cameras proliferated and we have all sorts of great, new pictures so privacy is not harmed?!?!?! Swanner hits this one dead on:

Google suggests the same privacy fears brought up with Glass have been posed when both regular cameras and cell phone cameras were introduced in their day. What they don’t address is that it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is pointing a device they’re holding up at you; it’s much harder to tell when you’re being video taped while someone looks in your general direction. In a more intimate setting — say a bar — it’s pretty clear when someone is taping you. In an open space? Not so much.

So tech evangelists, I beg you, remember your fans are myriad and smart. Engage us fairly and you will often receive the love and support you seek. Insult people’s intelligence, and you are no-better than those you would call Luddite.

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The Economist Notes that Patents Do Not Equal Innovation

The Economist had a recent piece about software patents and said, GASP “[P]atent issuance is a poor measure of innovation.” Amen. But wait! Don’t order yet! There’s more! “Patenting is strictly a metric of invention. Innovation is such a vastly different endeavour—in terms of investment, time and the human resources required—as to be virtually unrelated to invention.” (The applause and boos commence simultaneously).

Innovation is meaningless as well, but the first step is to admit the problem. There may be some relationship between patents and incentives to create certain things. But not all patents or all creations show a correlation to a general claim that patents equal innovation or whether innovation will occur without patents. Innovation as “Hey that rally changed the way we do things” probably can’t be identified until much after the event. Innovation as “Hey we made tons and tons of bitcoin, oh we mean cash” is easier to spot but a different metric as far as policy should be concerned. The better disposable razor or even iPhone is incremental while also important. Parsng the differences amongst what types of innovation is well-beyond a blog post. But should folks want to hurt their head and wear out their hands, please write at length. I will look forward to reading what you find.

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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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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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3D Printing, Maybe It Is Magic

More and more 3D printing seems like it’s magic. In Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things Gerard and I explain that it is not quite magic yet. And our argument is that the law can perhaps make sure the technology has a chance to reach a magical stage. That said each day we wrote a new report made me wonder at how quickly the technology is moving.

Forbes reports that a jewelry company is using 3D printing and Google Earth to print $250,000 jewelry. A couple weeks ago UC Hastings put on a Symposium to Illuminate Legal Issues Posed by 3D Printing Technology. I spoke and had a great time meeting more folks interested in the technology and in seeing it thrive. Mark Lemley gave the key note and is poking at many ideas that resonate with me and my work. He spoke about how technology is changing scarcity and will affect labor. The Forbes piece captures the shift:

Shoppers can completely customize their own design and have the finished product delivered in 3 or 4 days. “We’ve had a great deal of difficulty competing with cheap labor overseas,” said Bakhash, whose father Charlie founded American Pearl in New York’s diamond district in 1950.

“Now, with the advent of our platform, we’re no longer taking off-the-shelf parts and welding. There’s no jeweler at a bench with a blowtorch. The cost and labor savings is phenomenal. And we’re empowering consumers to make jewelry in real-time.”

The process starts on AmericanPearl.com, or its sister site AmericanDiamondShop.com, where a customer is able to create a unique piece, whether a $400 pair of earrings or a necklace that goes for six figures.

The Maker movement and the new wave of customized things is fascinating and exciting. But it may be that the hand-crafted, Etsy moment will be short-lived and the automated, design and print world will take over. I think that the result will be a hybrid. Folks will use the tech to produce more and to make customized goods for less cost. Some labor will be eliminated. Some labor such as design will be valuable. But just like the shifts in copyright, we will see strange and large shifts in who makes money and how it is made. Then again not all of us can be poets and also eat. More on that in another post.

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3D Printing Train Continues, Interview on TakePart Live tonight

I will be on TakePart Livetonight at 9 p.m. Pacific/11 Central/12 Eastern, to talk about 3D printing and all the fun it brings. I will be joined by a 3D printer entrepreneur who runs Deezmaker, a comic, and of course the hosts Jacob Soboroff and Cara Santa Maria. I was on the show last fall to talk about privacy and data hoarding. The hosts and crew are HuffPo veterans and a blast. The show is part of Pivot TV, which is available on DirectTV and Dish as well as some cable carriers. Looking forward to great night.

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Driverless Irony and Maybe Car Drone Drivers Coming Soon

Assumptions can break models and render rules incoherent. Some states such as California have required that a driverless or autonomous vehicle still have a licensed driver at the wheel in case the systems fail. A friend noted that this idea is useful in the rare case the vehicle encounters a situation it cannot handle. The idea may work today. It won’t work in the future.

What happens when the next generation is raised on driverless cars? Today we can assume that drivers have enough hours behind the wheel so that they might be able to take over if need be. But in five or ten years, what exactly will driver’s ed look like? Would we require youthful drivers, somewhat dangerous based on lack of experience, to drive more? That seems to defeat the upside to the technology. Yet if a generation of drivers never really drives, how can we expect them to take over for a sophisticated system pressed beyond its capabilities? As with pilots we might use simulators and such. Yet how many hours of that will be needed? Would it test the moments when the car cannot handle the situation? These points remind of the early days of Westlaw and Lexis. When I was in school, we were required to use analog research to start. The idea was that we may be without a terminal or access to legal databases. This problem would arise in courthouses. It was true at the time, but a few years later, the Internet and web based access negated that idea. There may still be some training on the old ways, but how much anyone needs or uses them is unclear. With cars, there will be a gap period when some will have the systems and some won’t. But at some point, I’d guess that most cars will have the system, and/or fewer people will own cars at all. Many may subscribe to services instead of owning a vehicle. Driving by hand will be a special art for the rich and old schoolers as they head to stores that sell LPs.

So what may be the supercool solution? Like Onstar, a car maker may have a group of drone operators for the outlier problems. If a car fails, a signal is sent. A video game junkie, err drone expert, takes over to handle the vehicle by remote. That person is training on cars and drone operation of them all the time. They have the expertise to take over when needed. Yes, you may cue the creepy music at this point.