Category: Innovation

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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.

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Public Domain? We ain’t got no Public Domain. We don’t need no Public Domain! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ Public Domain!

With apologies to B. Traven and John Huston, I note that Duke’s Center for the Public Domain has a nice post about what might have been in the public domain. In my paper The Life and Death of Copyright, I go over how a few authors rallied with American interests to extend copyright term. I also show that no matter which of the main theories one looks to for IP, none supports copyright after death. None.

In other words, folks who usually disagree about all sorts of nuances in copyright, (It’s labor! It’s the personhood! It’s utilitarian!) converge on, or at least have no good support for copyright after death. Paul Heald’s work shows that the dreaded under-production myth is just that, a myth. Aram Sinnreich’s The Piracy Crusade just came out and gets into the problems with locking up work. I’ve just started it, but his run through history, sociology, and more looks to be a great addition to the literature in this space.

So it’s a new year. Old fights are with us. New ones will come. The sun also rises. Time for naked lunch.

(Note: Burroughs claimed the phrase, Naked Lunch, meant a “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” or the truth albeit ugly).

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Google Books and the Social (Justice) Contract

In channeling Judge Baer, Judge Chin at long last dropped the other shoe in the judicial effort to bring new information technology uses for copyrighted works fully in to the copyright regime. Congress has been slow to address the challenge of tapping the full copyright social utility/justice potential of these advances and it’s been left to the courts to sort it all out in the context of individual adversarial conflicts. Poignantly, when Jonathan Band asks “What [was] the Authors Guild fighting for?”, he also illustrates the tree-myopic/forest blind nature of the Guild’s position. What the Guild failed to see is that property rights fit into a larger socio-legal system: Yes your neighbor is precluded from trespassing on to your land but your ability to engage in whatever “private” activity strikes your fancy while thereon is limited by the legal system as a whole. Your land is individual private property, not an independent sovereign state.

 

Judge Baer reminded rights holders of this aspect of the social contract and now Judge Chin has made it clear to the Guild that this is not some narrow, eccentric application of copyright social utility. Property rights, including copyrights, exist to advance society, and to state the obvious, information technology has evolved our society. Like all other rights, customs, and expectations, however, whereas some aspects of copyright as previously envisioned fit comfortably into our new configuration others don’t fit at all. And when that ill-fit impedes important social progress modifications must be made, and if necessary, expectations altered.

 

The courts’ reasoning in both Hathitrust and Google Books moves fair use jurisprudence further toward the express consideration of copyright social justice in the application of the doctrine. As Kevin Smith notes, the judges in both cases have seized this opportunity to retrofit fair use, and it seems to me that these decisions push beyond questions of aesthetic and even functional transformation and pave the way for weighing social transformation in assessing the first fair use factor. I have also applied some of the legal conclusions drawn from Bill Graham Archives and other Grateful Dead archive projects to specific copyright social justice needs, for example, that of socially beneficent access to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Like some other historically and culturally important works, many of these books enjoy only marginal commercial market value and similar to the information harvested through data mining, “digital fair use” may be the only means by which to return these works to the general public. The social resuscitation of significant works through mass-digitization, and other uses that serve important and otherwise unattainable copyright social objectives, should be considered a purpose that satisfies the first fair use factor.

 

Authors and other copyrights holders would do well to finally get ahead of the information technology curve. The Authors Guild’s mistake was not so much in the effort to preserve what they considered to be their property rights or even in the effort to extract every conceivable drop of revenue out those rights, but rather, in failing to accept that in order for these rights to retain any value they must function as part of a thriving societal system or eventually forfeit the basis for legal recognition. In the analog world, the public’s access to most books remains largely dependent upon the vagaries of the commercial marketplace. Digital information technology has presented the opportunity to compile the world’s books toward the creation of global libraries accessible to every human being on a socially equitable basis. To believe that analog social inequity will be permitted to endure indefinitely in the face of digital information possibilities is simply unrealistic. Keeping in mind that the stimulation, perpetuation, and re-ignition of the cultural expression/dissemination/inspiration combustive cycle is the raison d’etre of copyright will enable authors to embrace digital change and as Gil Scott Heron sang, possibly even direct the change rather than simply be put through it.