Category: Technology

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Will The Disruptors Be the New Dominants?: On Uber, AirBnB, and other seeming upstarts

Loving your online, decentralized model may not work when you care about safe drivers, clean rooms, and other real-world issues. Claire Cain Miller brings up this problem in today’s New York Times. She points out that AirBnB and Uber are trying to follow “a religion [from] Silicon Valley: Serve as a middleman, employ as few people as possible and automate everything. Those tenets have worked wonders on the web at companies like Google and Twitter. But as the new, on-demand companies are learning, they are not necessarily compatible with the real world.” I agree. In The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption, I point out that “transactions costs related to safety, quality, property rights, contracting, and knowledge may be more acute in a digitized, decentralized world.” Ms. Cain Miller (apologies if Miller is the preferred last name), hits on some great points about the differences between the types of harms in the online and offline world. As she looks at it, the lack of humans is a problem for the reality of the services and relates to politics: “The belief that problems can be solved without involving people is probably why many of these companies did not meet with regulators and officials before starting services in new cities.” I think there is something more going on here.

Yes, the big firms in the space will engage in lobbying, but part of their story (and practice) will have to be about how they meet the issues of labor, safety, and more that they affect. As I put it:

[E]ven with digitization, economic questions will remain, but we must understand what they are and why they persist to see what the future may be. Douglass North captures a paradox that goes with transaction costs. Greater specialization, division of labor, and a large market increase transaction costs, because the shift to impersonal transactions demands higher costs to: 1)measure the valuable dimensions of a good or service; 2) protect individual property rights; 3)enforce agreements; and 4)integrate the dispersed knowledge of society.26 Standardized weights and measures, effective laws and enforcement, and institutions and organizations that integrate knowledge emerge, but the “dramatic increase in the overall costs of transacting” is “more than offset by dramatic decreases in production costs.” Digitization forces us to revisit these issues. With digitization, we are seeing an abundance of person-to-person transactions, but with the problems of impersonal transactions.

In simplest terms, AirBnB , Uber, et al. may face some rocky times, but there is a good chance they will figure out how to address the current issues and end up being the dominant firm, not the small disruptor. As Ms. Cain Miller notes, AirBnB has added hotlines and insurance. Uber has also increased its insurance requirements. If the disruptors continue to address a decent amount of the issues North calls out, my bet is that “this era of disruption and decentralization will likely pass and new winners, who will look much like firms of old, will emerge, if they have not already.”

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Makeup as the Killer App for 3D Printing?

A woman named Grace Choi seems to have come up with a way to 3D print “lipstick, lip gloss, eye shadow, blush, nail polish, brow powder—pretty much everything except foundations and face power” at home. Her company, Mink, uses FDA approved inks (vegetable or edible). The goal is that a consumer could take a picture or using an online image of the makeup, the software would match the color and print out just enough makeup for that application. If the prototype holds up, this product could be one to bring 3D printers into many homes. But is it the killer app for all of 3D printing?

Put differently, a fair question that comes up when I talk about 3D printing is will it really be a device in every home? The answer depends on what one means by the question. First, at this point, you need a different 3D printer for different outputs (e.g., makeup or something in plastic as opposed to metal or ceramic). If Mink takes off, yes, a type of 3D printer could be in many, if not a majority, of homes. But as Gerard, others, and I have said, this device is not a replicator. So until a 3D printer is able to have multiple mediums in one printer, the spread of the devices will probably vary depending on the medium of the output. As such the killer apps for each medium will be specific to the device. That said, Mink may have a larger importance for 3D printing and home technology.

Mink could be a sign of where home inventors and makers are headed. Ms. Choi hit on her idea and took about a month to work through 20 printer prototypes, sort the ink issues, and have her working Mink printer. Granted she is a Harvard MBA and apparently has family support, but her approach could lead to new players in her field and others. As reported by CNBC, Ms. Choi, “Much of the make-up sold by high-end labels starts with the same base substrates, or ingredients, as cheaper ones.” This point is part of what motivated Patents Meet Napster. The core things needed to make many products are easier and easier for anyone to obtain. If Mink is priced at $300 to start as promised, that price will likely drop over time. If women adopt the technology and then tinker with it to improve on the hardware or the design colors, they may be inspired to launch their own companies and tinker with other technologies to get there. Like car and computer enthusiasts, cosmetic enthusiasts may find that playing with making what they want and love can lead to new products and businesses. And if that happens at scale in one sector, it may spur adoption in others. So maybe 3D printed makeup is not a pure killer app for 3D printing, but maybe it does not have to be to still have some great effects.

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CUT THE CORD!! HBO without Cable

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! It is about time! HBO has announced it will offer a streaming service in 2015. Earlier claims about the need for cable to market and to work with the cable industry seem to have fallen away. The claim is that there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO, and HBO wants to fix that. Can you say Netflix? Netflix subscriber numbers were flat today. Still, if HBO goes over the wall, I imagine that Showtime and others will too. So I may just succeed in cutting the cable. Atlanta has decent digital signals (though there should be more). The most interesting thing to watch: ESPN’s next move. It has a hold on cable a Brazilian jiujitsu master would respect. But if ESPN decides to go with a direct pay model, it could pick up many new viewers, especially the ones who are used to watching the special college version of ESPN they have for free while at some schools.

These markets may also be quite different. Some may prefer the ease of watching the pre-programed madness that is cable. Heck, if I am channel surfing and see that Ocean’s Eleven is on TNT, I will watch with commercials even though I own the blasted DVD. Oh yes, laugh. Because you know that you do it too. May not be Ocean’s but fill in the blank with Bridget Jones or whatever floats your boat; there is something oddly comforting or easy about finding a program in a guide and selecting it. It seems like a low-grade information overload problem. Rather than reaching for the DVD or searching Netflix or Amazon, having someone else narrow the options tips us into odd choices like watching that same movie for the umpteenth time with God help me commercials!

In any event, I hope the HBO experiment works. I know unbundling may threaten many offerings. But the current costs of cable are absurd and the best content is on just a few channels. I don’t think the new golden age of T.V. will suffer in this new world. It could grow as more people are reached with niche shows (that is how I see things like Breaking Bad and other winners that don’t need huge viewership to succeed). Subscriber shows should be a real thing soon. As I said before, Firefly could have been saved today, because enough viewers would likely have fronted the costs to get a 10-13 episode season. Add in many have the patience to just buy the series and binge, or stream on Netflix or Amazon or HBO, and maybe shorting cable companies is smart.

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3D Printed Cars: The Model T Redux?

3D printed cars were a growing possibility while I researched Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things. Now a company discussed in the article, Local Motors, has exceeded expectations in a wonderful way. It has produced a 3D printed car in a total of five days. The car, called the Strati, weighs about 2,200 pounds and can go about forty miles per hour. The expected retail price is $20,000. Now that seems less cool. But here is the really good stuff.

The design time and total number of parts is super low. Apparently, the design started in May and was complete four months later. Total number of parts 49 compared to 5,000 for a standard car. As one of the engineers, James Earl, put it in the article: “The thing that this lends most to is customisation-ality, [sic] so you can get a car that really suits your needs with very little monetary input from the design side.” These facts, if they hold up, are why car makers, or at least auto-parts suppliers may be excited or scared out of their minds.

We now have customized cars, with few parts, at a low cost. Let’s assume the cost could go down if the company scales up. Let’s also assume that some of these techniques are incorporated into other auto-maker’s manufacturing. The vast array of auto-suppliers that were in deep trouble when Detroit took a dive could soon be unnecessary. That network of industries Detroit supports could shrink and, in essence, vanish. At the same time, if India’s Tata Corporation, which aims to make low-cost cars for the growing middle class in India, jumps in, Local Motors could find a partner with cash to go big with its technology. High-end makers may allow for bespoke BMWs or Jaguars. Really tall or short people could have cars custom-built to their height and sight lines. Then again, Google may want the tech for its golf cart-like self-driving cars. Lots of possibilities, yes? That’s the point. Something amazing is bubbling up and fast. Which brings me to another point.

Sometimes when I presented the paper, there’d the law professor response of “I just don’t think the tech is there yet.” That view missed what motivated the paper. For once, I wanted to be ahead of the curve on law and technology. Being at Google solidified my view that one can assume the tech will come. “Whether 3D printing will realize all the dreams it currently inspires is not the question” is part of how the article engaged with this point. Local Motors and cars. 3D printed guns. The dreams or nightmares are coming true. Expect some incumbents to fight, some to fear monger, and some to embrace the change. As I offer in The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption “this era of disruption and decentralization will likely pass and new winners, who will look much like firms of old, will emerge, if they have not already.” For now, the car-world could be plunging into the disruption and decentralization phase. As Local Motors and others ramp up their factories and break through the regulatory issues, new players may find it harder to play. Until then, let the games begin!

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3D Printing and Quality Ears. Ears? Expensive Monitors Really

It turns out that musicians wear customized earpieces called monitors to hear the music they make at a concert and to protect their ears from the speakers. A company called Ultimate Ears Pro is in this line of business and uses 3D printing for its next step in creating the devices. As Digital Trends explains the shift is not lowering cost but is increasing the quality:

“Bringing this process in required a tremendous investment in capital, time, resources and training.” Dias explains, which is why 3D printing hasn’t lowered the price points for the devices, as we had imagined. In fact, the company apparently had to take a hit just to keep the pricing the same. Apart from throwing down a hefty load for equipment and software, all of the craftsman who had been working with UE Pro’s in-ear monitors in the traditional method had to completely relearn their craft to work with the new 3D printing technology. As difficult as the process was, the company believes it was necessary to create a revolution in “speed, fit, quality, and comfort” for UE Pro’s monitors.

The company has been mainly serving professional musicians, but is now reaching music lovers too. UEP started from work for Van Halen’s drummer and then its opening act at the time, Skid Row. The desire to keep the quality up is where 3D printing comes in. The turn around time is abut half but given the customer-base, professionals and upscale music lovers, the quality improvement. As Ryan Waniata put it in his article, designers “can be more brazen with their sculpting, allowing them to create a fit for each user that is virtually perfect. And when it comes to in-ears, it’s all about the fit.”

The process still require several other steps including taking a mold of your ear. But the head of UPE mentioned something Gerard and I discussed in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things. Scanners may soon allow someone to get a scan at a store or make the scan themselves.

It’s not magic, but each step may move us to a world of bespoke earpieces for almost everyone. An upgrade for an iPhone or Samsung phone may be supercool headphones, customized and as good as rock stars, which, after all, is what Apple claims we can all be, at least in our heads.

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There She Is, Your Homemade AR-15

I cannot give a talk about 3D printing without addressing the question of homemade guns. As Gerard and I pointed out in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things, this is America and making guns at home is legal. The issues many faced was whether the gun would work well, fail, or possibly misfire and harm the user. These issues are important as we look at the shifts in manufacturing. Many of us may prefer authorized, branded files and materials for home made goods or prefer to order from a third party that certifies the goods. That said, some gun folks and hobbyists are different. They want to make things at home, because they can. And now, Defense Distributed has made the “Ghost Gunner” “a small CNC milling machine that costs a mere $1200 and is capable of spitting out an aluminum lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle.” That lower is the part the the Federal government regulates.

Accoridng to Extreme Tech, Defense Distributed’s founder Cody Wilson, thinks that “Allowing everyone to create an assault rifle with a few clicks is his way of showing that technology can always evade regulation and render the state obsolete. If a few people are shot by ghost guns, that’s just the price we have to pay for freedom, according to Wilson.” This position is what most folks want to debate. But Gerard and I think something else is revealed here. As ExtremeTech puts it, “This is an entirely new era in the manufacturing of real world objects, in both plastic and metal. It used to be that you needed training as a gunsmith to make your own firearm, but that’s no longer the case.” That point is what motivated me to write about 3D printing and look deeper at digitization and disruption.

The first, short, follow-up on these ideas is in an essay called The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption that appeared in Hastings Law Journal this past summer.

Announcing the We Robot 2015 Call for Papers

CommonsRobotHere is the We Robot call for papers, via Ryan Calo:

We Robot invites submissions for the fourth annual robotics law and policy conference—We Robot 2015—to be held in Seattle, Washington on April 10-11, 2015 at the University of Washington School of Law. We Robot has been hosted twice at the University of Miami School of Law and once at Stanford Law School. The conference web site is at http://werobot2015.org.

We Robot 2015 seeks contributions by academics, practitioners, and others in the form of scholarly papers or demonstrations of technology or other projects. We Robot fosters conversations between the people designing, building, and deploying robots, and the people who design or influence the legal and social structures in which robots will operate. We particularly encourage contributions resulting from interdisciplinary collaborations, such as those between legal, ethical, or policy scholars and roboticists.

This conference will build on existing scholarship that explores how the increasing sophistication and autonomous decision-making capabilities of robots and their widespread deployment everywhere from the home, to hospitals, to public spaces, to the battlefield disrupts existing legal regimes or requires rethinking of various policy issues. We are particularly interested this year in “solutions,” i.e., projects with a normative or practical thesis aimed at helping to resolve issues around contemporary and anticipated robotic applications.
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Interview on The Black Box Society

BBSBalkinization just published an interview on my forthcoming book, The Black Box Society. Law profs may be interested in our dialogue on methodology—particularly, what the unique role of the legal scholar is in the midst of increasing academic specialization. I’ve tried to surface several strands of inspiration for the book.

How We’ll Know the Wikimedia Foundation is Serious About a Right to Remember

The “right to be forgotten” ruling in Europe has provoked a firestorm of protest from internet behemoths and some civil libertarians.* Few seem very familiar with classic privacy laws that govern automated data systems. Characteristic rhetoric comes from the Wikimedia Foundation:

The foundation which operates Wikipedia has issued new criticism of the “right to be forgotten” ruling, calling it “unforgivable censorship.” Speaking at the announcement of the Wikimedia Foundation’s first-ever transparency report in London, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the public had the “right to remember”.

I’m skeptical of this line of reasoning. But let’s take it at face value for now. How far should the right to remember extend? Consider the importance of automated ranking and rating systems in daily life: in contexts ranging from credit scores to terrorism risk assessments to Google search rankings. Do we have a “right to remember” all of these-—to, say, fully review the record of automated processing years (or even decades) after it happens?

If the Wikimedia Foundation is serious about advocating a right to remember, it will apply the right to the key internet companies organizing online life for us. I’m not saying “open up all the algorithms now”—-I respect the commercial rationale for trade secrecy. But years or decades after the key decisions are made, the value of the algorithms fades. Data involved could be anonymized. And just as Asssange’s and Snowden’s revelations have been filtered through trusted intermediaries to protect vital interests, so too could an archive of Google or Facebook or Amazon ranking and rating decisions be limited to qualified researchers or journalists. Surely public knowledge about how exactly Google ranked and annotated Holocaust denial sites is at least as important as the right of a search engine to, say, distribute hacked medical records or credit card numbers.

So here’s my invitation to Lila Tretikov, Jimmy Wales, and Geoff Brigham: join me in calling for Google to commit to releasing a record of its decisions and data processing to an archive run by a third party, so future historians can understand how one of the most important companies in the world made decisions about how it ordered information. This is simply a bid to assure the preservation of (and access to) critical parts of our cultural, political, and economic history. Indeed, one of the first items I’d like to explore is exactly how Wikipedia itself was ranked so highly by Google at critical points in its history. Historians of Wikipedia deserve to know details about that part of its story. Don’t they have a right to remember?

*For more background, please note: we’ve recently hosted several excellent posts on the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of relevant directives. Though often called a “right to be forgotten,” the ruling in the Google Spain case might better be characterized as the application of due process, privacy, and anti-discrimination norms to automated data processing.

Facebook’s Model Users

DontAnthropomorphizePeopleFacebook’s recent pscyhology experiment has raised difficult questions about the ethical standards of data-driven companies, and the universities that collaborate with them. We are still learning exactly who did what before publication. Some are wisely calling for a “People’s Terms of Service” agreement to curb further abuses. Others are more focused on the responsibility to protect research subjects. As Jack Balkin has suggested, we need these massive internet platforms to act as fiduciaries.

The experiment fiasco is just the latest in a long history of ethically troubling decisions at that firm, and several others like it. And the time is long past for serious, international action to impose some basic ethical limits on the business practices these behemoths pursue.

Unfortunately, many in Silicon Valley still barely get what the fuss is about. For them, A/B testing is simply a way of life. Using it to make people feel better or worse is a far cry from, say, manipulating video poker machines to squeeze a few extra dollars out of desperate consumers. “Casino owners do that all the time!”, one can almost hear them rejoin.

Yet there are some revealing similarities between casinos and major internet platforms. Consider this analogy from Rob Horning:

Social media platforms are engineered to be sticky — that is, addictive, as Alexis Madrigal details in [a] post about the “machine zone.” . . . Like video slots, which incite extended periods of “time-on-machine” to assure “continuous gaming productivity” (i.e. money extraction from players), social-media sites are designed to maximize time-on-site, to make their users more valuable to advertisers (Instagram, incidentally, is adding advertising) and to ratchet up user productivity in the form of data sharing and processing that social-media sites reserve the rights to.
 

That’s one reason we get headlines like “Teens Can’t Stop Using Facebook Even Though They Hate It.” There are sociobiological routes to conditioning action. The platforms are constantly shaping us, based on sophisticated psychological profiles.

For Facebook to continue to meet Wall Street’s demands for growth, its user base must grow and/or individual users must become more “productive.” Predictive analytics demands standardization: forecastable estimates of revenue-per-user. The more a person clicks on ads and buys products, the better. Secondarily, the more a person draws other potential ad-clickers in–via clicked-on content, catalyzing discussions, crying for help, whatever–the more valuable they become to the platform. The “model users” gain visibility, subtly instructing by example how to act on the network. They’ll probably never attain the notoriety of a Lei Feng, but the Republic of Facebookistan gladly pays them the currency of attention, as long as the investment pays off for top managers and shareholders.

As more people understand the implications of enjoying Facebook “for free“–i.e., that they are the product of the service–they also see that its real paying customers are advertisers. As Katherine Hayles has stated, the critical question here is: “will ubiquitous computing be coopted as a stalking horse for predatory capitalism, or can we seize the opportunity” to deploy more emancipatory uses of it?  I have expressed faith in the latter possibility, but Facebook continually validates Julie Cohen’s critique of a surveillance-innovation complex.