14 November 2010

Cloud Manufacturing and IP Law

The cool thing about innovation, as I've discussed before, is that it can only ever increase the number of options available to us. The invention of the nuclear ICBM didn't render knives obsolete.

"The enemy cannot press a button, if you disable his hand."

However, there is an exception to that rule, at least in practice. There was one innovation in human history that made it possible to limit our options...that innovation was lawyers.

Sexy, sexy lawyers.

The emerging accessibility of 3D printing is eventually going to get a lot of attention in the courts. Things like patent, copyright, and trademark law have always been crafted under the assumption that it's really difficult to make physical objects. For example, consider a pen (any kind of pen, really). If you had to make a pen yourself you'd probably end up using a feather, because the machinery necessary to make something like a ball-point pen is impossible for anyone to afford unless they're in the business of making ball-point pens. Thus, ball-point pen manufacturers are really only worried about other ball-point pen manufacturers.

Also, this thing.

That is going to change. Not over night, but in the next decade it will become possible for an average, middle-class person to print a ball-point pen for nothing more than the cost of raw materials, and in less time than it takes to make popcorn.

All sorts of industries are going to feel threatened by 3D printing technology. Picture the recording industry back when things like VCRs and MP3s were introduced to the market. Or take a look at the journalism industry. Sure, there will always be demand for professional journalists, but it turns out people are remarkably in favor of the idea of making their own journalism (blogs), even if it is of questionable quality, because it's custom and it's instant. The same thing applies to movies, music, books, comics, videos, etc.

You can pick any two.

The ability to make something exactly the way you want, exactly when and where you want it, will be a huge leap forward in technology. As technological progress marches forward "cloud" manufacturing is going to emerge from the simple fact that the tools for making things will be cheap and abundant, rather than expensive and limited like they are now. How rocky the transition becomes will depend on which side mobilizes first.

Michael Weinberg wrote a paper that's posted over at Public Knowledge titled, "It Will Be Awesome If They Don't Screw It Up." It is basically the American counterpart to Dr. Bowyer's (and friends) paper titled, "The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-cost 3D Printing." The legal situation in Europe is slightly different from America in that indivduals can copy patents for their own personal use, whereas in America any copying of a patent is infringment.

Differences aside, both American and UK law says it's illegal to provide people with the means for violating intellectual property rights. This will most likely be the weapon used in court to challenge the freedom of 3D printing. It's difficult to track down thousands of individuals, prove in court that they each individually violated your IP rights, and successfully sue them for whatever piddling amount of money they have. A much more attractive approach is to identify the few businesses involved in the technology, like a company that runs a website devoted to sharing digital designs, and sue their pants of. The pants of established companies are easier to locate and have more cash.

The reason this approach will probably work is that established industries will have an easier time demonstrating to lawmakers that 3D printers are costing America precious jobs than 3D printing advocates will have demonstrating that 3D printers will be far more helpful than hurtful. Unless, of course, 3D printing advocates can manage to band together and present their case in a coherent, preemptive manner.

For example, 3D printing could very well be a sort of "silver bullet" that allows us to significantly reduce per capita energy useage. It's simply more efficient to manufacture exactly what you need out of commodity raw materials than to ship finished products all over the place.

I even have a graph.

It will take a while for 3D printing to begin to seriously challenge established industries. Hopefully, the process will be slow enough for those industries to adapt, rather than object. But if not, it will be important to track the evolution of IP law to ensure it doesn't skew in favor of corporations.

27 October 2010

Wright is Right. Also, ice cubes.

The thing about people is that they have two sides. One side is emotional and short-sighted and blind to the world outside of its immediate grasp. The other side doesn't exist.

Well, it exists, but it's not very important. We can be rational, we just can't be rational if any one of a number of emotions are out of balance. For example, if you're reading this you're probably not getting angry (not yet). You're probably thinking about things, like ideas or something abstract, and not THAT SUICIDE BOMBER BEHIND YOU!!1

Fear is probably the most commonly experienced emotion in the entire world because the natural reaction to something we don't understand is fear...and there's a lot we don't understand.

Of course, to really be afraid of something we have to become aware of it so that we can know we don't understand it. For most of America, 9/11 was one of those moments. There was the time before 9/11 when most of us were blissfully ignorant of radical Islam, and the time after 9/11 when we realized that THREE religions spun off of Abraham's covenant with God.

And, of course, the previous sentence is totally unfair. it conflates religion with politics, pretends a religion is the same as radical elements of that religion, and is also a bit snarky.

Anywho, I had a point. Yes, the point was that Robert Wright has a point.

As Islamophobia grows, it alienates Muslims, raising the risk of homegrown
terrorism — and homegrown terrorism heightens the Islamophobia, which alienates more Muslims, and so on: a vicious circle that could carry America into the abyss

Wright goes on to point out that it is no longer cool, in mainstream culture, to be disrespectful to gay people. His thesis is that since gay people were already everwhere, pretty much everyone already knew a gay person, they just didn't know they knew a gay person. When those people started to come out, homophobes realized that it was kind of stupid to be afraid of someone you've known and liked for a long time just because you suddenly became aware of their sexual orientation.

Being nice to gay people is now so important that the President Of The United States made a special video to help out a successful national movement. What he didn't do was make a special video reminding Americans that Muslims are no worse than Christians. He didn't do that because islamophobia is on the rise, and if there's one thing a leader (hope and change!) avoids doing it's making an enlightened but unpopular statement.

I'd like to build on Wright's thesis a bit and suggest that the reason islamophobia is going to get worse before (if) it gets better is that there's little chance any American is going to meet a Muslim. Less than 1% of the population of America is Muslim. And they tend to cluster together. So most Americans only hear about Muslims, and in the same way no one ever hears about all the planes that landed safely yesterday no one ever hears about all the Muslims who didn't blow anything up. But, more importantly, all the Muslims in America represent only 0.2% of the global Muslim population.

This means that there is no real chance Americans will ever think of Muslims as anything other than "them." Even if the Muslim population in America grew and distributed so that most Americans got the chance to live and work with them, all of those new Muslims would still represent an exception.

Now, the monkeysphere. We're only capable of knowing, like, 150 people at any one time. Everyone else is either someone we've forgotten or a stranger. And it's not like people are just going to decide to forget 10 people, it has to happen naturally. So the problem we have is that building up the kind of experience with a stranger that brings them into your monkeysphere takes consistent effort over a long period of time. And it's basically impossible if they're not right next to you.

The population of Muslims is so small, and so concentrated in distinct regions,
that there weren’t enough such encounters to yield statistically significant
data. And, as Putnam and Campbell note, this is a recipe for prejudice. Being a
small and geographically concentrated group makes it hard for many people to
know you, so not much bridging naturally happens.

Since the average American doesn't have the chance to get to know Muslims even if they are currently open to the idea, they have to get an overview from someone who claims to know some Muslims. Most of those overviews are not flattering.

If you think about all of America like one organization (LOL you should) then theories of organizational change are applicable. They all tend to incorporate the unfreeze/refreeze model in one form or another. Basically, people start out in a sort of structure, and if you want them to take on a different structure you have to first shake them up.

Well, the overall situation is quite conductive to structuring Americans around the thought that Muslims are "them." There are a lot, but none of them are nearby, and they tend to disagree with us. None of that is going to change. So, what happens when people get shaken up anyway?

Well, if you let an ice cube melt it will take on a new shape. If it then refreezes in that random shape, instead of the one you wanted (a dinosaur), you've got only yourself to blame. In this case no one individual is responsible for the structure of America, but there are individuals responsible for shaking people up and then, at best, not giving them a good shape to refreeze into, and at worst deliberately encouraging them to refreeze around negative thoughts.

So the engineering challenge in building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims will be big. Still, at least we grasp the nuts and bolts of the situation. It’s
a matter of bringing people into contact with the “other” in a benign
context...Philanthropists need to figure out how you build lots of little
bridges at the grass roots level. And they need to do it fast.

If any situation cries out for understanding systems, innovating, and leadership it's this one...but I have to admit that I'm at a loss. Personally, I think a significant percentage of America has already refrozen around a strongly anti-Islamic world view, and now they're working on shaking up (unfreezing) everyone else.

18 October 2010

Reprap, Open-source, and liger jokes

This blog hasn't been on my mind too much what with moving from state to state, but I think what I'm getting into now will provide an awful lot of material.

I ordered a Thing-O-Matic from Makerbot Industries...

...yes, that's a little robot building parts for another robot all night, by itself. Now, some background.

Dr. Adrian Bowyer decided it would be awesome if machines could reproduce themselves. This was probably because he lived very far away from Hollywood. The first step was to figure out a way for ideas to be turned directly into useful objects. Technically, that "way" already existed (rapid prototyping) but it was way too expensive and the machines were covered in parts they couldn't make themselves.

Instead of doing the proper academic thing and writing a theoretical paper, he built an absurdly low-cost 3D printer and released all the details under an open-source license. [video is a bit long, especially if you watch the second half]

Well now his project is spawing all sorts of new innovations. The one I choose to participate in is called Makerbot Industries. These guys are absurdly enthusiastic about the technology, which is great, but they also concur with Dr. Bowyer's commitment to open-source hardware.

It's mostly an intuition at the moment, but I think the combination of cheap personal fabricators and the open-source philosophy will be a disruptive innovation. Just spend a day looking around and keep track of how many things you use are nothing more than shapped plastic. Now imagine one or more of them broken. What would you do? If it's a replaceable part you could find it at a store, if you're desperate and lucky you could order a new one, but most likely there's no way to fix or replace that plastic part...and if there is it's probably not worth the time. But what if you could just print out a replacement? Lost your lense cap, print a new one. Broke a knob on an appliance, print a new one. Need a connector that Lego never manufactured, print it.

That is where the idea starts to take hold. Then the odds are good that at some point in your life you've thought of a little thingamajig that would make your life better. Maybe a clever book mark, or a perfectly shaped tooth/fingernail pick, or a liger ring for your niece because she loves ligers and no one makes liger rings. Well, with a personal fabricator you're, like, minutes away from those ideas. Literally in the time it takes the little brat munchkin to stop crying you can print out a Master Chief action figure...and then print out a liger ring.

Now you're not limited to making that song or newsletter or ball-kicking video a reality; now you can actually make physical things from your imagination into real things. And that's just for the developed world, where we think Maslow's Hierarchy is a progressive rock band. The rest of the world can get a printer and some bulk raw material (maybe even grow it themselves) and make exactly what they need exactly when they need it.

Basically, the potential here reminds me of a joke I heard a while back that I can't attribute to anyone. If you lived in the Star Trek universe, would you spend your time getting infected by alien plagues, or would you spend your time on the holodeck living out your fantasies, replicating food, and transporting your waste somewhere else?

13 February 2010

Of Gaia and Green Man

Everyone knows the world will end when zombie dinosaurs rise from the grave to feast on self-satisfied primates. But, there's no telling when that will happen. It could be tomorrow, it could be the day after that. . .but it probably won't be for a while. Digging through hundreds of feet of rock takes time.

Actually, would a zombie dinosaur look more like Hexxus?

That being said, we will have to find something to keep ourselves busy while we wait. I propose one of the things we will end up doing is unleashing a global consciousness or, at a minimum, several sub-global consciousnessees consciousnessen consciousnesses. Also, we'll finally get those cool unitards science fiction promised.

You're already on the Internet because it allows you to access a lot of information quickly. Sure, most of that information is boobies and tweets, but there are rumors of the occasional nugget of work getting done. In fact, people manage to get so much work done via the intertubes that the whole thing is blowing up faster than a whale in orbit.

Old and busted: cables. New hotness: wireless. Okay, so wireless isn't new, but wireless networks that can build themselves are. Ad-hoc networking standards, and smarter operating systems, are producing nodes that can form a network any time they find another node(s) in range. Pretty soon you won't have to plan a network; you'll just toss self-connecting nodes out every hundred feet and call it a day.

Computers are to getting smaller what bears are to pooing in the woods; it's just what they do. As the physical size of computers gets smaller ad-hoc nodes will become cheaper and more disposable. Processors are getting smaller, radios are getting smaller and sensors are getting smaller. Pretty soon everything necessary for a computer will fit inside the head of a pin. When a fully functional networked computer the size of this period “.” can be stamped out for next to nothing, it will be. In the future your computer will come in a ketchup packet. This smartdust will be cheap and easy to use.

Clever information processing can vastly expand the usefulness of even the cheapest sensors. Massive information processing can produce coherent information from disorganized snapshots. This means that as the internet expands to incorporate smartdust sensors anyone will be able to know pretty much anything at any time; like Google Streetview on steroids multiplied by infinity. Have you ever seen your car or room when the light hits it at the perfect angle to reflect off of all the dust everywhere?

The future will mess with your allergies.

Well each dust mote is now a computer, and it's watching you. With a thousand or more cameras monitoring a room from a thousand or more angles, and streaming their data to the internet, anyone will be able to virtually visit that room in perfect 3D. Perpetual immersion will mean seeing the light, hearing the sounds, feeling the temperatures, etc of anywhere in the world in real time.

Speaking of that, yeah, it will be all over the world. Smartdust is going to start out kind of heavy, so it won't get airborne, but that stage will probably last a whopping two weeks. The world will become blanketed in the stuff because humans have A) poor impulse control and B) a burning desire to know what is going on somewhere else right now. A lot of it will start out as scientific research, monitoring temperatures in the rainforest or something, but that's how the internet started and we all know how that ended up.

As functional as silicon is, there are still some things it can't do. Fortunately those in the squishy sciences are working on controlling cells just like circuits. As we gain more control over biology and nanofabrication cells will be upgraded with artificial components and computers will be upgraded with biological components.


One of the greatest weaknesses of computers is the reason they haven't yet enslaved us: they are delicate. It's really easy to break a computer (this sentence is false) and that means they can't survive on their own. When computers merge with biology they will become much more robust and therefore much harder to control. Basically, computers that have genes will inevitably start to evolve.

The smartdust will be created to monitor environments and it will do a good job. However, at some inflection point it will be so ubiquitous that it will itself become part of the environment. A process that used to be linear will begin to feed back on itself. One theory of consciousness is that it emerged when neurons that used to monitor internal organs like the stomach started monitoring internal organs like other neurons. If a neuron is, in a sense, "aware" of the stomach it is monitoring then a neuron watching another neuron is "aware" of "awareness" and consciousness emerges. When smartdust starts to watch smartdust watching smartdust awareness of awareness will emerge.

When a process doubles back on itself it becomes a meta process. Data about, say, rainforests becomes complex enough to be worth studying in its own right and produces data about rainforest data, or metadata. When someone experiences an emotion like anger, and then realizes they are angry, and then feels sad about feeling angry, they have experienced a meta-emotion. While definitions of sentience vary, they all tend to cluster around the idea that something is sentient if it thinks it is sentient.

Everything that happens on the Earth will be monitored; the surface, the ocean depths, the atmosphere, etc. Smardust will be ingested by every organism, and may even become an ecology of organisms in its own right. After the monitoring processes turn back on themselves the Earth will, in a sense, "awaken." Whatever it is that humans do when they become conscious is what the internet will do. I'm not saying it will be Gaia, but it will be impressive.

However, it will also be a huge pain in the ass. Smartdust will be inside of us too. We won't be able to avoid it. The stuff will be so small we'll end up ingesting it just like everything else whether we want to or not, and we'll probably end up using nanobots to keep ourselves healthy anyway. Why will this be a problem? Because the stuff inside of us will be an ad-hoc network just like the stuff outside of us. And the same network that will allow us to stream 3D images of the Himalayas without leaving our living room will allow hackers to spoof our internal network and mess with our nanobots.

No security software is ever 100% effective. The only firewall that always works is the one that melts the modem into slag. So radios outside our body will have to be prevented from communicating with radios inside our body; to prevent mischief. The best way to passively block radio waves is a Faraday cage. But, for a Faraday cage to work, it has to completely surround the volume it is shielding. So to keep our internal network secure we'll basically have to wear clothing with metal wires that covers everything.

Welcome to the future.