Giving Away the Future?

Every so often, I invite a colleague to contribute to Leaping Robot. Today, I’m pleased to introduce Shobita Parthasarathy. Shobita is an associate professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and her research addresses, among other topics, the politics of the patent system. As you’ll see, she offers some timely input on some news that created big waves in the tech community last week…

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Speeding to the future…a Tesla roadster cruising past a wind farm in southern California (Sources: Wikipedia)

Last week, entrepreneur Elon Musk announced that his electric vehicle company would no longer enforce its patents. Musk’s news – posted on the Tesla Motor’s blog – had nerd geek appeal. It’s title “All Our Patents Are Belong to You” may have raised confusion for some but it was a play on a classic gamer geek phrase.

Almost immediately, both traditional and social media went wild with breathless excitement. (A good review is here.) Many hailed Musk as a savior, willing to risk his own profits in order to accelerate a clean energy future and fight climate change. Others appointed him as the new leader in the open source movement, which believes that better technologies will result from a more collaborative innovation culture that includes sharing intellectual property.

Musk himself explained the company’s strategy thus: “Technology leadership is not defined by patents.” He argued further, “When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors….”

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One of the Internet memes generated after Musk’s news…

What is most extraordinary about Musk’s statement, and the public discussion that has followed it, is its demonstration of both deep public interest in and growing skepticism of the patent system. For most of its two-century history, policymakers, innovators, and citizens have trusted that the patent system “worked”: the highly technical experts that populated it could determine effectively—in an objective manner—which technologies deserved exclusive commercialization rights. And they have believed that the promise of these rights would stimulate innovation. This would not only serve the public interest in and of itself, but also lead to economic growth and social benefit.

But things have begun to change. Over the last few decades, as citizen engagement and activism in scientific, technological, and economic matters has grown, scrutiny of patent systems has also increased.  This has raised many critical questions:

  • Does the patent system really achieve the public interest?
  • And what should the public interest be in this context?
  • Should we be allowing patents on ethically problematic inventions?
  • What about patents on essential medicines which lead to increased prices in the midst of public health epidemics?
  • What responsibility does the patent system have over social, economic, and environmental problems?
  • And finally, does the patent system even work in terms of stimulating innovation?

In addition to garnering extensive media coverage, these concerns have led to lawsuits, protests at patent offices, Congressional interventions, and public advocacy campaigns.

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Apple and Samsung’s patent wars have been going on for years…who has benefitted?

Musk’s decision with Tesla Motors raises these questions yet again. It’s not yet clear that his approach will produce an outcome that maximizes the public interest. It could encourage more companies to participate in the emerging electric vehicle industry, but there is no evidence that Tesla’s patents have been the barrier until now. Rather, there has been ambivalence about investing in such an uncertain area, particularly given the infrastructural change needed. Given that, to the extent that this decision does inspire innovation, it seems likely that it will inspire an industry and infrastructure around Tesla’s technologies. In other words, Tesla’s approach to electric vehicles will become the dominant paradigm. Although this could be a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions, it also places enormous power in Tesla’s hands. Should we place that kind of power into the hands of one company, particularly in matters as important as climate change and our clean energy future? What if there might be better, cheaper, or more environmentally friendly approaches?

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Activists argued that gene patents hurt health care at the Supreme Court (courtesy of Breast Cancer Action)

But Musk’s decision does provide us with the opportunity to think about what kind of intellectual property and innovation systems might better achieve the public interest. First, rather than simply considering intellectual property as a narrow and esoteric area of law, we need to think explicitly about it in the context of innovation policy more generally. Intellectual property plays an important role in stimulating innovation and shaping markets. If citizens and governments want to stimulate and reward certain types of innovation and encourage certain kinds of markets, the patent system must play a role alongside research and regulatory policy domains.

Second, if we begin to rethink patents in policy, rather than legal, terms, then we also need to encourage government expertise in the critical assessment of not only the social, economic, and environmental implications of technologies, but also the implications of patents.

Third, we need to consider whether our one-size-fits-all approach to patents really makes sense. Scholars have long discussed the possibility of tailoring intellectual property protections to particular industries. But perhaps intellectual property protections should be different depending on the economic and social value of the proposed invention?

Regardless, if governments and their citizens want to stimulate innovation that is truly in the public’s interest, then we need to seriously reconsider the shape of our intellectual property systems. Simply abandoning patents might benefit Elon Musk, but the implications for the public are far more uncertain.

Staring at the Sun

Staring at the sun, they say, will make you blind. Yet for years physicist/engineer Peter E. Glaser did just that. But, instead of losing his sight, he had a powerful vision. Imagine if you could put a fleet of giant satellites into geosynchronous orbit. At least one satellite would always be illuminated by the sun. These satellites could collect pure solar energy – unfiltered and affected by the earth’s atmosphere – and convert it to microwaves. Once beamed to earth, special giant antennae could collect the microwave radiation and convert it back to electricity. The result, he said, would be a clean, safe supplement, perhaps even a replacement for traditional electric plants powered with fossil fuels or nuclear plants.

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Peter Glaser, far left) with William Brown (right) explaining space-based solar power to school children at the Boston Museum of Science (source).

Glaser’s visioneering activities combined knowledge of physics and engineering with an over-the-horizon perspective of how the technology he was promoting could re-shape the future. For decades, Glaser – who passed away recently on May 29 – promoted this mega-project idea to journalists, entrepreneurs, and federal agencies.

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Glaser explaining his scheme (Credit: Arthur D. Little Inc.)

Glaser was born in 1923 in Czechoslovakia. A few years before the outbreak of World War Two, the teenager fled to England where he eventually became a tank commander for the Free Czechoslovak Army. When the war was over, he earned a degree from Leeds College of Technology before emigrating to the U.S. where he received his doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1955 from Columbia.

Glaser’s idea for space-based solar power had a long gestation period. It started when Glaser, who was working at a Boston-based management consulting firm, learned that William Brown, an electrical engineer at Raytheon, had invented an “Amplitron.” This device could increase the power of microwave transmissions. It quickly found military and civilian applications including helping improve the television images the Apollo missions broadcast from the moon. Brown was especially intrigued by the possibility of wirelessly transmitting electric power over great distances. A key part of this set-up was a “rectenna” which absorbed microwave beams and converted them to direct current. In 1964, Brown even went on national television and demonstrated a small model helicopter powered by electricity transmitted wirelessly to it

Meanwhile, photovoltaic devices had improved dramatically in the 1960s due to the needs of the space program. But why put these solar cells in space instead of on the ground? For one reason, the earth’s atmosphere absorbs good deal of the sun’s light. Therefore, a space-based collector could produce more power compared with one of the same size on the ground. Peter Glaser took advantage of these facts and expanded on Brown’s research to propose a system of orbiting geosynchronous satellites.

Glaser described his plan in a 1968 article published in Science. In it, he laid out the rationale for building such a complex system as well as the potential energy-generating capacity it might have.

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Innovative as it was, Glaser’s idea had been anticipated by at least one science fiction writer.  Isaac Asimov’s 1941 story “Reason” features two astronauts stationed on an orbiting platform who are forced to negotiate with the intelligent, religiously inclined robot that controlled the station’s transmitted power beams. It wasn’t until Glaser’s 1968 article, however, that the idea got more widespread attention from the scientific community. In 1971, Glaser applied for a patent for his system which was awarded two years later.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.47.11 AMThe system Glaser proposed was hugely ambitious and it would have cost – according to one government estimate – in excess of a trillion dollars. Does this seem crazy? On one hand – yes. Energy conservation measures and policy shifts would have accomplished similar goals and cost less. And, no. Consider maintaining a proper empathy for the past and keep Glaser’s scheme firmly fixed in the context of the time:

Glaser proposed his ideas during the “can-do” period of the Apollo program which the bloom wasn’t entirely off the rose of high-tech, expensive, mega-projects. Apollo itself cost some $25 billion and the Nixon administration was discussing other (controversial) feats of technological gigantism like the space shuttle system, an SST program, an ABM system. Electric utilities were investing billions to build new nuclear plants. The 1973 oil shock produced real and immediate effects for American consumers who experienced a national speed limit, lines at gas stations, rising home heating prices, and even bans on Christmas light displays. In 1972, President Nixon christened Project Independence to “meet America’s energy needs from America’s own energy resources,” an effort Nixon eventually estimated might require over $500 billion of federal and corporate investment over the next decade.

As Glaser pitched it, unlimited solar power beamed down from space was a positive bargain. Consequently, over the next several years, NASA and the Department of Energy, and the Office of Technology Assessment all did studies of Glaser’s plans. NASA was rightly intrigued.

In the hangover period after the end of Apollo and before the first space shuttles were available, the space agency was eagerly looking for its next big project. Something that held promise for broad societal benefits – a major weakness in the lunar program – was bound to be looked at favorably by some at NASA and the Carter administration. In 1977, for example, Presidential science adviser Frank Press wrote one enthusiast for Glaser’s plan, stating that the administration was considering the idea in concert with NASA and the DOE.

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1977 letter from Carter’s science adviser, Frank Press

Glaser’s plans for space-based solar power occupy a weird spot in the history of technology. On one hand, it was a quixotic scheme for a mega-machine. In this sense, it was similar to the giant solar farms advocated by scientists like Aden Meinel. On the other hand, Glaser’s vision reflected the larger environmental and energy-related concerns that millions of Americans had in the late 1960s and well into the 1970s.

However, whereas people Amory Lovins and E.F. Schumacher, who promoted a “soft path” toward energy independence imagined backyard windmills and energy efficient houses, Glaser’s vision was something on the scale of the Manhattan Project. Glaser’s ideas – like Gerard O’Neill’s plans for space colonies – reflected a high-tech, space-based solution to address contemporary environmental needs. As impractical as solar power satellites (or space colonies) might have been, I believe they reflected a genuine effort on the part of visioneers like Glaser and O’Neill to apply their technical acumen, promotional skills, and fondness for ambitious complex engineering efforts to practical goals. Think of them as the New Deal dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority…but in space. 

Advocacy for space-based solar power receded after 1980 but never died out. The National Space Society, for example, maintains a library of books and studies on the topic. The Economist also ran a lengthy article that noted interest in Glaser’s approach on the part of Pentagon planners eager to find power sources for American forces who are at the end of fuel supply lines that are both long and dangerous to maintain.

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Image from 2008 article in The Economist

The Times’ obituary for Glaser captured the essence of his thinking perfectly. He was “a credible scientist proposing what seemed incredible.” Glaser put forth his ideas at a time when there was tremendous interest  in “appropriate technologies” as reflected by Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth CatalogHis passing reminds us not only of the persistence of passionately-held ideas but also that what is “appropriate technology” varies widely as a function of time and perception.