There’s an article about patents in The Economist online that provokes a question that’s not broached in the article. Here’s the thesis,
Most economists would argue that, without a patent system, even fewer inventions would lead to successful innovations, and those that did would be kept secret for far longer in order to maximise returns. But what if patents actually discourage the combining and recombining of inventions to yield new products and processes—as has happened in biotechnology, genetics and other disciplines?
Here’s the logical next question. If you accept the notion that patents kill innovation (or hinder it mightily) than how can the number of patents that are registered by any one country be used as a standard measure of scientific progress as per the 2009 OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard (my post about Canada’s low patent score here)?
Thanks to Techdirt for pointing me to The Economist article (go here to see their take) and to the Brad Feld posting (go here to see their take) about biotech innovation and patents. From Feld’s posting,
Regularly, patent advocates tell me how important patents are for the biotech and life science industries. However, there apparently is academic research in the works that shows that patents actually slow down innovation in biotech. The specific example we discussed was that there is increasing evidence that when a professor or company gets a patent in the field of genetics research, other researchers simply stop doing work in that specific area. As a result, the number of researchers on a particular topic decreases, especially if the patent is broad. It’s not hard to theorize that this results in less innovation around this area over time.
Feld goes on cite a few academics who write about patents and their impact on innovation. His main interest is not biotech but software which brings me back to the article in The Economist and a ‘weirdity’ at the end.
An end to frivolous patents for business processes will be a blessing to online commerce. Meanwhile, the loss of patent protection for software could make programmers realise at last that they have more in common with authors, artists, publishers and musicians than they ever had with molecular architects and chip designers. In short, they produce expressions of ideas that are eminently copyrightable.
That could be good news for innovation. After all, who in his right mind would seek a lousy old patent offering a mere 20 years of protection when copyright can provide monopoly rights for up to 70 years after the author’s death? That one fact alone could spur more innovation than all the tinkering attempted so far.
I understand that the author is being satirical, unfortunately, the copyright side of intellectual property law is at least as crazy as the patent side and this falls a little flat for me.
Michael Berger over at Nanowerk has devoted a couple of spotlight items (in depth articles) to innovations in China over the last few days. First there were the carbon nanotube sponges,
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are ‘strange’ nanostructures in a sense that they have both high mechanical strength and extreme flexibility. Deforming a carbon nanotube into any shape would not easily break the structure, and it recovers to original morphology in perfect manner. Researchers in China are exploiting this phenomenon by making CNT sponges consisting of a large amount of interconnected nanotubes, thus showing a combination of useful properties such as high porosity, super elasticity, robustness, and little weight (1% of water density). The nanotube sponges not only show exciting properties as a porous material but they also are very promising to be used practically in a short time. The production method is simple and scalable, the cost is low, and the sponges can find immediate use in many fields related to water purification.
Then today, there was an article on spinning carbon nanotube yarns,
“While the development of a continuous and weavable pure carbon nanotube yarn remains a major challenge in the fabrications, CNT yarns so far obtained from the different processes are monolithic in structure,” Ya-Li Li, a professor in the Nanomaterials and PDCs Group at the Key Laboratory of Advanced Ceramics and Machining Technology at Tianjin University in PR China, explains to Nanowerk. “We have now been able to demonstrate the fabrication of a novel continuous yarn of CNTs with a multiple-layer structure by the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) spinning process. The yarn consists of multiple monolayers of CNTs concentrically assembled in seamless tubules along the yarn axis.”
While I’ve seen a number of articles proclaiming China’s increasing presence in many scientific fields, including nanotechnology, this is the first time I’ve seen articles that probe beyond a basic description of published studies in language that is still accessible, i.e., you don’t need a specialist degree to read the material. It certainly helps to contextualize the statistics and other data about China’s published studies.
Kit Eaton’s article (Will Google’s Translator Phone lead us to Babylon or Babble On?) in Fast Company touches on, biblical times (Tower of Babel), Star Trek (universal translator) and linguistics, how could I resist?
Google’s revealed it’s working on extensions to its smartphone voice-control powers, debuted in the Nexus One, that’ll automatically translate between languages. It’s the stuff of pure utopian science fiction. But is it a good idea?
While Eaton makes some other sci fi references that I’m not particularly familiar with such as Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish (which in turn references the Tower of Babel), her point is clear: there can be unintended consequences (a concept from Max Weber, if I recall rightly) to new inventions/innovations.
… For example, if Google’s device succeeds, and is useful and ubiquitous (in other words, nearly everyone ends up using it, or a competing service)–nobody would need learn a foreign language. “Hooray!” you may be thinking, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Because language plays such a fundamental part in connecting each of us as thinking creatures with the world around us, that the subtle nuances of language (which are different even in similar tongues, say the Latin-derived Spanish and Portuguese) actually shape how we think about the world. Learning something of how somebody else speaks from a foreign country actually helps you to understand their mindset a little. And if the average Joe on the street never learns a foreign language anymore (because it’s a very tricky thing to do, and Google’s just doing it for you, so why bother?) then that subtle understanding will be lost.
In the discussion about “… the subtle nuances of language shaping how we think …” Eaton is referring to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Interestingly, some of the traditional linguistics departments in universities have resisted this hypothesis (I first learned about it in a mid-1980s communications course where we focused on semiotics).
On purely speculative terms, I could see two other ways for a universal translator to have unintended consequences. First, if something can’t be translated, it could disappear. Second, if a translatable version of your native language should emerge, people could break up into smaller subgroups to create more languages and more barriers to understanding. Eaton’s article definitely provoked some thinking for me this morning.
I did mention that I’d be posting the Geisler interview article later this week and I may have been a little optimistic as I’m having some difficulties chasing down a few details. In short, it’s on its way.
Tags: Babel Fish, Brad Feld, carbon nanotube sponges, carbon nanotube yarns, carbon nanotubes, China, innovation, intellectual property, linguistics, nanotechnology, patents, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, The Economist, Tower of Babel, translator phone, Ya-Li Li