Everything is information - part 1

Everything is information - part 1

Summary: Ray Kurzweil speaks of a nanotechnology future where the valuable aspect of a product is its information component. Will that sit well with those who believe there is no such thing as "intellectual property?"

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TOPICS: Patents
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I'm on one of my periodic trips to Silicon Valley to visit the Microsoft IPTV mother ship. I'm pretty used to hopping into strange rental cars and figuring my way around an unfamiliar interior. What I'm not used to, however, is checking the speedometer as I'm speeding up the on-ramp to highway 101 towards San Francisco and seeing the needle hover around 120.

As it turns out, Avis rented me a car where everything is denominated in kilometers. It could be worse, though. I could be renting a car in Europe or Mexico with a speedometer denominated in miles.

Sharp verbal right turn...

On planes, I'm more reader than talker, and one of the books I'm reading is "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil. It's a fascinating attempt to predict the future evolution of technology and the human species. Using analysis of historical trends in technology, he predicts that artificial intelligence will occur sooner than we think. He also considers human technological progress to be an extension of biological evolution and predicts that it will change what it means to be human within very short timeframes in ways that will drive the human / technology evolutionary process even faster (smarter post-humans innovate faster with every generation). All that, and I'm only 100 pages into a 600 page book.

I'm currently reading a section that discusses the evolutionary aspects of economic systems (among other things), which is where I found the following quote:

It is important to point out that a key implication of nanotechnology is that it will bring the economics of software to hardware -- that is, to physical products (pg. 102, Viking Press)

Kurzweil touched upon that topic several times in the previous 100 pages, but that phrasing of the concept sufficiently jogged the thought processes that I decided to stop reading and think about it.

Basically, Kurzweil is saying that nanotechnology will make production of physical products as easy and low-cost as per-unit production of new copy of a software product. Granted, raw materials in greater quantities will be needed to produce a car rather a computer.  Even so, once nanotechnology enables the construction of high-level constructs from constituent nano-parts, per-unit costs will be so low (raw materials are inexpensive) that the economics of the production of physical product will approach that of software.

This means that the valuable aspect of a product won't be the physical asset itself, as an exact clone can be produced a million times over at minimal cost in a world of nanotechnology. Rather, what really matters is the information required to build the product.

Everything -- including physical products, once nanotechnology-based manufacturing becomes a reality in about 20 years -- is becoming information.

That got me to wondering: would foes of the concept of intellectual property start to demand the the "chair" information, or the car design information, or the chip-design information or the unique finger-triggered navigation system on the iPod information (which is protected by patents), be as free and unencumbered as the software, music, and video information the "ownership" of which they consider wrong?

Next up: The value of intellectual property - part 2.

Topic: Patents

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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22 comments
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  • IP Foes?!?

    Just because a group of people don't like the current way that IP is being used to limit things doesn't make them foes of IP.

    In the case of GNU and FOSS the point was that since this stuff can be done for cheap and distributed at near-zero cost it allowed people to build alternatives to the current IP-protected items.

    There are already open-source CPU's and hardware items the point is that reproducing them is expensive.

    Nonotech will reduce that barrier (by how much is unkown) so that will make efforts like this more attractive it DOESN'T mean that FOSS people will simply start copying manufactured items.

    In reality, you currently have a subset of that problem with cheap imported knock-offs of items where it is the brand-name that drives up the price.

    So, it's not "IP foes" that you need to worry about but run-of-the-mill pirates.
    Robert Crocker
    • IP foes is the correct set of words...

      ...to apply to Richard Stallman and those who think that owning an intellectual asset (music, video, software) is anathema. Richard Stallman and others want musicians to be compensated by a cultural tax, not through sale of the intellectual product itself. Richard Stallman is GENUINELY opposed to intellectual property.

      Yes, pirates are an issue, too, but one way to deal with pirates is to use stronger DRM more widely. Those opposed to intellectual property (which includes Richard Stallman) are opposed to that. Granted, others not opposed to intellectual property (David Berlind) oppose DRM, but for reasons of compatibility not reasons of ideological opposition to intellectual property.
      John Carroll
      • Stallman doesn't like IP

        That's a big difference from saying he's a foe that wants to simply abolish it and steal (which is what your "chair" question gets to) what's out there.

        Musicians are a lousy example as they don't own their IP as it's all a "work for hire" (of which they have to pay for the work) owned by a corporation instead of the musician.
        Robert Crocker
        • Stallman is a foe of IP

          He doesn't consider it stealing, because you can't own an intellectual asset. He wrote the GPL in order to codify in law that notion. He is against patents and DRM for that reason. He doesn't want fenceposts of any kind around IDEAS.

          Musicians own the work, but they can opt to SELL it to someone else, just as I can opt to sell my work to someone else in return for a salary. Alternatively, I can go independent and try to sell my work directly. Thievery Corporation did that.
          John Carroll
          • Overstating the position

            Stallman doesn't like IP and probably wishes it would go away, true. BUT, he does not advocate theft of current IP, instead he advocates an alternative system and tries to work within its boundaries.

            There's a whole world of difference between that and the people who simply go out and steal.
            Robert Crocker
          • Re: Overstating

            [i]There's a whole world of difference between that and the people who simply go out and steal.[/i]

            Agreed. Mr. Stallman doesn't advocate theft. He does advocate an end to intellectual property, even as he concedes the need to respect the legality of it (even as he opposes attempts to prevent theft). I'm going to counter that, while talking about the benefits of his position, and with some conclusions (part 2, 3 and 4, I think).
            John Carroll
          • Straw men

            [i]Agreed. Mr. Stallman doesn't advocate theft. He does advocate an end to intellectual property, even as he concedes the need to respect the legality of it (even as he opposes attempts to prevent theft).[/i]

            First: there is no such thing as "IP" -- there [b]are[/b] some narrowly defined State-granted monopolies (trademark, patent, and copyright.) You're probably getting all muddled by RMS' rants on the abuse of language, where he points out that rather indisputable legal fact.

            Secondly, RMS (and many others) [u]are[/u] attempting to "prevent 'theft'" (to use your term). The difference is that they are working within the law rather than attempting to subvert it (your employer's approach.)

            Your attempts to misrepresent others' positions [1] to support your own don't speak well for it.

            [1] e.g. David Berlind's, which goes well beyond "compatibility" and into the same territory as RMS'.
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Re: Straw men

            Yes, there are state-granted monopolies on ideas, and Stallman is opposed to that. However, as I explain, those state grants are no more weird than the monopoly the state grants over physical property. When I own something, I am a monopoly when it comes to use of that property. Same principle, just different target.

            But, I explain that in today's post.
            John Carroll
      • Off the track...

        John, you start off talking about information and within a few lines are ranting about OSS. If you want to be taken seriously, get off your soap box.

        What I guess you are talking about is the ability of nano-devices to order themselves into some object that performs a task. I don't think there's any doubt that the process to make the nano-components will be patented and the software (or whatever the data used by these things to do what they do is called) will be covered by copyright. The IP status of the information actually stored on the devices is no different to if it was stored on any current medium such as a hard drive or paper.

        An interesting scenario is whether the company that makes the nano-machines can control what the purchaser can do with them - [i]a la[/i] XBox. Will Apple (or Sony or GE or whoever builds them) be able to say 'you can only use our software with our nanobots'? Or you can only build the items we say from them?

        But I absolutely reject the notion that the ability to get nanobots to organise into any particular device is in any way covered by IP. That is, if I make them form into a chair, that does not preclude anyone else from making a chair. Though if I want, I can enforce my IP rights and stop them using [b]my[/b] program to make the chair, and my rights under copyright to stop them making an exact duplicate. But I can't stop them making a device that is essentially a chair any more than I can use my IP to stop them making a wooden or metal chair.
        Fred Fredrickson
        • Overstated

          [i]But I absolutely reject the notion that the ability to get nanobots to organise into any particular device is in any way covered by IP. That is, if I make them form into a chair, that does not preclude anyone else from making a chair.[/i]

          Firstly, you'd be infringing my patent on chairs made with nanocomponents. Great idea. I've also got patents in the works for tables, tools, etc. made with nanocomponents. The Federal Circuit has been very explicit in ruling that such "old thing made with new material" applications are not "obvious" so I'm in like Flynn.

          Secondly, there is of course the matter of Digital Restrictions Management. The tools that allow you to assemble nanodevices enforce the tool vendor's rights (as defined by the tool vendor) in whatever you might think to make.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
        • You miss the point

          Yes, initial nanotech systems will be patented, but that's not what I'm talking about. Eventually, patents expire, and this stuff will be as widespread and free as the wind.

          What I'm talkinga about is the design for MAKING an XBox, or a Playstation, or some newfangled game console of the future that plugs directly into your brain. A true nanotech machine just needs to be fed the recipe and presto - out pops the finished product.

          At that point, the INFORMATION is what matters, not the manufacturing device or even the physical product itself.

          At that point, pretty much the entire GDP of modern nanotech-enabled nations will be KNOWLEDGE product. At that point, will the people who take such a dim view of IP in the software landscape take an equally dim view of IP everywhere else, and what ramification does that have for market systems in general?
          John Carroll
  • Overly Simplistic

    Any kind of property is subject to cycles. Market cycles, Political
    cycles, and life cycles. Any property, physical or intellectual,
    goes through processes of discover, consolidation, and
    fragmentation. This movement is nothing short of our
    intellectual evolution. Profit taking motivates discovery, but
    these discoveries have always moved towards the public space
    to become more accessible and more widely understood. As thin
    skinned and fairly meak creatures, we've always depended on
    this. Our brains put us on top of the food chain and it's been a
    group effort. To be "against" IP is as naive as being "for" it. It's
    simply not up to you.

    To assign strict and indefinite property rights to an idea is to
    claim to be the wellspring of thought itself. Every modern
    company stands on the shoulders of public knowledge. Despite
    this, they all would have the building stop at their level and be
    declared the penthouse. So do enjoy a brief stint in the sun, but
    understand you can't own an alphabet, you can't own a logic
    gate, and complexity is not the property of any one brain big
    enough to contain it. Soon enough the ego goes away and the
    ashes in your urn won't own that forty acres. As high grade
    fertilizer... it owns you.
    Harry Bardal
    • I agree

      [i]To assign strict and indefinite property rights to an idea is to claim to be the wellspring of thought itself. Every modern
      company stands on the shoulders of public knowledge.[/i]

      This is a 3 or 4 part series of posts. Tomorrow's will talk about the merit of intellectual property. Part 3 will talk about the limits necessary. I'm just playing out a thought experiment regarding the proper conception of "intellectual property."
      John Carroll
  • Intellectual property and just plain old property

    With respect to software, I don't have an objection against intellectual property. Since "intellectual property" is often tied to "invention" and "innovation", I have a lot of respect for it when it represents years of expensive research and development and/or a non-obvious revolutionary step forward in some known area. IMHO, things like Claritin deserve it. Thank God they didn't patent the concept of nondrowsy antihistimines.

    However, when it is applied to concepts (not implementations) such as one click purchasing and using machine names in traceroutes to determine the physical location of these machines (even worse, because these related patents try to claim ownership of the most obvious use of a public domain tool), then one has to wonder if some of this IP being patented is nothing more than a "land grab" of concepts that are either obvious (atlanta1.level3.net) or trivial to implement (identifying cookie). No wonder they don't mind publishing the gory details in patent documents -- it's not like they are actually telling anyone with expertise in the domains anything they don't already know.
    Taz_z
    • I agree

      Intellectual property needs limits, and a sensible means of defining what should be considered "intellectual property" needs to be devised.

      However, there will be flaws, just as there are flaws in the physical property system. Generally speaking, though, the benefits of property outweigh the costs.

      But, I'll discuss that more tomorrow..and the day after.
      John Carroll
      • I'll look forward to it

        along hopefully, with an example or two of what you would consider to be "intellectual property" in the area of software.
        Taz_z
      • How About We Start

        By dropping the term Intellectual Property altogether, only someone who is playing games with the public and is practicing linguistic ledgerdomain lump it together, and call what we are talking about by its proper names e.g;

        Copyright
        Patent
        Trade Secrets
        Trademarks

        Each one of the four cover both different concepts but also affords diffrent protections with varying degrees of limitations on the right holder to counter ballance public good. Not to mention 3 are Federal Laws while one is state law.

        Also each tof them have diffrent protection limits and Trade Secret and other rights should in theory be mutually exclusive as to get a Patenet the inventor is suppose to disclose the invention, once disclosed he/she can not claim trade secret, and with copyright they must deposit a copy with the Library of Congress as part of the registration before they can claim infringement, where it is available to the public (Although in the case of Software Copyright you may black out portions of your trade secret code- if you file it right).

        Also you can be Anti-DRM and be a strong supporter of copyright as most DRM schemes have very little to do with legitametly enforcing the rights of the author under copyright. many artist are against draconian DRM schemes. Not to mention several companies have tried to use DRM schemes to protect non-copyrightable / non-patentable objects.
        Edward Meyers
  • Yes we would

    "That got me to wondering: would foes of the concept of
    intellectual property start to demand the the "chair" information,
    or the car design information, or the chip-design information or
    the unique finger-triggered navigation system on the iPod
    information (which is protected by patents), be as free and
    unencumbered as the software, music, and video information
    the "ownership" of which they consider wrong?"

    Where are all these foes to IP?

    Many of us are foes of market abuse under the guise of IP
    protection.

    We all know this is heading to the usual JC MS is being treated
    unfairly line so lets put it is context.

    Yes us "IP foes" will demand the "chair" information if this
    information is controlled by one party that has been found to
    have threatened and intimidated distributors of potential chair
    competitors.

    We would demand fair access to "car design information" if a
    single party had control for 90%+ of the market and deliberately
    sabotaged competitor products by making unnecessary car
    design changes that break these products and refused to give
    the required information to the competitors that would allow
    they products to continue to work.

    We also laugh at the pot that proclaims the benefits of IP but
    have been found to have breach other's IP, and is involved in
    more IP abuse cases than any other company in our industry.
    Fortunately they equate IP protection with having more lawyers
    than the other person.
    Richard Flude
    • Richard...

      ...if you don't mind, please don't try telling me what I'm going to talk about, because knowing what I'm going to talk about, I can safely say you haven't a freaking clue.
      John Carroll
      • He said

        There are many who profess to be IP stalwarts yet abuse the system from a position of power. What concerns many is that those who have the power will use their 'IP' to exercise a level of control far beyond what is reasonable.

        For example, why can Microsoft sue me for modifying an XBox so that it will run Linux? They do so based on the presumption that my real purpose is to play pirate games. There is no need to prove that I have any pirate games, or even that I intend to play them - the fact that I modified the box is all that is required. Why can Sony tell me what devices I can play CDs on? Why do I have to buy a licence to decode a DVD? I bought the DVD, why am I further taxed just so I can access the content?

        The clear precedent being established is that a manufacturer can tell you what you can and can't do with their product, even after you have purchased it. It's not the fact of IP that gets up my nose, but that it will exploited far beyond what might be termed reasonable. For example, copyright was originally for 20 years, but is now virtually eternal. Patents have 'evergreening' to extend their life well beyond the initial 15 years or so. Software is patentable, a laughable situation that only seems to be getting worse.

        Coming back to the issue of nanobots, if I buy some, can I do with them as I please? Or will I be forced to only formulate them into the products that the vendor deems fit for me to formulate? And will they interoperate with other nanobots, or will I have a small territorial war erupt when the two nano-civilisations meet?
        Fred Fredrickson