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Technology (nano, 3D, robots, etc)

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The Goldberg File
By Jonah Goldberg
Dec. 6, 2013
Dear Reader (including our new robot overlords),
The above "Dear Reader" gag while not technically funny ("Is it funny in some non-technical sense we cannot discern?" -- The Couch) is a reference to my column today which makes the point that the minimum wage is a boon to robots. If you make human labor more expensive, non-human labor becomes more attractive. If you tell car-wash owners that they have to pay their employees $100 an hour, the owner will most likely search his desk for that business card from that salesman from Acme Robots.

Robots have lots of things going for them. They don't steal from the cash register. They don't show up late with some sob story about how their dog ate their car keys. They don't spit in the customer's food or lick the tacos and post pictures of it on the Internet. Robots don't file sexual-harassment suits just because you got over-served at the Christmas party and thought it would be funny to hand out photocopies of your butt.

Thingamabobs Have Consequences

Long time readers of mine might think of taking a speed-reading course so they don't have to take so long reading. They might also recall that I think technology is a greater challenge to conservatism than ideas are. I wrote about this at some length in a G-File last February.

My main point is that conservatism -- full-spectrum, traditional conservatism and not just a checklist of timeless principles, or a political agenda in Washington -- requires an appreciation, even love, for the way things are. And technology forces change more than ideas do (indeed, many of our ideas are simply the sparks that fly from the friction of technological change). Sure, Richard Weaver was right when he said, "Ideas have consequences." But you know what are really consequential? Thingamabobs, geegaws, doohickeys, and whoziwhatsits. 

Technology is why Thulsa Doom goes looking for iron, Sauron wants his ring, and why everyone in Westeros wants a dragon (while technically not technology, dragons are a reasonable substitute for, say, an F-16). But I'm not going to get into a whole "power flows from the tip of a gun" argument. Instead, think about all of the things you associate with the traditional agrarian life -- the cocaine, the hookers, the creepy guy with sideburns wearing nothing but a Members Only jacket and speedo following everyone around with a video camera -- oh, wait those are the things we associate with the Arkansas governor's mansion in the 1980s when Hillary Clinton was out of town. I meant to say, the daily toil in the sun, the intimate relationship with the land, the reliance on the benevolence of God and Nature to provide sufficient rain and sun, etc. 

Those physical necessities were intimately linked to emotional commitments and intellectual convictions. Now think about what modern technology did to all of that. The tractor, modern irrigation, pesticides, industrial fertilizers, biotechnology: These things did more to upend settled worldviews than any stupid French or German ideas ever could. But it's easy to argue with some French pinhead at a café; it's more difficult to argue with a tractor, and not just because tractors don't talk ("They might, buddy." -- The Couch). No, it's more difficult to argue with a tractor because a tractor is an obvious improvement. It speaks through results, nothing more. 

Contra Beaconsfield

As I've written before, accepting the role technology has in changing the political facts on the ground is what Whittaker Chambers called "the Beaconsfield position" (Edmund Burke was from Beaconsfield). In a letter to Bill Buckley he wrote:

Briefly, I remain a dialectician; and history tells me that the rock-core of the Conservative Position, or any fragment of it, can be held realistically only if conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses -- needs and hopes, which, like the masses themselves, are the product of machines. For, of course, our fight, as I think we said, is only incidentally with socialists or other heroes of that kidney. [Essentially], it is with machines. A conservatism that cannot face the facts of the machine and mass production, and its consequences in government and politics, is foredoomed to futility and petulance. A conservatism that allows for them has an eleventh-hour chance of rallying what is sound in the West. All else is a dream, and, as [Helmuth] von Moltke remarked about universal peace, "not a very sweet dream at that." This is, of course, the Beaconsfield position. Inevitably, it goads one's brothers to raise their knives against the man who holds it. Sadder yet, that man can never blame them, for he shares their feelings even when directed against himself, since he, no less than they, is also a Tory. Only, he is a Tory who means to live. And to live is not to hold the lost redoubt. To live is to maneuver.

I know many liberals agree with this sort of argument. They use it to advance the idea that the Constitution is outdated -- "the Founding Fathers didn't know about airplanes!!!!! So therefore guns for no one and abortions for everybody!" -- but I take from this the opposite conclusion. I believe in encouraging innovation, yet I also think the rapidity of technological change should make us revere enduring institutions more, not less. Normally, it'd be around here that I'd bring up Chesterton's fence again. But I've been getting my Burke on of late. I review Yuval Levin's wonderful book, The Great Debate, for the upcoming issue of Commentary and it's had me rereading and renoodling a lot of stuff

I couldn't get too deep into it in the review, but one of the things I find most interesting in Burke is his Hayekian side. He doesn't believe that the past is a repository of genius or perfection, far from it. He believes the present is better than the past -- at least his present -- and that society should move toward a perfect, albeit unattainable, ideal. But what makes improvement possible is continuity with the past, not breaking from it. 

Yuval contrasts Burke's views with Thomas Paine's faith in the "Eternal NOW" (the all caps are Paine's). Paine believes every generation is the only game in town and it needs to align everything with its needs and principles. Burke believes that each generation inherits an already existing society from its parents and is obliged to try to leave it in slightly better shape for the next generation. If "the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken and no one generation could link with the other," Burke writes, then "men would become little better than the flies of a summer."

Burke, of course is right. The challenge for each new generation is figuring out what's worth keeping and what worth tinkering with. The progressive attitude is that everything is eligible not just for tinkering, but wholesale replacement. The people who lived yesterday were idiots, but we are geniuses! The conservative attitude is to assume that our parents and grandparents weren't fools and that they did some things for good reasons. But -- and here is the Hayekian part -- it's also possible that some things our forebears bequeathed us are good for no "reason" at all. Friedrich Hayek argued that many of our institutions and customs emerged from "spontaneous order" -- that is they weren't designed on a piece of paper, they emerged, authorless, to fulfill human needs through lived experience, just as our genetic "wisdom" is acquired through trial and error. Paths in the forest aren't necessarily carved out on purpose. Rather they emerge over years of foot traffic. 

This reminds me of a story Kevin Williamson tells in his book.

There is a lovely apocryphal story, generally told about Dwight D. Eisenhower during his time as president of Columbia University: The school was growing, necessitating an expansion of the campus, which produced a very hot dispute between two groups of planners and architects about where the sidewalks should go. One camp insisted that it was obvious -- self-evident! -- that the sidewalks had to be arranged thus, as any rational person could see, while the other camp argued for something very different, with the same appeals to obviously, self-evident, rational evidence. Legend has it that Eisenhower solved the problem by ordering that the sidewalks not be laid down at all for a year: The students would trample paths in the grass, and the builders would then pave over where the students were actually walking. Neither of the plans that had been advocated matched what the students actually did when left to their own devices. There are two radically different ways of looking at the world embedded in that story: Are our institutions here to tell us where to go, or are they here to help smooth the way for us as we pursue our own ends, going our own ways?

The paths were formally recognized by the planners only after the paths were created through human experience. In the parable of the fence, Chesterton says you must know why the fence was built before you can tear it down. But Burke and Hayek get at something even deeper: What if no one built the fence? Okay, that would be weird. But metaphorically, what if no one built it. Or what if everyone built the fence without realizing it. What if we are surrounded by fences that were never consciously built or planned but were instead the natural consequence of lived experience like the footpath at Columbia?
My inner Hayek and Burke believes this to be the case. So much of what makes civilization civilized is intangible, spontaneous, and mysterious. An unknowable number of our greatest laws are hidden, our greatest wisdom is authorless, and our most valuable treasures are in our hearts. This should foster enormous humility about how to out-think humanity. The rules should follow the experience, whenever possible, not the other way around. Burke once told a friend that "every political question I have ever known has had so much of the pro and con in it that nothing but the success could decide which proposition was to have been adopted."

Thomas Paine, anticipating a lot of anarcho-libertarian types, believed that if you looked back to the founding of monarchies you'd find mere villains and brutes who established themselves as better than their fellow men by force of arms. And he was right! A point Burke sort of tacitly acknowledged. But his response to such claims was, in effect, so what? Of course, there was evil in the past, of course mistakes were made. But as societies advance, they slowly -- sometimes too slowly (See, "Slavery, U.S.) -- correct out the mistakes or simply build successes on top of them. This is something I was getting at in The Tyranny of Clichés in the chapter on dogma.

It is true that many dogmas are built upon mistakes. But that doesn't mean the resulting edifice is not worthwhile. A ship may sink because of the blunder of the captain, but the resulting sunken wreckage beneath the waves may serve as a bountiful reef supporting a wealth of new life. So it is with humanity and her institutions. Columbus "discovered" America by mistake and the world is better for what was built upon that mistake. How many beloved children were born thanks to some capricious accident? We are told that the institution of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman was a mistake, unchartered by the laws of evolution and unlicensed by the conclusions of science. Maybe so. But what was built upon the rock of that "mistake" is not so easily or desirably undone even if we are willing to admit the existence of an error committed somewhere in the ancient recesses of prehistory. If tomorrow science tells us that it would make more sense to make stoplights green instead of red, the price of the resulting chaos would not be worth the gains in rational organization. Indeed, a reasonable man understands that the costs of ripping up the old and tried are often too expensive for the theoretical promises of the new and untried.

Where Was I?

Oh right, robots. I am open to the idea that our robot future will be super-terrific awesome. But I am far from convinced. Indeed, I'm downright nervous about it. Humans find happiness through finding meaning in their lives. For many of us that comes from faith, family, and friends. But it also comes from work -- both in the occupational sense, but also in the sense of struggling to accomplish something. I don't think there's nobility in poverty, but I do think there's nobility in work, even menial work. Indeed, as anyone who has had a menial job will attest, they can be the most rewarding, because they build good character and ingrain good habits. 

Now, it's entirely possible that robots will free lots of people from drudgery and let them become full-time spoken-word poets or basset-hound wranglers. Maybe robots will make it easier for us to do complete re-enactments of the mall chase scene from the Blues Brothers in Lego. Note, I said "easier" not "possible" because it's already been done. I for one would be delighted to have a permanent robot slave rub my feet while I write this "news"letter. But when you look at what is already happening to men in our society as good-paying strong-back jobs vanish, I can't help but worry that robots won't just take menial and dangerous jobs, they will, for some people at least, also take many of the most redeeming habits of the human heart as well.

Jimmy Carter's Costly Patent Mistake
His 1979 proposal has led to ill-conceived protection for software ideas and a tidal wave of litigation.
L. Gordon Crovitz

Dec. 15, 2013 6:31 p.m. ET

Washington doesn't agree on much, but all three branches of government now have plans to reform the country's patent system. What's not widely understood is that this marks the failure of one of Washington's most ambitious experiments in industrial policy.

Today's patent mess can be traced to a miscalculation by Jimmy Carter, who thought granting more patents would help overcome economic stagnation. In 1979, his Domestic Policy Review on Industrial Innovation proposed a new Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which Congress created in 1982. Its first judge explained: "The court was formed for one need, to recover the value of the patent system as an incentive to industry."

The country got more patents—at what has turned out to be a huge cost. The number of patents has quadrupled, to more than 275,000 a year. But the Federal Circuit approved patents for software, which now account for most of the patents granted in the U.S.—and for most of the litigation. Patent trolls buy up vague software patents and demand legal settlements from technology companies. Instead of encouraging innovation, patent law has become a burden on entrepreneurs, especially startups without teams of patent lawyers.
Enlarge Image

Samsung and Apple attorneys battle over software patents, Nov. 15. Reuters

Until the court changed the rules, there hadn't been patents for algorithms and software. Ideas alone aren't supposed to be patentable. In a case last year involving medical tests, the U.S. Supreme Court observed that neither Archimedes nor Einstein could have patented their theories.

Many software patents simply describe ideas that happen to be carried out through digital technology. Amazon got a patent for the concept of "one-click checkout." Apple AAPL +1.27% last year applied for a patent on the idea of offering author autographs for e-books. There are so many software patents that smartphones include some 250,000 purportedly patented processes, which is why Google, GOOG +1.04% Samsung and Apple are suing one another around the world.

In software, innovations build on one another so seamlessly there is no way to follow them. There is no national registry of software. Developers and engineers can't track who claims patents to what processes. In contrast, drug researchers consult a publication called the Orange Book that lists all the patents for pharmaceuticals, enabling them to avoid infringements.

A system of property rights is flawed if no one can know what's protected. That's what happens when the government grants 20-year patents for vague software ideas in exchange for making the innovation public. In a recent academic paper, George Mason researchers Eli Dourado and Alex Tabarrok argued that the system of "broad and fuzzy" software patents "reduces the potency of search and defeats one of the key arguments for patents, the dissemination of information about innovation."

The Government Accountability Office agrees. "Many recent patent infringement lawsuits are related to the prevalence of low-quality patents; that is, patents with unclear property rights, overly broad claims, or both," it said in a recent report. "Claims in software-related patents are often overly broad, unclear or both." Boston University law professors Michael Meurer and James Bessen have estimated the direct and indirect costs of litigation against technology companies at $80 billion per year.

Instead of focusing on the problem with software patents, reforms backed by the White House and Congress would tweak patent litigation for all industries. The House this month passed a bill requiring more specificity in claims and limiting costly discovery, but doing nothing about dubious software patents.

The House rejected a proposal that would have expedited the process for the Patent Office to review questionable software patents. Lobbyists from companies like IBM IBM +2.33% and Microsoft, MSFT +0.49% which make billions of dollars a year from licensing software patents, helped block this reform.

For now, the best prospect for real reform is in the Supreme Court, which earlier this month agreed to hear CLS Bank v. Alice Corp., a case about whether a bank's computerized process for settling transactions via an escrow can be patented. A judge on the appeals court noted this idea was "literally ancient," developed during the Roman Empire, and should not get a patent now just because a computer is involved.

The Supreme Court has invalidated software patents in earlier cases, but the justices need to draw a brighter line with clear limits for the lower courts, especially the Federal Circuit. Simply qualifying ideas or business processes with the phrase "and do it on a computer" shouldn't be enough.

The justices should also acknowledge that creating a special court to promote patents is an experiment gone awry. Far from helping the economy, software patents are a litigation tax on new technology. The Constitution calls for patents "to Promote the progress of Science," not for patents to undermine innovation.

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Google/GOOG has purchased Boston Dynamics, a developer of advanced robots and related software for the U.S. military. Boston has "gained an international reputation for machines that walk with an uncanny sense of balance and...run faster than the fastest humans," the NYT writes.

Boston's products include Atlas, a humanoid robot able to handle difficult terrain; and Cheetah, the fastest legged robot in the world with a top speed of over 29 mph.

Boston is Google's eighth robotics acquisition this year, with the Web giant looking at manufacturing and retail applications.

A video of Boston Dynamics BigDog, scarily impressive. Especially when you consider this technology is from 5+ years ago...




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