Category: Innovation


Innovate or Innovation, Your Assurance of Meaningless Assertions

In the words of Portlandia, innovation is over. Or as another era of hipsters might say, innovation is dead anyway (Swingers). Take a look at the posturing of European Publishers Council and Google over the recent German bill to force search to pay for material longer than a snippet.

“As a result of today’s vote, ancillary copyright in its most damaging form has been stopped,” Google said in a statement. “However, the best outcome for Germany would be no new legislation because it threatens innovation, particularly for start-ups. It’s also not necessary because publishers and Internet companies can innovate together, just as Google has done in many other countries.”

Translation: Insert resistance is futile jokes as needed, but you will work with us and win! We all will win, because we innovate and belong to the Church of Innovation (located somewhere south of San Francisco and north of San Jose).

“With the right legal conditions and the technical tools provided by the Linked Content Coalition, it will be easy to access and use content legally,” the European Publishers Council said in a statement (PDF) on Friday. “This will mean that publishers will have the incentive to continue to populate the internet with high-quality, authoritative, diverse content and to support new, innovative business models for online content.”

Translation: We have no idea what is next. But please give us more time, protection, and money. We promise we will come up with something new.

Confession: Have I invoked innovation. Of course. It is seductive. It is too seductive. Pam Samuelson is a fan of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, as is Neil Richards, and as am I. I must confess that I have sinned. I slipped away from Orwell’s mandate and went with the easy, meaningless word. I hate when that happens. I will try and stop.

Of course, what other word or words would say more is the next struggle. The German law says only a snippet is allowed. Right. What’s a snippet? Someone says innovate. I say, “Right. What’s innovate?” I hope to find out. If I am lucky, I may be like Bill Cosby’s Noah and come up with an answer no one else thought of. Hmm is that innovat… Khannn!!!!

Enjoy the clip


MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

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Calling Klingons and Romulans, Cloaking Now Available (Sort of)

According to the BBC, “Scientists have succeeded in “cloaking” an object perfectly for the first time, rendering a centimetre-scale cylinder invisible to microwaves.” OK this method works only for microwaves, works only in one direction, and not for visible light. Nonetheless, “The design principles that make the cloak work in microwaves would be difficult to implement at optical wavelengths. But microwaves are important in many applications, principally telecommunications and radar, and improved versions of cloaking could vastly improve microwave performance.”

The advance is cool to me in that the ideas started in 2006 from a paper on “transformation optics.” with an implementation of the idea coming that year as well. So the science fiction world of true cloaking is not here, but the fact that a few folks did some basics science, a test application followed fast, and now a full version of the microwave idea is in place within seven years is rather great. The practical side of the work may mean that funds are coming quickly from industry and the government. I am not sure which. Still I love the idea that one of the oldest fantasy/sci-fi bits of magic, invisibility, is a little closer to reality.


BRIGHT IDEAS: Werbach and Hunter on For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business

This Bright Ideas post looks at Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter’s new book, For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. I have posted about it, but Kevin and Dan were gracious enough to answer some questions. We go into what is gamification, the differences between internal and external uses of the technique, how it relates to super-crunching, and the ethical and legal implications of the technique.

Kevin and Dan, you have drilled into an area, gamification, that seems almost arcane, a technique known to initiates. Why do it?

[KW] We actually think gamification is quite relevant for a broad range of audiences. First of all, video games have a huge impact on our culture. The games industry generates more revenue annually than Hollywood does at the box office. According to a Pew survey, 97% of American teeagers play video games, and it’s not just young people: the Entertainment Software Association reports that the average age of a gamer is 30, with almost half of them women. We can dismiss video games the way we used to dismiss social networking… and e-commerce before that… and the Internet before that… or we can look at why they are so powerful and apply those lessons in other contexts.

Second, the core goal of gamification is motivation. Think about all the situations where motivation matters: at work, at home, as consumers, in legal compliance, in social activism, and in collective action, to name a few. In all these cases, greater engagement drives material results. If there were motivational techniques that were proven in real-world businesses, consistent with decades of psychological research, and synergistic with big data and other leading-edge technology trends, wouldn’t you want to understand them?

And third, gamification is happening. It’s a rapidly growing business trend among startups, Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, and even government agencies. It raises a host of significant legal, operational, and ethical issues, as well as a variety of practical business concerns. We felt that my work on emerging technology and policy trends through the Supernova conference, and Dan’s scholarship on virtual worlds and background in cognitive psychology, gave us a unique ability to tackle these questions in a serious way. That’s why we put together the first gamification course at Wharton, and wrote For the Win as business guide to this emerging field.

OK, so what is gamification?

[KW] Gamification means applying design techniques from video games to business and other problems. In other words, it’s the process of motivating customers, employees, and communities by thinking like a game designer. It doesn’t mean turning everything into a game. Quite the contrary! Gamification involves incorporating elements of games into existing activities, the way Nike weaves levels and awards into its Nike+ system, or Microsoft motivated employees to review half a million Windows 7 dialogue boxes for localization errors with a competition among offices.

When you look at it that way, the basic concept of gamification is pretty simple, but doing it well is hard. Even experienced game designers often create games that aren’t much fun. Executing gamification effectively requires a combination of skills and knowledge, which we describe in For the Win.

Right. I see games are important in that they are big business and a big part of many folks’ lives. Let’s talk a little more about motivation. Is this approach a sort of applied behavioral economic one? Someone identifies levers and then builds systems to nudge or indeed shift the way others engage and behave?

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Robots for Relief: Disaster Robot Challenge

With Sandy upon the U.S. Eastern coast, DARPA’s “Robotics Challenge” could not come fast enough. As NPR reports, robots were used after Fukushima, but the need for robots anyone can use and especially for disaster operations is high. The contest will be a “junkyard-wars-style competition next year. The robots will have to open a blocked door, operate a valve, climb a ladder. And perhaps the toughest: get into and drive a vehicle.” As my friend Brett Kennedy of JPL notes in the piece, JPL’s RoboSimian has many advantages but may not do so well with car driving as yet.

This challenge offers $2 million to the winner, but the real prize maybe like the self-driving car challenge. Great technology is developed, industry sees it potential, and a whole new industry blossoms. There are some questions about what technology can be proprietary when the core was from government funds. Peter Lee’s work on this point comes to mind. Nonetheless, I dig this approach and the goals. Cylons to help us in nasty places and nasty jobs, oops, did I say cylons? Seriously, I hope we don’t need these sorts of options for Sandy or other disasters, but the odds are we will. So working on finding better ways to deal with the aftermath of such events is great and smart in my view.

The video below is from the Drexel project, Hubo, I believe.


Gamification – Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter’s new book

Gamification? Is that a word? Why yes it is, and Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter want to tell us what it means. Better yet, they want to tell us how it works in their new book For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business (Wharton Press). The authors get into many issues starting with a refreshing admission that the term is clunky but nonetheless captures a simple, powerful idea: one can use game concepts in non-game contexts and achieve certain results that might be missed. As they are careful to point out, this is not game theory. This is using insights from games, yes video games and the like, to structure how we interact with a problem or goal. I have questions about how well the approach will work and potential downsides (I am after all a law professor). Yet, the authors explore cases where the idea has worked, and they address concerns about where the approach can fail. I must admit I have only an excerpt so far. But it sets out the project while acknowledging possible objections that popped to mind quite well. In short, I want to read the rest. Luckily the Wharton link above or if you prefer Amazon Kindle are both quite reasonably priced. (Amazon is less expensive).

If you wonder about games, play games, and maybe have thought what is with all this badging, point accumulation, leader board stuff at work (which I did while I was at Google), this book looks to be a must read. And if you have not encountered these changes, I think you will. So reading the book may put you ahead of the group in understanding what management or companies are doing to you. The book also sets out cases and how the process works, so it may give you ideas about how to use games to help your endeavor and impress your manager. For the law folks out there, I think this area raises questions about behavioral economics and organizations that will lay ahead. In short, the authors have a tight, clear book that captures the essence of a movement. That alone merits a hearty well done.


Because It’s Cool, Time Lapse from Space

I sometimes suggest that folks, especially lawyer folks, should look up and remember the coolness of the world. This post of star trails and city lights looks down, down at the Earth from the ISS. It’s sort of 2001 updated. According to Wired, “Photographer Christoph Malin from Austria created the stunning film by stacking image sequences taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.”


One step closer to Star Trek, painless injections

Remember the syringe looking device that made a hiss and allowed Dr. McCoy to sedate folks? It looks like we might be avoiding needles and using lasers (so maybe Dr. Evil is happy somewhere) to deliver medicines. And it may be pain-free.

A series of very short laser pulses, lasting no more than 250 millionths of a second each, generates a vapor bubble inside the driving fluid. The bubble creates a pressure or elastic strain on the membrane, which forces the drug to be ejected through the tiny nozzle as a narrow jet no more than 150 micrometers (millionths of a meter) wide, or slightly thicker than a human hair.

Yoh explains that the jet pressure is higher than the tensile strength of skin, so it penetrates smoothly into the targeted depth underneath, causing no splashback.

The team has tested the device on guinea pig skin. This showed the jet drives the drug up to several millimeters under the skin, without damaging surrounding tissue.

The speed and narrowness of the jet should be enough to make the procedure painless, says Yoh. But just the fact they are aiming for the epidermal layer just under the surface of the skin, about 500 micrometers down, where there are no nerve endings, should already ensure it is “completely pain-free”.

The hope is that the device may be developed so that it could be used for mass vaccinations.


The Correct Word is Desource, Not Outsource.

Everyone thinks jobs are being outsourced; they are, in fact, being desourced. When Mitt Romney claims he will create jobs, when Barak Obama claims the same, when Google, Apple, or Amazon assert they build out the economy, they all overstate. Worse, they ignore the reality that both manufacturing and service jobs are dying. Robots, artificial intelligence, and the new information-at-scale industries all but assure that outcome. The ability to build and sell without humans is already here. I am not saying that these shifts are inherently bad. They may even be inevitable. What we do next is the question. To answer that question, we need to understand the ways humans will be eliminated from manufacturing and service jobs. We need to understand what I call desourcing.

Focus on manufacturing is a distraction, a sideshow; so too is faith in service jobs. A recent New York Times article about Apple, noted that manufacturing accounts for only about eight percent of the U.S. labor force. And, The Atlantic’s Making It in America piece shows how manufacturing is being changed by robots and other automation. According to some, the real engine is service labor “and any recovery with real legs, labor experts say, will be powered and sustained by this segment of the economy.” That is where desourcing comes in. Many talk about the non-career path of service sector jobs. A future of jobs that have low pay and little room to rise is scary and a problem. Amazon explains why that world might be heaven.

The world of low wage, high stress service work is being replaced by automation. Amazon gave up its fight against state taxes, because it is moving to a model of local distribution centers so that it can deliver same-day delivery of goods. According to Slate, Amazon will spend more than $1 billion to build centers all over the U.S. and hire thousands of people for those centers. The real story is that like any company Amazon wants to reduce operation costs; it must automate or perish as Technology Review put it. It will do that, in part, by using robots to handle the goods. Self-driving cars and autonomous stocking clerks are the logical steps after ATMs and self-serve kiosks at movie theaters and grocery stores. I am always amazed at the folks who line up at movie theater ticket windows rather than use the kiosks. A friend said to me that we should walk up to the window to keep those jobs. It is a nice idea, but I think untenable. We all want to move faster and pay less. Welcome to desourcing.

Desourcing means reducing or eliminating humans from the production or service equation. Humans are friction points. More and more we can reduce those points of contact. We no longer need to send work to other humans.

There are many economic questions that are beyond what can be addressed in a short piece. But here are some ideas on which to chew. The returns from this approach are tremendous for the companies that desource. For example, by one account, Apple makes $473,000 per employee; yet “About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year.” So we may satisfy our need for instant gratification as companies reduce their costs, but that money will go to corporate bottom lines. Whether it will really reach the rest of the economy is not so clear precisely because a smart company will invest in desourcing. I suppose at some point companies will have to realize that they need masses who can buy stuff. Yet I think some studies indicate that serving the upper end of the economy works better than serving the masses. In theory, a company may offer goods at lower prices but to do that, it will need lower production costs. And less workers means lower costs.

I am not saying I know what will solve this riddle. I offer desourcing, because I have not seen a satisfying answer to the issue. There may not be one; for we may be stil sorting what to do as the digital age takes full hold. As the computer science folks say in early training, “Hello world.”


My Brand Journey, Part I

Right out of law school, brands were on my mind. I began at Quinn, Emanuel and learned trademark law practice there. I picked up on the way companies such as Mattel, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (think Oscar Awards), Lockheed Martin, and others thought about trademarks. They called them brands. My paper with Sandy Rierson, Confronting the Genericism Conundrum started my work on the topic. We looked at the core value of a brand and started to poke at the blended functions of a brand with which trademark law struggled. We argued that information costs have dropped and that courts looked to uses that did not matter as they determined the status of a mark (at 1834). We also showed in relying on dubious evidence and not paying attention to the broader linguistic aspects of trademarks, courts set up incentives for policing that not only made little sense but are wasteful, not to mention fostering unnecessary clashes between expression and trademark interests (1835-1842). At that point we argued that looking at how consumers encounter the mark in a market setting may help parse the issue. As we put it,

Consider that a person with a cold can walk into a colleague’s office, ask for a “kleenex” and be handed a tissue but not a Kleenex®-brand tissue. At that moment the person with the runny nose is likely to accept the tissue offered without complaining or caring about the brand. When that same person is in a supermarket, however, he may certainly care whether he buys Kleenex® versus Puffs® brand facial tissue, due to his experience with the brands’ relative softness or thickness.

After that piece, I read more and thought about whether trademark law and the search costs approach mapped to branding practices. They don’t. More on that in the next part.

The image is of a coaster available here.