Richard Posner Seeks to Limit and Reform the Patent System


“Judge Richard Posner.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

I am deeply conflicted about patents. On the one hand, property rights are important, both ethically and in terms of economic incentives. On the other hand, patents seem to restrict innovation.
The views of Posner are worth serious consideration. My own current view is that the patent rules need to be reformed and their implementation made more efficient. But I do not think the patent system should be abolished.

(p. B1) While technology companies continue to fight over smartphone patents, one judge has fought his way into the ring.

He is 73-year-old Richard Posner, among the most potent forces on the federal bench and an outspoken critic of the patent system.
Presiding over a lawsuit between Apple Inc. . . . and Google Inc.’s . . . Motorola Mobility in June, he dropped a bombshell, scrapping the entire case and preventing the companies from refiling their claims. The ruling startled the litigants in the case and fueled a national discussion about whether the patent system (p. B5) is broken.
. . .
In the June ruling, explaining why he wouldn’t ban Motorola products from the shelves, Judge Posner said: “An injunction that imposes greater costs on the defendant than it confers benefits on the plaintiff reduces net social welfare.”
Judge Posner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has continued to press the issue.
This month, he wrote an essay in the Atlantic headlined, “Why There Are Too Many Patents In America.” He said “most industries could get along fine without patent protection” and that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has done a woeful job, calling it “understaffed,” and “many patent examinations…perfunctory.”
He saved ammunition for juries and fellow jurists. “Judges have difficulty understanding modern technology and jurors have even greater difficulty,” he wrote. He suggested several reforms to the patent system, including shortening the patent term for inventors in some industries and expanding the authority of the Patent and Trademark Office to try patents cases.
. . .
Judge Posner’s intellectual curiosity is well-known and “people assume he has no political ax to grind because he’s not trying to advance the fortunes of any particular segment of the economy,” said Arthur D. Hellman, a law professor at University of Pittsburgh who studies the judiciary.
Yet his ruling poses a difficult question for the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the specialized one that handles intellectual property cases, about whether infringement matters without damages.
Peter Menell, a law professor at UC Berkeley, likened it to the old thought experiment that begins “If a tree falls in the woods.” He said: “If there are no damages, do you need to have a trial?”
Juge Posner also rejected Google’s bid to block the sale of iPhones that allegedly infringed a so-called “standards-essential patent” owned by Google. Standards-essential patents protect innovations used in technologies that industries collectively agree to use, like Wi-Fi or 3G. A company that holds one of these patents stands to profit enormously, because its competitors have to pay it for licenses to use the technology.
But Judge Posner ruled that holders of such patents aren’t entitled to injunctions. Michael Carrier, a law professor at Rutgers University, Camden, said the opinion on standards-essential patents came amid a groundswell of opposition to injunctions for such patents and could put an end to the practice among U.S. federal judges.

For the full story, see:
JOE PALAZZOLO and ASHBY JONES. “Also on Trial: A Judge’s Worldview.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 24, 2012): B1 & B5.
(Note: all ellipses were added except for the one internal to the quote from Judge Posner’s Atlantic blog posting.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date July 23, 2012 and has the title “Apple and Samsung Patent Suit Puts Judge Posner’s Worldview on Trial.” The print version of the title could be interpreted as a sub-title of the main title to the accompanying adjacent article. The title of the main article was “Apple v. Samsung; In Silicon Valley, Patents Go on Trial.” The last two paragraphs above appear only in the online, but not in the print, version of the article.)

The Atlantic blog posting by Posner can be found at:
Posner, Richard A. “Why There Are Too Many Patents in America.” In The Atlantic blog, posted on July 12, 2012 at:
(Note: the WSJ article above implies that the Posner essay was published in the print version of The Atlantic, but I can only find it in Posner’s blog on The Atlantic web site.)

Simple Algorithms Predict Better than Trained Experts

(p. 222) I never met Meehl, but he was one of my heroes from the time I read his Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence.
In the slim volume that he later called “my disturbing little book,” Meehl reviewed the results of 20 studies that had analyzed whether clinical predictions based on the subjective impressions of trained professionals were more accurate than statistical predictions made by combining a few scores or ratings according to a rule. In a typical study, trained counselors predicted the grades of freshmen at the end of the school year. The counselors interviewed each student for forty-five minutes. They also had access to high school grades, several aptitude tests, and a four-page personal statement. The statistical algorithm used only a fraction of this information: high school grades and one aptitude test. Nevertheless, the formula was more accurate than 11 of the 14 counselors. Meehl reported generally sim-(p. 223)ilar results across a variety of other forecast outcomes, including violations of parole, success in pilot training, and criminal recidivism.
Not surprisingly, Meehl’s book provoked shock and disbelief among clinical psychologists, and the controversy it started has engendered a stream of research that is still flowing today, more than fifty years after its publication. The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tantamount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convincingly documented.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
(Note: italics in original.)

Neural Implants “Restored Their Human Functionality”


Ray Kurzweil. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C12) Inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil is a pioneer in artificial intelligence–the principal developer of the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, and the first text-to-speech synthesizer, among other breakthroughs. He is also a writer who explores the future of information technology and how it is changing our world.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Kurzweil and The Wall Street Journal’s Alan Murray discussed advances in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and what it means to be human. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
. . .
MR. MURRAY: What about life expectancy? Is there a limit?
MR. KURZWEIL: No. We’re constantly pushing back life expectancy. Now it’s going to go into high gear because of the inherent exponential progression of information technology. According to my models, within 15 years we’ll be adding more than a year to your remaining life expectancy each year.
MR. MURRAY: So if you play the odds right, you never hit the endpoint.
MR. KURZWEIL: Right. If you can hang in there for another 15 years, we could get to that point.

What Is Human?
MR. MURRAY: What does it mean to be human in a post-2029 world?
MR. KURZWEIL: It’s a slippery slope. But we’ve already gone down that slope. I’ve talked to people who have neural implants in their brain, for Parkinson’s, and I’ve asked them, “Are you still human? Are you less human?”
Generally speaking, they say, “It’s part of me.” And they’re very proud of it, because it restored their human functionality.

For the full interview, see:
Alan Murray, interviewer. “Man or Machine? Ray Kurzweil on how long it will be before computers can do everything the brain can do.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 29, 2012): C12.
(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original.)

Possible Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Entrepreneurial Journey

(p. 4) GOOD IDEAS TAKE TIME After he was ousted from Apple, Mr. Jobs founded NeXT in 1985. It produced a powerful desktop computer, a stylish black cube, and its initial market was going to be in education. The idea was that the machine would be more than hardware and software; it would also offer content, “a universe of wisdom,” recalls Michael Hawley, a computer scientist who worked closely with Mr. Jobs at NeXT and lived part time in Mr. Jobs’s house, as Mr. Hawley shuttled between California and his post at the M.I.T. Media Lab.
NeXT computers, in Mr. Jobs’s vision, would marry technology and the liberal arts by including digital books, music and art. Mr. Jobs began pursuing the rights to works that could be converted to digital form. He persuaded a few publishers that because they would save the expense of paper, printing and distribution, NeXT should pay a royalty that was a fraction of the cost of a printed book. Mr. Jobs, Mr. Hawley recalled, struck a deal with the Oxford University Press for the complete works of Shakespeare for a royalty of $1 a digital copy.
NeXT’s foray into education fizzled; its machines were too expensive for that market. But Mr. Jobs’s concept and business model for digital media were “the instinct that was translated to Apple with the iTunes store, 99-cents-a-song pricing and all the media offerings that have followed,” Mr. Hawley says.
“When Steve believed in an idea, he was both passionate and patient, scratching away over the years until he got it right,” says Mr. Hawley, a scientist, concert pianist and host of the EG Conference, an annual gathering for technologists, educators and people in media and entertainment.
DON’T DWELL ON MISTAKES Steve Capps, a computer scientist, describes creating the Macintosh, which shipped in 1984, as a constant process of making decisions — part experiment and part product development, with steps ahead mixed with many setbacks. “Steve kind of knew what he wanted, but he didn’t precisely,” says Mr. Capps, who designed software for Macintosh.
Mr. Jobs, Mr. Capps remembers, was the arbiter on countless hardware, software and design choices. “His combination of incisiveness and decisiveness, I think, really explained his success,” Mr. Capps says.
Mr. Jobs was also decisive in recognizing mistakes, even when they were his own. For example, he favored one model of a disk drive — for reading computer programs stored on small, removable so-called floppy disks — while other members of the team championed another design. They kept their disk project going surreptitiously. When they showed him the result, he embraced it. “He turned on a dime,” Mr. Capps says. “Don’t dwell on your mistakes. It’s a great lesson.”
PASSION COUNTS FOR A LOT The relentless intensity and total commitment that Mr. Jobs brought to his work, former colleagues and friends agree, had a simple explanation: he genuinely enjoyed what he did and found it worthwhile.
Andy Hertzfeld, a member of original Macintosh team who is now an engineer at Google, says: “The most important thing that I learned from Steve is to always follow your heart. He believed that the only way to do truly great work is to adore what you are doing.”
Mr. Jobs made a lot of money over the years, for himself and for Apple shareholders. But money never seemed to be his principal motivation. One day in the late 1990s, Mr. Jobs and I were walking near his home in Palo Alto. Internet stocks were getting bubbly at the time, and Mr. Jobs spoke of the proliferation of start-ups, with so many young entrepreneurs focused on an “exit strategy,” selling their companies for a quick and hefty profit.
“It’s such a small ambition and sad really,” Mr. Jobs said. “They should want to build something, something that lasts.”

For the full commentary, see:
STEVE LOHR. “The Power of Taking the Big Chance.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 4.
(Note: bold in original.)
(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011.)
(Note: the same title, on the same page, was used as heading for two different articles on Steve Jobs–Lohr’s on the left side, and Stross’ on the right side.)

Edison Was Great Inventor; “Jobs Was the Far Shrewder Businessman”

EdisonThomasAlva2012-06-22.jpg “Thomas Alva Edison.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

I have not read Stross’ books on Jobs and Edison. According to some of the Amazon reviews of the Jobs book, back in 1993 Stross was much more critical of Jobs than he is in the piece below:

(p. 4) I wrote a book about Mr. Jobs in 1993.
. . .
Years later, I wrote a biography of Edison, a person whom Mr. Jobs admired. When you compare the two personalities and their careers, a few similarities emerge immediately. Both had less formal schooling than most of their respective peers. Both possessed the ability to visualize projects on a grand scale. Both followed an inner voice when making decisions. And both had terrific tempers that could make their employees quake.
. . .
Mr. Jobs was the far shrewder businessman, even if he never talked about wealth as a matter of personal interest. When Edison died, he left behind an estate valued at about $12 million, or about $180 million in today’s dollars. His friend Henry Ford had once joked that Edison was “the world’s greatest inventor and the world’s worst businessman.” Mr. Jobs was worth a commanding $6.5 billion.
Mr. Jobs was perhaps the most beloved billionaire the world has ever known. Richard Branson’s tribute captures the way people felt they could identify with Mr. Jobs’s life narrative: “So many people drew courage from Steve and related to his life story: adoptees, college dropouts, struggling entrepreneurs, ousted business leaders figuring out how to make a difference in the world, and people fighting debilitating illness. We have all been there in some way and can see a bit of ourselves in his personal and professional successes and struggles.”

For the full commentary, see:
RANDALL STROSS. “The Power of Taking the Big Chance.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 4.
(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011, and has the title “The Wizard and the Mortal: Two Sides of Genius.”)
(Note: in the print version, the same title, on the same page, was used as heading for two different articles on Steve Jobs–Lohr’s on the left side, and Stross’ on the right side.)

Stross’ books on Jobs and Edison are:
Stross, Randall E. Steve Jobs & the Next Big Thing. New York: Scribner Publishers, 1993.
Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

Experts “Produce Poorer Predictions than Dart-Throwing Monkeys”

(p. 219) Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur in the not too distant future, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Which country would become the next big emerging market? In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. He also asked the experts how they reached their conclusions, how they reacted when proved wrong, and how they evaluated evidence that did not support their positions. Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that thing.
The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Tetlock’s book is:
Tetlock, Philip E. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Joe Biden’s Dad Told Him to “Get Up” in Face of Job Loss

Innovative entrepreneurs, through the process of creative destruction, provide us with wonderful new products and services. But sometimes the process also results in job loss. One response to the job loss is to shut down innovation. Another is to preach resilience. Joe Biden’s Dad said “get up.” (The clip is from a talk that Joe Biden gave to the National Press Club on August 1, 2007. The full talk is posted to the C-SPAN web site.)

A mainly similar presentation of the “get up” message is on p. xxii of Biden’s autobiography:
Biden, Joe. Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. New York: Random House, 2007.