Why Good Inventions Get Lost

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CleanTechnica’s authors write often about their experiences with electric vehicles. They detail experiences as they go off with spouses, children, friends, and even dogs. I wish I could do that, but I don’t have an EV — or any car at all. In fact, I don’t even drive. So, I hope nobody minds if I write about different sorts of adventures we do in my family, especially because there is a point to the story and how we deal with addressing climate change.

Let’s start with a little bit of an exposition.

In the early spring of 1945, the navigator of a destroyer taking part in a large-scale invasion saw that something was very wrong. He had the information about where the ships were supposed to be, but one ship was absent from the radar screen. Examining the display, he quickly found a blip that just should not have been where it was. The ship was over five miles off station. From his own ship, it was out of sight.

He could plot the ship’s position, speed, and course. A look at a chart showed him that it was about to hit a reef. Almost in a panic, he decided that there was no time even to alert his own captain — he had to act immediately. He thought for a split second about the trouble he was about to get into, and then he broke radio silence.

He radioed the destroyer and told its captain that it was about to run aground. He got an angry reply, something like, “How could you know that? You are miles away! You can’t even see me!” Then the ship ran aground.

Because radio silence had been broken, the communication was written up and passed to the admiral’s staff for review. The fact that an officer had broken radio silence turned out not to be much of an issue. Sometimes that is proper, as it clearly is to warn a ship that it was in immediate, and possibly consequential, danger. But the US Navy wanted to know one vitally important thing from the navigator: How did he know that the ship, which he couldn’t see, was about to run aground?

He told them he had been coming up with new ways to use radar. He had found ways to use it for navigation and fire control. He had invented radar navigation.

He was not the first person to invent radar navigation. That had already been done, though it was not exactly public knowledge. The admiral’s staff knew, but it was Top Secret and was only done on capital ships using the more sophisticated radar types they carried. The Navy did not know the more primitive radar units on destroyers could be used in such a way. The destroyer officer was asked to write up how to use the type of radar his ship had for navigation and fire control. He did the extra homework, and his work was distributed in a secret document to the smaller US Navy ships. Then, with very little thanks, he was basically left alone on the subject.

It takes an inventor to get a patent, but it is often the employer who owns it.

I know that story, because the officer was my father. He did invent other things, and he was even granted at least one patent. He never made money from any invention. Possibly the inventions that came after his Navy career were not worth much. But the one he wrote up for the Navy belonged to the Navy. That was, and is, how things are.

Of my closest relatives, more than half have been granted patents. The head of the patent division of one law office once told me that my family had more people coming up with inventions than any other he had heard of. One of us did make enough from his patents to pay his legal bills and stuff a lot of money into his pockets, but the rest of us discovered that inventions are not worth much. Most inventions are not awarded patents, even if they are great inventions. And most patents just give you a way to lose money in lawsuits.

To me, the interesting thing about that discovery is not the fact that most patents have below net zero earnings. What is interesting is the reasons why some inventions, regardless of whether they can be patented or not, never earn anyone any money. They are never marketed, and whatever societal good they might do is lost. I should probably tell readers about some of these, together with reasons why they can’t be developed.

Some inventions can’t be patented.

My own invention of a “polymodular” is a geometric modular structure that could be stored in little space, transported easily, and assembled quickly in times of need. It could be used as a permanent structure, but it can also be disassembled and reassembled in different shapes of different sizes. It reminds people of a geodesic dome, but that is not what it is.

I took this design to the inventions management branch of a major consultancy. The head of the branch agreed with me that the invention was potentially valuable. His engineers told him its development could do a lot of good for emergency and inexpensive structures. But his lawyers pointed out that geometric shapes cannot be patented under US patent law. And even if that problem was avoided, it could be infringed on massively, because companies would challenge the patent, saying it was issued in error. In other words, it might be a very valuable invention that could drive a patent owner into bankruptcy. And though the social good it could bring might have been great, it would not come about because the system we use requires payback on invention.

For those who are interested, a simple description of the polymodular can be found here.

Some fail because they are “not invented here.”

Another thing I invented was a way to represent non-numerical data, meaning words and phrases, in bit-wise format that could be operated on using logical operations of most computer CPUs. To test this, I defined 10,000 words, such that they could be put into 128-bit registers of a virtual computer. I then programmed the computer to give me every pair of words that had precisely the same relationship as a pair of words I inputted. I started with “car : small airplane,” so I was asking the computer to give me X and Y for the question, “A car is to a small airplane as X is to Y.”

As expected, I got such things as “taxi : air taxi” and “ambulance : air ambulance.” I also got one thing really unexpected. It was “lion : eagle.” So the computer was telling me that a car is to a small airplane as a lion is to an eagle. That was rather unexpected. But another thing was much more odd. Owl and hawk were both defined in the dictionary, but their relationship with a lion was not reported. If “lion : eagle” works, why not “lion : owl” or “lion : hawk”? It turned out the definitions of lion and eagle both had connotative values indicating that they are symbols of authority. (You can get a lot of information into 128 bits, if you know how!) Owl and hawk did not say that, so the program considered the comparison inexact.

This invention could, and did, get patented. It has one minor problem, which is that nobody wants it. It is an entirely different paradigm for AI than what the world is pursuing. But it was invented in my own mind, which is is very offputting for those who want to own an invention from before its conception.

Was that a loss? Maybe not. Maybe, from a societal point of view, we’re better off without it. I really don’t know.

File:Rube Goldberg's "Self-Operating Napkin" (cropped).gif
Rube Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin (public domain)

Some things really are too cheap to meter.

Those were things I invented that I couldn’t finance, and I think one of them, the polymodular, is potentially important. But my brother, Reid Harvey, invented something that I think is more important. It has a number of patents, and it has been endorsed by the UN, but it cannot make money for a simple reason: As good as it is, it is too easy and inexpensive to implement.

Reid invented a filter that deactivates biotic pathogens. It is made of porous ceramic, and it is simple enough that any village potter could make it. It can be cleaned easily, and will last until it breaks. The trick is that the ceramic has a tiny amount of silver in it, and the water passing through gets exposed to that silver, which is very destructive to bacteria and viruses.

Reid has been pushing the filter, along with other, similar things. But he has not earned much from them (maybe nothing, for all I know). They have been tested far and wide. The government of Bangladesh put water from the Ganges River though one and it came out with a bacteria count of zero. The UN said it was the most effective filter it had tested. But it has one really serious problem: The patent can be infringed on by any village potter. And that means defending the patent would require taking a world full of village potters to court. And that means nobody will invest in it. I think he must have got grants. He has gone all over the world showing people how to make his filter. But that is teaching people one classroom at a time.

The fact that no one wants to invest is really unfortunate. The result is that the filter is largely undeveloped in a world that needs clean water.

Caveat novator. (“Innovator beware!”)

These stories are just illustrations of a few things that could make the world a better place, but they don’t. Not all good inventions get patents, not all make it to market. And if they get to market, they might not make any money, regardless of how good they are. Capitalism, as we have implemented it, seems not to be the fertile ground for innovation that some claim it to be. I think that is partly because innovation has been taken over by big businesses.

I believe an examination of innovation, patents, and marketing implies that the chance of any innovation making money is very, very small. The number that could do social good and make it to market is miniscule. The system we use to establish ownership of ideas and compensate innovators seems to me to be broken in such a way that most innovators cannot benefit, and neither do the people who need their inventions.

For climate change, this implies that great innovatins might be available, if only we had a system that allows them to be fully developed.

Why Ayn Rand hasn’t rescued us — and never will.

When I was about seven years old, that might have been 1953, I saw a cartoon based on the song, “Casey Jones.” It was about an engineer on an express passenger train, who suddenly realized that the rails ahead of the train were blocked by another train. He told his fire tender to junp, and applied the break, holding it on right up to impact. He died, but no one else did. That means he was a hero to everyone involved.

I asked my father why the train didn’t just stop when the break was put on. He had been an engineering officer before he was a navigator. With his knowledge, he could tell me a good deal about inerta, how iron wheels don’t really have good traction on iron rails, and the fact that the stopping distances of an express train could be over a mile. He happened to know that because an engineer might only be able to see a couple hundred yards, we have railroad signals to prevent trains from going onto unsafe tracks.

For a long time, nearly all of my friends were very conservative. One in particular spent years trying to get me to read Atlas Shrugged. Though I resisted intuitively, I finally gave in. Then I quickly gave up because the operations officer of the railroad ordered an engineer to put an express train on a track against a signal. That was so utterly preposterous that it only showed a failure on the author’s part. There is no way a train could be considered safe on an express track against a signal. It was like playing Russian roulette with the lives of passengers. Also, the engineer could have checked to see whether the signal was broken, but in the book he didn’t. It was a mess.

I assume that Ayn Rand was trying to make Dagny Taggart, the operations officer of the railroad, willing to act decisively. To my way of thinking, the story shows clearly that Dagny Taggart didn’t belong in a boardroom, she belonged in a prison. Or possibly a mental institution.

My point here is that Ayn Rand’s dystopian brand of capitalism will not work, because it assumes its own correctness. It takes the arrogant position that it is a complete answer to the situation, when it fact, it can only provide a partial answer, at best.

Here is the Big Problem.

In order to have innovations come freely, we have to make the process more open to good. I agree with my old friends that pure socialism is not the best answer. But I always disagreed with them in their abject fear of socialism, by which they said they meant government ownership of anything that can be commercialized. I had found that when they were pressed, they seemed to give way, reluctantly. Even they balked (a little bit) at the idea that the park down the road from their home should only be open to paying customers. And none of them was willing to agree that it would be a good idea to have the road in front of their houses owned and operated by private companies that would charge for their access and have an ability to cut them off if they failed to pay.

The idea that big businesses should be allowed to charge as monopolies for the innovations they got, through whatever means, is not much improvement on careless socialism.

We need innovative thinking to address climate change.

We can be sure that some people pursue innovation because they want to be rich and powerful. Some people, however, act out of a sense of challenge. And there are even some people who do things because they believe other people will benefit. There might be a long list of reasons why people innovate, and we cannot address innovation with the limited incentives of current systems, mostly expecting to reward in terms of wealth and power.

On the other hand, I think it is clear that social good cannot be measured in terms of money. If we limit our development of inventions to those that will pay well, we will pass some of huge societal value that will not pay well. Reid’s filter is an example.

What we need, I think, is a system that encourages innovation by incentives that go in other directions besides wealth. And it should do evaluations based on an innovation’s potential for social benefit. I don’t know or care whether this is done by government or private efforts.

There may be important answers to climate change out there that cannot be developed because they will not pay their developers. That is a horrible reason to allow a planet to be ruined.


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George Harvey

A retired computer engineer, George Harvey researches and writes on energy and climate change, maintains a daily blog (geoharvey.com), and has a weekly hour-long TV show, Energy Week with George Harvey and Tom Finnell. In addition to those found at CleanTechnica, many of his articles can be found at greenenergytimes.org.

George Harvey has 77 posts and counting. See all posts by George Harvey