Who will drive the driverless car

When RCA invented the car radio a century ago the household names of today, Google, Facebook, Apple Samsung and many others existed at best as an abstraction in a science fiction story. However a coalescence of trends is brewing a disruption to From the VW debacle to Apple I Car activity the car industry seems ripe for disruption.     

There is only one small thing missing. The business case. Autonomous cars fall under one of two categories 

– enhancing safety and convenience 

– replacing taxi drivers by car sharing 

The business case of replacing taxi drivers is interesting since it hinges on the gig economy and the success of Uber and its fellow companies. The unanswered question is will this increase or decrease overall car sales.   Initial logic implies decreasing. As “public transportation” prevails, car ownership goes down. However hype crowding logic says “as every car becomes a profit center, more cars will be bought”. Time will tell, what prevails. 

The first aspect of increasing safety and convinience is the practical route and it seems that at least for image based technologies the price point is right and ripe for inclusion in the basic package of cars.

Patent Strategy

To chart a route leading from a great idea to a strong patent (portfolio) one needs a ‘Patent Strategy’.   Charting routes is a tricky business, especially when we consider that patents should relate to things which would come to pass  in the next 20 years.   A way I found useful for organizing the patent strategy for myself or for my clients is a patent strategy chart of which an example is shown below


The chart has two axis, one axis describes the different elements of the device, and the second axis describes the function.  The first aspect of the chart is that it helps drill down into the details of the invention.  The second aspect is that it helps to map out areas for which the current invention may not be protected, or alternatively areas where currently there is no inventive step and which may warrant a dedicated ideation session.  The concept is best explained with an example and we can take a car as a field in which we want to invent.   Breaking down the car into its elements can yield the following components (body, drive train, engine, power source (hydrogen, gas, battery), sensors, control, etc.).  When writing the components, we can break down into broader or tighter categories, depending on the anticipated scope. While it seems that function is many times a greater source of innovation, sometimes components can also be used in a creative way.  Examples in the car can include, heads up display, screens, radar, or even a swivel chair.  Adding a component by itself is not inventive, however integrating it into the car, and addressing its functionality might be inventive.  Examples of functions can include, getting from A to B, fuel efficiency, fun, playing media, comfort, sleeping, safety, etc.  Of course cars are examples of systems which are protected by thousands of patents, so the chart should focus on the areas of invention.  The invention can be broad, like flying cars, to narrow like a new method for wiping water off the windshield.  If we take the latter example, and our invention is composed of a transparent, windshield wiper .  The principle of operation is ultrasonic transducers combined with a special glass formation process.  An example of a chart can be




After we have a chart, we can place the idea or ideas we have on the chart, for example



In this example, we have three ideas, with some overlap between the ideas.  We have also highlighted white space areas where we currently do not have any ideas and where we are not protected by the current idea pool.  The chart is also useful in mapping out the current state of art, and identifying white space areas in the invention field.  Obviously a solid patent strategy portrayed in this manner provides a lucid picture of areas of  ‘freedom to operate’ while at the same time highlighting areas which should be the focus of ideation sessions or invention creation.

As always in strategy, as in other aspects of life, the devil is in the details.  Adopting the patent strategy chart is a good start to building strategic patent portfolios,  but they are no alternative to sound patent counselling from experienced patent attorneys.


A rational coprocessor

My previous discussion on input devices, brings to mind another topic. As we consider the role of connected devices and electronic helpers the prevailing concept is of an imaginary helper. Something that takes care of the boring chores and fills our life with fun and creativity. We tend to think of the helper much in terms that we have thought about calculators many eons ago. They can do the math but always fall short of being a human. Scifi has of course explored what happens when robots develop feelings and become humans. Yet, no one has yet suggested the unfathomable and perhaps most important electronic aide we need; a rational co processor.
In fact, people always would argue against it, after all Spock from Star Trek was above all rational but lacked feeling. But I am not advocating loss or relegation of feeling. The rational co processor would provide that missing element in any comparative shopping application- the option of not buying. After all, from soft drinks to politicians our world is filled with means to manipulate our irrational part and induce us to buy, vote, or act in certain ways. Its really amazing to consider how much of the GDP is actually stuff which we don’t need but are induced to buy. So if the rational co processor was to take hold, would that bring the economy to a grinding halt ?

On Mice and Humans; thoughts on input devices

From the Microsoft Kinect, Apple’s Siri to Intel’s PerC, organizations are looking for the next thing after touch screens, mice and keyboards.

The quest overshadows the fact that new input devices take a long time to mature. If one examines the history of the computer mouse, its clear that time to mass adoption was more than 20 years. A similar view of the touch screen can trace its origins to the 80’s and mass adoption occurring twenty years later with the touch screen smart phone.

New input devices typically attempt to provide a ‘natural’ user interface, and yet the combination of technology under performance as well as misdirection of the role of the user interface result in a long time to mass adoption.

Stepping back for a moment we can ask ourselves, what is the role of a input device. The answer can encompass a wide range of options from gaming to content creation, and more often than not communication person to person or person to machine. An interesting observation is that while our thoughts are often multifaceted and parallel, our input device interaction, wether typing, speech or gesture is slow and serial.

Gesture recognition is garnering significant attention as people envision electronic devices reading our gestures to enable a sleeker human interface. The early success of the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect have prompted huge investments and R&D efforts. Yet two years after introduction, the Kinect is not the game changer Microsoft had hoped for. Looking at gesture recognition with a view to past adoption curves, and with a view to its actual usability, it’s clear that the companies adopting an aggressive path have forgotten the lessens from books like the innovators dilemma or crossing the chasm. While they are diligently developing the technology they should be looking for a killer app, something that goes beyond cool. The app doesn’t need a huge market, but it should be critical enough to make a paradigm shift. In its absence, the adoption curve would sway between the wind of cool, and overhyped expectations.

Inventions and the metaphysics of obviousness

In US patent law, one of the key requirements to grant a patent is that the patented idea is non obvious.   The legal meaning and implications of non obviousness have attracted considerable discussion and research.  Obviousness puts a threshold for invention and differentiates normal problem solving skills from the qualities required of an invention.

This raises an important question regarding the use of structured thinking tools such as TRIZ to create patents.  If we take the extreme case and imagine a patent machine.  A machine which takes as input the current state of art and comes up with new ideas based on a set of manipulations and predefined criteria.    The question is whether the output of this machine is patent-able, or are the obtained patents obvious because anyone skilled in the art following the same instructions would have found them ?

It would seem that the invention requires something beyond the predefined instruction set, an expected stroke of genius, to convince the USPTO, the idea is worthy of a patent.  This also highlights one of the differences between problem solving and inventing; which is framing.

When you solve problems, the goal is to find a solution.  This solution can be tested and verified and the problem resolved.  However not every solution is patentable or an invention.  Putting aside issues of novelty, and focusing on the obviousness, the question is one of context.  TRIZ for example offers structure for solving problems, but not of wording or defining the problem.  Hence in the case of TRIZ, the obvious part may be the solution, but framing the problem is non obvious and yet since it leads to a solution, it is at the heart of the invention.  In cases where the creative process creates many options to choose from, the question is whether the choice is obvious or not.

The situation is somewhat analogous to photography.  After all, a photograph is a representation of the world. Something that everyone sees.  However,the photograph frames reality.  It focuses on some elements while relegating others to the background or outside the frame.  By doing so, we can now see things we had not seen previously. The frame has created a new context.  Similarly in inventing, the act of framing, putting boundaries, changing view point, focus, or even colors brings to light things that were not obvious.

On a practical note, to invent we need to go beyond problem solving.  A problem is a good starting point, as is a solution. But we then need to go beyond that, looking at it from different angles, uses, aspects.  In framing the problem or solution in several ways we have a unique view, which sometimes leads to inventions.

For example we can start with a problem of the phone of the future.  Some envision that Glasses would be the way we communicate.  They provide vision, hearing, situation awareness.  But they seem to lack user input methods.  So this is a good place to think about.  What kind of input do we need to provide and how do the glasses use this input.  we can imagine 3D image capture and the use of hands and gestures.  This by itself is obvious.  Yet what kind of gestures make sense and which do not.  Can or should we overlay the commands on the hands or surface, and how can we provide tactile feedback.  All these questions can find solutions.  Some obvious and some not.  But even a simple question like gesture recognition can be challenging in the context of eye glasses as they contend with challenging angles, weight and dimension limitations and user modalities.  We need to focus on one aspect and drill it down to enablement.  But at this stage its clear, that no route is obvious.  Hence the outcomes might be patentable.




Tools and reflections

Lao Tse eloquently addresses the role of tools,

Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not

In TRIZ Genrich Altshuller ascribes the skill of an inventor to two elements, the amount of tools (manipulations) with which he is proficient, and his ability to access his tools. Similar to a handyman, whose capabilities are determined not only by his proficiency in using his tools but also with the order in his toolbox.
Altshuller viewed physics as an important subject for building up a toolbox. One of the reasons is that much of our world is constrained by physics, so understanding the interplay between gravity, friction, momentum energy etc. goes along way in coming up with inventions. A second reason is that physics reaches us not only the tools ( various axioms and rules ) but also how to apply them to problems.
For this reason many people view physics as an important part of the curriculum as it teaches people to think. However physics along with other scientific studies are challenged to hold the interest of students. Morever the ‘classic’ way of teaching science is being challenged as being too theoretical.
This highlights the inherent paradox in teaching people to be creative. We need to teach the use of tools and rules while developing a proficiency in using the tools outside their original scope. This is somewhat akin to the zen saying “I can show you the way, but the not the one you need to walk by”.

Tools/Lao Tse

Thirty spokes meet at a nave;
Because of the hole we may use the wheel.
Clay is moulded into a vessel;
Because of the hollow we may use the cup.
Walls are built around a hearth;
Because of the doors we may use the house.
Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not.

translated by Peter Merel