Software security, College Costs

The US government warned about using Java due to a vulnerability that was being exploited to install malicious software. Oracle has since released a ‘patch‘, but people don’t really need to run Java applets that much anymore. I don’t think these vulnerabilities are relevant to other software that runs on the desktop or phones.

Also, an exploit of Ruby on Rails sites was published last week. While a patch was released, some sites won’t update quickly enough. This  will probably cause an increase of hacked websites as hackers find vulnerable websites. I wonder if it was really necessary for people to publish the vulnerability so quickly.

College costs have been rising at a ridiculous pace, despite the poor economy and their poor results. A group of people create an infographic on this topic and sent me the link to share: College isn’t cheap. It shows how many college graduates are stuck with school-debt, but cannot find jobs. I think there are big problems with getting people into so much debt when there’s no guarantee their degree will help them.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that colleges have finally begun cutting tuition increases and offering more scholarships. This means they need to cut back on some programs. However, there are much greater changes that will need to happen, such as greater use of technology in education.

Eric Schmidt on Innovation: Patents, Self-Driving Cars and Education

Last night I attended the AllThingsD interview with Eric Schmidt. Yesterday’s post focused on smartphones, this post will go through the second half of his discussion.

Patents
While Schmidt wasn’t willing to discuss specific patent fights, he did emphasize one point: The patent fights harm little companies the most since they don’t have the resources to fight patent claims. Small companies have created the most jobs and innovation and so patent disputes can cause great harm by harming them.

This seems true, though patent trolls probably only sue companies that have enough money to be able to pay them. Though perhaps large competitors could sue small companies out of existence, but I don’t know if that is too common. No matter what,he current patent system is pretty ridiculous.

Google and Self-Driving Cars
Swisher felt bothered that Google was involved in everything instead of just focusing on organizing information and called Google a Borg. She also said Google Glass is ugly and wasn’t so in to self-driving cars. Schmidt replied that they want to be in the center of the information revolution. But he said they should be celebrating innovation instead of dissing it.
He said that people shouldn’t really be driving cars and that self-driving cars will save many lives. Car companies will be able to implement components of Google’s technology in a few years, but their will still be a driver behind the wheel and a big red button to turn off automated driving. Also, Google Glass will provide new opportunities and experiences for people.

Clearly Google no longer just focuses on making information accessible  but now does all things software. I don’t see any reason to be bothered by that, as they seem to be doing a good job and provide basically everything or free.
Schmidt seemed to imply that humans will need to be monitoring the driving. People have a hard-enough time staying focused on the road now when they are driving, so I doubt they will be able to when the computer is doing it. Though maybe the computer will be able to pause the YouTube video when there’s an issue that require’s human attention.

Innovation & Education
Schmidt said there’s low morale in the US, which is a demographic problem, a global problem, and an automation problem. He seemed to be saying there was low unemployment because software and globalization are taking over jobs, but he felt that more innovation was the solution. He said the platforms created by Google and their competitors can create many job opportunities in the US.
The solution is also to improve education to help innovation. Currently, the gap between the elite and everyone else has widened, but it needs to be closed. Mossberg asked if he things online MOOCs like Udacity are the future even for the elite. Schmidt replied that these new initiatives are just version 1 and that they glimmer with possibility, i.e. yes. He said there has been very little innovation and real competition in education but these new online offering are changing that.

If technology is part of the problem of low-employment, perhaps increased innovation will just make things worse? However, improving technology has not caused long-term unemployment, since it has always created new markets for people to spend their money on. So the online platforms may provide many more new jobs. This type of work is not for everyone though, and better education won’t necessarily help. However, I don’t think there’s an immediate risk of widespread unemployment.
I think Schmidt hit the nail on the head about the potential of online education. Who more than the head of Google recognizes the power of software to revolutionize industries? He stressed often how competition drives innovation and lowers prices. This is something the government-backed system of education sorely lacks, but there is now potential for change.

The overall theme that emerged from this discussion was the power of innovation. By allowing competition that isn’t restricted by unfair patents or over-reaching unions, great things can be developed that will benefit everyone.

Software beats humans at teaching

How does blending learning compare to the traditional model? A new study finds that they can teach the same amount in less time:

In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software — with reduced face time with instructors — did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses…
“Our results indicate that hybrid-format students took about one-quarter less time to achieve essentially the same learning outcomes as traditional-format students,”

As elearning becomes more popular, I think it will continue to demonstrate its effectiveness, which will create a cyclic effect and cause further adoption. Its biggest challenges will be taking on the current monopolies in education, but I think in the long-term it will succeed.

Link: Report: Robots stack up to human professors in teaching Intro Stats | Inside Higher Ed.

How to Fix the Patent System

Why do patents exist? A person does not inherently own the rights to his ideas. The patent is an artificial construct to encourage innovation in areas that otherwise would be under-developed. For example, certain companies invest millions of dollars in R&D and only get a return on their investment if they own exclusive rights to their inventions for a certain period. In this way, the patent system can encourage innovation.

However, in many areas, the current patent laws end up causing the exact opposite. Software patents are often given as the prime example where patents end up stifling innovation. Frequently, patents are granted for ideas that are not really that innovative. Often the patents are granted when similar ideas had been floating around before. In other cases, many people can come up with the idea independently, but once company manages to patent it first and exclude others from using it. In fact, even if a person is only later able to come up with he idea on his own, why should the initial patent prevent him from using the idea? He was able to discover it without their help, what economic good is served by preventing him from using it? It would be difficult to prove he didn’t see the original patent, but the system should be adjusted so only extremely innovative patents are granted.

 

Another issue with the patent system is the inefficiencies and costs involved. It costs many thousands of dollars to apply for a patent, and then it can take the government years to process the patent. The whole system is slow and inefficient. Patents should have a much higher bar to be granted, but they should also be a quicker, cheaper process.

Recently, some have begun trying out to crowd-sourcing some of the patent review process. Instead of just having inefficient government clerks reviewing the patents, some have begun opening the process to the wider public. This way many people can review the patents to see if they involve any “prior art”. This is a good step, but the very definition of the patent needs to change. Even if a patent does not involve prior art, who says the idea is so innovative that others couldn’t have thought of it on their own?

Instead of just checking the patents for prior art, I suggest a more radical move. If an idea truly deserves to be patented, then no one else should be able to think of the same idea on their own. To apply for a patent, a person or company would have to submit the problem they are trying to solve, and the general area of the solution they have in mind, which would all be posted to a public site. Their actual solution would be posted privately to the patent site. If no one can suggest the same solution, than the patent is truly innovative and will be granted. But if people can come up with the same solution on their own, then no patent would be granted. Why should there be a patent, when others were able to figure out the same idea?

This would greatly reduce the number of patents that are actually granted, but it would fit with the way ideas are actually discovered. In a recent paper, “The Myth of the Sole Inventor“, Mark Lemley demonstrates that most inventions are invented simultaneously by different groups of people working independently of each other. There is little reason why one group should be granted exclusive rights to something that would have been invented anyways. In my proposed solution, they would both be able to submit to one site, and instead of a patent being granted, the idea would become open to the public. The companies would still be encouraged to submit their ideas, whether to get their patent, or to prevent their competitors from patenting the idea.

By having the general public review the patents, people will suggest different ideas, and this will lead to even more innovation. Of course, this will lead to large numbers of submissions, and new methods will be needed to categorize and process all the patent data. In the current system, the patent-reviewers do not even have access to the internet when reviewing patents. In the new system, all patent applications will be well categorized and tagged and have clear semantic data that could be processed by computers. This way, it will be much easier to find related patents, and perhaps even to discover what areas are ripe for new ideas.

 

The entire patent process would be much quicker and cheaper. Instead of payinggovernment clerks to review the patents, the process would be open to the public. People will compete with each other to suggest solutions to the problems or to find related patents. They’re could be some financial incentives, or there could be certain opportunities for suggested ideas to be patented themselves. But people would likely partake in the process without even getting any money, as they do on sites like Wikipedia and StackOverflow.com. However it is done, the whole process will be much faster and cheaper than the current system.Many details of such a system would still need to be worked out. Perhaps it could then be tried out in a small area of software patents. If such an idea succeeds, it could lead to greater innovation, a greater spread of ideas, reduced legal costs, and a true stimulus for the economy.