Today in the Science section of USA Today, page 6D, an article titled Hurricane-calming technology? Gates has plan appeared. I was interviewed by Dan Vergano at USA Today yesterday regarding the various patents filed by Bill Gates, which I also wrote about in an article titled Bill Gates Seeks Patent on Hurricane Prevention. The USA Today’s article was a good read and quoted me accurately, which is always nice. The article also contained some interesting information from a couple of hurricane experts who reached the same conclusion that I did regarding the invention described in the patents. Gates and the other inventors have described how to use deeper, cold ocean water to mix with warmer surface water to starve a hurricane of fuel, which would lead the hurricane to be reduced in strength or potentially completely dissipated if the surface temperature can be cooled enough. The science works out and it is easy to see that the invention could be successful. The magnitude of the undertaking to accomplish the goals of the invention are truly massive and perhaps unimaginable, but the invention would work. Thus, the invention is plausible, but likely cost prohibitive based on technology available today.
No doubt there will be some that say I am boasting about being quoted in USA Today, and they would be correct, at least partly. I try and take my promotion advice from Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, who always remind us that a little shameless commerce is never a bad thing. Such advice seems to also be followed by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, to name but a few, so I guess I find myself in good company, right?
In reality, the reason I am writing is not to simply point out that I was quoted in USA Today (… there I go again…), but rather to talk about some additional stuff that came up during my interview that didn’t make the article. Newspapers have limited space, and everyone that has done an interview knows that much of what is discussed simply cannot make the space available in the paper. This is in no way a criticism of newspapers, just a reality.
The one thing I wanted to follow up on was discussion relative to those who will no doubt use these Gates patent applications as evidence that the Patent Office has run amok and the US patent system is so dysfunctional that it would even consider granting a patent on such a fanciful idea. Today there is ever increasing assaults on the US patent system by those who are naysayers and anti-patent advocates that those of us who are believers and know the benefits provided to society as a result of a functioning patent system, and the benefits enjoyed by the US economy as a direct result of patent activity, must stand up and contradict the erroneous statements and inaccurate assumptions of those who have only a thinly veiled agenda.
I predict that these applications can and will mature into issued patents, assuming of course the inventors continue to pursue the inventions. What is disclosed is far more than an idea, so regardless of what the naysayers will misrepresent, the Gates patents disclose a great many specifics in so much detail that others can read the disclosure and understand how to both make and use the invention. It is also understood by those with an open mind that the invention will work if deployed in great enough numbers. The point here is this: ideas cannot be patented but when an idea is described with great detail and enough specificity so that the idea can be carried out successfully by others you no longer have an idea, rather you have an invention. Ideas are incomplete, lack detail and provide little more than inspiration. Inventions are the manifestations of ideas with some kind of tangible and describable specificity. That is exactly what is contained in the Gates patents.
The other major point I need to make is that these patents should not be held up to ridicule, and those who do that are neither knowledgeable about research and development; and they are also unknowledgeable about the patent system and what it is intended to accomplish. The goal of the US patent system is to foster innovation for the benefit of society. The reality is that very few innovations are revolutionary. Almost all innovations build upon the work of others who have preceded them. For example, if Einstein had to first figure out what Newton figured out would he have been left with any time to build upon Newton’s work? Likely not. The way science advances is by building, and that is exactly what the patent system encourages.
While the Gates et al invention may never be deployed or viewed as practical on a cost-benefit basis, it describes something that can and will work. Others who follow likely will be able to build upon these innovations and the march toward a deployable system of some kind will begin, with many building upon the work of those who come before them. So it is extremely common for early solutions to be viewed as frivolous and not practical. That does not make them any less worthy for patent protection. This is the march of science, and the patent system, which provides extremely fragile rights, fosters that march.
Yes, patent rights are fragile. The patent system encourages and provides incentive for individuals and companies to improve on the patented innovations of others. When you improve on the work of another and obtain a patent you cannot make or use the invention yourself without the rights to the underlying patent, or until after the underlying patent falls into the public domain. Likewise, the owner of the underlying patent could not make or use the improvement you patent. So there is incentive for both patent owners to share and exchange rights. There is also incentive for each patent owner to continue to refine their work and apply for more patents, thereby expanding their rights and preventing others from blocking them. This march forward on the innovation path is directly fostered by the patent system. So those who say patents harm innovation simply do not understand innovation and how it occurs.
The Gates patent may seem frivolous and comical to some, but it is not. There were many supposed learned scientists who said that President Reagan’s Star Wars initiative was frivolous and comical and impossible. That always shocked me because anyone who claims to be scientifically learned had to know then that the physics would work and it could be created, even though there were many difficult obstacles to overcome. Today, we have missile defense systems, which are being improved and refined continuously, and which have had them operational since at least 1991 (see Patriot Missile). So well within one generation what was laughed at openly by supposedly knowledgeable people we had missile defense. Researchers have also successfuly taken steps to transport matter, a la Star Trek, and have created cloaking technology, a la Star Trek and Harry Potter. So before you think something is scientifically impossible or laughable, remember that throughout history those who have held those beliefs are always the ones history shows to have been naive, narrow minded and flat out wrong.