Those “10 Bands” Lists Are a Horrible Facebook Meme. But They’ve Given Birth to a Great One.
Let us stipulate, as New York magazine’s Jesse Singal does, that the most dreadful thing about logging into Facebook this week has been those malignant lists of nine musical acts your friends have seen live, and one they’re lying about. It is, indeed, a bad meme—barely illuminating, built for taste-peacocking (look at me—I’ve seen Migos and Cocteau Twins!), and also just dull.
According to Singal, the meme’s only redeeming quality is that it has produced some variations that mock the thing itself, like his friend’s list of nine piano recitals and school band performances and one Boyz II Men concert. Otherwise, he argues, the “10 bands” meme represents a failure of the form: “Good memes have a fun, peppy, iterative quality to them—the more time you spend with them, the funnier and more creative and more interesting things get.” When a meme is this horrible and deathless, though, only a cutting, transcendent evolution of the same meme can flush it from the internet.
That, praise the Jesus and Mary Chain, is now what’s happening on my own Facebook feed. Gone are the earnest posts, the lists of acceptable jam bands and reformed post-punk acts and Prince (everyone is sure to point out they saw Prince—or did they?). Finally, the memetic antibodies have arrived.
- 10 Lies I’ve Seen and One Band, including “The best people,” “Drain the swamp,” and “Radiohead.” (Topical!)
- 10 Bands Whose Singer I’ve Wanted to Smash in the Face With a Pie, Except One. (Cranky!)
- 10 Bands Who Slept at My House, at Least One of Whom Lied About Not Clogging the Toilet. (Shade-throwing!)
This, from Slate editor Dan Kois, was pretty good, too:
Not every arrival in this second wave of “10 bands” posts is funny; plenty fall flat. And some don’t lunge for humor but for true self-reflection. My favorite came from a curator and musician, who posted “Ten bands I have played in, and one is a lie” and gave a pocket-sized history of each. (“Slag Battery. Dubbed Worst Band in Charlottesville.”) It was like coming across nine small installments in an autobiography, and one tiny work of fiction.
What’s gratifying about all of this is the suggestion that even when the internet produces something truly stultifying and banal, our online commons is able to detect its own misstep and then roast itself—and maybe iterate a bad meme into a rewarding one. It can also do the opposite, of course: Many, probably most, memes outlast their original novel spark. The attempt to rework a meme into something better sometimes just makes the whole nightmare last longer. And some memes, like Harambe and that Nazi frog, are too awful to be murdered by other memes alone.
Still, at least we have confirmation of one comforting thing, which I will remember the next time a Facebook acquaintance posts one of these pop-detritus chain letters: The internet will only let us be so boring for so long. Also, Slag Battery clogged the toilet.
Gisele Bündchen Is Less Anti-Trump Than She Is Pro-Environment
Gisele Bündchen is a Brazilian supermodel known for sporting barely there Victoria’s Secret lingerie and strutting down runways for various luxury brands. She also happens to be married to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The couple has two kids, live in a sweet home in Massachusetts, and like to take cute selfies together.
Overall, they have it pretty good. So could you blame Bündchen for wanting to preserve that life by fighting for the environment?
Bündchen showed her support for science on Wednesday afternoon by tweeting this.
The seemingly innocuous tweet (which isn’t about the upcoming March for Science—the climate change protest is happening a week later) caused a surprising amount of consternation because it came mere hours after the New England Patriots visited the White House to honor their Super Bowl win. More pointedly, Brady had surprise-announced that he wouldn’t be in attendance, citing “personal family matters.” The quarterback also skipped the visit with President Obama after the Patriots won in 2015 for a “family commitment,” but the timing of this tweet prompted headlines like this one from noted political journalism outlet E! Online: “Is Gisele Bündchen the Reason Tom Brady Skipped His Visit to the White House?” Other places characterized the climate march as an “anti-Trump protest.”
Brady got a lot of attention for displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker in 2015, and for calling Donald Trump “a good friend.” But Brady and Trump haven’t been seen together in some time. Bündchen, meanwhile, has been previously outspoken about her opposition to Trump, and in November, she announced on social media that neither she nor her husband would vote for him.
It may be surprising, but the Wednesday tweet, which she has since deleted, wasn’t at all out of character for the model. According to the long biography on her site written by her twin sister, Bündchen (or Gise, “as she’s called by her family and close friends”) has actually been a longtime advocate for science and the environment:
In 2004, she visited an indian tribe on the Xingu River and saw up close the problems the community faced due to deforestation and polluted rivers. Since then, she has championed environmental causes and supported countless projects, including our family’s own project for cleaning up the water in our home town, named the Projeto Água Limpa (Clean Water Project). She was acknowledged by the U.N. for her efforts and named a Goodwill Ambassador for the Environment by UNEP.
Bündchen was also on the board of directors for the Rainforest Alliance in 2014, and in 2016 she appeared as a host in an episode of the climate change documentary show Years of Living Dangerously on National Geographic.
Back on her social media, a tweet from April 6 shows she’s been keeping up with environmental controversies.
She may have deleted her April 19 tweet, but a retweet from the Peoples Climate, the organization that is putting on the April 29 climate protest, remains on her timeline.
Bündchen’s home country may play a part in her climate awareness. Brazil, which is home of the Amazon, is the seventh-largest emitter of the greenhouse gases. Despite efforts to curb deforestation, data from 2015-2016 show it’s on the rise again. Environmentalists are now worried that the country’s economic recession could push the government to backslide on some of its environmental policies, and that it may possibly even back out of the Paris agreement.
The nation previously put climate change on the world stage by playing a video on global carbon pollution and rising sea levels during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games—an event in which Bündchen also took part.
We probably won’t ever know whether Bündchen played a role in Brady’s absence at the White House yesterday, or if she’ll ever influence him politically. What we do know is that environmental advocacy won’t be something Bündchen is giving up anytime soon. Don’t be surprised if you find her on the front lines of the Peoples Climate March.
Future Tense Newsletter: A Path Forward to Protect Consumer Privacy
Greetings, Future Tensers,
Earlier this month President Trump signed into law a repeal of privacy rules that prohibited internet service providers from selling or sharing customers’ sensitive information without permission. This week Eric Null, policy counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute, outlines some paths forward to continue the fight to protect consumer privacy.
Speaking of privacy, Marcy Wheeler writes that the same Republicans complaining about alleged spying on Trump associates are still ignoring civil liberties issues. While we need surveillance reform, Wheeler warns readers not to welcome the outrage of Trump’s propagandists concerning surveillance. She explains that the administration’s self-centered concerns muddle the real issue: how privacy-intrusive surveillance measures affect less powerful people.
It’s hard to comprehend how decisions like these made today will impact us in the future. In fact, Jane McGonigal, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future, explains how our brains are hard-wired to make it difficult for us to relate to our future selves.
Other things we read this week while muting the Burger King ad that keeps eliciting a response from Google Home:
- Facebook Live killing: This week a man recorded his murder of a stranger, uploaded the video to Facebook, and then broadcast himself on Facebook Live claiming to be in search for his next victims. Will Oremus asks whether Facebook should bear any responsibility here.
- March for Science: Jason Lloyd suggests that a march won’t earn the scientific community the respect of the public; engaging the public in the scientific process will.
- Disney’s huggable robot patent: Charles Duan explains why Disney’s patent filing is great—and not just because it is about a huggable robot.
- Self-driving cars and fender-benders: Elizabeth Garbee and Andrew Maynard write that there’s something to be learned from low-stake crashes involving self-driving cars.
- The imposter cell: In an excerpt from his new book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, Richard Harris investigates the story of a misidentified cell line and how it set back cancer research.
The entire way we look at cancer is changing from monolithic condition to a wide range of different diseases requiring different treatments. Join Future Tense in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, April 27, at noon to reassess how we understand, prevent, and treat cancer. RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.
Trying to spot fake news,
for Future Tense
You Can Buy This $400 Juicer or Use Your Hand. They Do the Same Thing.
It’s easy to mock Silicon Valley, where too often companies repackage familiar ideas and sell them back to us as exemplars of Groundbreaking Disruptive Innovation™. But, if you’ll pardon a pun that will explain itself in just a moment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sillier example of that tendency than Juicero.
As startups go, Juicero’s premise is simple enough: You buy a bulky $400 countertop device along with packets stuffed with raw fruits and vegetables. The machine subjects these packets, which cost between $5 and $8, to pressure, excreting out supposedly wholesome beverages with names like Glojito (“single digit sugar content, with a hint of mint”), Green Zing (“Leading with pineapple and finishing with basil and ginger”), and Root Renewal+ (“Featuring … two rhizomes which may help keep inflammation at bay”).
If you’ve ever wrangled a home juicer setup, you’ll probably understand why this may have seemed like a reasonable proposition to some of the investors who’ve pumped tens of millions of dollars into the company. Juicing is a messy, expensive business, typically leaving more gross pulp than drinkable extract, and it can be hard to find the right ratios in a home setup if you want to make something that goes down smoothly. As with the proverbial better mousetrap, there probably is a market for an easier juicer.
The trouble is, Juicero isn’t quite that. As a hilarious Bloomberg article making the rounds today reveals, the company’s signature device appears to be almost entirely extraneous. In fact, its reporters found that you could just squeeze those proprietary bags into a cup yourself, a process that yielded results faster (albeit with ever-so-slightly more waste) than the machine:
Bloomberg performed its own press test, pitting a Juicero machine against a reporter’s grip. The experiment found that squeezing the bag yields nearly the same amount of juice just as quickly—and in some cases, faster—than using the device. … Reporters were able to wring 7.5 ounces of juice in a minute and a half. The machine yielded 8 ounces in about two minutes.
Other Silicon Valley innovations to the juicing process proved similarly extraneous. As Bloomberg notes, “The device also reads a QR code printed on the back of each produce pack and checks the source against an online database to ensure the contents haven’t expired or been recalled.” Significantly, this means that your juicer requires an internet connection to do its job, which feels like a pretty silly complication for a device designed to make your life simpler. In any case, as it turns out, “[t]he expiration date is also printed on the pack,” rendering this “feature” still more unnecessary.
Bloomberg’s terrific story is worth reading in full (make sure to watch the accompanying video), but here at Slate, we’re still left with a few other questions. Perhaps most notably, What is the Juicero even doing? If you can squeeze juice out of the bag by hand its contents have, presumably, effectively already been juiced.
On its website, Juicero claims that it doesn’t do anything other than wash, chop, and pack its fruits and vegetables. But as the accompanying pictures suggest, the verb “chop” is doing a lot of work here: The ginger looks like it’s been aggressively minced while the carrots appear to have been passed through an uncommonly fine grater.
In other words, most of the work has, presumably, already been done before the product arrives on a consumer’s doorstep. Given both the price of the individual servings and the high buy-in cost (you can’t even purchase those packets if you don’t own the machine), it seems like you’d be better off just buying bottles of cold-pressed juice from the store. Or, like, maybe just regular juice:
my secret: i just uhhhh buy normal juice— Internet of Shit (@internetofshit) April 19, 2017
Then again, maybe that’s not the point. As Katy Waldman has suggested, juice itself has become a status symbol of sorts. In that sense, maybe those all-but-useless Juicero machines sitting on counters are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do: telling visitors that you drink juice.
A Man Broadcast a Killing on Facebook. Is That Facebook’s Fault?
On Sunday in Cleveland, a man appears to have shot and killed a 74-year-old stranger point-blank, recorded it on his phone, and uploaded the video to Facebook. He then broadcast himself on Facebook Live as he drove around the city telling viewers he was searching for his next victims in what he said would be an “Easter Day slaughter.” While there is no evidence the perpetrator has killed anyone else, he remained at large Monday afternoon.
The brutal slaying was the latest in a string of violent acts that have found their way onto Facebook since the company launched its live video feature a year ago. But you can’t really blame a social media platform for the appalling uses to which disturbed people apply its tools—or can you?
In this case, Facebook has been criticized for failing to promptly take down the video, which remained on suspected shooter Steve Stephens’ page for several hours, according to the Verge.
Future Tense Event: Do We Need to Stop Talking About “Curing” Cancer?
In 1971, Richard Nixon declared war on cancer. Five decades and billions of dollars later, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States. But promising advances in immunotherapy and other cutting-edge research, plus efforts like Joe Biden's "cancer moonshot," have reinvigorated the battle and raised new hopes. Now the entire way we look at cancer is changing from monolithic condition to a wide range of different diseases requiring different approaches.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, fighting cancer meant using targeted therapies to attempt to wipe out compromised cells. But today iconoclastic cancer researchers are taking a different approach: What if, they ask, the human body is more like an ecosystem? What if cancer cells are active members within that habitat? Billions of years of evolution have endowed ecosystems with ways of remaining healthy despite predators, exploiters, cheaters, and deadbeats. And if researchers apply predictable ecological management principles to cancer treatment, we might reframe the disease in a way that leads to effective new treatments instead of an ever unattainable cure.
Join Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, April 27, as we gather the experts who are reassessing how we understand, prevent, and treat cancer. The event will start at noon; lunch will be served. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website. If you can’t join us in person, you can still watch live. RSVP to watch online to get a reminder note.
Noon – 12:10 p.m.: The Ecology of Cancer
Assistant professor, Psychology Department, Arizona State University
Co-founder, International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer
12:10 – 12:40 p.m.: Learning From the Ailments of Our Ancestors
Bioarchaeologist, 106 Group
Co-author, Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health
Future Tense fellow, New America
12:40 – 12:55 p.m.: Notes on a Small Thing
Journalist and critic
12:55 – 1:45 p.m.: Changing the Way We Think About Beating Cancer
Assistant professor, Psychology Department, Arizona State University
Co-founder, International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer
Donna Marie Manasseh, M.D.
Director of breast surgery, Maimonides Breast Cancer Center
David Reese, M.D.
Senior vice president of translational sciences and discovery research (interim), Amgen
Joshua Schiffman, M.D.
Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Utah
Investigator, Huntsman Cancer Institute
National correspondent, Slate
Netizen Report: Censorship Spikes in Wake of Venezuela’s “Self-Inflicted Coup”
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Oiwan Lam, Weiping Li, Leila Nachawati, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
Protesters in Venezuela have been mobilizing almost daily and in large numbers since the Supreme Court of Justice temporarily nullified the National Assembly on March 30, a move that many described as a “self-inflicted” coup. The change sparked international outrage.
Although the court reversed course days later and reinstated the National Assembly, public unrest has continued, forcing public officials to confront the economic and political crisis that has been ongoing since 2014. Alongside political turmoil and rising rates of violent crime, the global drop in the price of oil, the country’s main export, has left Venezuela with staggering inflation rates for more than three years. Inflation has not fallen below 50 percent since 2014. It exceeded 100 percent in 2015 and reached 800 percent at the end of 2016. President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly blamed the United States for the downturn in the oil market.
Citizen media have become increasingly important for Venezuelans throughout this period, as the Maduro administration has sought to maintain tight control over official and corporate media outlets. A mainstay of critical reporting on the country, CNN, was kicked off of cable television in February 2017.
This has left citizen media outlets among the few sources of information regarding protests and crackdowns that readers can turn to. Perhaps as a result, numerous independent journalists have experienced harassment and physical threats while on assignment in recent weeks. Elvis Flores, a cameraman for the online channel VPITV, was arrested midbroadcast while filming protesters in Caracas. For nine hours he held in custody, where he was reportedly beaten. VPITV and other popular web TV channels including Vivoplay and El Capitolio TV were blocked from April 7 onward, according to Venezuelan netizens. In response to the censorship, protesters have united around the hashtag #VzlaTrancaContraElGolpe (“Venezuela blocks the coup”).
Women’s rights campaigners face online threats in Kuwait
Kuwaiti human rights defender Hadeel Buqrais received a rash of online threats after she took part in a march in Kuwait City calling for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The march was part of the Namshi Laha, or “Walking for Her” campaign, which launched online last week. There have been attempts to block the campaign, and other participants involved in the campaign have also been targeted with insults on social media, according to Frontline Defenders.
Southeast Asian lawmakers use “fake news” fears to justify censorship
Multiple governments in Southeast Asia are leveraging the issue of fake news as a justification for stricter laws and to harass journalists. In Singapore, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said the country will soon amend its Broadcasting Act in order to ensure that overseas content providers “[are] in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony.”
In the Philippines, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez filed a bill mandating that social media companies verify the identity of users before registering them on their networks in what he describes as an effort to more easily prevent users from creating fake accounts and spreading fake news.
Russian authorities block Zello amid trucker protests
Russia's media regulator announced plans to block Zello, a mobile push-to-talk app that Russian long-haul truckers have used to organize protests in recent months. Roskomnadzor, the authority responsible for monitoring Russian media, has publicly stated that Zello failed to submit company information necessary to be included on the federal “Registry of Information-Dissemination Organizers,” a list of online platforms that Roskomnadzor oversees.
Iran’s internet, between Rouhani and a hard place
As presidential elections approach in Iran, the contrast between the relatively moderate current president, Hassan Rouhani (who is expected to seek re-election), and political hardliners is increasingly visible. In the first-ever Iranian government press conference to be broadcast over Instagram Live, Rouhani boasted about many of the achievements of his administration, including the effort to improve internet speeds in Iran, which indeed have seen a tenfold increase. He also claimed that if it wasn’t for the efforts of his administration, “all social media platforms would have been sacrificed.” Although Facebook is still blocked inside Iran, Instagram has remained uncensored throughout the Rouhani administration, along with other popular foreign platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
Nevertheless, some people have paid high prices for their participation on said platforms. On March 14, 12 a dozen administrators of news channels on the messaging app Telegram were arrested by Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guards, who said the channels—which are chiefly reformist and moderate in their political leanings—represented a threat to national security. To the chagrin of the judiciary, President Hassan Rouhani has since called for an investigation of the arrests, underscoring the political cleavage between the two entities.
Apple TV bows to Chinese censorship demands
In the first week of April, the Apple TV app store blocked the satirical news show China Uncensored from users based in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The creators of the show said that while they understand why the show is censored in China, they do not think the block in Hong Kong and Taiwan is justified. They sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook demanding the company unblock the show in Hong Kong and Taiwan within 30 days.
- “Internet Use Barriers and Gender Strategies: Perspectives from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Rwanda”—GenderIT.org
- “Beyond the Great Firewall: How China Became a Global Information Power”—Shanthi Kalathil, Center for International Media Assistance
- “We (Can’t) Chat: “709 Crackdown” Discussions Blocked on Weibo and WeChat”—Citizen Lab
Burger King’s New Ad Campaign Wasn’t Targeting Customers. It Was Targeting Google Homes.
In a 15-second Burger King ad that started playing Wednesday afternoon on YouTube, an actor looks at the camera and says, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?”
In living rooms across the country, Google Homes responded by reading from the Wikipedia entry for the Whopper.
It was the first strike in a strange, interactive advertising campaign by Burger King that amused and alarmed smart speaker owners whose always-listening A.I. assistants have come with some occasionally odd side-effects.
In the aftermath, pranksters and Burger King supporters entered an editing war over the content of the Wikipedia entry—the Washington Post reported that it appeared that Burger King itself might have attempted to edit the entry to be more positive. Meanwhile, Google jumped into action to block the call-and-response. Within a few hours, Google Homes were no longer triggered by the soundbites from the ad but still responded to the same query from real-life users. It seemed Burger King had been defeated.
But an undeterred Burger King told reporters to keep an eye out in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles on Wednesday night during The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Sure enough, a new version of the ad set off the Google Homes.
Why Does Facebook Still Seem So Helpless Against “Fake News”?
By any reasonable standard, Facebook counts among the most powerful companies in the world. According to its own statistics, 1.23 billion people log in a day—that’s something like 16 percent of the global population—and those visitors earn the company tens of billions of dollars a year. Why, then, does Facebook sometimes seems so helpless?
If you’ve logged into you own profile in the last week or so, you might have noticed an unusual invitation at the top of your feed. Spare enough that it’s easy to overlook—especially in contrast to the flashier and more personalized announcements that often adorn the site—the text, sometimes positioned beneath an animation of a magnifying glass scanning a newspaper, reads, “How to spot false news.” Below that, a brief, message invites the users to click through to “check out a few ways to identify whether a story is genuine.”
Accept that invitation and you’ll be redirected to the company’s cumbersome help site, and presented with a document that features 10 brief tips, seemingly designed to encourage critical reading and media literacy. Those tips, reportedly created in collaboration with the nonprofit First Draft, are both simple and reasonable. They variously invite users to “Be skeptical of headlines,” “Look closely at the URL,” “Watch for unusual formatting,” “Look at other reports,” and so on. While the presentation feels a little perfunctory (why not embed the tips in the news feed itself?), these are the sort of things that savvy media consumers do as a matter of course, and encouraging others to take up the practice can only help.
Somehow, though, Facebook still gives the impression of a hiker flapping his arms before a bear, struggling to scare off a monster many times its size. As Tech Crunch and others have noted, the strangeness starts with the company’s insistence that we’re not dealing with “fake news” but with “false news.” Its reasons for playing terminological hopscotch are clear enough: Embraced by Donald Trump and others, “fake news” has become a flag of partisan discontent, not an indication of truth or falsehood. By changing its own vocabulary accordingly, however, Facebook is tacitly acknowledging that it is subject to forces beyond its control.
(One indication that it’s a losing fight? Try searching for the tips page and Google will ask you whether you were actually trying to find “Tips to spot fake news” instead. What’s more virtually every article about the tips still uses the term “fake” in place of Facebook’s chosen alternative.)
This might be less significant were Facebook not so self-aggrandizing in its presentation of these tips. An official blog post from Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s news feed VP, repeatedly uses the phrase “educational tool” to describe the list of tips, which is a peculiar way to characterize what’s essentially a classroom handout from a first-year journalism seminar. Clearly “tool” is just self-congratulatory corporate speak here, but it’s still telling, since it suggests that the company has put real effort into these guidelines—and that it expects them to accomplish something.
In Facebook’s defense, it suggests that its tip sheet is little more than a stopgap as it works to develop others systems to limit the spread of misinformation. In another blog post, Mosseri lays out some of the company’s other plans, including its efforts to better detect fraudulent accounts and otherwise limit the economic incentives of spammers. Ultimately, though, it’s all but admitting that it relies most on its users, counting on them to report misinformation when they see it and to otherwise resist its spread.
Facebook’s new tips page, in other words, isn’t so much a “tool” as it is a cry for help, a desperate attempt to leverage the source of its power in pursuit of a war that it’s currently losing.
Disney’s Patent Filing for a Huggable Robot Patent Is Actually Pretty Great
The internet’s latest fascination is with a patent filing by Disney Enterprises, on a “soft body robot for physical interaction with humans.” The application details a humanoid robot with soft limbs for holding delicate things like china or children, opening up wild speculation about how the robots will be used (Live-action Big Hero 6! Real-life Westworld! Robot Mickey Mouse!).
As a patent lawyer, I’ve read through hundreds of patents, and this Disney one has several interesting features—features that exemplify important questions about what makes for a good patent.
Most popular coverage of patents tends to be about bad ones. I myself have poked fun at recent patents on taking photographs against white backgrounds, Clippy from Microsoft Office, and 18th-century matchmaking games. The Electronic Frontier Foundation runs a whole blog series on stupid patents. These patents are bad largely because they use incredibly confusing language to conceal truly uninteresting inventions.
Disney’s application, on the other hand, describes its invention with remarkable clarity. One key component, for example, is the robot’s arm, composed essentially of a 3D-printed flexible dome-shaped balloon that serves the dual purposes of cushioning the robot’s grip and sensing the grip force. Most patents would provide no more description than this, but Disney’s application goes on to describe the model of 3D printer used, the materials fed to the printer, and even a clever trick for filling the inside of the balloon cavity with a washable gel during manufacturing.
Disney is bucking a trend here, as patent lawyers usually work very hard to put as few details as possible into their patents. Scholars have decried patent applicants’ “incentive to obfuscate information they provide whenever possible.” For many years, inventors seeking patents were at least required to reveal the “best mode” they knew of for making or operating their inventions, in 2011 Congress effectively stripped even that minimum disclosure requirement, at the behest of patent lobbyists.
Those in the patent business have reasons for wanting to reveal as few details as possible—it keeps information out of the hands of competitors, for example. But what’s good for the patent industry is bad for the public. The whole point of granting the powerful monopoly rights of a patent is that, in exchange, the public gets the benefit of knowledge on how to make and use new inventions. As the Constitution provides, patents are granted only “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Concealing how an invention works, as too many patents do, deprives everyone of knowledge that was promised.
And that’s what makes this robot patent application so refreshing: As I read it, I actually learned things. There’s a passage on the make and model of servo motors to power the robot limbs. There’s a discussion of an experiment that revealed the best types of bearings for the joints. I can find the exact thickness of the flexible sensor membranes (1.5 millimeters), and the exact tolerance for the bearings (0.2 millimeters, no more and no less).
It’s so specific that as I read the patent, I actually thought: If I really wanted to, I could actually build this robot. Even better, I could improve it or customize it. This is the rare patent application that serves the constitutional purpose of promoting the progress of science and useful arts.
Of course, a good description is only one piece of a good patent. The patent application, now published, will enter the examination phase. Disney’s attorneys will explain what parts of the invention are the key improvements over extant knowledge, and those improvements will define the scope of the exclusivity rights the patent will enjoy. An aggressive approach in that phase—arguing that the patent should cover all 3D-printed robots, for example—could render this filing no better than the mass of ridiculous patents on matchmaking strategies or animated office supplies.
But at least for now, Disney’s patent application serves one important purpose that patents are meant to serve. It teaches useful information, in this case about how to build safe, squishy robots. At the very least, we may now hope that when our new robot overlords seek to crush humanity, they may do so with the gentlest of arms.