Become A Public Inventor

Robert L. Read


Inventors are the most spectacular causative agents of humanity’s progress. Today invention mostly occurs within commercial firms and universities. Commercial firms primarily seek profit. Universities seek both money and renown from invention. Both firms and universities, the two great poles of the landscape of invention today, seek to temporarily monopolize inventions through patents and other means of monetizing intellectual property.

There has always been a third pole, which I call Public Invention. This is invention carried out primarily in the public interest for the benefit of all humanity. Benjamin Franklin, Jonas Salk, Buckminster Fuller, and Richard Stallman exemplify Public Invention. They enriched the world through things they created and gave away freely. These were, respectively, and only in synopsis: the Franklin stove, the Polio vaccine, the Geodesic dome, and Emacs. Nonetheless public invention has not historically matched the great poles of commercial firms and endowed higher education.

The burgeoning of the Maker movement and the flowering of the Free-Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement suggest that the age of public invention is dawning. The FLOSS movement has borne fruit not only in GNU-Linux but also in the Wikipedia, and has set down roots so deeply in the consciousness of most technologists that it cannot be eradicated. Standing on its shoulders by promoting sharing and openness, the Maker movement has democratized hardware by lowering to hobbyist levels the cost of technologies such as microcontrollers, drones, 3D printers, and virtual reality so quickly as to startle a futurist.

The Maker movement is filled to overflowing with creativity and craftsmanship, and within it is the seed of a more more effective public invention movement. Today, a lot of the energy of the Maker movement goes into make fannish toys and simulations — which is proper. But it is also time for Makers to become more serious and choose their projects based on what will benefit humanity, or in other words, what is in the public interest. It is time for public invention to rise as a third pole of human progress.

Technology is not neutral. All know-how can be used for both good and bad, and it is beyond human power to predict where one invention will eventually lead. But it is within our power to use our judgement. We must judge that the polio vaccine is a better invention than the atom bomb, if not more clever. All weapons can be used to destroy or to protect; and all weapon technology will eventually be disseminated. The Public Inventor accepts the difficult and error-prone task of trying to make things that help humanity, rather than harm it. In the words of Buckminster Fuller who espoused this philosophy so powerfully, we must make “livingry” rather than “weaponry”.

To become a Public Inventor, make a list of projects that you have had in the back of your mind. Maybe something you thought of as a child. If you don’t have any ideas, take one of mine. Now write down an evaluation of that list in terms of the benefit to all humanity. The benefit can be in beauty and art, or science and wisdom, or efficiency and wealth. Concern yourself not with success, which is fickle and hard to come by, but with progress. Ask yourself:

  • Which project will provide the greatest benefit to my fellow beings?
  • Which project would I work on if I were the most rich, free and confident version of myself?

When you have your answer, start working on it. I mean right now. Come back to this essay when you need a break.

Because you are motivated by helping the world and not by seeking status or making money, you will work completely transparently, working in the public. You will share your ideas as you progress by publicizing them under appropriate licenses. Modern technology has made this easier than ever. I personally use GitHub, but that is a just one of many approaches.

Twenty years from now, somewhat before Starfleet Academy is established, universities will teach “Public Invention 101”. The introductory textbook for this course has not yet been written. With luck you and I may get to write one line of it. Until it is written, I recommend the following practices:

  • You may be tempted to seek patents, but I recommend against it. They have a glamour, but once you have been through the process a few times you realize obtaining a patent is not really a meaningful accomplishment except as an exercise in persistence. In the end patents demand secrecy and non-sharing and are contrary to the goals of a Public Inventor. They are in practice expensive, bothersome, and, worst of all, time-consuming.
  • Freely share all of your hardware and software designs as open-source.
  • Freely share your mistakes and failures as well as your triumphs.
  • Own it. Proclaim yourself a Public Inventor. You don’t have to be a good one — most of us won’t be. There is no entrance exam, and there are no grades. If you feel it, rock it.
  • Ask for help. Other people want and deserve a chance to participate in what you are doing. I, for one, am happy to help you personally, and will make the time to do it.
  • Be frugal, but ask for money if you need it. We live in a world of ever greater abundance, and more and more people have both the funds and inclination to assist you.
  • Reward yourself for each tiny victory. You are working for the benefit of all humanity and, for all we know, all the life that exists in the Universe, anywhere. That is not a small thing.

You should expect to encounter difficulties. One of my inspiring professors, Ben Kuipers, once said “Really smart people do really mediocre work.” That may be the biggest problem that you face — -disappointment in your own competence. Invention, that is, the creation of something truly new and useful, is challenging. Your illusions may be shattered. You may have to lower your own estimation of your intelligence. It stings, but it is the beginning of learning. Kent Beck once told me, “Confusion is to be cherished because it precedes enlightenment.”

On the other hand, you may succeed. It is absolutely possible to save the world and have nobody notice. Many times throughout history great work has been done that the world was not ready to receive, only to be recognized later when the inventor could no longer benefit from the recognition. You may succeed but not feel the love.

Finally, you might be scoffed at. There will be voices who say, “Why are you giving up the chance to become a bazillionaire by giving away such a valuable idea?” They will rightly point out that much progress has been driven by the profit motive, rather than altruism. This voice may even come from within you. You will have to make your own decision. Fear not the disapprobation of those who would call you greedy, nor those who would call you foolish. The world is changing, and we are free to forge new ways of carrying it forward.

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Robert L. Read

Public Inventor. Founder of Public Invention. Co-founder of @18F. Presidential Innovation Fellow. Agilist. PhD Comp. Sci. Amateur mathematician.