Software, Property and Human Civilization

December 19, 2001 by Jordan Pollack

In this Edge talk, Jordan Pollack discusses a phenomenon that may restrict innovation: the inability to buy products, due to the established model of software licensing. What are the implications for human civilization?

Originally published December 4, 2001 at Edge. Published on KurzweilAI.net December 19, 2001.

It seems to me that what we’re seeing in the software area, and this is the scary part for human society, is the beginning of a kind of dispossession. People are talking about this as dispossession that only comes from piracy, like Napster and Gnutella where the rights of artists are being violated by people sharing their work. But there’s another kind of dispossession, which is the inability to actually buy a product. The idea is here: you couldn’t buy this piece of software, you could only license it on a day by day, month by month, year by year basis; As this idea spreads from software to music, films, books, human civilization based on property fundamentally changes.

The limits of software engineering have been clear now for about 20 years. We reached a limit in the size of the programs that we could build, and since then we’ve essentially just been putting them together in different packages and adding wallpaper. Windows is little more than just DOS with wallpaper – it doesn’t really add any more fundamental complexity or autonomy to the process.

Being in AI, I see this “scale” of programming as the problem, not the speed of computers. Its not that we don’t understand some principles, but we just can’t write a program big enough. We have really big computers. You could hook up a Beowulf, you could hook up a Cray super computer to the smallest robot, and if you knew how to make the robot be alive, it would be alive, if all you needed was computer time. Moore’s law won’t solve AI. Computer time is not what we need; we need to understand how to organize systems of biological complexity.

What I’ve been working with for the past decade or so has been this question of self-organization. How can a system of chemicals heated by the sun dissipate energy and become more and more complex over time? If we really understood that, we’d be able to build it into software, we’d be able to build it into electronics, and if we got the theory right, we would see a piece of software that ran and wasted energy in the form of computer cycles and became more and more complex over time, and perhaps would bust through the ten million line code limit. In this field, which I’ve been calling co-evolutionary learning, we have had limited successes in areas like games, problem-solving, and robotics, but no open ended self-organizing reaction. Yet.

It looks like biological complexity comes from the interplay of several different fields. Physics, Evolution, and Game theory. What’s possible is determined by a set of rules. There are the immutable rules, systems that obey these rules, and create new systems which operate with rule-like behaviors that we think of as computation. Evolution enables a kind of exploration of the possible, putting together components in various ways, exploring a constrained space of possible designs. What was the fitness, what was the affordance, what was the reason that something arose? But that’s only part of it. Physics (the rules) determine what is possible. Evolution (the variation) explores the possible. The Game determines what persists.

When we look at the results of our evolution and co-evolution software, we see that many early discoveries afford temporary advantages, but when something gets built on top of something, because it’s part of a larger configuration, it persists, even though it may be less optimal than other competitive discoveries.

I believe we’re never going to get rid of the DOS file system, we’re never going to get rid of the notepad text editor, we’re never going to get rid of the Qwerty keyboard, because there are systems built on top of them. Just like the human eye has a blind spot.

At one point in human evolution there arose a bundle of nerves that twisted in the wrong direction and, even though it blocked a small bit of the visual field, nevertheless added some kind of advantage, and then layered systems built on top of that and locked the blind spot into being, and there’s no way you can get rid of the blind spot now because it’s essentially built in and supportive of other mechanisms.

We must look at the entire game to see what among the possible persists. Winners are not determined by the best technology, or by the best design. It’s determined by a set of factors that says, whatever this thing is, it’s part of a network, and that network supports its persistence. And as evolution proceeds, the suboptimal systems tend to stay in place. Just like vision has a blind spot, we’re going to be stuck with technology upon which economic systems depend.

Studying more economics than a usual computer scientist, and reflecting back to the question of the change of society due to software, which John and I have called the solvent – a social solvent – our naive notion of free enterprise, our naive notion of how competition works in economy is that there’s supposed to be checks and balances. Supposedly a durable goods monopoly is impossible. To increase market share, the Tractor monopoly makes better tractors which sell more and last longer until the used market in perfectly good tractors at half the price stops them. As something gets bigger, as a company’s products become more widely used, instead of locking into monopoly, there’s supposed to be a negative limiting effect, in the fact that more competition comes in, the monopoly is stuck on its fat margins, and stumbles while competition chases profit down to a normal profit.

The way I described this stumbling is “monopoly necrosis.” You become so dependent on the sales and margins of a product in demand that you can’t imagine selling another one, even though technology is driving prices down. There are some great examples of this. The IBM PC junior was built to not compete with the Selective typewriter by putting in a rate limiter on the keyboard, so a kid couldn’t type more than 2 characters a second! This was really the end of IBM. It wasn’t Microsoft, it was this necrosis of not exploiting new technology which might erode the profit margins on the old ones. Ten years ago you could see the digital camera and the ink jet printer were going to come together and give you something that you could print pictures for pennies apiece. But Polaroid was getting a dollar a sheet for silver based instant film, and they couldn’t see how to move their company in front of this wave that was coming. The storage companies, the big million-dollar terabyte disk companies are going to run into the same sort of thing, a terabyte for $5,000.

From the point of view of software, what I’ve noticed is that the software companies don’t seem to suffer monopoly necrosis as traditional durable-goods theory would predict. They seem to just get bigger and bigger, because while a telephone company gets locked into its telephones or its wires or its interfaces, a tractor company starts to compete against its excellent used tractors, a software company can buy back old licenses for more than they would sell for on the street, destroying the secondary market.

We see this in software, and it’s because of the particular way that software has changed the equation of information property. The “upgrade” is the idea that you’ve bought a piece of software and now there’s a new release and so – as a loyal customer – you should be able trade the old one in and buy the new one. What that ends up being is since what you bought wasn’t the software but a permanent right to use the software, what you do when you upgrade, is forfeit your permanent right and purchase it again. If you don’t upgrade, your old software won’t work soon, so that permanent right you thought you owned will be worthless.

It seems to me that what we’re seeing in the software area, and this is the scary part for human society, is the beginning of a kind of dispossession. People are talking about this as dispossession that only comes from piracy, like Napster and Gnutella where the rights of artists are being violated by people sharing their work. But there’s another kind of dispossession, which is the inability to actually buy a product. The idea is here: you couldn’t buy this piece of software, you could only license it on a day by day, month by month, year by year basis; As this idea spreads from software to music, films, books, human civilization based on property fundamentally changes.

The idea we hear of the big Internet in the sky with all the music we want to listen to, all the books and movies we want to read and watch on demand, all the software games and apps we want to use, sounds real nice, until you realize it isn’t a public library, it is a private jukebox. You could download whenever you wanted over high-speed wireless 3-G systems into portable playing devices and pay only $50/month. But you can never own the ebook, you can never own the divx movie, you can never own the ASP software.

Continued at Edge.

Copyright © 2001 by Edge Foundation, Inc.

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