A Technological Singularity: What are the Implications for Free Software?

A Technological Singularity: What are the Implications for Free Software?

I was at another meeting of the Editorial board of the Skibbereen Eagle yesterday. Hopefully you read the outcome of the last one. Some clever clogs suggested that it might be a spiffing wheeze to write something about the possible implications of the much mooted singularity (is that a proper noun, with a capital S?) and what it might mean for the future of both free and proprietary software. Muggins here was elected to do the work, so, under duress from the Editor, here is the result of my meanderings in the digital ether.

In the previous article (see above) DRM was covered: I explained what is is, how it affects your digital and financial freedoms and why the provisions of the GPL are becoming increasingly relevant as producers of proprietary rich media content strive endlessly to sustain a viable business model whilst retaining the technically crippling overheads of DRM. Their business models look increasingly like the proverbial Underpants Gnomes in Southpark. Without any intervening steps they imagine that they can miraculously generate endless profit simply by stealing the underpants. Nothing in between. The sheer persistence of belief that it can be made to work looks just plain mad. Its proponents could edge Mad Jack McMad into second place in the Madman of the Year competition. However, like the persistence of vision in the human eye it is, ultimately, ephemeral.

Already, the cracks have appeared in the DRM edifice. Walmart, Amazon, Sony BMG, EMI and to some extent, Apple, have recognised that the situation is unsustainable and have begun to make music available which is DRM free and permits the user to copy their music to other computers and removable media unencumbered by limits on the number of copies they can make. So far so good but what happens to the rest of the DRM "holdouts" and their proprietary fellow travellers when a Singularity looms?

What is the Singularity?

Well, we know what DRM is, but what exactly is the Singularity (so portentous that it is predicated with the definite article)? The idea has been around for some time (Vernon Vinge is reputed to have invented the term) and its best-known and most enthusiastic proponent is probably Ray Kurtweil. If you want to dip your toes in the water at the shallow end of the pool, the best place to start is at his website and use it as a portal and jumping off point to all matters singular. Wikipedia has a excellent entry summing it up, with plenty of follow-up links.

The singularity is a singularly fascinating topic (yes, that was a pun) . I have been intrigued by it for a few years now and without coming over all philosophical I believe (or hope) that it might, just might, cut the Gordian knot of that old hardy perennial, the human condition. That is staking out substantial claims for something which has not yet happened and may never happen but this piece is concerned with assuming that it does happen and asks the question: if it does, how will it affect proprietary software business models and free software?

To simplify things massively, just like the difference between the analogue and the digital, a coming singularity would mark the point in human affairs where, due to a number of complex and converging technologies, human knowledge would become exponential (with the possibility of nested exponentiality) and the straight line of technology would take off in a vertical climb. It goes without saying that computing power would be at the heart of this transformation. There would no area of existence untouched by a Singularity: computing, medicine, economics, politics, (nano)technology to name just a few. Any one who was outside this charmed circle, by choice or accident, might become like John the Savage in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a kind of ignoble Caliban, or a King Lear ranting on the blasted heath, forlorn and doomed. John the Savage hanged himself.

the singularity is rapture for the nerds

Well, that's the theory but Cory Doctorow, a good friend to the technical and political freedoms central to free software, has, amongst others, popularized the Singularity as "the rapture for nerds" (a phrase coined by Ken MacLeod's novel, "The Cassini Division") and it has always had its dystopian critics who see it as a nightmare, not a dream, with out-workings inimical to (human) freedoms. Science Fiction is full of it as anyone who has read the novels of Philip K. Dick will know. For the sake of this article, I will give the proponents of the Singularity the benefit of the doubt and explore what it would mean for computer software.

What does it mean for proprietary software?

In its current evolutionary dispensation, proprietary software like Microsoft's Windows OS relies on a long term return for the investment by closed source code and a business model in which they control who gets what and when they get it. For example, the customer has no direct input to what the Ballmer and Gates decide to do, other than the ultimate weapon of product boycott. (The only possible exception to this is the Pharamcuticals industry, where the phenomenal costs, time scales and statutory regulations possibly justify at least partially the retention of patents.) If certain features are absent or buggy or upgraded OSs like Vista come out and cripple you machine with DRM and hobble its hardware performance (and they have decided to discontinue support for you version of Windows) you scope for action is limited. Perhaps if you write a nice, begging letter Bill and Steve might condescend to dig deeply into the bloated coffers of the beast of Redmond and subsidize your abandoned, orphaned system.

Now, an intelligent guesstimate would put the average duration for an incarnation of Windows at about five or six years. You can't fork it and maintain yourself if official support is withdrawn. Microsoft own it and can do whatever the hell they like. Besides, to get a decent return on their investment of time and money the vendors of proprietary software have a vested interest in dragging their feet with respect to replacing current versions of their software/operating systems (however insecure or buggy--or expensive) until they have milked the last cent out of them. They will change when it suits them, not you. The case with free software is of course different and too well known to require repeating here.

PC vendors know that their product, without software, is junk

That is the current position. How would things look in the wake of a Singularity? At present, users and supporters of free software like GNU/Linux have to endure the less than wholesome spectacle of Microsoft in a duplitious and symbiotic relationship with PC vendors. The former have the latter over a proverbial barrel. PC vendors know that their product, without software, is junk. Perhaps of all the products of our technlogical civilization computers are unique in their dependence upon a product like Microsoft Windows. Microsoft have been able to virtually dictate terms and conditions to some of these vendors. Like binary chemical or nuclear weapons, apart they are relatively benign but once combined they are potentially lethal.

Come the Singularity, whatever shape it takes, the acceleration of knowledge and (computer) technology would be so great that it is difficult to see how the rigid hierarchy of proprietary software vendors in the proverbial Cathedral could possibly keep pace with the blizzard of change. (Software itself of course would be part of the Singularity so it becomes difficult to envisage how it would be in itself and in relation to the hardware on which it would run.) Hardware compatibility is fraught at the best of times. In a singularity it might be unmanageable for slow and unweildy behemoths like Microsoft. Their response in the here and now is bad enough. What it would be like in a Singularity doesn't bear thinking about. What about free software?

What does it mean for free software?

In theory at least free software would be in a better position to cope than its proprietary counterpart. First, it has the GPL which gives it flexibility to respond more rapidly and fork distros to meet new challenges. Second, because of the nature of distributed computing it can react faster as it is not constrained entirely by business models and profits. While proprietary software can muster greater (financial) resources free software can exhibit a greater capacity for modification and one of the characteristics of a technological singularity is self modification. Additionally, the edge in resources will be progressively eroded as the technology of a Singularity improves software's ability to improve itself.

The logic of this is that it would make sense for free software to develop software that helps to develop free software which helps to develop free software (yes, recursively speaking). A coming technological Singularity might therefore be the clinching argument against making free software cross platform and therefore porting it to proprietary operating systems as doing so would have the unintended consequence of giving it added ability to make any coming singularity a proprietary one (of the kind envisaged in Terminator). In other words, free software can influence the outcome by setting the initial conditions for a singularity and more so when the singularity is of the "soft take off" variety and can be anticipated and planned for. In the words of The Terminator: "there is no fate but what we make".

What if the future is transhuman and implanted hardware runs (rented) proprietary software?

Futurology can be utopian or dystopian. If you tend to the latter you might see the future dominated by huge corporations whose rented proprietary encrypted software is running on your implanted hardware; hardware made by a company with a cozy technical and financial agreement with the software vendor. Fail to keep up the payments or attempt to hack the software or run that software on different hardware and the bailiffs might be called in. You might just be get very sick if that repossessed software/hardware is mission critical--as it very likely would be. Fantastic? Perhaps, but on the basis of the precautionary principle it is better to try and plan for and influence the initial conditions.

Fail to keep up the payments or attempt to hack the software or run that software on different hardware and the baliffs might be called in

Perhaps some of those initial conditions are already in place. To take just one example, amongst many: Web 2.0 is very fashionable at the moment. Much of the content of Facebook, Google and Youtube and other social websites that exhibit Web 2.0 features is trivial, but in a classic example of the law of unintended consequences the technical ramifications are not. They constantly empower individuals to develop software and software APIs that increasingly give them leverage to extend in ways never envisaged or intended. However, as more and more software is positioned as a service the question arises as to who owns and/or controls it. Gavin Baker has written an interesting article on this site speculating on the sufficiency of the GPL to cope with these web services. What if proprietary vendors like Microsoft get control of sites like these? Given the nature of the beast, it is hardly likely to be benign. A singularity that is an open source singularity is at least less likely to have a sinister outcome.

Would software as we know it survive a singularity?

Futurology is notoriously fraught. One of the reasons it is difficult is because there are too many unquantifiable variables and all speculation is usually based on an extrapolation of existing facts bolstered by ex post facto reasoning which impairs our capacity to envisage entirely different realities. Software, free or otherwise, may be unrecognizable in a Singularity. Accelerated change may be so great that software will "disappear" as such, or rather become seamless and transparent; a kind of digital equivalent to the Autonomic or Vegetative Nervous Systems.

By the same token, in a Singularity computers will be evolving at an accelerated rate and software programmes will be writing software. How difficult will it be to ensure that the principles of free software and Stallman's four freedoms are enshrined in this scenario? One of the most important things that could be done is to maintain a decentralised, distributed system which is, above all, bottom up rather than top down. The former stands a better chance of avoiding centralizing control with all its implications for privacy and freedom.

Until we disavow our stubborn hubristic allegiance to what we grandly call "our essential humanity" we are unlikely to embrace anything better than this crooked timber we call homo sapiens

It is probably not too difficult to write software that detects GPL violations in software written by other computers writing software, but to guarantee this outcome would require the correct political control being one of the initial conditions. The behaviour of current governments and businesses does not inspire confidence. In our present evolutionary dispensation you will not lose a fortune underestimating the human propensity for stupidity and wickedness. One can only hope that a Singularity would "emerge" a human nature based on something better than the presently kludged inheritance of the human brain. The misantropic pessimist in me says it may all end in tears before bedtime but I hope I'm wrong. Until we disavow our stubborn hubristic allegiance to what we grandly call "our essential humanity" (Titian and Beethoven of course but conveniently forgetting Torquemada and Belsen), we are unlikely to embrace anything better than this crooked timber we call homo sapiens.


Human beings are conservative with a small c. Managing change is stressful at the best of times and coping with the exponential changes wrought by a Singularity may generate forces that are potentially destructive and may create paradigms that simply obliterate conventional software models and blur distinctions between free and proprietary software. Even if talk of a/the singularity is strictly nerd rapture it helps to focus on the here and now as well as the unknowable future(s). The price of freedom is, as the saying has it, eternal vigilance and right now in the digital realm it is people like Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen, Laurence Lessig and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and similar people and bodies that are the ones really at the front of the march carrying the banners for freedom and privacy. It isn't turtles all the way down. It's politics. You can be as insularly techy as you want, but take your eye off the larger picture even for an instant and you might be waking up to a future. Your future. Owned by someone else. The future's not set. There's no fate but what we make for ourselves.

The truth is that we are in the realm of intelligent speculation and extrapolation from current trends. The only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that a Singularity underpinned by free software and the principles of open source in computing and beyond would probably be more benign, more manageable and less traumatic than a future, whatever is is, dominated by initial conditions set by a proprietary mindset.


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Gary Richmond's picture


A retired but passionate user of free and open source for nearly ten years, novice Python programmer, Ubuntu user, musical wanabee when "playing" piano and guitar. When not torturing musical instruments, rumoured to be translating Vogon poetry into Swahili.