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Sep 26, 2010

The problems in our world aren’t technical, but social

Posted by in categories: open source, robotics/AI

If the WW II generation was The Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers were The Worst. My former boss Bill Gates is a Baby Boomer. And while he has the potential to do a lot for the world by giving away his money to other people (for them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do), after studying Wikipedia and Linux, I see that the proprietary development model Gates’s generation adopted has stifled the progress of technology they should have provided to us. The reason we don’t have robot-driven cars and other futuristic stuff is that proprietary software became the dominant model.

I start the AI chapter of my book with the following question: Imagine 1,000 people, broken up into groups of five, working on two hundred separate encyclopedias, versus that same number of people working on one encyclopedia? Which one will be the best? This sounds like a silly analogy when described in the context of an encyclopedia, but it is exactly what is going on in artificial intelligence (AI) research today.

Today, the research community has not adopted free software and shared codebases sufficiently. For example, I believe there are more than enough PhDs today working on computer vision, but there are 200+ different codebases plus countless proprietary ones.

Simply put, there is no computer vision codebase with critical mass.

We can blame the Baby Boomers for making proprietary software the dominant model. We can also blame them for outlawing nuclear power, never drilling in ANWR despite decades of discussion, never fixing Social Security, destroying the K-12 education system, handing us a near-bankrupt welfare state, and many of the other long-term problems that have existed in this country for decades that they did not fix, and the new ones they created.

It is our generation that will invent the future, as we incorporate more free software, more cooperation amongst our scientists, and free markets into society. The boomer generation got the collectivism part, but they failed on the free software and the freedom from government.

My book describes why free software is critical to faster technological development, and it ends with some pages on why our generation needs to build a space elevator. I believe that in addition to driverless cars, and curing cancer, building a space elevator, getting going on nanotechnology, and terraforming Mars are also in reach. Wikipedia surpassed Encyclopedia Britanicca in 2.5 years. The problems in our world are not technical, but social. Let’s step up. We can make much of it happen a lot faster than we think.

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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • robomoon on September 27, 2010 8:44 am

    Of cause, it’s important for leaders and the obedient masses who follow them to leverage the potential of culture. They will integrate social components into free products and leave the development and distribution of technologies to the true chosen masters of science. Leading components the industry and consumers highly depend upon, including microprocessors plus commercial operating systems for personal computers, energy sources for water, land, and air transportation, incl. the commercial production of electricity, etc., will be safely under control by those chosen investors who control more than only the half of each of such dominating technologies worldwide.

  • Debug the World on October 4, 2010 1:27 pm

    If you are right, the question is, how to generate a motivation for the research community to work on common code bases, accepting the open source philosophy.

    The big obstacle is probably the need to decide on a common platform and design an architecture acceptable for all (and this for every domain).

  • Tim on January 5, 2011 5:40 pm

    You know, I don’t disagree with the observations here about Linux/Wiki/etc. We’d have benefited greatly from more and earlier such efforts. But this —

    “If the WW II generation was The Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers were The Worst. … And while he has the potential to do a lot for the world by giving away his money to other people … I see that the proprietary development model Gates’s generation adopted has stifled the progress of technology they should have provided to us. ”

    — I find it really amusing to see a single paragraph that both touts the Boomers as the worst generation (no argument here) and yet also seems to embody such a grandiose sense of entitlement. I don’t think it was intentional, but that doesn’t make it any less striking. Sure, perhaps any number of billionaires and IT types could have showered us with all sorts of wonderful things out of the kindness of their hearts, from money to technology, but ultimately it’s their call. The singularity is coming, proprietary software or not, and when individuals don’t have any choice in what happens to the results of their work, someone or other is going to turn the Great Filter into a brick wall.

    The problem really does boil down to motivation. I think that in the end, “it works” will be enough. Proprietary software might be a dead end, but so is a social system where people aren’t allowed to find that out for themselves.