[ExI] The Coming War on General Computation
rtomek at ceti.pl
Sat Jan 7 04:47:09 UTC 2012
On Wed, 4 Jan 2012, Ben Zaiboc wrote:
> Transcript of Cory Doctorow's talk, 'The Coming War on General Computation':
> Video can be found at
> We now risk a world where no-one is allowed to make an MPU without
> built-in mechanisms for surveillance and control. General-purpose
> computing would become a thing of the past, and anyone who tried to
> build one would be a criminal. Free software, of course, would be dead
> in the water.
> I'm now wondering if this counts as an existential risk.
If I understood this (I've read a transcript) the problem is about the
fact that making a device that can only execute authorized code is close
to impossible - and if such device was made it would be close to useless,
So it is (close to) impossible to make a computer that could not help in,
say, pirating the content.
Even if it would be possible, technology makes it possible at the same
time to do many creative things with any kind of hardware out there, thus
any "clever" and "sophisticated" "copy write" securing scheme is being
broken (and it can be seen almost going live, wise guys are this quick).
Basically it all goes down to the fact that everybody can have a general
purpose computing device for a price of dirt. I speak about some cheap
8-bit thing that requires some knowledge of electronic to be of any use
(how and what to solder etc), but even with such simple thing one can do
possibly a lot of hacks. There are also tons of old but still working
hardware that can be hacked for few decades.
With this on a desk, one can think of a lot of more complicated things.
The man is right, however, that media owners are small barkers compared to
some gorillas who are only starting to wake up.
But, to help them would mean removing the technology from under our feet.
This doable, but if done would nullify a lot - basically, moving us all to
19 century at best and putting works of Alan Turing and Alonso Church on
index (and everything else that stemmed from them). Oh, I forgot about
Charles Babbage. So, we have to hop somewhere into 1830s... No, even
worse. We would have to censor Joseph Marie Jacquard's mechanical loom and
punched cards. This moves us back some 50 years, to around 1780s. No,
again, we have to consider a man named Gerbert d'Aurillac, later known as
Pope Silvester II, also known as mathematician and constructor of
hydraulic-powered organ. After he learned logic, geometry,
astronomy/astrology and other such stuff from Arabs while in Spain, he was
said to posess an automaton that could give yes/no answer when asked a
question. This was probably only a legend, but that there was such idea in
circulation 1000 years ago is mind boggling for me.
Oh crap. To remove computation we would have to be rewound back to 9th
No, again. From what I have heard, ancient Greeks had simple automatons.
They used them on a daily basis - like, automaton that gave water after
being given some amount of money. Or automaton used for animating things
in theatre. Those guys were really good, probably on the verge of
inventing steam turbine. O yeah, and they made mechanical calculators with
bronze gears - the one and only such calculator found in Antikythera is
said to be from 1st century BC, but since it is soo good and well made,
this must have been later design and not prototype. All this was 2000-2500
So, I wouldn't be surprised at all if there was more of such inventions in
the past. Now buried under soil or burnt in fire by some warrior-king who
was in need of more bronze.
Now, I think the real problem is not general purpose computing but
mathematics. Because most of this computing comes straight from
mathematicians - like Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, Alonso Church, Alan
Turing... For summary and even more names - like Heron of Alexandria, who
is said to have built a programmable cart, see here:
So, overally, one has to come to this idea that scientists and engineers
are the worst enemies of technologically oriented corporations. And those
very same corporations have to rely on them or perish. Interesting
Perhaps it is possible to have a very small population, say 5-10 millions,
of technologically savvy folks, sitting in some isolated area and having
all tech in their control, while the rest of the planet remains as
technological reservation with folks eating raw meat and whatever they
find. Perhaps it is even possible to transit from current state of thing
to this nasty scenario (I can imagine this but really, nothing
interesting). BTW, speaking of Greeks, I don't remember where I have read
about it but once upon a time Hephaestus built a tripod automatons and few
other things for his fellow gods, who were quite dependent on him - to
such extent that after he was exiled from Olympus they went after him
begging for his return. The very same gods went freak after Prometheus
stole fire (maybe from Hephaestus' workshop) and gave it to mortal people.
Anyway, back to your question - there is some risk, but from my point of
view anybody trying to solve this "problem" would do a big disservice
first to people but later to himself, too. It's more like a house of
cards. One can remove cards, sure. The house will, however, collapse. And
it will be rebuilt, possibly up to a point when people's creativity will
scare the shit out of humanity managers. And so on.
Is it wise to try building house of cards without cards - no, if you asked
me. If things turned out to be like this, I wouldn't be very much
surprised however (that's just very typical human irrationality).
On the other hand, maybe things will go in some more positive direction.
Even Cory Doctorow made the remark that current technological progress
puts us all on a fast lane, going somewhere - but obiously not much can be
said about where the journey ends, or if it ends at all. The only certain
knowledge about motion is motion itself, it seems. Unless we crash, as it
happens to some fast movers.
For now, we have universal computer that can be told to compute all kind
of numbers, including numbers that unlock "copy writes".
Next programme, we will have universal constructor, able to fabricate
medicines to heal us and guns to shoot those already healthy enough to be
killed. The introduction of universal constructor, or something less
universal but still quite capable, might be postponed to some extent but
will be very hard to stop - house of cards, mind you.
The most important existential risk for me is the problem of human
irrationality. And I am not even sure it can be somehow helped. Even with
all technology humans can make, now and in the future.
However, now taking my more optimistic point of view, history might be
seen as fight between irrationality and creativity. So far, creativity
wins or at least buys itself more time, throwing toys and meat to
irrationality. As long as irrationality is fed and entertained, we can
** A C programmer asked whether computer had Buddha's nature. **
** As the answer, master did "rm -rif" on the programmer's home **
** directory. And then the C programmer became enlightened... **
** Tomasz Rola mailto:tomasz_rola at bigfoot.com **
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