Rise of the machines? The hopes & fears of Jon ‘Maddog’ Hall

Jon ‘Maddog’ HallAn hour on the phone with Broadband World Forum keynote Jon ‘Maddog’ Hall constitutes a very engrossing sixty minutes indeed. Hall, executive President of Project Cauã and director of Linux International (and probably the most recognisable and longstanding champion of open source software), is now in his sixty-fourth year, but his eyes remain as firmly fixed on the future, and near-future, as ever.

When we speak, Hall is in Brazil, which he has been visiting since the late nineties, and presently enjoys growing sympathy and support for many of his ideas about technological independence. “Brazil is putting in its own fibre optic cable system directly to Europe, bypassing the United States,” Hall notes approvingly, “they’re creating their own mail system, which is very much more secure than the mail system that they had been using—they’re using encryption and things like that…”

Brazil’s receptivity to Hall’s proposals has increased significantly in the wake of a certain Edward Snowden. Hall was in Brazil in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the implementation of the Patriot Act. “I started telling these people, ‘you have to get control of your computers. I do not trust George W. Bush and I’m an American… I kept telling them, you have to route your Internet around the United States, you have to have your own DNS servers, you have to do all these things, because what would happen if the United States had an embargo against you like it’s had an embargo against Cuba these last 40, 50 years? And they didn’t listen to me. Then all of a sudden this whole thing about the NSA came out, and all of a sudden, they’re all, ‘oh, we should have listened to you.’ And I said, ‘you know, it’s almost too late…’

“The trust issue is not only the possibility of someone spying on me: trust is also an issue in terms of economic embargo. We are not in the days of the Space Shuttle, where engineers would design the original mercury rockets using hand calculators, slide rules and stuff like that. We can’t do that anymore, things have gotten so complex. And if computers were to stop tomorrow, elevators would stop working, planes would fall from the sky: your government and all communications would come to a grinding halt.”

Of course there are significant economic advantages to such technological independence. “How much money are you going to send outside of your country to buy stuff that you could produce inside of your country? And to produce stuff inside of your country creates jobs, well-paid jobs, for people who produce it.”

It is the same happy confluence of the practical and the idealistic that has long driven Hall’s support for open source software. “I’ve been using the equivalent of open source ever since 1969, because back in those days you got your programmes delivered to you in source code. So it’s not about the fact that software has no cost – everything has a cost – it’s about the fact that you have control over your software now. You can make the business decision of fixing it or living with it as it is. And you don’t have that with closed source. With closed source you have to convince Microsoft or Oracle or one of the other companies to do it.”

It’s incredible to think how, back when Hall began working with computers in the late sixties, there was still no such thing as a professional computer programmer, let alone the Internet. I ask this bona fide early adopter to what extent he anticipated the remarkable advances of the intervening decades…

“Well I have to admit that, I thought they were going to be really big, but… it was hard to foresee the complexity of your cell phone, something that could go in your pocket, back in 69, because the first computer I ever programmed on had 4000 words of memory and one half a megabyte hard disk drive, and it cost a $175,000—and $175,000 back then would buy you five family homes and a quarter acre of land.

“So, you know, to try and look forward and to say, someday these computers are going to be as powerful as they are and as omnipresent as they are was a little bit difficult. But I was already using computer logic – not what most people would call a computer, but computer logic – to control large machines at the Western Electric Corporation, and I was designing circuits of logic out of relays, just like some of the early, early computers.”

Given his almost unbeatable perspective, I couldn’t help inquiring after Hall’s wider reflections on how things have developed.

“Well I think the World Wide Web is just the most phenomenal thing that could ever have happened. The exchange of information and the free exchange of information is wonderful. I think the problem is though that there’s a lot of data out there that is both good and bad, and people need to get better at sifting through the data and coming up with information they can use that’s accurate. And those are things I think are a problem. We need to teach kids in school, and adults somehow, how to do this.”

While acknowledging how difficult it is for educators and education to keep up with our changing world, Hall sees it as a growing necessity – in terms of ensuring young people are equipped with the proper skills, but also with suitable cautiousness towards matters like online privacy. “I think people need to get a much better idea of what the Internet is,” he says. “And perhaps by the time the kids are at elementary school and get to be adults, there’ll be enough understanding of how the Internet works out there so they won’t get into as much trouble.”

The paradox is that, the harder it gets for the species to keep up with its own inventions (technically, legally, ethically, philosophically, etc.) – the more important it is that it somehow manages it, particularly since Hall sounds convinced that humankind is on the verge of what could conceivably qualify as one of the most significant moments in its history, technological or otherwise.

“We’ve been trying to do artificial intelligence since I was in college, and we keep creeping ever closer to it. You get computers likes Watson and others that are beginning to have the same computing powers as the human brain. But this brings about a whole other level of philosophy that you have to think about, because here’s a thing which is artificially intelligent, is it alive? What is the definition of life? Is a carbon-based life the only life-form that we know or could we have a silicon-based life? And what happens if you turn off this life form—is that murder? Or what if this machine kills somebody? Is that simply an accident, or is this malicious?

“I think we’re right on the verge of seeing this [artificial intelligence, not killer computers: I think/hope]. And we can either have a very glorious future where these intelligent machines help us extend ourselves beyond anything we’ve ever thought about, or we have a very horrible future where some of things in the science fiction books come true, and an artificial machine says well I’m going to manipulate human beings and take care of them because they’re incapable of doing that themselves.”

And where would Hall put his money?

“Unfortunately I’d have to put my money of the second option. And then there’s the third option, which is, well, ‘I’m a better life form than the human beings so I’m just going to wipe them out. Human beings are no better than ants.’ At least in the second scenario the machine would keep us as a pet…”

Jon ‘maddog’ Hall is a conference keynote on Day 3 (Thursday 23rd October) of the Broadband World Forum. Not one, I think, that you’d want to miss.

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