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Wintel Monoculture, Lamarckian Biology and Bill Joy

By Paul Murphy LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Oct 16, 2003 8:30 AM PT

Heroes are for boy scouts, but when Fortune Magazine ran an extended interview with Bill Joy under the headline "Joy after Sun," I paid attention. After all, I'm writing this column using vi on a Sparc machine running Solaris.

Wintel Monoculture, Lamarckian Biology and Bill Joy

Fortune mentions Joy's famous "grey goo" article from Wired -- "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" -- which concluded that "robotics, nanotech and genetic engineering were emerging so quickly that, if we weren't careful, they could endanger the human species."

Of course, Fortune mentioned the grey goo article only as part of the introduction to the interview, but the rest of the interview makes it clear that Joy continues to be deeply concerned about the risks associated with unplanned and uncontrolled interactions among multiple computing objects such as nanomachines.

Misleading Metaphoric Tags

In the process of expressing those concerns -- both then and now -- Joy uses a lot of biological references and evolutionary analogies, a technique that is, of course, quite common. Microsoft even had a product suite called Microsoft Windows DNA 2000.

But there's a fundamental problem with these references to biological parallels. The problem goes well beyond the parallels simply being wrong. In fact, the references are often right, but not with respect to any form of biology based on DNA -- and therefore not with respect to biological evolution.

Instead, entities like computer viruses -- and possibly future autonomous nanomachines -- exhibit something much more dangerous: Lamarckianism.

The hallmark of Lamarckian biology is the perpetuation of externally induced changes from one generation moving to future generations. In other words, Lamarckian parents who each lose a leg to surgery would naturally have one-legged children.

Lamarckian Biology

The problem with this theory -- as science fiction writer C.J. Cherryh so ably showed in the "Foreigner" series -- is that the resulting ability to quickly and reliably direct evolution by slicing and splicing an existing organism, knowing it will reproduce in whatever form you leave it, is almost guaranteed to have uncontrollable, disastrous consequences.

That's a very fundamental difference from conventional biological evolution theories: Think about nanomachines and trustworthiness issues in computing in terms of analogies to normal biology, and your thinking will be influenced by evolution's image as a slow but generally benign and natural process. Think in terms of Lamarckianism, however, and the potential for malignant outcomes becomes much more obvious.

Lamarckian biology cannot work with respect to DNA-based life, but can aptly characterize computer viruses today and will, almost certainly, apply to nanomachines in the future. The biological parallels that could influence your thinking on the subject aren't to any form of natural biology but to an imaginary form right out of Mary Shelley's worst nightmares.

When Controls Fail

In biology, you define success in terms of long-term reproductive growth or stability, with genetic change controlled through a feedback loop that perpetuates adaptations and leads to species expansion and damping out failures. The keys to the control processes are the time it takes for the effects of specific adaptations to work themselves out and the role the geographic containment of new adaptations plays in protecting genetic diversity across the whole of a species.

In nature, a failure of either or both controls leads to species failure. When the Ebola virus migrates to a human host, it enters a phase of uncontrolled reproduction that so quickly kills all the hosts it can reach that it prevents itself from spreading further. In contrast, a Lamarckian creation on the Internet faces no such controls.

The SQL Slammer worm exploded out of South Korea to spread worldwide in less than 30 minutes and can be obtained, studied and modified more or less at will by anyone interested in slicing and splicing together its successors.

It is the absence of these natural controls that is most frightening about Lamarckian biology. A disastrous mutation -- whether malicious or accidental -- is easy to create and spreads so quickly that a vulnerable population is denied the time and information needed to defend itself.

The Wintel World

We tend to think of the plague of worms, viruses and other exploits affecting the Wintel world as significant, but this is only true from the limited perspective of those directly inconvenienced.

In reality, the impact of an extended worldwide computer shutdown, even one that went beyond the PC, would be minuscule relative to the effect of a nanotech disaster affecting a comparable worldwide monoculture.

Imagine, for example, a world in which municipal garbage is no longer stored in landfills or incinerated but is, instead, processed by nanomachines to recover essentially all of the raw materials in purer, more accessible, forms.

Now imagine someone reprogramming some of those machines to escape into the materials, lie dormant for some time, and then start reproducing using whatever they find locally for energy input. Sure, that's a doomsday scenario, but it's also Lamarckian biology at work and a simple, logical extension of what we know now.

Windowing the Future?

It's possible, therefore, to think of the present epidemic of Wintel security violations and its worldwide economic consequences as a relatively benign demonstration, or model, of what happens when a Lamarck biology is allowed to work itself out in the absence of intelligent direction and control.

That mess didn't arise because no one understood that creating a Lamarckian biology without also putting appropriate controls in place was a bad idea. Some -- as Joy says of Sun in the Fortune interview -- even offered partial solutions:

"We did provide people with tools like Java to build more safe and reliable services on the network. But Java has been underappreciated because, once again, it was a solution to a problem people had heard about but had not felt viscerally, whereas the perceived cost of not choosing Microsoft or IBM was felt much more measurably and emotionally."

Thus the Wintel model came about because we choose, as a culture, to ignore the issues and let the uncontrolled and undirected evolution of the Wintel monoculture loose a Lamarckian biology on the Internet.

Joy doesn't compare the result to grey goo, but if I understand his fundamental point at all, it is that we must not let shortsighted self-interest lead us to repeat that mistake with respect to nanotechnology.

Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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