Saturday, July 11, 2015

Depending on too few technologies

Thetis dipping Achilles in the Styx by Reubens
Courtesy Wikipedia
I don’t think that at present terrorism is an existential risk. I do however think that it is sufficiently serious to warrant reasonable levels of responsible surveillance. Plainly what "reasonable" and "responsible" mean in this context is of course open to debate. But the “argument” that “we need innovation therefore anything that inhibits innovation is forbidden” is manifestly fallacious.

I do however think there are existential risks inherent in allowing informational oligopolies. If a large enough portion of critical infrastructure depends on any one piece of software or company then a single catastrophic failure could wipe out a substantial fraction of humanity. The “winner takes all” economics of the internet is based on failing to recognise and price this externality. If we don’t face up to this we will at best have something like the Global Financial Crisis and at worst have an Existential event.

It’s fairly clear that there need to be at least k different versions of any piece of critical infrastructure with no one version having a market share >y.  It’s not clear what the values of k and y are (and no doubt they will depend on the systems in question and various other factors) but it’s pretty clear that k > 3 and y<(k-1)/k and in far too many areas of technology we are well outside this zone.

This is a natural extension of the Regulators Dilemma work but it is not obvious at all how best to think about it or treat it analytically.

PS I read a book review rubbishing the Sitwells but I do rather admire Edith Sitwell. Her commentaries on poems in The Pleasures of Poetry are deeply insightful. And I have a very soft spot for Facade. Of its kind it is hard to beat this (from Don Pasquito):
Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat is silver like the sea
Erotis notices that she ...  can .. steal ... the...
wheat king's luggage like Babel
Before the League of Nations grew
So Joe put the luggage and the label
In the pocket of Flo the kangaroo

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