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Next: Obvious or obfuscated? Up: Problem statement Previous: Seamlessness of thought as

Computer Science or Computer Secrecy

Science provides us with ever-changing schools of thought, opinions, ideas, and the like, while all building upon a foundation of verifiable (and sometimes evolving) truth. The foundations, laws, and theories of science, although true by assumption may at any time be called into question as new experimental results unfold. Thus when doing an experiment, we may begin by making certain assumptions, but at any time, these assumptions may be verified. In particular, a scientific experiment is a form of investigation that leads wherever the evidence takes us. In many cases, the evidence takes us back to questioning the very assumptions and foundations we had previously taken as truth, and in some cases, instead of making a new discovery along the lines anticipated by previous scientists, we discover that another previous discovery was false or inaccurate. Sometimes these are the biggest and most important discoveries -- things that are discovered by accident. Thus any scientific system that tries to anticipate ``what 99% of the users of our result will need'' may be constructing a thought prison for the very people who would otherwise be the most likely to advance human knowledge. In many ways their entire user-base is in this thought prison, but many would never know it, since their own explorations do not take them to its outermost walls.

Thus a situation in which one or more of the foundation elements are held in secret is contrary to the principles of science. Although many results in science are treated as a ``black box'', for operational simplicity, there is always the possibility that the evidence may want to lead us inside that box.

Imagine, for example, conducting an experiment on a chemical reaction between a proprietary solution ``A'', mixed with a secret powder ``B'', brought to a temperature of 325 degrees T. (Top secret temperature scale which you are not allowed to convert to other units). (See Figure 1.)

  
Figure: Imagine, for example, conducting an experiment on a chemical reaction between 250mP (proprietary units of volume) of proprietary solution ``A'', and 50mC (confidential units of mass) of a secret powder ``B'', where the mixture is raised to 325 degrees T (top secret temperature scale). It is hard to imagine where one might publish results of such an experiment, except, perhaps, in the Journal of Irreproducible Results.
\begin{figure*}\figc{science_or_secrecy.eps,width=5in}
\end{figure*}

Now it is quite likely that one could make some new discoveries about the chemical reaction between A and B, without knowing what A and B are, and one might even be able to complete a doctoral dissertation and obtain a PhD for the study of the reaction between A and B (assuming a large enough quantity of A and B were available). However, one might ask where one would publish these findings, except maybe in the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

Results in Computer Science that are based, in part, on undisclosed matters, inhibit the ability of the scientist to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. Even in a situation where the evidence does not lead inside one of the secret ``black boxes'', science conducted in this manner is irresponsible in the sense that another scientist in the future may wish to build upon the result, and may, in fact, conduct an experiment that leads backwards, as well as forwards. Should the new scientist follow evidence that leads backwards, inside one of these secret ``black boxes'', then the first scientist will have created a foundation contaminated by secrecy. In the interest of academic integrity, better science would result if all the foundations upon which it were built were such as to be subject to full examination by any scientist who might, at some time in the future, wish to build upon a given scientific discovery.

Thus, although many computer scientists may work at a high-level, there would be great merit in a computational foundation open to examination by others, even if the particular scientist using the computational foundation does not wish to examine it. For example, the designer of a high level numerical algorithm, who uses a computer with a fully disclosed operating system (such as Linux), does other scientists a great service, even if he or she himself or herself only uses it at the API level and never intends to look at its source code or that of the Linux operating system underneath it.


next up previous
Next: Obvious or obfuscated? Up: Problem statement Previous: Seamlessness of thought as
Steve Mann
1998-09-15