[Discussioni]Fwd:[Patents] Reductionism

Roberto Micarelli mi.ro a iol.it
Gio 11 Dic 2003 19:02:05 CET

Sembra interessante (anche se in EN). Qualche commento in proposito?

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There is a passage from chapter 1 of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard 
Dawkins (polemic evolutionist and atheist) in which he discusses 
'hierarchical reductionism' --- the use of different layers of abstraction 
to explain how machines or living things work. This got me thinking about 
one kind of sophistry used by the pro-patent crowd to justify software patents.

".. if you asked me how a motor car worked you would think me somewhat 
pompous if I answered in terms of Newton's laws and the laws of 
thermodynamics, and downright obscurantist if I answered in terms of 
fundamental particles. It is doubtless true that at bottom the behaviour of 
a motor car is to be explained in terms of interactions between fundamental 
particles. But it is much more useful to explain it in terms of 
interactions between pistons, cylinders and sparking plugs"

"The behaviour of a computer can be explained in terms of interactions 
between semiconductor electronic gates, and the behaviour of these, in 
turn, is explained by physicists at yet lower levels. ... to understand the 
workings of computers, we prefer a preliminary explanation in terms of 
about half a dozen major subcomponents --- memory, processing mill, backing 
store, control unit, input--output handler etc."

Of course, the behaviour of software is best explained at an even higher 
level of abstraction, in terms of abstract logic, and to explain it in 
terms of the components Dawkins refers to is one way of creating trivial 
software patents (see 
http://lpf.ai.mit.edu/Patents/anatomy-trivial-patent.txt for one such 
example of obscurantism). The Cadtrak "XOR cursor" patent is sometimes 
justified on the basis that at the time the patent was filed, it was not as 
easy to write to the video memory then available. Therefore 'XOR'ing was a 
difficult operation. This is, of course, sophistry, because regardless of 
the technology on which video memory is based and the way one writes to it, 
a xor is a xor and can be expected to have the same effect on the screen 
when it is applied to video memory.

See slide 14 on http://www.ex.ac.uk/~mmaziz/com1409/lect6.pdf
also about half-way down this pro-swpat document 

To describe a software method as a technological process because of the 
"technical" nature of the apparatus is rather like describing the working 
of a car in terms of fundamental particles. This also helps explain why 
software patents are of zero use in describing a technique. It may be true 
that a software method can be described in terms of physical interactions 
between different parts of a computer system but that isn't a useful way of 
thinking of it, because these physical interactions are at a lower layer of 
abstraction from the useful effect of the software method.

Referring to "reductionism" as the art of explaining things in terms of 
their most fundamental parts, Dawkins then states "no-one is a reductionist 
in any sense worth being against". Obviously he did not know about the 
patent establishment, who deliberately use reductionism to pull wool over 
people's eyes, to make out a simple technique to be much more complicated 
than it actually is thru use of an inappropriately low level of abstraction.



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