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Is Use More Important than Ownership?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tim Morgan publishes his second blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by comparing the concept of ‘use’ against the ‘ownership’ notion. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 


When artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky was a graduate student in 1952, he constructed a simple machine which he kept on his desk. Acclaimed scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke once saw the device, finding it both sinister and fascinating. The machine had a single switch. When activated, the device did one thing: it would raise a small arm and flip the switch back to the OFF position. This “Useless Machine” is an automation with only a single use: it turns itself off.

Minsky understood a fundamental aspect of automation: use is inextricably bound up with the structure, operating rules, and intent of the automation. His Useless Machine was a minimalist example of that active fusion of intent and capability. No matter who owned the machine or operated it, it would always lead to the same result. It would turn itself off.

We appear to see two contradictory trends at work with automation and capital. There is a long history of owners ceding use of their capital to intermediaries like banks, managers, and companies. Automation is clearly amplifying that trend via everything from programmatically traded stocks and commodities to “lights-out” automation of shipment planning and warehouse management. Even hobbyist gardeners can now buy an autonomous gardening robot like FarmBot to seed, weed, and feed their backyard garden based on the bot’s sophisticated algorithms and design.

Conversely, we also see automation pushing direct control back to the owners. That same FarmBot gives its owner the tools to plan the garden they want, schedule watering that adapts to local weather, and alert them to problems. The average owner has far more sophisticated control over the quality of their home-grown food than if they had bought it from intermediaries like local farmers, a local supermarket, or grown it the old fashioned way.

Can we reconcile automation simultaneously degrading ownership and amplifying it? We can if we consider how use plays out via the automation. Owners get more control over the use of their capital by embedding rules and algorithms into the capital itself. A factory produces goods. A fully automated factory would produce goods exactly the way the owner wants. The automation allows the owner to use the capital the way they see fit, restoring more direct control. The flip side is that automation is increasingly dependent on outside integration. The automated control is spreading out into the vast network of supporting services like cloud storage, software tools, and data services like weather reporting or goods pricing.

The resolution to the contradiction is that Ownership and Use are fusing together via dependence on a vast network of embedded, actively changing automation infrastructure. With each piece of capital automation, we add its capabilities to the networks of the world. This amplifies the capabilities of other items, creating new opportunities and synergies across the network.

Automation is creating a new world of Networkable Capital that is both amplifying control and spreading out the benefits to others in a seemingly magical halo of interdependent capabilities. That bodes well for bringing the benefits of Networked Capitalism to everyone in the future.

Now if we can only keep it from shutting itself off.

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  machine  network 

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