Software Darwinism ensures survival of the fittest

Software will undergo a major shift in the next decade, becoming biological in both creation and function, according to a senior manager with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Innovation.

David McIntosh,

visiting Toronto from CGE&Y in Cambridge, Mass. Tuesday, said software has for 50 years been written as if it was a mathematical undertaking, that code is either true or false and successful if it produces the same result every time.

“”We know this isn’t a fair reflection of reality. Everyone that has Windows on their computer, knows things don’t work the same way every time. Why does Windows crash one day”” and not the next, McIntosh said. “”Programs are so complicated that you never have the same conditions twice.

“”There’s going to be a complete paradigm shift in programming in the next five to 10 years as we get away from the notion of reproducible and move to the goals of faster and more robust.””

McIntosh predicted development and use of software will take on a Darwinian feel and pointed to both the Linux operating system and the phenomenon of grid computing as early examples of this shift. In their truest sense, grids have the ability to automatically spread and collect their users’ computing resources, from computer cycles to computer applications on an as-needed basis, in much the same way an electrical grid manages electricity. McIntosh said with grids, computers automatically seek out available resources as nature seeks outs the strongest competitors.

“”That’s how people are going to solve more and more problems,”” he said. “”This is an unstoppable trend because of the complexity and because of cost.””

McIntosh said Linux is as an example of how operating code will also become more biological.

“”What was brilliant about Linux, one of the triumphs of the movement, was how quickly the code developed,”” he said. He added Linux was also a natural selection process, as many loosely coordinated programmers submitted code, but only the best code survived.

But John DiMarco, systems manager for the University of Toronto’s Computer Science Lab (CSLab), said that the only real difference between Linux and other operating systems is the list of contributors.

“”The idea is to start with something and modify it, rather than trying to design everything from the get-go. It is true that Linux developed in that way, but other things developed in that way. Windows developed in the way. (Sun Microsystem’s) Solaris developed in that way,”” he said. “”The difference is for Windows, the only people allowed to contribute worked for Microsoft. With Linux, everyone is allowed to contribute.””

Whether or not the contributing population was the only difference between Windows and Linux, this idea of a wider connectedness is central to McIntosh’s visions for the future of both software and business in general. He said businesses must deal with both an opening of markets and more volatility, from the rising number of bankruptcy and liquidity crises to the decreasing shelf life of CEOs, which now last an average of only three years in the United States

“”The lesson from nature is that connected systems evolve. It’s not good or bad — it’s inevitable. That’s when business has the challenge to be more adaptive,”” he said. “”If you look at what makes some types of species better able to evolve, there are some that work for companies as well. A majority of the life mass on earth is bacteria. Why are bacteria so successful? They have a quick cycle time for adapting. They have developed and ability to go into different ecological niches. They are able to survive long periods of threat — they go underground. (And), they’re able to use other vectors to spread.””

But humans shouldn’t try to mimic nature exactly, McIntosh said. Instead, they should control change as they do by breeding dogs and plants.

“”Natural selection is essentially accidental,”” he said. “”Humans have the ability to create selected evolution. That’s what we can do with our companies.””

The Center for Business Innovation has outlined six principles that adaptability, including recombining to reinvent, making boundaries permeable, living at the edge of chaos, applying selective pressure, closing the feedback loop, and enabling self-organization. A good example of enabling self organization, he said, is the U.S. Marines, which specifies operating rules but doesn’t send soldiers into battle with a manual.

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