6 October 2012 by Francis Goode
The aim of IP law is to prevent the copying of products, which is effectively the theft of a company's R&D effort, and IP legislation covers not just the copying itself, but also techniques used in the process of copying. One such technique is reverse engineering, which essentially involves running the normal development lifecycle in reverse to derive the original design spec. This method of opening up a product's design is so powerful in uncovering its design approach that it is considered an infringement of the author's rights. Nonetheless, some forms of reverse engineering are permitted, for example when we need to understand the product's design for the purpose of maintaining the product or other systems that need to interwork with it. Reverse engineering is sometimes vital to understand the environment in which a product or system is to work.
In some ways, we might say that all our investigations into the natural world could be described as reverse engineering. We find ourselves living in this fantastically complex universe, to which we bring all our intellectual powers to bear in decoding, cataloguing its features and trying to work out what its underlying design might look like.
But there is one big difference between reverse engineering a product and the universe itself. With a product, we are generally helped in working out what it does and how it does it, by knowing why it does it. In other words, knowing the purpose for which a product is designed helps us make little intuitive leaps into the mind of the designer. For example, consider the behaviour of my iPhone when I enter a wrong password. Instead of emitting a clunky noise and displaying a tedious "error message" that I have to tap to clear, the password entry box simply vibrates a little, as if shaking its little head in sorrow, a delightfully gentle reprimand for my error. But, of course, to understand why this little feature is so effective one needs to know the negative connotations of head shaking in Western cultures. Perhaps it's not so effective in other cultures where this gesture has different meanings - can anyone comment on that?
But when it comes to the universe, we have no such clues to what may lie behind the design. In fact, scientists are discouraged from asking the question why?, and have been since the foundations of the scientific method were laid out by Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum. The question of purpose is considered beyond the ability of humans to judge, and therefore outside of science. Instead it is banished to the realm of philosophy where it may safely be debated under the name of "teleology".
Well, that's the theory, at least, but it's still common to find even the most hardened scientists still using teleological arguments from time to time. This is especially so in evolutionary biology, where the simplest way explaining the complicated, random process of natural selection often involves attributing purpose. How often do we hear nature commentators assert that "this bird evolved a long beak so it can reach insects in a tree," or "humans evolved opposing thumbs to allow us to manipulate objects"?
Still, on the whole, we engineers and scientists managed to get on just fine without worrying about whether there's an overall purpose for the universe or not. Even if there is, it doesn't seem to make any difference to our daily lives. People who have strong feelings that there is such a purpose work alongside colleagues who feel equally strongly that there isn't, but in general it doesn't affect the way we do our jobs together. If there is a purpose, its effect must be too subtle to be noticed on a daily basis. Perhaps purpose runs through existence like the grain in wood - we can cut it either way, but it's a lot easier to work with the grain than against it. Or perhaps its like gravity waves, shaping the universe but virtually undetectable without the most sensitive apparatus. Who know?
Meanwhile we get on with our great project of reverse engineering the universe, breaking things apart to see how they tick. We even doing a bit of copying along the way. Hardly a day goes by without a new story on how we're "recreating" some feature of the universe: the LHC recreates the state of the universe at the Big Bang, ITER will reproduce the sun on earth, the latest computer chip will recreate the workings of the brain, interactive maps recreate the surface of our planet, and so on.
Which perhaps raises another question: if the universe was designed by an intelligent agent, are we infringing his/her/its intellectual property rights when we recreate its properties here on earth? Are we setting ourselves up for some massive cosmic IP law suit? Now that's a patently tricky thought.
Posted By: Francis Goode @ 06 October 2012 05:21 AM General
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