Update: What will programming look like in the future?
Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at 10:04AM
Todd Hoff

 

UpdateÓlafur Arnalds built a robotic music system to accompany him on the piano. He calls his system of two semi generative, self playing pianos—STRATUS. You can hear his most recent song re:member. There's more explanation in The Player Pianos pt. II and a short Facebook live session. His software reacts to his playing in real-time. Then he has to react to the robots because he's not sure what they're going to do. He's improvising like a jazz band would do, but it's with robots. It's his own little orchestra. The result is beautiful. The result is also unexpected. Ólafur makes the fascinating point that usually your own improvisation is limited by your own muscle memory. But with the randomness of the robots you are forced to respond in different ways. He says you get a "pure unrestricted creativity." And it's fun he says with a big smile on his face.

 

Maybe programming will look something like the above video. Humans and AIs working together to produce software better than either can separately.

Maybe AIs won't destroy the world as we all fear, but help us by working together to build a better world?

The computer as a creative agent, working in tandem with a human partner, to produce software, in a beautiful act of co-creation.

The alternative vision—The Coming Software Apocalypse—is a dead end.

Better requirements and better tools have already been tried and found wanting. Requirements are a trap. They don't work. Requirements are no less complex and undiscoverable than code.

Tools are another trap. Tools are just code that encode an inflexible solution to a problem that's already been solved. Why?

I remember a lot of tools over the years. Lisp machines would change everything. Software through pictures would change everything. Then there's every kind of smart compiler, new language, functional this, OOP that, high level specification language, IDL, graphical program generators, program verifiers, bug trackers, source code control systems, build systems, test systems and so on.

I've written a lot of tools. For example, for a lot of real-time embedded systems I worked on I wrote a state machine generator (https://github.com/ToddHoff/fgen), that could generate entire sophisticated agents with timers, events, complicated message protocols, timeouts, retries, etc. Very powerful. I've written dozens more like that.

So I like tools. I build tools. I use tools. Tools aren't bad. Tools aren't enough either.

All those tools did nothing to change the face of software. Improvements were linear and incremental.

That's because tools are static by their nature. A hammer is a tool for pounding nails. Tools encode an approach to solving a particular problem. Need a variation and you're out of luck. Even hackable tools only allow evolution in one or two dimensions before you are simply rewriting a new and different tool.

So I guess I'm cheating by saying something that goes beyond the bounds of toolness is no longer a tool, it's more of a co-creator. You can't as far as I know say that about any programming tools today.

What we need in software is something that puts us on an exponential growth curve. All we've had so far are tools that are more like cruise control than fully autonomous self-driving cars.

To put it another way, tools have been sustaining innovations rather than disruptive innovations. Even the cloud has largely served as a medium for implementing software as we have always implemented it, just with a twist. A powerful twist to be sure, but the cloud has not been disruptive from the perspective of writing code. It merely continues the process of enfolding of abstractions upstack, or up the value chain, which is inherently linear and sustaining.

And I realize this is all just bloviation in that I have no idea how it would work, even though I've given it a lot of thought.

When I see how the pianist and the AI controlled pianos work together making beautiful music together, there's a core their that resonates deeply with building software.

There are the seeds of how it has already started:

Here's what we do know: neither tools or requirements are a silver bullet, they are a method of incrementally improving software quality. Software production quantity is not increased at all.

What we need is a manufacturing process that puts software production on an exponential curve. The only conceivable tool we have at the moment to put software on an exponential production curve is AI. That's the only way software can truly eat the world.

Right now, limited as we are by human programmers using methods that haven't changed much in 30 years, software is just nibbling at the world. And that won't scale. We need more software. A lot more software. And humans are the bottleneck.

Are humans and AIs working together to co-create software the solution? I don't know, but what else is there?

 

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