Does the 485th richest person in Britain really need to crowdfund a mobile phone?

People get fanatical about open-source software, but Canonical Inc. is not a charity, writes Alex Hern.

Yesterday, Canonical, the private company which leads development of the open-source operating system Ubuntu, started a crowdfunding campaign on the site IndieGoGo. The aim is to raise $32m to enable the production of the "Ubuntu Edge", a planned smartphone running the operating system which will incorporate elements of the desktop software, to create what the company calls "next generation of personal computing".

The device itself looks promising, although with a starter price of $830 (the crowdfunding campaign is offering discounts of up to $230 to early backers) it will need to be top-of-the-line to compete. Nonetheless, just a day in and they have already raised over $4m. But there's a bigger question to be asked, which is: why crowdfund?

The relationship between Ubuntu and Canonical can be confusing, at least to people outside the world of open-source software development. "Open-source" is the term for software which has been released to the commons by its creators. There's a number of ways to do this, but the most popular is with a so-called "copyleft" license, like the "GNU general public license", or GPL. That allows anyone to take the source code of a program and use it to make new things, without asking permission or paying anyone anything; but, it requires that any new software which is made is also licensed under the GPL, and has its source code released to the public.

Ubuntu, the operating system which Canonical leads development of, is licensed in this way. It's based on a family of open-source operating systems called GNU/Linux, and so it would be difficult (although not impossible) to charge for: anyone who wanted to get the software for free could perfectly legally download the source code, compile it, and then host it themselves.

Instead, the way companies such as Canonical make their money is by selling customer support and similar services to users of open source software. But with the Ubuntu Edge, they won't even have to do that. While the software will be open source, the hardware is still something people will have to buy, so they will be able to make money on it far more directly. And they do make money; Canonical is a private company with a reported annual revenue of $30m, founded by Mark Shuttleworth, the 485th richest person in Britain, who bought a flight on the International Space Station in 2002 for $20m.

If you're a multi-million dollar company headed by a multimillionaire with a bolshie idea for a product which could make you a lot of money, the normal way to do things is to sell shares and take loans until you've got enough cash to fund the product; then sell that product to customers. Taking thousands of pre-orders for a phone which you won't deliver until May 2014 – and which you have no contractual obligation to deliver at all, because crowdfunding sites are not e-commerce sites – and dressing it up in the aesthetics of artistic patronage is an odd, and slightly distasteful, way of doing things.

Kickstarter, the leading crowdfunding site, recently doubled-down on its opposition to this sort of campaign, writing that it's a service "to help bring creative projects to life", and tightening up its rules to prevent companies using it to launch their businesses. It's not hard to see why, when this is the sort of thing which has been stopped.

The Ubuntu Edge docked with a monitor. Photograph: Canonical, Inc.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution