LinuxCon Dublin: Anniversaries & algorithms vs. humans

A quick report from LinuxCon Dublin

A conference for the ‘geeks’, I was definitely an oddball amongst the coders and developers at the LinuxCon event at a convention centre in Dublin. Despite a dreary start to the day, with rain pouring down in buckets, the convention centre was packed with eager people queuing up for goodie bags and registration badges. And it was a double whammy of celebrations. Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, in his keynote, told audience members that it was the Linux Foundation’s 24th anniversary today and the 30th anniversary of the Free Software Foundation.

Later when I caught up with Zemlin and congratulated him on the 24th anniversary, he clarified that the Linux Foundation hasn’t actually been around for the full 24 years.

“There wasn’t the Linux Foundation for the first 10 years or so. Linux grew up organically to become the biggest computer project in the history of computing. Our role at the Linux Foundation is to do whatever the Linux development community needs to – we are the supporting cast and the real stars are the actual Linux developers who create the software.”

The Linux Foundation hosts a number of conferences like this one and the Apache conference I attended just a few days prior. Zemlin tells me the Foundation provides a “supportive infrastructure for developers” and tools to “create source code”. They provide lots of training. “At the moment we have 400,000 students taking an intro to Linux course,” Zemlin tells me proudly. Of course, this conference is also about celebrating open source software, something Zemlin believes has a bright future.

“The footprint of open source software that is used in any product is just getting bigger. Up to 80% of the code in any technology product is all open source. People are consuming open source to build an Amazon, Facebook or a Google – there’s been a massive increase in the use of open source that continues to this day.”

One of the more interesting talks was given by Sean Gourley, founder of Quid. When Zemlin introduces him on stage, we find out that he is a Ted fellow and former advisor to the Iraqi government amongst other things. Gourley spoke about the limits of human cognition and how algorithms exploit these limitations.

“Algorithms dominate the US markets taking over 65% of all equity trades,” Gourley tells the audience while pacing up and down the stage. But he warned about the dangers of releasing unready algorithms into the market, reaping havoc in the financial world, as felt by the Knight Capital Group in 2012.

“Knight Capital Group released an algorithm into the market. People at Knight noticed the algorithm was acting a bit strange. After 45 minutes they thought maybe it’s our algorithm behaving strangely and pulled the plug. They lost $440 million dollars in 45 minutes. The algorithm was never supposed to be in the market. It was a practice algorithm. It destroyed the biggest high frequency trading shop in the world.”

Gourley also warned of other dangers posed by these algorithms as ‘61% of the global internet traffic is algorithmic too’. “These algorithms might be fast but are not very smart. They see 0s and 1s and jump on trends. They don't know how to read. If they enter the world of news, what does that mean for us?” asks Gourley.

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