She bangs the DRM

He milks the pun
He milks the pun

Apple made what is supposedly their last appearance at the annual Macworld conference in San Francisco yesterday.  In the final day’s Key note speach Apple’s senior vice president of world-wide product marketing Phil Schiller (how does he fit that title on his office door?) announced that apple would be removing digital rights management from all music sold on itunes.  The move sees 8 million songs DRM free with immediate effect, with the final two million to be DRM free by the end of March.

The decision to remove DRM from itunes has long been on the mind of Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, who was sadly unable to deliver his usual keynote speech due to serious illness.  In 2007 Jobs published an open letter, ‘Thoughts on music’ in which he called for major record labels to drop DRM.  It’s taken time but Jobs has achieved his aim with Sony BMG, Universal and Warner finally reaching an agreement.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies are in layman’s terms a means of controlling the usage of digital media by preventing access, copying or conversion to other formats by the end user, meaning that though a buyer has paid for  a product, they are not free to use that product in any way they wish.  With regard to itunes the music files are encrypted preventing play on any product other than itunes or the ipod.  Files can also be played on only five different PC systems which must be authorised by the account holder from which the music was purchased.

With the dropping of DRM Schiller also announced that the current price policy of one price for all would also be changing, introducing a two-tier pricing system with DRM free itunes tracks costing an additional 30 cents, it is so far unclear if an increase in price will also be seen in the UK where currently plus tracks cost the same 79p as older tracks.  Mark Mulligan, a director with market analysts Jupiter Research, reacted to this by saying the end of DRM in its current form was inevitable,  “Ultimately, what we’re going to end up with is a new form of DRM. The more you pay, the less DRM you get bolted onto your music. Premium music will be DRM free, the cheaper it gets, the more shackles are attached,”

Following the successful launch of Amazon’s DRM free download service it seemed inevitable that apple would be forced to react or lose market share, however I’m a little concerned that they seem to deam it necessary to charge extra for this service, while the new style tracks are a higher quality, the difference is only really audible on high end equipment, so therefore a moot point  with the average itunes user.  While no increase in price has been announced in the UK the charge to upgrade previously purchased tracks to the new format is twenty pence I can’t help but wonder if a 99 pence price point is being considered in the future, 30 pence higher than many tracks offered by Amazon (starting at 59 pence, with most priced at 69p).

While DRM may not be an issue to the average itunes user, that doesn’t mean that they will be unaffected by the issue, while it currently looks like the major record labels are through itunes taking a step in the right direction apple will have to take care not to price themselves out of a market which in 2009 as the high street suffers is only going to get larger and more competitive as consumers seek new music at lower prices.

Machine Intelligence

Most folks laugh at this phrase, everybody has had fun with their backwards printer and rebellious cellphone. Working daily with the facepalm worthy exploits of folks I’ve come to laugh at the notion of human intelligence as well, but that’s another story.

Even now work is going on to create synthetic brains, devising simple heuristic rules which can guide the creation of artificial neural networks. New hardware and software is being created right now to facilitate the growth of true intelligence from a machine, and that makes me excited.

It’s worth noting the differences here between artificial intelligence and machine intelligence, there’s a big gap. Artificial intelligence can only respond to stimuli that it has specificially been created to work with, an example is bots in videogames. A bot can act like a player, and even though you can tell them apart from humans they still react in what would be considered a lifelike way within the simulated situation in which they exist, but without special markers built into those game worlds the bots cease functioning correctly and begin to act erratically. Machine intelligence works by creating models from available data and building scenarios within it’s neural network, allowing it to come to decisions that the original designers of it’s heuristic software may not have anticipated; taking my example above, the intelligence would learn the rules of the game through observation not through intentional prompts. There are different methods to achieve this but their goal is the same, to create a thinking model.

Isaac Asimov famously wrote about devices built with such an intelligence in I, Robot (and later Cory Doctorow took his ideas and ran with them in his I, Robot and more playful I, Row Boat) defining three rules which should govern the behaviour of a machine intelligence. The question is though, should we artificially restrain what thoughts a synthetic mind can entertain? Does the simple act of rationalising and coming to decisions based on available input constitute sentience?

It’s more a question for the philosophy students out there, me; I’m looking forward to the Turing Test being beaten and robot equality movements. It’s all a long way off, but we’re a clever bunch, eh? In the mean time watch this video and be enlightened:

Thanks to Andrew C. Hoyer for the aweome photo and having the ‘nads to Creative Commons licence it!