July 2, 2021 · opinion personal ml

The Power of Free (Libre) Software

Many readers of this blog probably know that some of the most powerful and widely-used software available today, such as Firefox, Blender, VLC, and Linux (oops... GNU/Linux), are open-source and free. I don't mean free as in beer 🍺, but free as in speech 💬, or better yet, libre, as Richard Stallman puts it. However, it was a long battle before this type of software became the norm, with the main antagonist being Microsoft. Microsoft underwent extensive antitrust investigations in the late 90s, and they were found to be systematically spreading misinformation and destroying adoption of open-source software and standards, as evidenced by the Halloween documents. They used methods such as "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish", where they only pretend to embrace open standards. Today, some remain wary of Microsoft's actions (and rightfully so), but most believe that Microsoft has realized the power of libre software as well. Linux is currently installed on billions of devices, including Microsoft's own datacenters, and has seeded innovation in ways a proprietary license could never have done, due to its usage of the GNU Public License (GPL).

Why do I bring this up? Well, in 2019, I coded something for fun called kromo. It tries to simulate a realistic lens blur and chromatic aberration effect. For a more visual explanation, take a look at the before-after below.

before-after-kromo

I did this to improve my Python skills, and I posted the code on GitHub under the GPL license without much thought. This spring, I was surprised to find that my code library was being used in a Master's thesis from Italy! They used kromo to see how blurry/poor-quality lenses can affect autonomous driving. My effect was just one of many effects (Failure j in Figure 4), but still, something I made entirely for fun ended up contributing to cutting-edge autonomous driving research! I believe this is a simple example of how libre software enables innovation and research, even in small ways that are difficult to imagine. In conclusion, I hope this example encourages you to support libre software whatever field you are in!

If you would like to find out more about libre software, please check out this presentation by Richard Stallman.