[Paleopsych] Wired 8.04: Bill Joy: Why the future doesn't need us.
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Bill Joy: Why the future doesn't need us.
Issue 8.04 - Apr 2000
[This article is very famous and perhaps it is time to read it four years
later and reconsider it.]
Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic
engineering, and nanotech - are threatening to make humans an
From the moment I became involved in the creation of new technologies,
their ethical dimensions have concerned me, but it was only in the
autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of how great are the
dangers facing us in the 21st century. I can date the onset of my
unease to the day I met Ray Kurzweil, the deservedly famous inventor
of the first reading machine for the blind and many other amazing
Ray and I were both speakers at George Gilder's Telecosm conference,
and I encountered him by chance in the bar of the hotel after both our
sessions were over. I was sitting with John Searle, a Berkeley
philosopher who studies consciousness. While we were talking, Ray
approached and a conversation began, the subject of which haunts me to
I had missed Ray's talk and the subsequent panel that Ray and John had
been on, and they now picked right up where they'd left off, with Ray
saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to
accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots
or something like that, and John countering that this couldn't happen,
because the robots couldn't be conscious.
While I had heard such talk before, I had always felt sentient robots
were in the realm of science fiction. But now, from someone I
respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term
possibility. I was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability
to imagine and create the future. I already knew that new technologies
like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power
to remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for
intelligent robots surprised me.
It's easy to get jaded about such breakthroughs. We hear in the news
almost every day of some kind of technological or scientific advance.
Yet this was no ordinary prediction. In the hotel bar, Ray gave me a
partial preprint of his then-forthcoming bookThe Age of Spiritual
Machines, which outlined a utopia he foresaw - one in which humans
gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. On
reading it, my sense of unease only intensified; I felt sure he had to
be understating the dangers, understating the probability of a bad
outcome along this path.
I found myself most troubled by a passage detailing adystopian
THE NEW LUDDITE CHALLENGE
First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in
developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than
human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be
done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort
will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might
be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human
oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.
If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we
can't make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible
to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the
fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might
be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand
over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that
the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor
that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is
that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a
position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no
practical choice but to accept all of the machines' decisions. As
society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and
machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines
make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made
decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a
stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the
system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable
of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in
effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off,
because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would
amount to suicide.
On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines
may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over
certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal
computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the
hands of a tiny elite - just as it is today, but with two differences.
Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over
the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the
masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the
elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of
humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other
psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until
the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite.
Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to
play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They
will see to it that everyone's physical needs are satisfied, that all
children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that
everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who
may become dissatisfied undergoes "treatment" to cure his "problem."
Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be
biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need
for the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power
into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy
in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will
have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.1
In the book, you don't discover until you turn the page that the
author of this passage is Theodore Kaczynski - the Unabomber. I am no
apologist for Kaczynski. His bombs killed three people during a
17-year terror campaign and wounded many others. One of his bombs
gravely injured my friend David Gelernter, one of the most brilliant
and visionary computer scientists of our time. Like many of my
colleagues, I felt that I could easily have been the Unabomber's next
Kaczynski's actions were murderous and, in my view, criminally insane.
He is clearly a Luddite, but simply saying this does not dismiss his
argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some
merit in the reasoning in this single passage. I felt compelled to
Kaczynski's dystopian vision describes unintended consequences, a
well-known problem with the design and use of technology, and one that
is clearly related to Murphy's law - "Anything that can go wrong,
will." (Actually, this is Finagle's law, which in itself shows that
Finagle was right.) Our overuse of antibiotics has led to what may be
the biggest such problem so far: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant
and much more dangerous bacteria. Similar things happened when
attempts to eliminate malarial mosquitoes using DDT caused them to
acquire DDT resistance; malarial parasites likewise acquired
The cause of many such surprises seems clear: The systems involved are
complex, involving interaction among and feedback between many parts.
Any changes to such a system will cascade in ways that are difficult
to predict; this is especially true when human actions are involved.
I started showing friends the Kaczynski quote fromThe Age of Spiritual
Machines; I would hand them Kurzweil's book, let them read the quote,
and then watch their reaction as they discovered who had written it.
At around the same time, I found Hans Moravec's bookRobot: Mere
Machine to Transcendent Mind. Moravec is one of the leaders in
robotics research, and was a founder of the world's largest robotics
research program, at Carnegie Mellon University.Robot gave me more
material to try out on my friends - material surprisingly supportive
of Kaczynski's argument. For example:
The Short Run (Early 2000s)
Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior
competitors. Ten million years ago, South and North America were
separated by a sunken Panama isthmus. South America, like Australia
today, was populated by marsupial mammals, including pouched
equivalents of rats, deers, and tigers. When the isthmus connecting
North and South America rose, it took only a few thousand years for
the northern placental species, with slightly more effective
metabolisms and reproductive and nervous systems, to displace and
eliminate almost all the southern marsupials.
In a completely free marketplace, superior robots would surely affect
humans as North American placentals affected South American marsupials
(and as humans have affected countless species). Robotic industries
would compete vigorously among themselves for matter, energy, and
space, incidentally driving their price beyond human reach. Unable to
afford the necessities of life, biological humans would be squeezed
out of existence.
There is probably some breathing room, because we do not live in a
completely free marketplace. Government coerces nonmarket behavior,
especially by collecting taxes. Judiciously applied, governmental
coercion could support human populations in high style on the fruits
of robot labor, perhaps for a long while.
A textbook dystopia - and Moravec is just getting wound up. He goes on
to discuss how our main job in the 21st century will be "ensuring
continued cooperation from the robot industries" by passing laws
decreeing that they be "nice,"3 and to describe how seriously
dangerous a human can be "once transformed into an unbounded
superintelligent robot." Moravec's view is that the robots will
eventually succeed us - that humans clearly face extinction.
I decided it was time to talk to my friend Danny Hillis. Danny became
famous as the cofounder of Thinking Machines Corporation, which built
a very powerful parallel supercomputer. Despite my current job title
of Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, I am more a computer architect
than a scientist, and I respect Danny's knowledge of the information
and physical sciences more than that of any other single person I
know. Danny is also a highly regarded futurist who thinks long-term -
four years ago he started the Long Now Foundation, which is building a
clock designed to last 10,000 years, in an attempt to draw attention
to the pitifully short attention span of our society. (See "Test
of Time,"Wired 8.03, page 78.)
So I flew to Los Angeles for the express purpose of having dinner with
Danny and his wife, Pati. I went through my now-familiar routine,
trotting out the ideas and passages that I found so disturbing.
Danny's answer - directed specifically at Kurzweil's scenario of
humans merging with robots - came swiftly, and quite surprised me. He
said, simply, that the changes would come gradually, and that we would
get used to them.
But I guess I wasn't totally surprised. I had seen a quote from Danny
in Kurzweil's book in which he said, "I'm as fond of my body as
anyone, but if I can be 200 with a body of silicon, I'll take it." It
seemed that he was at peace with this process and its attendant risks,
while I was not.
While talking and thinking about Kurzweil, Kaczynski, and Moravec, I
suddenly remembered a novel I had read almost 20 years ago -The White
Plague, by Frank Herbert - in which a molecular biologist is driven
insane by the senseless murder of his family. To seek revenge he
constructs and disseminates a new and highly contagious plague that
kills widely but selectively. (We're lucky Kaczynski was a
mathematician, not a molecular biologist.) I was also reminded of the
Borg ofStar Trek, a hive of partly biological, partly robotic
creatures with a strong destructive streak. Borg-like disasters are a
staple of science fiction, so why hadn't I been more concerned about
such robotic dystopias earlier? Why weren't other people more
concerned about these nightmarish scenarios?
Part of the answer certainly lies in our attitude toward the new - in
our bias toward instant familiarity and unquestioning acceptance.
Accustomed to living with almost routine scientific breakthroughs, we
have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling
21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and
nanotechnology - pose a different threat than the technologies that
have come before. Specifically, robots, engineered organisms, and
nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate.
A bomb is blown up only once - but one bot can become many, and
quickly get out of control.
Much of my work over the past 25 years has been on computer
networking, where the sending and receiving of messages creates the
opportunity for out-of-control replication. But while replication in a
computer or a computer network can be a nuisance, at worst it disables
a machine or takes down a network or network service. Uncontrolled
self-replication in these newer technologies runs a much greater risk:
a risk of substantial damage in the physical world.
Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of
near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us
forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not
outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine
can address yet more ills. Together they could significantly extend
our average life span and improve the quality of our lives. Yet, with
each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible
advances leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly,
What was different in the 20th century? Certainly, the technologies
underlying the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - nuclear,
biological, and chemical (NBC) - were powerful, and the weapons an
enormous threat. But building nuclear weapons required, at least for a
time, access to both rare - indeed, effectively unavailable - raw
materials and highly protected information; biological and chemical
weapons programs also tended to require large-scale activities.
The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics
(GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of
accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these
accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or
small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw
materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.
Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction
but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness
hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.
I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further
perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well
beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the
nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme
Nothing about the way I got involved with computers suggested to me
that I was going to be facing these kinds of issues.
My life has been driven by a deep need to ask questions and find
answers. When I was 3, I was already reading, so my father took me to
the elementary school, where I sat on the principal's lap and read him
a story. I started school early, later skipped a grade, and escaped
into books - I was incredibly motivated to learn. I asked lots of
questions, often driving adults to distraction.
As a teenager I was very interested in science and technology. I
wanted to be a ham radio operator but didn't have the money to buy the
equipment. Ham radio was the Internet of its time: very addictive, and
quite solitary. Money issues aside, my mother put her foot down - I
was not to be a ham; I was antisocial enough already.
I may not have had many close friends, but I was awash in ideas. By
high school, I had discovered the great science fiction writers. I
remember especially Heinlein'sHave Spacesuit Will Travel and Asimov's
I, Robot, with its Three Laws of Robotics. I was enchanted by the
descriptions of space travel, and wanted to have a telescope to look
at the stars; since I had no money to buy or make one, I checked books
on telescope-making out of the library and read about making them
instead. I soared in my imagination.
Thursday nights my parents went bowling, and we kids stayed home
alone. It was the night of Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek, and
the program made a big impression on me. I came to accept its notion
that humans had a future in space, Western-style, with big heroes and
adventures. Roddenberry's vision of the centuries to come was one with
strong moral values, embodied in codes like the Prime Directive: to
not interfere in the development of less technologically advanced
civilizations. This had an incredible appeal to me; ethical humans,
not robots, dominated this future, and I took Roddenberry's dream as
part of my own.
I excelled in mathematics in high school, and when I went to the
University of Michigan as an undergraduate engineering student I took
the advanced curriculum of the mathematics majors. Solving math
problems was an exciting challenge, but when I discovered computers I
found something much more interesting: a machine into which you could
put a program that attempted to solve a problem, after which the
machine quickly checked the solution. The computer had a clear notion
of correct and incorrect, true and false. Were my ideas correct? The
machine could tell me. This was very seductive.
I was lucky enough to get a job programming early supercomputers and
discovered the amazing power of large machines to numerically simulate
advanced designs. When I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley in the
mid-1970s, I started staying up late, often all night, inventing new
worlds inside the machines. Solving problems. Writing the code that
argued so strongly to be written.
InThe Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone's biographical novel of
Michelangelo, Stone described vividly how Michelangelo released the
statues from the stone, "breaking the marble spell," carving from the
images in his mind.4 In my most ecstatic moments, the software in
the computer emerged in the same way. Once I had imagined it in my
mind I felt that it was already there in the machine, waiting to be
released. Staying up all night seemed a small price to pay to free it
- to give the ideas concrete form.
After a few years at Berkeley I started to send out some of the
software I had written - an instructional Pascal system, Unix
utilities, and a text editor called vi (which is still, to my
surprise, widely used more than 20 years later) - to others who had
similar small PDP-11 and VAX minicomputers. These adventures in
software eventually turned into the Berkeley version of the Unix
operating system, which became a personal "success disaster" - so many
people wanted it that I never finished my PhD. Instead I got a job
working for Darpa putting Berkeley Unix on the Internet and fixing it
to be reliable and to run large research applications well. This was
all great fun and very rewarding. And, frankly, I saw no robots here,
or anywhere near.
Still, by the early 1980s, I was drowning. The Unix releases were very
successful, and my little project of one soon had money and some
staff, but the problem at Berkeley was always office space rather than
money - there wasn't room for the help the project needed, so when the
other founders of Sun Microsystems showed up I jumped at the chance to
join them. At Sun, the long hours continued into the early days of
workstations and personal computers, and I have enjoyed participating
in the creation of advanced microprocessor technologies and Internet
technologies such as Java and Jini.
From all this, I trust it is clear that I am not a Luddite. I have
always, rather, had a strong belief in the value of the scientific
search for truth and in the ability of great engineering to bring
material progress. The Industrial Revolution has immeasurably improved
everyone's life over the last couple hundred years, and I always
expected my career to involve the building of worthwhile solutions to
real problems, one problem at a time.
I have not been disappointed. My work has had more impact than I had
ever hoped for and has been more widely used than I could have
reasonably expected. I have spent the last 20 years still trying to
figure out how to make computers as reliable as I want them to be
(they are not nearly there yet) and how to make them simple to use (a
goal that has met with even less relative success). Despite some
progress, the problems that remain seem even more daunting.
But while I was aware of the moral dilemmas surrounding technology's
consequences in fields like weapons research, I did not expect that I
would confront such issues in my own field, or at least not so soon.
Perhaps it is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in
the vortex of a change. Failing to understand the consequences of our
inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery and innovation
seems to be a common fault of scientists and technologists; we have
long been driven by the overarching desire to know that is the nature
of science's quest, not stopping to notice that the progress to newer
and more powerful technologies can take on a life of its own.
I have long realized that the big advances in information technology
come not from the work of computer scientists, computer architects, or
electrical engineers, but from that of physical scientists. The
physicists Stephen Wolfram and Brosl Hasslacher introduced me, in the
early 1980s, to chaos theory and nonlinear systems. In the 1990s, I
learned about complex systems from conversations with Danny Hillis,
the biologist Stuart Kauffman, the Nobel-laureate physicist Murray
Gell-Mann, and others. Most recently, Hasslacher and the electrical
engineer and device physicist Mark Reed have been giving me insight
into the incredible possibilities of molecular electronics.
In my own work, as codesigner of three microprocessor architectures -
SPARC, picoJava, and MAJC - and as the designer of several
implementations thereof, I've been afforded a deep and firsthand
acquaintance with Moore's law. For decades, Moore's law has correctly
predicted the exponential rate of improvement of semiconductor
technology. Until last year I believed that the rate of advances
predicted by Moore's law might continue only until roughly 2010, when
some physical limits would begin to be reached. It was not obvious to
me that a new technology would arrive in time to keep performance
But because of the recent rapid and radical progress in molecular
electronics - where individual atoms and molecules replace
lithographically drawn transistors - and related nanoscale
technologies, we should be able to meet or exceed the Moore's law rate
of progress for another 30 years. By 2030, we are likely to be able to
build machines, in quantity, a million times as powerful as the
personal computers of today - sufficient to implement the dreams of
Kurzweil and Moravec.
As this enormous computing power is combined with the manipulative
advances of the physical sciences and the new, deep understandings in
genetics, enormous transformative power is being unleashed. These
combinations open up the opportunity to completely redesign the world,
for better or worse: The replicating and evolving processes that have
been confined to the natural world are about to become realms of human
In designing software and microprocessors, I have never had the
feeling that I was designing an intelligent machine. The software and
hardware is so fragile and the capabilities of the machine to "think"
so clearly absent that, even as a possibility, this has always seemed
very far in the future.
But now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30
years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create
tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may
replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable.
Having struggled my entire career to build reliable software systems,
it seems to me more than likely that this future will not work out as
well as some people may imagine. My personal experience suggests we
tend to overestimate our design abilities.
Given the incredible power of these new technologies, shouldn't we be
asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own extinction is
a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development,
shouldn't we proceed with great caution?
The dream of robotics is, first, that intelligent machines can do our
work for us, allowing us lives of leisure, restoring us to Eden. Yet
in his history of such ideas,Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson
warns: "In the game of life and evolution there are three players at
the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side
of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines." As
we have seen, Moravec agrees, believing we may well not survive the
encounter with the superior robot species.
How soon could such an intelligent robot be built? The coming advances
in computing power seem to make it possible by 2030. And once an
intelligent robot exists, it is only a small step to a robot species -
to an intelligent robot that can make evolved copies of itself.
A second dream of robotics is that we will gradually replace ourselves
with our robotic technology, achieving near immortality by downloading
our consciousnesses; it is this process that Danny Hillis thinks we
will gradually get used to and that Ray Kurzweil elegantly details
inThe Age of Spiritual Machines. (We are beginning to see intimations
of this in the implantation of computer devices into the human body,
as illustrated on thecover ofWired 8.02.)
But if we are downloaded into our technology, what are the chances
that we will thereafter be ourselves or even human? It seems to me far
more likely that a robotic existence would not be like a human one in
any sense that we understand, that the robots would in no sense be our
children, that on this path our humanity may well be lost.
Genetic engineering promises to revolutionize agriculture by
increasing crop yields while reducing the use of pesticides; to create
tens of thousands of novel species of bacteria, plants, viruses, and
animals; to replace reproduction, or supplement it, with cloning; to
create cures for many diseases, increasing our life span and our
quality of life; and much, much more. We now know with certainty that
these profound changes in the biological sciences are imminent and
will challenge all our notions of what life is.
Technologies such as human cloning have in particular raised our
awareness of the profound ethical and moral issues we face. If, for
example, we were to reengineer ourselves into several separate and
unequal species using the power of genetic engineering, then we would
threaten the notion of equality that is the very cornerstone of our
Given the incredible power of genetic engineering, it's no surprise
that there are significant safety issues in its use. My friend Amory
Lovins recently cowrote, along with Hunter Lovins, an editorial that
provides an ecological view of some of these dangers. Among their
concerns: that "the new botany aligns the development of plants with
their economic, not evolutionary, success." (See "A Tale of Two
Botanies," page 247.) Amory's long career has been focused on energy
and resource efficiency by taking a whole-system view of human-made
systems; such a whole-system view often finds simple, smart solutions
to otherwise seemingly difficult problems, and is usefully applied
here as well.
After reading the Lovins' editorial, I saw an op-ed by Gregg
Easterbrook inThe New York Times (November 19, 1999) about genetically
engineered crops, under the headline: "Food for the Future: Someday,
rice will have built-in vitamin A. Unless the Luddites win."
Are Amory and Hunter Lovins Luddites? Certainly not. I believe we all
would agree that golden rice, with its built-in vitamin A, is probably
a good thing, if developed with proper care and respect for the likely
dangers in moving genes across species boundaries.
Awareness of the dangers inherent in genetic engineering is beginning
to grow, as reflected in the Lovins' editorial. The general public is
aware of, and uneasy about, genetically modified foods, and seems to
be rejecting the notion that such foods should be permitted to be
But genetic engineering technology is already very far along. As the
Lovins note, the USDA has already approved about 50 genetically
engineered crops for unlimited release; more than half of the world's
soybeans and a third of its corn now contain genes spliced in from
other forms of life.
While there are many important issues here, my own major concern with
genetic engineering is narrower: that it gives the power - whether
militarily, accidentally, or in a deliberate terrorist act - to create
a White Plague.
The many wonders of nanotechnology were first imagined by the
Nobel-laureate physicist Richard Feynman in a speech he gave in 1959,
subsequently published under the title "There's Plenty of Room at the
Bottom." The book that made a big impression on me, in the mid-'80s,
was Eric Drexler'sEngines of Creation, in which he described
beautifully how manipulation of matter at the atomic level could
create a utopian future of abundance, where just about everything
could be made cheaply, and almost any imaginable disease or physical
problem could be solved using nanotechnology and artificial
A subsequent book,Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology
Revolution, which Drexler cowrote, imagines some of the changes that
might take place in a world where we had molecular-level "assemblers."
Assemblers could make possible incredibly low-cost solar power, cures
for cancer and the common cold by augmentation of the human immune
system, essentially complete cleanup of the environment, incredibly
inexpensive pocket supercomputers - in fact, any product would be
manufacturable by assemblers at a cost no greater than that of wood -
spaceflight more accessible than transoceanic travel today, and
restoration of extinct species.
I remember feeling good about nanotechnology after readingEngines of
Creation. As a technologist, it gave me a sense of calm - that is,
nanotechnology showed us that incredible progress was possible, and
indeed perhaps inevitable. If nanotechnology was our future, then I
didn't feel pressed to solve so many problems in the present. I would
get to Drexler's utopian future in due time; I might as well enjoy
life more in the here and now. It didn't make sense, given his vision,
to stay up all night, all the time.
Drexler's vision also led to a lot of good fun. I would occasionally
get to describe the wonders of nanotechnology to others who had not
heard of it. After teasing them with all the things Drexler described
I would give a homework assignment of my own: "Use nanotechnology to
create a vampire; for extra credit create an antidote."
With these wonders came clear dangers, of which I was acutely aware.
As I said at a nanotechnology conference in 1989, "We can't simply do
our science and not worry about these ethical issues."5 But my
subsequent conversations with physicists convinced me that
nanotechnology might not even work - or, at least, it wouldn't work
anytime soon. Shortly thereafter I moved to Colorado, to a skunk works
I had set up, and the focus of my work shifted to software for the
Internet, specifically on ideas that became Java and Jini.
Then, last summer, Brosl Hasslacher told me that nanoscale molecular
electronics was now practical. This wasnew news, at least to me, and I
think to many people - and it radically changed my opinion about
nanotechnology. It sent me back toEngines of Creation. Rereading
Drexler's work after more than 10 years, I was dismayed to realize how
little I had remembered of its lengthy section called "Dangers and
Hopes," including a discussion of how nanotechnologies can become
"engines of destruction." Indeed, in my rereading of this cautionary
material today, I am struck by how naive some of Drexler's safeguard
proposals seem, and how much greater I judge the dangers to be now
than even he seemed to then. (Having anticipated and described many
technical and political problems with nanotechnology, Drexler started
the Foresight Institute in the late 1980s "to help prepare society for
anticipated advanced technologies" - most important, nanotechnology.)
The enabling breakthrough to assemblers seems quite likely within the
next 20 years. Molecular electronics - the new subfield of
nanotechnology where individual molecules are circuit elements -
should mature quickly and become enormously lucrative within this
decade, causing a large incremental investment in all
Unfortunately, as with nuclear technology, it is far easier to create
destructive uses for nanotechnology than constructive ones.
Nanotechnology has clear military and terrorist uses, and you need not
be suicidal to release a massively destructive nanotechnological
device - such devices can be built to be selectively destructive,
affecting, for example, only a certain geographical area or a group of
people who are genetically distinct.
An immediate consequence of the Faustian bargain in obtaining the
great power of nanotechnology is that we run a grave risk - the risk
that we might destroy the biosphere on which all life depends.
As Drexler explained:
"Plants" with "leaves" no more efficient than today's solar cells
could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible
foliage. Tough omnivorous "bacteria" could out-compete real bacteria:
They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce
the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could
easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least
if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses
and fruit flies.
Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known
as the "gray goo problem." Though masses of uncontrolled replicators
need not be gray or gooey, the term "gray goo" emphasizes that
replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a
single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary
sense, but this need not make them valuable.
The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford
certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.
Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on
Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a
simple laboratory accident.6 Oops.
It is most of all the power of destructive self-replication in
genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) that should give us
pause. Self-replication is the modus operandi of genetic engineering,
which uses the machinery of the cell to replicate its designs, and the
prime danger underlying gray goo in nanotechnology. Stories of
run-amok robots like the Borg, replicating or mutating to escape from
the ethical constraints imposed on them by their creators, are well
established in our science fiction books and movies. It is even
possible that self-replication may be more fundamental than we
thought, and hence harder - or even impossible - to control. A recent
article by Stuart Kauffman inNature titled "Self-Replication: Even
Peptides Do It" discusses the discovery that a 32-amino-acid peptide
can "autocatalyse its own synthesis." We don't know how widespread
this ability is, but Kauffman notes that it may hint at "a route to
self-reproducing molecular systems on a basis far wider than
In truth, we have had in hand for years clear warnings of the dangers
inherent in widespread knowledge of GNR technologies - of the
possibility of knowledge alone enabling mass destruction. But these
warnings haven't been widely publicized; the public discussions have
been clearly inadequate. There is no profit in publicizing the
The nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) technologies used in
20th-century weapons of mass destruction were and are largely
military, developed in government laboratories. In sharp contrast, the
21st-century GNR technologies have clear commercial uses and are being
developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. In this age of
triumphant commercialism, technology - with science as its handmaiden
- is delivering a series of almost magical inventions that are the
most phenomenally lucrative ever seen. We are aggressively pursuing
the promises of these new technologies within the now-unchallenged
system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and
This is the first moment in the history of our planet when any
species, by its own voluntary actions, has become a danger to itself -
as well as to vast numbers of others.
It might be a familiar progression, transpiring on many worlds - a
planet, newly formed, placidly revolves around its star; life slowly
forms; a kaleidoscopic procession of creatures evolves; intelligence
emerges which, at least up to a point, confers enormous survival
value; and then technology is invented. It dawns on them that there
are such things as laws of Nature, that these laws can be revealed by
experiment, and that knowledge of these laws can be made both to save
and to take lives, both on unprecedented scales. Science, they
recognize, grants immense powers. In a flash, they create
world-altering contrivances. Some planetary civilizations see their
way through, place limits on what may and what must not be done, and
safely pass through the time of perils. Others, not so lucky or so
That is Carl Sagan, writing in 1994, inPale Blue Dot, a book
describing his vision of the human future in space. I am only now
realizing how deep his insight was, and how sorely I miss, and will
miss, his voice. For all its eloquence, Sagan's contribution was not
least that of simple common sense - an attribute that, along with
humility, many of the leading advocates of the 21st-century
technologies seem to lack.
I remember from my childhood that my grandmother was strongly against
the overuse of antibiotics. She had worked since before the first
World War as a nurse and had a commonsense attitude that taking
antibiotics, unless they were absolutely necessary, was bad for you.
It is not that she was an enemy of progress. She saw much progress in
an almost 70-year nursing career; my grandfather, a diabetic,
benefited greatly from the improved treatments that became available
in his lifetime. But she, like many levelheaded people, would probably
think it greatly arrogant for us, now, to be designing a robotic
"replacement species," when we obviously have so much trouble making
relatively simple things work, and so much trouble managing - or even
understanding - ourselves.
I realize now that she had an awareness of the nature of the order of
life, and of the necessity of living with and respecting that order.
With this respect comes a necessary humility that we, with our
early-21st-century chutzpah, lack at our peril. The commonsense view,
grounded in this respect, is often right, in advance of the scientific
evidence. The clear fragility and inefficiencies of the human-made
systems we have built should give us all pause; the fragility of the
systems I have worked on certainly humbles me.
We should have learned a lesson from the making of the first atomic
bomb and the resulting arms race. We didn't do well then, and the
parallels to our current situation are troubling.
The effort to build the first atomic bomb was led by the brilliant
physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was not naturally
interested in politics but became painfully aware of what he perceived
as the grave threat to Western civilization from the Third Reich, a
threat surely grave because of the possibility that Hitler might
obtain nuclear weapons. Energized by this concern, he brought his
strong intellect, passion for physics, and charismatic leadership
skills to Los Alamos and led a rapid and successful effort by an
incredible collection of great minds to quickly invent the bomb.
What is striking is how this effort continued so naturally after the
initial impetus was removed. In a meeting shortly after V-E Day with
some physicists who felt that perhaps the effort should stop,
Oppenheimer argued to continue. His stated reason seems a bit strange:
not because of the fear of large casualties from an invasion of Japan,
but because the United Nations, which was soon to be formed, should
have foreknowledge of atomic weapons. A more likely reason the project
continued is the momentum that had built up - the first atomic test,
Trinity, was nearly at hand.
We know that in preparing this first atomic test the physicists
proceeded despite a large number of possible dangers. They were
initially worried, based on a calculation by Edward Teller, that an
atomic explosion might set fire to the atmosphere. A revised
calculation reduced the danger of destroying the world to a
three-in-a-million chance. (Teller says he was later able to dismiss
the prospect of atmospheric ignition entirely.) Oppenheimer, though,
was sufficiently concerned about the result of Trinity that he
arranged for a possible evacuation of the southwest part of the state
of New Mexico. And, of course, there was the clear danger of starting
a nuclear arms race.
Within a month of that first, successful test, two atomic bombs
destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some scientists had suggested that
the bomb simply be demonstrated, rather than dropped on Japanese
cities - saying that this would greatly improve the chances for arms
control after the war - but to no avail. With the tragedy of Pearl
Harbor still fresh in Americans' minds, it would have been very
difficult for President Truman to order a demonstration of the weapons
rather than use them as he did - the desire to quickly end the war and
save the lives that would have been lost in any invasion of Japan was
very strong. Yet the overriding truth was probably very simple: As the
physicist Freeman Dyson later said, "The reason that it was dropped
was just that nobody had the courage or the foresight to say no."
It's important to realize how shocked the physicists were in the
aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945. They
describe a series of waves of emotion: first, a sense of fulfillment
that the bomb worked, then horror at all the people that had been
killed, and then a convincing feeling that on no account should
another bomb be dropped. Yet of course another bomb was dropped, on
Nagasaki, only three days after the bombing of Hiroshima.
In November 1945, three months after the atomic bombings, Oppenheimer
stood firmly behind the scientific attitude, saying, "It is not
possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of
the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of
intrinsic value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the
spread of knowledge and are willing to take the consequences."
Oppenheimer went on to work, with others, on the Acheson-Lilienthal
report, which, as Richard Rhodes says in his recent bookVisions of
Technology, "found a way to prevent a clandestine nuclear arms race
without resorting to armed world government"; their suggestion was a
form of relinquishment of nuclear weapons work by nation-states to an
This proposal led to the Baruch Plan, which was submitted to the
United Nations in June 1946 but never adopted (perhaps because, as
Rhodes suggests, Bernard Baruch had "insisted on burdening the plan
with conventional sanctions," thereby inevitably dooming it, even
though it would "almost certainly have been rejected by Stalinist
Russia anyway"). Other efforts to promote sensible steps toward
internationalizing nuclear power to prevent an arms race ran afoul
either of US politics and internal distrust, or distrust by the
Soviets. The opportunity to avoid the arms race was lost, and very
Two years later, in 1948, Oppenheimer seemed to have reached another
stage in his thinking, saying, "In some sort of crude sense which no
vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the
physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they cannot lose."
In 1949, the Soviets exploded an atom bomb. By 1955, both the US and
the Soviet Union had tested hydrogen bombs suitable for delivery by
aircraft. And so the nuclear arms race began.
Nearly 20 years ago, in the documentaryThe Day After Trinity, Freeman
Dyson summarized the scientific attitudes that brought us to the
"I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is
irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in
your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do
your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of
rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of
illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our
troubles - this, what you might call technical arrogance, that
overcomes people when they see what they can do with their
Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the
imagined future, driven - this time by great financial rewards and
global competition - despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what
it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome
of what we are creating and imagining.
In 1947,The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began putting a Doomsday
Clock on its cover. For more than 50 years, it has shown an estimate
of the relative nuclear danger we have faced, reflecting the changing
international conditions. The hands on the clock have moved 15 times
and today, standing at nine minutes to midnight, reflect continuing
and real danger from nuclear weapons. The recent addition of India and
Pakistan to the list of nuclear powers has increased the threat of
failure of the nonproliferation goal, and this danger was reflected by
moving the hands closer to midnight in 1998.
In our time, how much danger do we face, not just from nuclear
weapons, but from all of these technologies? How high are the
The philosopher John Leslie has studied this question and concluded
that the risk of human extinction is at least 30 percent,9 while
Ray Kurzweil believes we have "a better than even chance of making it
through," with the caveat that he has "always been accused of being an
optimist." Not only are these estimates not encouraging, but they do
not include the probability of many horrid outcomes that lie short of
Faced with such assessments, some serious people are already
suggesting that we simply move beyond Earth as quickly as possible. We
would colonize the galaxy using von Neumann probes, which hop from
star system to star system, replicating as they go. This step will
almost certainly be necessary 5 billion years from now (or sooner if
our solar system is disastrously impacted by the impending collision
of our galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy within the next 3 billion
years), but if we take Kurzweil and Moravec at their word it might be
necessary by the middle of this century.
What are the moral implications here? If we must move beyond Earth
this quickly in order for the species to survive, who accepts the
responsibility for the fate of those (most of us, after all) who are
left behind? And even if we scatter to the stars, isn't it likely that
we may take our problems with us or find, later, that they have
followed us? The fate of our species on Earth and our fate in the
galaxy seem inextricably linked.
Another idea is to erect a series of shields to defend against each of
the dangerous technologies. The Strategic Defense Initiative, proposed
by the Reagan administration, was an attempt to design such a shield
against the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. But as
Arthur C. Clarke, who was privy to discussions about the project,
observed: "Though it might be possible, at vast expense, to construct
local defense systems that would 'only' let through a few percent of
ballistic missiles, the much touted idea of a national umbrella was
nonsense. Luis Alvarez, perhaps the greatest experimental physicist of
this century, remarked to me that the advocates of such schemes were
'very bright guys with no common sense.'"
Clarke continued: "Looking into my often cloudy crystal ball, I
suspect that a total defense might indeed be possible in a century or
so. But the technology involved would produce, as a by-product,
weapons so terrible that no one would bother with anything as
primitive as ballistic missiles." 10
InEngines of Creation, Eric Drexler proposed that we build an active
nanotechnological shield - a form of immune system for the biosphere -
to defend against dangerous replicators of all kinds that might escape
from laboratories or otherwise be maliciously created. But the shield
he proposed would itself be extremely dangerous - nothing could
prevent it from developing autoimmune problems and attacking the
biosphere itself. 11
Similar difficulties apply to the construction of shields against
robotics and genetic engineering. These technologies are too powerful
to be shielded against in the time frame of interest; even if it were
possible to implement defensive shields, the side effects of their
development would be at least as dangerous as the technologies we are
trying to protect against.
These possibilities are all thus either undesirable or unachievable or
both. The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit
development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting
our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.
Yes, I know, knowledge is good, as is the search for new truths. We
have been seeking knowledge since ancient times. Aristotle opened his
Metaphysics with the simple statement: "All men by nature desire to
know." We have, as a bedrock value in our society, long agreed on the
value of open access to information, and recognize the problems that
arise with attempts to restrict access to and development of
knowledge. In recent times, we have come to revere scientific
But despite the strong historical precedents, if open access to and
unlimited development of knowledge henceforth puts us all in clear
danger of extinction, then common sense demands that we reexamine even
these basic, long-held beliefs.
It was Nietzsche who warned us, at the end of the 19th century, not
only that God is dead but that "faith in science, which after all
exists undeniably, cannot owe its origin to a calculus of utility; it
must have originated in spite of the fact that the disutility and
dangerousness of the 'will to truth,' of 'truth at any price' is
proved to it constantly." It is this further danger that we now fully
face - the consequences of our truth-seeking. The truth that science
seeks can certainly be considered a dangerous substitute for God if it
is likely to lead to our extinction.
If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we were headed,
and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous - then we
might understand what we can and should relinquish. Otherwise, we can
easily imagine an arms race developing over GNR technologies, as it
did with the NBC technologies in the 20th century. This is perhaps the
greatest risk, for once such a race begins, it's very hard to end it.
This time - unlike during the Manhattan Project - we aren't in a war,
facing an implacable enemy that is threatening our civilization; we
are driven, instead, by our habits, our desires, our economic system,
and our competitive need to know.
I believe that we all wish our course could be determined by our
collective values, ethics, and morals. If we had gained more
collective wisdom over the past few thousand years, then a dialogue to
this end would be more practical, and the incredible powers we are
about to unleash would not be nearly so troubling.
One would think we might be driven to such a dialogue by our instinct
for self-preservation. Individuals clearly have this desire, yet as a
species our behavior seems to be not in our favor. In dealing with the
nuclear threat, we often spoke dishonestly to ourselves and to each
other, thereby greatly increasing the risks. Whether this was
politically motivated, or because we chose not to think ahead, or
because when faced with such grave threats we acted irrationally out
of fear, I do not know, but it does not bode well.
The new Pandora's boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are
almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can't be put
back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don't need to be
mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out,
they are out. Churchill remarked, in a famous left-handed compliment,
that the American people and their leaders "invariably do the right
thing, after they have examined every other alternative." In this
case, however, we must act more presciently, as to do the right thing
only at last may be to lose the chance to do it at all.
As Thoreau said, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us";
and this is what we must fight, in our time. The question is, indeed,
Which is to be master? Will we survive our technologies?
We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control,
no brakes. Have we already gone too far down the path to alter course?
I don't believe so, but we aren't trying yet, and the last chance to
assert control - the fail-safe point - is rapidly approaching. We have
our first pet robots, as well as commercially available genetic
engineering techniques, and our nanoscale techniques are advancing
rapidly. While the development of these technologies proceeds through
a number of steps, it isn't necessarily the case - as happened in the
Manhattan Project and the Trinity test - that the last step in proving
a technology is large and hard. The breakthrough to wild
self-replication in robotics, genetic engineering, or nanotechnology
could come suddenly, reprising the surprise we felt when we learned of
the cloning of a mammal.
And yet I believe we do have a strong and solid basis for hope. Our
attempts to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the last century
provide a shining example of relinquishment for us to consider: the
unilateral US abandonment, without preconditions, of the development
of biological weapons. This relinquishment stemmed from the
realization that while it would take an enormous effort to create
these terrible weapons, they could from then on easily be duplicated
and fall into the hands of rogue nations or terrorist groups.
The clear conclusion was that we would create additional threats to
ourselves by pursuing these weapons, and that we would be more secure
if we did not pursue them. We have embodied our relinquishment of
biological and chemical weapons in the 1972 Biological Weapons
Convention (BWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).12
As for the continuing sizable threat from nuclear weapons, which we
have lived with now for more than 50 years, the US Senate's recent
rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty makes it clear
relinquishing nuclear weapons will not be politically easy. But we
have a unique opportunity, with the end of the Cold War, to avert a
multipolar arms race. Building on the BWC and CWC relinquishments,
successful abolition of nuclear weapons could help us build toward a
habit of relinquishing dangerous technologies. (Actually, by getting
rid of all but 100 nuclear weapons worldwide - roughly the total
destructive power of World War II and a considerably easier task - we
could eliminate this extinction threat. 13)
Verifying relinquishment will be a difficult problem, but not an
unsolvable one. We are fortunate to have already done a lot of
relevant work in the context of the BWC and other treaties. Our major
task will be to apply this to technologies that are naturally much
more commercial than military. The substantial need here is for
transparency, as difficulty of verification is directly proportional
to the difficulty of distinguishing relinquished from legitimate
I frankly believe that the situation in 1945 was simpler than the one
we now face: The nuclear technologies were reasonably separable into
commercial and military uses, and monitoring was aided by the nature
of atomic tests and the ease with which radioactivity could be
measured. Research on military applications could be performed at
national laboratories such as Los Alamos, with the results kept secret
as long as possible.
The GNR technologies do not divide clearly into commercial and
military uses; given their potential in the market, it's hard to
imagine pursuing them only in national laboratories. With their
widespread commercial pursuit, enforcing relinquishment will require a
verification regime similar to that for biological weapons, but on an
unprecedented scale. This, inevitably, will raise tensions between our
individual privacy and desire for proprietary information, and the
need for verification to protect us all. We will undoubtedly encounter
strong resistance to this loss of privacy and freedom of action.
Verifying the relinquishment of certain GNR technologies will have to
occur in cyberspace as well as at physical facilities. The critical
issue will be to make the necessary transparency acceptable in a world
of proprietary information, presumably by providing new forms of
protection for intellectual property.
Verifying compliance will also require that scientists and engineers
adopt a strong code of ethical conduct, resembling the Hippocratic
oath, and that they have the courage to whistleblow as necessary, even
at high personal cost. This would answer the call - 50 years after
Hiroshima - by the Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, one of the most senior
of the surviving members of the Manhattan Project, that all scientists
"cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving, and
manufacturing nuclear weapons and other weapons of potential mass
destruction."14 In the 21st century, this requires vigilance and
personal responsibility by those who would work on both NBC and GNR
technologies to avoid implementing weapons of mass destruction and
knowledge-enabled mass destruction.
Thoreau also said that we will be "rich in proportion to the number of
things which we can afford to let alone." We each seek to be happy,
but it would seem worthwhile to question whether we need to take such
a high risk of total destruction to gain yet more knowledge and yet
more things; common sense says that there is a limit to our material
needs - and that certain knowledge is too dangerous and is best
Neither should we pursue near immortality without considering the
costs, without considering the commensurate increase in the risk of
extinction. Immortality, while perhaps the original, is certainly not
the only possible utopian dream.
I recently had the good fortune to meet the distinguished author and
scholar Jacques Attali, whose bookLignes d'horizons (Millennium, in
the English translation) helped inspire the Java and Jini approach to
the coming age of pervasive computing, as previously described in this
magazine. In his new bookFraternités, Attali describes how our dreams
of utopia have changed over time:
"At the dawn of societies, men saw their passage on Earth as nothing
more than a labyrinth of pain, at the end of which stood a door
leading, via their death, to the company of gods and toEternity. With
the Hebrews and then the Greeks, some men dared free themselves from
theological demands and dream of an ideal City whereLiberty would
flourish. Others, noting the evolution of the market society,
understood that the liberty of some would entail the alienation of
others, and they soughtEquality."
Jacques helped me understand how these three different utopian goals
exist in tension in our society today. He goes on to describe a fourth
utopia,Fraternity, whose foundation is altruism. Fraternity alone
associates individual happiness with the happiness of others,
affording the promise of self-sustainment.
This crystallized for me my problem with Kurzweil's dream. A
technological approach to Eternity - near immortality through robotics
- may not be the most desirable utopia, and its pursuit brings clear
dangers. Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.
Where can we look for a new ethical basis to set our course? I have
found the ideas in the book Ethics for the New Millennium, by the
Dalai Lama, to be very helpful. As is perhaps well known but little
heeded, the Dalai Lama argues that the most important thing is for us
to conduct our lives with love and compassion for others, and that our
societies need to develop a stronger notion of universal
responsibility and of our interdependency; he proposes a standard of
positive ethical conduct for individuals and societies that seems
consonant with Attali's Fraternity utopia.
The Dalai Lama further argues that we must understand what it is that
makes people happy, and acknowledge the strong evidence that neither
material progress nor the pursuit of the power of knowledge is the key
- that there are limits to what science and the scientific pursuit
alone can do.
Our Western notion of happiness seems to come from the Greeks, who
defined it as "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence
in a life affording them scope." 15
Clearly, we need to find meaningful challenges and sufficient scope in
our lives if we are to be happy in whatever is to come. But I believe
we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the
culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a
blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us
unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of
unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and
the clear accompanying dangers.
It is now more than a year since my first encounter with Ray Kurzweil
and John Searle. I see around me cause for hope in the voices for
caution and relinquishment and in those people I have discovered who
are as concerned as I am about our current predicament. I feel, too, a
deepened sense of personal responsibility - not for the work I have
already done, but for the work that I might yet do, at the confluence
of the sciences.
But many other people who know about the dangers still seem strangely
silent. When pressed, they trot out the "this is nothing new" riposte
- as if awareness of what could happen is response enough. They tell
me, There are universities filled with bioethicists who study this
stuff all day long. They say, All this has been written about before,
and by experts. They complain, Your worries and your arguments are
already old hat.
I don't know where these people hide their fear. As an architect of
complex systems I enter this arena as a generalist. But should this
diminish my concerns? I am aware of how much has been written about,
talked about, and lectured about so authoritatively. But does this
mean it has reached people? Does this mean we can discount the dangers
Knowing is not a rationale for not acting. Can we doubt that knowledge
has become a weapon we wield against ourselves?
The experiences of the atomic scientists clearly show the need to take
personal responsibility, the danger that things will move too fast,
and the way in which a process can take on a life of its own. We can,
as they did, create insurmountable problems in almost no time flat. We
must do more thinking up front if we are not to be similarly surprised
and shocked by the consequences of our inventions.
My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of
software. Software is a tool, and as a toolbuilder I must struggle
with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always
believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will
make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to believe
the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I
can now imagine such a day may come.
This all leaves me not angry but at least a bit melancholic.
Henceforth, for me, progress will be somewhat bittersweet.
Do you remember the beautiful penultimate scene in Manhattan where
Woody Allen is lying on his couch and talking into a tape recorder? He
is writing a short story about people who are creating unnecessary,
neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing
with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.
He leads himself to the question, "Why is life worth living?" and to
consider what makes it worthwhile for him: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays,
the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's
recording of "Potato Head Blues," Swedish movies, Flaubert's
Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the apples and
pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo's, and, finally, the
showstopper: his love Tracy's face.
Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we locate
the essence of our humanity. In the end, it is because of our great
capacity for caring that I remain optimistic we will confront the
dangerous issues now before us.
My immediate hope is to participate in a much larger discussion of the
issues raised here, with people from many different backgrounds, in
settings not predisposed to fear or favor technology for its own sake.
As a start, I have twice raised many of these issues at events
sponsored by the Aspen Institute and have separately proposed that the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences take them up as an extension of
its work with the Pugwash Conferences. (These have been held since
1957 to discuss arms control, especially of nuclear weapons, and to
formulate workable policies.)
It's unfortunate that the Pugwash meetings started only well after the
nuclear genie was out of the bottle - roughly 15 years too late. We
are also getting a belated start on seriously addressing the issues
around 21st-century technologies - the prevention of knowledge-enabled
mass destruction - and further delay seems unacceptable.
So I'm still searching; there are many more things to learn. Whether
we are to succeed or fail, to survive or fall victim to these
technologies, is not yet decided. I'm up late again - it's almost 6
am. I'm trying to imagine some better answers, to break the spell and
free them from the stone.
1 The passage Kurzweil quotes is from Kaczynski's Unabomber Manifesto,
which was published jointly, under duress, byThe New York Times and
The Washington Post to attempt to bring his campaign of terror to an
end. I agree with David Gelernter, who said about their decision:
"It was a tough call for the newspapers. To say yes would be giving in
to terrorism, and for all they knew he was lying anyway. On the other
hand, to say yes might stop the killing. There was also a chance that
someone would read the tract and get a hunch about the author; and
that is exactly what happened. The suspect's brother read it, and it
rang a bell.
"I would have told them not to publish. I'm glad they didn't ask me. I
(Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber. Free Press, 1997: 120.)
2 Garrett, Laurie.The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a
World Out of Balance. Penguin, 1994: 47-52, 414, 419, 452.
3 Isaac Asimov described what became the most famous view of ethical
rules for robot behavior in his bookI, Robot in 1950, in his Three
Laws of Robotics: 1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through
inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey
the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would
conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own
existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First
or Second Law.
4 Michelangelo wrote a sonnet that begins:
Non ha l' ottimo artista alcun concetto
Ch' un marmo solo in sè non circonscriva
Col suo soverchio; e solo a quello arriva
La man che ubbidisce all' intelleto.
Stone translates this as:
The best of artists hath no thought to show
which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
doth not include; to break the marble spell
is all the hand that serves the brain can do.
Stone describes the process: "He was not working from his drawings or
clay models; they had all been put away. He was carving from the
images in his mind. His eyes and hands knew where every line, curve,
mass must emerge, and at what depth in the heart of the stone to
create the low relief."
(The Agony and the Ecstasy. Doubleday, 1961: 6, 144.)
5 First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology in October 1989, a talk
titled "The Future of Computation." Published in Crandall, B. C. and
James Lewis, editors.Nanotechnology: Research and Perspectives. MIT
Press, 1992: 269. See
6 In his 1963 novelCat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut imagined a
gray-goo-like accident where a form of ice called ice-nine, which
becomes solid at a much higher temperature, freezes the oceans.
7 Kauffman, Stuart. "Self-replication: Even Peptides Do It." Nature,
382, August 8, 1996: 496.
8 Else, Jon.The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and The
Atomic Bomb (available at www.pyramiddirect.com).
9 This estimate is in Leslie's bookThe End of the World: The Science
and Ethics of Human Extinction, where he notes that the probability of
extinction is substantially higher if we accept Brandon Carter's
Doomsday Argument, which is, briefly, that "we ought to have some
reluctance to believe that we are very exceptionally early, for
instance in the earliest 0.001 percent, among all humans who will ever
have lived. This would be some reason for thinking that humankind will
not survive for many more centuries, let alone colonize the galaxy.
Carter's doomsday argument doesn't generate any risk estimates just by
itself. It is an argument forrevising the estimates which we generate
when we consider various possible dangers." (Routledge, 1996: 1, 3,
10 Clarke, Arthur C. "Presidents, Experts, and Asteroids."Science,
June 5, 1998. Reprinted as "Science and Society" inGreetings,
Carbon-Based Bipeds! Collected Essays, 1934-1998. St. Martin's Press,
11 And, as David Forrest suggests in his paper "Regulating
Nanotechnology Development," available
atwww.foresight.org/NanoRev/Forrest1989.html, "If we used strict
liability as an alternative to regulation it would be impossible for
any developer to internalize the cost of the risk (destruction of the
biosphere), so theoretically the activity of developing nanotechnology
should never be undertaken." Forrest's analysis leaves us with only
government regulation to protect us - not a comforting thought.
12 Meselson, Matthew. "The Problem of Biological Weapons."
Presentation to the 1,818th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences, January 13, 1999.
13 Doty, Paul. "The Forgotten Menace: Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles Still
Represent the Biggest Threat to Civilization."Nature, 402, December 9,
14 See also Hans Bethe's 1997 letter to President Clinton, at
15 Hamilton, Edith.The Greek Way. W. W. Norton & Co., 1942: 35.
Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, was
cochair of the presidential commission on the future of IT research,
and is coauthor ofThe Java Language Specification. His work on
theJini pervasive computing technology was featured inWired 6.08.
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