[extropy-chat] Re: Recipe for Destruction - Joy/Kurzweil NYTimes Op-Ed

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky sentience at pobox.com
Tue Oct 18 00:53:54 UTC 2005

This sounds a lot like an argument Leo Szilard once had with Enrico 
Fermi over whether to publish the true neutron cross section of purified 
graphite.  Szilard, who had invented the idea of the fission chain 
reaction, said that purified graphite might be useful in creating a 
chain reaction someday, and that they shouldn't publish.  Szilard was 
one *damned* foresightful fellow.  Today everyone knows that nuclear 
weapons are a real problem; back then it was, literally, science 
fiction.  Nobody had proved a chain reaction was possible at this point. 
  Graphite doesn't explode.

Fermi exploded.  Fermi felt that a chain reaction was only a distant 
possibility, and Szilard's suggestion went against everything Fermi 
stood for: the international community of scientists, the ideal of openness.

Szilard and Rabi together voted not to publish, and Fermi felt obliged 
to go along with the majority.  As a direct result, the German A-bomb 
project did not realize that graphite was an effective neutron 
moderator, and went with the less efficient alternative of heavy water. 
  This is one of the major reasons that Germany's A-bomb project, which 
got started before the Allies, did not achieve a chain reaction before 
the end of the war.

It's not like this kind of situation is historically unprecedented, for 
all that only historians know the precedents.

I have to agree with Kurzweil and Joy.  Publishing the genome of the 
1918 Spanish flu in open-access databases seems, to me, stupid.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                          http://singinst.org/
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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