Joy and the Future
By Brenda Cooper, 2000
I recently sat a few feet from Bill Joy at a conference in Seattle, and watched him sincerely warn the audience that the end of the world might be near. Bill Joy’s voice reminded me of George Orwell’s. I suspect this is a good thing; it has always seemed to me that we live a world with some freedom left at least partially because of Orwell’s loud and well-crafted voice.
For anyone who has missed it, Bill Joy, Chief Scientist for Sun Microsystems, penned an article which appeared in Wired Magazine in April. It caused quite a stir. I recommend you read the entire article.
In summary, Bill Joy points out that we are on the threshold of significant breakthroughs with three technologies: Robotics, Nanotechnology, and Bioengineering. Specifically, that the amount of computing power becoming available as Moore’s Law continues is increasing the rate at which we are learning new techniques in these areas.
Like other transforming technologies of recent years, such as nuclear fusion and chemical war, there are dangers. And even now, the dangers of other older specters like nuclear power and war are not necessarily foregone. We just don’t hide under our desks at grade school or build fallout shelters these days.
One critical difference between these three new technologies and familiar threats like nuclear or chemical warfare is that ‘accidents’ can occur in the pursuit of commercial products. The older technologies mentioned were developed to be the technology of war. Sure, Bioengineering, robotics, and nanotechnology might be used for war as well. Yet the real danger seems to be that instead being chased down the halls of secret military installations that need badges and security clearances to even enter, these technologies can be advanced in people’s homes and small businesses, in commercial labs, and in universities. Knowledge is easily accessible on the Internet, and raw materials are generally readily available as well (uranium and plutonium are not comparatively easily available).
Another critical difference is that these tools may be self-replicating. Nanotechnology could result in endlessly replicating tiny machines chewing up raw materials until there are no more raw materials. Robots could one day make more robots without our intervention or help. Biotechnology could loose unexpected illnesses or have unintended consequences, like the genetically engineered corn that kills monarch butterflies today.
Think of the recent trend where university students are often funded by Venture Capitalists. Sharp students may have millions of dollars available for product development. That’s before they’ve learned the humility that comes from a traditional series of apprenticeships, failures, and small successes on the way becoming a CEO. Imagine these students designing new biology and modifying plants and animals.
Alternatively, think of the growth in power of TNC’s (Transnational Corporations) and the constant drive for revenue to fuel growth. The speed at which corporate decisions must be made in today’s environment can mean there is less time for careful discussion and testing.
Bill Joy’s ultimate message seems to be that we are playing with dangerous toys, and we really ought to sit down and talk it out, see if we can stuff the genii back into the bottle somehow. After all, we kind of stuffed the biochemical warfare genii back, and we’re still working on the nuclear one.
I don’t think the genii’s going.
And that’s all right, I’m an optimist and I think we stand a chance to be friends with the genii and make sure our wishes are good ones. There’s not much other choice anyway. Many people romanticize about the good old days. But how many of us want to strip the world of cars and airplanes and manufactured goods and lose half our estimated life spans? Not me.
I do agree with Bill Joy that we should talk about this new stuff. A lot.
Monitoring these technologies is going to take some work. At the seminar, Bill Joy suggested a sort of Hippocratic oath for bioscientists. I wonder if that would have stopped the unwanted planting of biogenetic crops in Europe this year?
I think its going to take a lot less privacy than we want and it will need a lot more accountability and careful thought than we are used to for the human race to muddle through the application of knowledge in these fields so that we reach a preferred and happy future. I also think we can do it.
We can give up at least some privacy at a low cost and high gain. Yeah, that’s heretical. I’m not saying I WANT to lose ANY privacy. But reality is that when there are a lot of people in small spaces and a lot of potential for danger, no one gets to be completely private. I agree with David Brin, who suggests that we can gain a lot of accountability for a reasonable trade of privacy. Besides, the flood of personal information available about all of us is another genii unlikely to head for any bottles.
I’d like to suggest a starting place to find a good future and avoid the nastiness Bill Joy is un-joyful about. That’s education. Reading and talking and discoursing and understanding and patience. These three technologies (robotics, nanotechnology, bioengineering) plus further computing and communication and health care advances are a big deal. Worth understanding well. As these areas of knowledge converge, we can gain the strong benefits available and avoid the pitfalls.
I can suggest some sources of information. Read Bill Joy’s article. Read Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, and then read David Brin’s The Transparent Society. You’ll find mini-reviews of both books in our science bookstore. There’s a lot of talk about Bill Joy’s article on the web. I won’t even try to point you to the best discussion – its rightly controversial.
Stay hopeful. Humans seem to muddle through amazingly well. Some days I’m convinced we’re smart enough, some days I’m convinced we’ve got more help than we know we have. But in either case, there’s no excuse for ignorance.
We’ll bring you more information here at futurist.com on exciting new technologies and benefits from them. We encourage you to look elsewhere as well. The world could be very different in 30 years, and hard to recognize in a hundred. Knowledge and serious discussion may ensure that we’re still human, still happy, and live in a good world in a hundred years.
That’s our vision.