Why the Future Doesn't Need Us
March 22, 2000 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Why the Future Doesn't Need Us is the cover story in this month's 'Wired'. It was written by Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun. In it he makes a very convincing case for strict regulation of genetics, nanotech, and robotics, given that any of these could cause the extinction of the human species in the next 30 years. What do you think?
posted by Sean Meade (8 comments total)
For more of my commentary, please see my quasi-white paper at http://seanmeade.tripod.com/sean/future.html
posted by Sean Meade at 7:56 AM on March 22, 2000

While Joy makes some good points, especially with the need for ethics in science, I think Joy is missing one huge thing: barrier to entry. Ideas and information may be freely disseminated and will last as long as they are recorded and as long as the recording is readable (human memory is just a recording). The ability to create from those ideas is a different matter.

Consider core electronic components: I can make resistors, capacitors, batteries and wires easily enough. I can't make diodes or transistors without making highly specialized equipment first. This is a barrier to entry which is moderately high.

The barrier to entry for making a CPU on a die is even higher. The barrier to entry for nano-technology will be the highest and is probably much higher than the barrier to entry for making nuclear weapons.

Further, nanotechnology reality is far removed from the perceived threat. Here's a good essay about that. I see the preceived threat of nanotechnology to be similar to the perceived threat of AI. I do believe in our ability to make molecular level computing devices. I do not believe in our ability to make self-replicating machines.
posted by plinth at 8:29 AM on March 22, 2000

Plinth - I'm not so sure. Think about where desk top computers were 30 years ago. We don't know what nano will look like in 30 years, but it's a safe bet that it will be widespread in some form. Why couldn't a hacker 30 years from now do the same sort of thing they do now? i.e. take cheap off the shelf components and build something nasty (or cool). You can't make diodes, but you really don't need to.

The barrier to entry will prevent me from building a Cray class computer from scratch, but I can get the same result by hacking together cheaper machines. I suspect that in 30 years there will be some really nasty stuff for script kiddies to play with.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:53 AM on March 22, 2000

You can build a computer from components because you can buy the components. If you couldn't buy the components, then you would have to make the components. If you can't make or buy the components you can't have the components.

It's the same with nanotech. If I can't buy nanotech equipment or if I can't make nanotech equipment then I can't have it.

Again, I also don't have confidence in our ability to deliver on the pie-in-the-sky promise of self-replicating machines. Self-replicators on a nano level are just a different scale than self replicators on a macro scale. To date, we don't have factories that can build anything, including build new factories. What we do have is machines that can build specific components that are precisely directed. I would expect the same from nanotech.

I would worry more about genetic engineering going wrong before nanotech.

posted by plinth at 12:40 PM on March 22, 2000


I guess I'm nearly the only old fogey participating here. Y'all don't remember "Duck, and cover!" do you?

When I was in grade school, we not only had fire drills, we had air raid drills where we practiced what to do when the Russians dropped the bomb on us. What Bill Joy is afraid of is meager compared to the Cold War.

When you go back in history, you find that a lot of people thought the invention of the steam engine and the resulting industrial revolution would result in the end of the human race. (Go back and watch a copy of "Metropolis"; it's out on DVD now and well worth your time.)

"The imminent end of the human race" has appeared so many times I've lost count.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:42 PM on March 22, 2000

Reminds of me I this class I took last where we looked at the Unabomber's manifesto. While Theodore Kaczynski is a nutter, let's remember he's an intelligent nutter. By reading his manifesto you can see he had some problems in his childhood and makes a number of outlandish statements, however, in between a lot of his rubbish is some gems.

With all this technology has our quality of life really improved?
If so, then why are some many people today depressed?

posted by jay at 6:50 PM on March 22, 2000

Mmmmm... great mathematical or technical ability doesn't tend to be coupled with great acuity in philosophical or social observation. People who devote great effort to seeing the world from a specific perspective seem to be incurably naive or simplistic when putting forth a large system of original thoughts from other perspectives. "Don't generalize!" But it's true. A good contemporary example is Ray Kurzweil: great, great technical genius, but he has no clue when it comes to even basic thinking about the human brain. You could claim Blaise Pascal to be an exception, but I hear that the Pensees are highly derivative (at a deep level, y'know) by Montaigne.

As to jay's last two questions, "Yes" and "Perhaps too-high population density" let alone that we can't rightly know how many people in the past were depressed. What are the historical trends in suicide statistics? And more public awareness of "depression" will bring a higher rate of report.
posted by EngineBeak at 9:24 PM on March 22, 2000

I think it's we who are being naive if we think that GNR might not be really dangerous. The bottom line is we don't know, so all I can say now is 'yes it will' and all you can say is 'no it won't'. But I think it would be wise to be cautious.

The destruction of our biosphere would not be meager compared to the Cold War.

I'm on Jay's meme here. I love tech, but I think we should be critical about quality of life and the forward march of progress.
posted by Sean Meade at 7:23 AM on March 23, 2000

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