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The New Frankenstein

The New Frankenstein

By David Ignatius


Every once in a while a journalist is lucky enough to witness something truly unusual. That happened to me last Saturday when I heard Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems speak to an audience that included some of the country's leading technologists. His subject was nothing less than the future of human existence--and the threat that the "illimitable power" of technology could destroy our species in the 21st century.>

Joy has been warning about this techno-apocalypse for the past month, first in the April issue of Wired magazine, then in op-ed pieces in The Post and other publications. His basic argument is that our species has created a triad of new technologies--genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics--that could lead to our extinction. What will kill us, he argues, is the very essence of our culture, our yearning for knowledge and our democratic spirit.

"More cleverness doesn't solve the problem," he told the group. "The cleverer we are, the bigger the problem we create. And more democracy doesn't solve the problem, because in an information age, giving everyone access to this [knowledge]--given that there are crazy people out there--only makes the problem worse."

Nobody has done more to create the infinite cleverness of the information age than Joy--who is among the country's leading computer scientists. In addition to co-founding Sun, he helped create the computer languages known as Unix, Java and Jini--which are the basic fabric of today's networked world.

Joy is an angular man with a buzz of curly hair atop his head, as if he'd accidentally stuck his finger in a power socket. In a slim suit, dark shirt and tie, he looked like the geeky bass player in a '50s rock band. He spoke somberly, his cadence conveying his conviction that the future of the planet is at risk.

The occasion was a meeting of the Highlands Forum, a group sponsored by the Pentagon to explore issues at the frontiers of science. Arrayed around the room were several dozen of the people who have led America's new technological revolution. One member had explained Friday how he's building a molecular computer in which single molecules will substitute for logic gates. Another described his work building optical switches, which could soon replace electrical routers and transform the Internet. A third told how he is designing tiny machines, known as MEMs, that will soon transform virtually every segment of our economy.

While celebrating these modern miracles, Joy warned that they will eventually create the tools of human self-destruction: Biotechnology will create pathogens that can destroy life; nanotechnology will create tiny weapons that can subvert existence; robotics will create machines that will turn humans into slaves and then crush them.

The process is too risky, Joy argued--this to the leaders of a technology culture that has thrived above all on risk-taking!

"What's the risk if we put illimitable power in everyone's hands, including delusional people?" he asked the group. He likened the risks to flying on a version of a jetliner in which every passenger has a button marked "Crash!" and can doom the plane. It only takes one crazy person.

"We can't tolerate a situation where mafia boy or some kid in the Philippines can destroy the planet," he said.

Joy argued that the only way out is to conclude, like the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, that the ultimate goal of life is not truth but happiness. Joy insists that society, starting with its technologists, must begin to contain this process of unbounded discovery.

"People say we'd have a secret elite that controlled everything," he noted. "Well, we'll just have to get past that. We'll have to find some way of doing this that's democratically acceptable. Because if the alternative is extinction, then I'm willing to take some risk on the other side."

The reaction from some of the other technologists on Saturday was a respectful dissent. Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, argued that the nightmares Joy was conjuring were harder to create than he imagined. "There's a difference between thinking about something and doing it with real atoms," he said. He movingly evoked the blessings of technology by describing how it may allow his nearly blind 90-year-old mother to see again.

William Haseltine, a biotechnologist who heads Human Genome Sciences Inc., argued that Joy's dystopia "isn't inconceivable, but the time frames are very long and the probabilities are very low."

To which Joy responded: "How long is a very long time?" He meant: How long do we all have left, if we can't find a way to contain the life-giving, life-destroying process we've created? I cannot imagine that anyone went away from this discussion without worrying in new ways about what Joy called "this century of danger"--and wondering what to do about it.

2000 The Washington Post Company

 
© The Highlands Group Inc. 2011