Why the future doesn't need us.
Bill Joy, wired 8.04, april 2000

Science Friday > Archives > 2000 > March > March 17, 2000:
Hour Two: Perils of Technology

Read here a rebuttal of Joy's thesis by Jaron Lanier.

Every generation has its 'Fear of the Future'...

Biotech, Nanotech, and AI (artificial intelligence) are very important topics but I guess overrated when it comes to fears and utopias about the future. There is no computer that can think and none is anywhere close to being built. Bill Joy's article has little to do with nanotechnology and I disagree with his pessimism for many reasons. The idea that molecular biology is a kitchen science and available to the guy on the street can only come from someone unfamiliar with the technology. There are also no super bugs that can kill selectively. Biological warfare is terrible but unreliable because pathogenic organisms and toxins do not discriminate between friend and foe. Antidotes are easy to get and prevention is simple (unlike tens of thousands of years of radioactive contamination causing mutagensis). Bill Joy claims that what he is talking about is no longer science fiction. I think that he is wrong and that many things he is talking about are directly drawn from a science fiction point of view (I am always surprised how much 'Star Trek' influences the imagination of Americans and their dialogue on science). He quotes a passage Ray Kurzweil selected from the Unabomber's manifesto to make the point about the negative aspect of technology where every human being either becomes a slave of machines, or where an elite uses perfect machines to enslave his fellow men. 

I did not read Kazsinky's manifesto except for the excerpts cited by Joy. His logic of either-or in this short passage is absurd and is built on the false premise that machines are intelligent and perfect, while man is not, except for a few. These implausible scenarios, best presented by Huxley and Orwell, have proven to be wrong again and again. Man does not need technology to enslave others and new technology alone does not result in the abandonment of freedom and choice (e.g. one of computer technology's most influential aspect for society is the Internet which actually makes it more difficult for governments to control their citizens). On another note, it is more likely that man becomes better in his own right, than machines will ever be a better man. And even if the latter were true, why would those machines be evil and not good? To choose evil is of course the bias of the pessimist. 

A word about nanotechnology. Everything biological is nanotechnological by virtue of the nanometer scale of molecular structures of the subcellular components of living things (proteins, genes, nutrients). It is fascinating to be able to 'see' and manipulate supramolecular organization at this level. Nature is already doing it.  In this spirit nanotechnology is not science fiction, but older than mankind itself.

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Copyright © 2000 Lukas K. Buehler