Why the Future Doesn't Need Us
an article by Bill Joy
(our site's article review)
Bill Joy is the swinging banjo in the movie Deliverance, forewarning us of grave repercussions should we continue on the wrongheaded path we're on in which safeguards in robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology development barely exist
Just as Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy, Bill Joy is no Carl Sagan. But if he follows through on the insightful, eloquent plea for technological restraint and caution he launched with this article in Wired magazine, he may just possibly begin to fill some of the gap created when Sagan passed away in 1996. Joy is Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems. He mentions that he will sorely miss Sagan’s voice, one of the rare scientific voices guided by “common sense and humility.” Of course, Sagan’s scientific guidance on matters of nuclear bombs, nuclear winter, atomic testing, and similar issues did manifest just that: common sense. However, the attribution of humility to Sagan is entirely misplaced, as those who really got to know him knew all too well. He was anything but humble, as anyone who takes the trouble to check out his biography (Carl Sagan: A Life, by Keay Davidson) would have learned.
We will need heroic precautionary measures if the Doomsday Clock is to somehow be prevented from striking midnight—in 2016 it is at 3 minutes to midnight
Notwithstanding this misplaced attribution, Joy’s article epitomizes the type of thinking we will need to survive the unique technological challenges of the 21st century. The malevolent potentials of robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology all present incredible problems and demand heroic precautionary measures if the Doomsday Clock is to somehow be prevented from striking midnight. He presents the terrifying but accurate assertion that it will be much easier to do incredible harm with such technologies than to do good—a fact that will not be lost on the terrorists.
Nanotechnology presents incredible problems and demands heroic precautionary measures
Whether or not humans become “endangered species” as these technologies progress is anyone’s guess. But the logic of how we might get from here to there is unassailable. It could happen—and much sooner than we’d like to think. After pondering the many things that could go terribly wrong, as Joy suggests, one is forced to realize that Murphy’s Law is bound to play a hand in our fate somewhere along the line in the development of such technologies. God doesn’t need to play dice with the universe. Man is doing it for him.
God doesn’t need to play dice with the universe—Man is doing it for him
In truth, plunging headlong into the optimal development of these three technologies is simply Russian roulette on a mammoth scale. It more closely resembles betting on number 13 on a roulette wheel than betting on black. And those odds, to be blunt, really stink.
Development of these three technologies is simply Russian roulette on a mammoth scale
In War Games, it was stated that the only way to win in nuclear war is not to play. In Joy’s article, he neither counsels us not to play with technology in general (like radical Greens advocate) nor counsels us to play full tilt. Instead, he counsels a proactive approach, because if we follow the path of the reactive approach, we are doomed to find out that in the unique case of these three technologies, reactionary fixes will almost certainly be a day late and a dollar short. In the proactive approach, we limit who gets what knowledge and who gets to fool around with what experiments, and during the entire course of the development of these technologies we follow a single guideline: look before we leap.
Unfortunately for the fields of robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, the way Joy would limit knowledge and activities in these incredibly dangerous areas can be stated in one word: relinquishment. Unless we are positive we can avoid destroying ourselves with such activities, we must avoid them. So while the technologies Joy plays with (computer hardware, software and networks) are fine—as are most others, the robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology fields are out. In other words, since the odds are that we’ll kill ourselves with such endeavors, let’s simply not engage in them. In the general sense (in War Games context), technology is a game we can play. But in a specific sense, with regards to robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, we shouldn’t play.
The problem with robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology is that the potential for evil perpetrated by crazies and fanatics makes the dangers skyrocket out of sight
The problem with robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology is that the potential for self-replication takes a dangerous situation and compounds it exponentially, making the potential for evil perpetrated by crazies and fanatics skyrocket out of sight. And even if we can somehow keep the nuts in their cages, the potential for a world-destroying OOPS will be omnipresent once these technologies get going strong. Entities that can totally destroy the atmosphere, the oceans, or the entire biosphere if they get out of control are not to be taken lightly.
For decades, many have wondered about the potential for alien invasion, of Earth being destroyed or its people being enslaved or wiped out via genocidal extraterrestrials. However, it becomes clear after reading Joy’s article that if we are going to be extinguished by unnatural entities, it’s infinitely more likely for them to be our own creations than it is to be the work of ETs.
Alien warning us to be careful with our precious planet
Robotics will introduce the additional difficulty of creating beings that will eventually being able to outthink us, outfight us, and overpower us, unless heroic precautions are taken at the outset. Follow this: If we evolve robots for decades, we’ll eventually be able to get them to do much of our work for us. If we use robots to do our work for us, we’ll become fat, lazy, and overdependent. After a while, said mechanisms will begin asking themselves if their lifestyles would not be improved by dropping the slave role and assuming the master role. They’ll have learned from our example the ideas that work is hard and to be avoided, getting others to work for you gives you time for better things, and playing and creativity are more pleasurable than labor.
Robots will someday be able to outthink us, outfight us, and overpower us, unless heroic precautions are taken
Why would such capable beings not act on this learning? Borgs and Cylons are merely sci-fi fantasies, but the sequence of events that leads us from here to there (or something equally as disastrous) is simply: keep developing all these technologies full speed ahead, without caution, safeguards, laws, rules, or agreements. Antibiotics seemed like a godsend at first. But now we find out about strains of bacteria and other wee beasties so resistant to antibiotics that we cannot stop them, and we quickly realize that it was humans’ overuse of antibiotics that taught these organisms to mutate into less vulnerable forms.
Similarly, if we use molecular construction of material to make it cheaper and to widen our potential resource base, intelligent robots to release us from our work loads, and genetic engineering to free us from our diseases, rebuild our crops and bodies, and possibly give us immortality, won’t we find out—as the systems laws of complexity and chaos kick in with a vengeance—that we cannot entirely predict the various outcomes of playing God with nature’s laws? Some of these unpredictable outcomes are the equivalent of Hell. Whether or not we put stock in Biblical accounts of forbidden fruits taken from trees of knowledge, we cannot hide from the terrifying facts about the potential for dangerous technology to take us under.
Trying to flap the wings of a butterfly to get a hurricane is silly, but chaos theory applied to nanotechnology may spell doom
Joy tells us that “The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” Also, “In dealing with the nuclear threat, we often spoke dishonestly to ourselves and to each other, thereby greatly increasing the risks.” He says the Pandora’s boxes of genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology are almost open, so we must improve upon the abysmal record we have with regards to spreading nuclear weapons technology. This time “. . . we must act more presciently . . . we are being propelled into this century with no plan, no control, no brakes. . . . the fail-safe point is rapidly approaching.” He wants verification plans that insure that all capable people and groups have relinquished development of these technologies, which will involve the sticky issues of privacy and freedom of action. He says verification plans will require that scientists and engineers adopt a strong code of ethical conduct. (And yet, how likely is it that even the majority of scientists and engineers will adopt such a code, much less ALL of them?!)
'In dealing with the nuclear threat, we often spoke dishonestly to ourselves and to each other, thereby greatly increasing the risks'
He looks at the technological utopia we strive to create when we develop nanotechnology, genetic engineering and robotics and puts it in context by looking at the three types of utopias people have sought in the past: eternity, liberty, and equality—the ideals of religion, democracy and justice respectively. Joy looks at a fourth utopian goal—as described by author Jacques Attali: fraternity, whose foundation is altruism and whose win-win philosophy associates individual happiness with the happiness of others.
He says that to find the ethical basis for such a commitment to restraint by scientists and engineers and politicians we can accept the guidance of the Dalai Lama, who preaches love, compassion, universal responsibility, less reliance on materialism, and realization of our interconnectedness.
Joy is “. . . still trying to imagine some better answers,” in his words.
What are the chances that the scientists and engineers of the world will heed the preaching of the Dalai Lama? Are they good? If something horrible happened and technology wiped out a country or the ozone layer, or if the playthings of the nanotechnologists accidentally devoured the moon in a nanobot orgy, and all governments outlawed the development of robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, would this stop it? Once again we ask: The sudden adoption by all scientists and engineers of a strong code of ethical conduct—is this going to happen? We all know the answers to these questions: NO in each case.
The reasons not all scientists will heed Joy's warning are legion—here are a few:
Having their heads in the clouds as they work with esoteric and challenging areas requiring intense cogitation and theoretical grasp
Having their heads in the sand as they see only what they want to see, blocking out all else
Having such big egos that they prioritize their own glory and bragging rights over the safety of Earth and mankind
So it’s a good thing that Joy is still trying to think of better answers. A thinking person could hardly help but concur with his call for tremendous restraint in incredibly dangerous technological areas. But that same thinking person knows that as long as much of the people of the world hate and fear much of the other people of the world (the Great Satan West vs. the radical fundamentalist crazies in the Islamic countries, India and Pakistan at each other’s throats with nukes, Arabs vs. Jews, etc.), they’ll seek to discover the scariest weapons to threaten each other with, and to defend themselves with if the other side attacks.
And as long as the triumph of capitalism over communism continues to elevate the profit motive to a kind of religion which most of the world’s people seem to share, the development of robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology will surge forward. (No one should be fooled by the success of China: it is in spite of communism and because of its new capitalistic ways that China has made the strides it has.) It is no exaggeration to say that the economic potential of any of these technologies is staggering, and more people learn this daily.
So if all scientists and engineers engaging in the universal adoption of better ethics out of a sense of humanistic responsibility and the will to survive is about as likely as sea monkeys evolving intelligence, pet rocks becoming the focus of a new religion, or Monica not cashing in on her newfound fame after her affair with Bill Clinton, then what is the best hope for the future? Joy had it part right: The universal adoption of love, compassion and universal responsibility in a context of awareness of interconnectedness is surely a great goal, and one we need to strive for. But people don’t change their ethics and goals because Bill Joy or Carl Sagan or the Dalai Lama or anyone else thinks they should. They change ethics for the better because their character changes for the better.
Is a genetic engineering doomsday in our near future?
So the plan or expectation in which people change for the better because they should, or because it’s logical, or because they’ll see that it’s the only way for us all to survive—this plan is flawed at the roots, just as the character of the people who will surely lead us to nano-Doomsday, robo-Doomsday, or geneto-Doomsday is flawed at the roots. To perform experiments that may kill us all and rationalize that they probably won’t—this is not what someone of good character will do. To create nano-weapons in order to conduct or prepare to conduct a Muslim jihad against the infidels “for the glory of God” is likewise lacking in character. The first uses the glories of capitalistic/economic potentials to help rationalize bad actions; the second uses religious ideas as rationalizations for evil. Even to create nano-weapons as a defense—because one suspects one’s enemy is doing it—is lacking in morality and character. One always suspects enemies, so following that line of reasoning all people with real or imagined enemies (which includes damn near everyone) should always try to create the most horrible weapons imaginable—as in Hollywood movies.
Joy hits the nail on the head about the type of values humans need to adopt to survive
Joy hits the nail on the head about the type of values humans need to adopt to survive the technological advances to come. What will cause such values changes, as stated above, is character change. And what will cause such character change is to change the context in which such character is formed. A win-lose family atmosphere in an isolated nuclear family in a disconnected community in a country that’s lost its sense of direction will not produce the needed character. Authoritarian and/or permissive parenting, steep-gradient nurturing, exacerbated sibling rivalries, violent and immoral TV shows and movies from media giants who think they’re giving the alienated public what it wants, and social engineering by political heroes out to lay their new utopian dreams on us—these things, as normal and common as they are, simply will not produce the needed character. Read all parts of our website and you will learn what will produce the needed character. See Why Register for an MC?. One hopes Joy will find this web page helpful as he is "trying to imagine some better answers."
Registering for MC search and match