by Bill Joy
Our most powerful
21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic
engineering, and nanotech - are threatening to make
humans an endangered species.
From the moment I became involved in the creation of new
technologies, their ethical dimensions have concerned me, but it was
only in the autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of how
great are the dangers facing us in the 21st century.
I can date the onset of my unease to the
day I met
Ray Kurzweil, the deservedly famous inventor of the
first reading machine for the blind and many other amazing things.
Ray and I were both speakers at George Gilder's Telecosm
conference, and I encountered him by chance in the bar of the
hotel after both our sessions were over. I was sitting with John
Searle, a Berkeley philosopher who studies consciousness. While
we were talking, Ray approached and a conversation began, the
subject of which haunts me to this day.
I had missed Ray's talk and the subsequent panel that Ray and John
had been on, and they now picked right up where they'd left off,
with Ray saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going
to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with
robots or something like that, and John countering that this
couldn't happen, because the robots couldn't be conscious.
While I had heard such talk before, I had always felt sentient
robots were in the realm of science fiction.
But now, from someone I respected, I was
hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility. I
was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine
and create the future. I already knew that new technologies like
genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to
remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for
intelligent robots surprised me.
It's easy to get jaded about such breakthroughs. We hear in the news
almost every day of some kind of technological or scientific
advance. Yet this was no ordinary prediction. In the hotel bar, Ray
gave me a partial preprint of his then-forthcoming book "The
Age of Spiritual Machines", which outlined a utopia he
foresaw - one in which humans gained near immortality by becoming
one with robotic technology.
On reading it, my sense of unease only
intensified; I felt sure he had to be understating the dangers,
understating the probability of a bad outcome along this path.
I found myself most troubled by a passage detailing adystopian
THE NEW LUDDITE CHALLENGE
First let us postulate
that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent
machines that can do all things better than human beings can do
In that case presumably all work
will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and
no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might
The machines might be permitted to
make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else
human control over the machines might be retained.
If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions,
we can't make any conjectures as to the results, because it is
impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only
point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy
of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would
never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the
But we are suggesting neither that
the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines
nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do
suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to
drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it
would have no practical choice but to accept all of the
As society and the problems that
face it become more and more complex and machines become more
and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of
their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions
will bring better results than man-made ones.
Eventually a stage may be reached at
which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be
so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them
intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective
control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off,
because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off
would amount to suicide.
On the other hand it is possible that human control over the
machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have
control over certain private machines of his own, such as his
car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of
machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite - just as it is
today, but with two differences.
Due to improved techniques the
elite will have greater control over the masses; and because
human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be
superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is
ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of
If they are humane they may use
propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to
reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes
extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite
consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the
role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race.
They will see to it that everyone's
physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under
psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a
wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become
dissatisfied undergoes "treatment" to cure his "problem."
Of course, life will be so
purposeless that people will have to be biologically or
psychologically engineered either to remove their need for
the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power
into some harmless hobby.
These engineered human beings
may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not
They will have been reduced to the
status of domestic animals.1
1 The passage Kurzweil quotes is from
Kaczynski's Unabomber Manifesto, which was published jointly, under
duress, by The New York Times and The Washington Post to attempt to
bring his campaign of terror to an end.
I agree with David Gelernter, who said
about their decision:
"It was a tough call for the
newspapers. To say yes would be giving in to terrorism, and for
all they knew he was lying anyway. On the other hand, to say yes
might stop the killing. There was also a chance that someone
would read the tract and get a hunch about the author; and that
is exactly what happened. The suspect's brother read it, and it
rang a bell.
"I would have told them not to publish. I'm glad they didn't ask
me. I guess."
(Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber. Free Press, 1997: 120.)
Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief
Scientist of Sun Microsystems, was cochair of the presidential
commission on the future of IT research, and is coauthor of The
Java Language Specification. His work on the Jini pervasive
computing technology was featured in Wired 6.08.
In the book, you don't discover until you turn the page that the
author of this passage is Theodore Kaczynski - the Unabomber.
I am no apologist for Kaczynski. His bombs killed three people
during a 17-year terror campaign and wounded many others. One of his
bombs gravely injured my friend David Gelernter, one of the
most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time.
Like many of my colleagues, I felt that
I could easily have been the Unabomber's next target.
Kaczynski's actions were murderous and, in my view, criminally
insane. He is clearly a
Luddite, but simply saying this
does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to
acknowledge, I saw some merit in the reasoning in this single
passage. I felt compelled to confront it.
Kaczynski's dystopian vision describes unintended consequences, a
well-known problem with the design and use of technology, and one
that is clearly related to Murphy's law - "Anything that can go
wrong, will." (Actually, this is Finagle's law, which in itself
shows that Finagle was right.)
Our overuse of antibiotics has led to
what may be the biggest such problem so far: the emergence of
antibiotic-resistant and much more dangerous bacteria. Similar
things happened when attempts to eliminate malarial mosquitoes using
DDT caused them to acquire DDT resistance; malarial parasites
likewise acquired multi-drug-resistant genes.2
2 Garrett, Laurie.The Coming Plague:
Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. Penguin, 1994:
47-52, 414, 419, 452.
The cause of many such surprises seems clear: The systems involved
are complex, involving interaction among and feedback between many
parts. Any changes to such a system will cascade in ways that are
difficult to predict; this is especially true when human actions are
I started showing friends the Kaczynski quote from The Age of
Spiritual Machines; I would hand them Kurzweil's book, let them
read the quote, and then watch their reaction as they discovered who
had written it. At around the same time, I found Hans Moravec's
Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind.
Moravec is one of the leaders in
robotics research, and was a founder of the world's largest robotics
research program, at Carnegie Mellon University. Robot gave
me more material to try out on my friends - material surprisingly
supportive of Kaczynski's argument.
The Short Run (Early 2000s)
Biological species almost
never survive encounters with superior competitors. Ten million
years ago, South and North America were separated by a sunken
South America, like Australia today,
was populated by marsupial mammals, including pouched
equivalents of rats, deers, and tigers. When the isthmus
connecting North and South America rose, it took only a few
thousand years for the northern placental species, with slightly
more effective metabolisms and reproductive and nervous systems,
to displace and eliminate almost all the southern marsupials.
In a completely free marketplace, superior robots would surely
affect humans as North American placentals affected South
American marsupials (and as humans have affected countless
species). Robotic industries would compete vigorously among
themselves for matter, energy, and space, incidentally driving
their price beyond human reach. Unable to afford the necessities
of life, biological humans would be squeezed out of existence.
There is probably some breathing room, because we do not live in
a completely free marketplace. Government coerces non-market
behavior, especially by collecting taxes. Judiciously applied,
governmental coercion could support human populations in high
style on the fruits of robot labor, perhaps for a long while.
A textbook dystopia - and Moravec is just getting wound up. He
goes on to discuss how our main job in the 21st century will be
"ensuring continued cooperation from the robot industries" by
passing laws decreeing that they be "nice," 3 and to
describe how seriously dangerous a human can be "once
transformed into an unbounded super-intelligent robot."
3 Isaac Asimov described what
became the most famous view of ethical rules for robot behavior
in his book I, Robot in 1950, in his Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a
human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to
come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the
orders given it by human beings, except where such orders
would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its
own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict
with the First or Second Law.
Moravec's view is that the robots
will eventually succeed us - that humans clearly face
I decided it was time to talk to my friend Danny Hillis.
Danny became famous as the cofounder of Thinking Machines
Corporation, which built a very powerful parallel
supercomputer. Despite my current job title of Chief Scientist
at Sun Microsystems, I am more a computer architect than a
scientist, and I respect Danny's knowledge of the information
and physical sciences more than that of any other single person
Danny is also a highly regarded
futurist who thinks long-term - four years ago he started the
Long Now Foundation, which is building a clock designed to
last 10,000 years, in an attempt to draw attention to the
pitifully short attention span of our society.
(See "Test of Time," Wired 8.03,
So I flew to Los Angeles for the express
purpose of having dinner with Danny and his wife, Pati.
I went through my now-familiar routine,
trotting out the ideas and passages that I found so disturbing.
Danny's answer - directed specifically at Kurzweil's scenario of
humans merging with robots - came swiftly, and quite surprised me.
He said, simply, that the changes would come gradually, and that we
would get used to them.
But I guess I wasn't totally surprised. I had seen a quote from
Danny in Kurzweil's book in which he said,
"I'm as fond of my body as anyone,
but if I can be 200 with a body of silicon, I'll take it."
It seemed that he was at peace with this
process and its attendant risks, while I was not.
While talking and thinking about Kurzweil, Kaczynski, and Moravec, I
suddenly remembered a novel I had read almost 20 years ago -
The White Plague, by Frank
Herbert - in which a molecular biologist is driven insane by the
senseless murder of his family. To seek revenge he constructs and
disseminates a new and highly contagious plague that kills widely
but selectively. (We're lucky Kaczynski was a mathematician, not a
I was also reminded of the Borg of
Star Trek, a hive of partly biological, partly robotic creatures
with a strong destructive streak.
Borg-like disasters are a staple of
science fiction, so,
Part of the answer certainly lies in our
attitude toward the new - in our bias toward instant familiarity and
Accustomed to living with almost routine
scientific breakthroughs, we have yet to come to terms with the fact
that the most compelling 21st-century technologies - robotics,
genetic engineering, and nanotechnology - pose a different threat
than the technologies that have come before. Specifically, robots,
engineered organisms, and
nanobots share a dangerous
amplifying factor: They can self-replicate.
A bomb is blown up only once - but one
bot can become many, and quickly get out of control.
Much of my work over the past 25 years has been on computer
networking, where the sending and receiving of messages creates the
opportunity for out-of-control replication. But while replication in
a computer or a computer network can be a nuisance, at worst it
disables a machine or takes down a network or network service.
Uncontrolled self-replication in these newer technologies runs a
much greater risk: a risk of substantial damage in the physical
Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of
near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us
forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not
outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nano-medicine
can address yet more ills. Together they could significantly extend
our average life span and improve the quality of our lives. Yet,
with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually
sensible advances leads to an accumulation of great power and,
concomitantly, great danger.
What was different in the 20th century?
Certainly, the technologies underlying
the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - nuclear, biological,
and chemical (NBC) - were powerful, and the weapons an enormous
threat. But building nuclear weapons required, at least for a time,
access to both rare - indeed, effectively unavailable - raw
materials and highly protected information; biological and chemical
weapons programs also tended to require large-scale activities.
The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and
robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new
classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first
time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of
individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities
or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.
Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction
but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this
destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.
I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the
further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility
spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction
bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible
empowerment of extreme individuals.
Nothing about the way I got involved with computers suggested to me
that I was going to be facing these kinds of issues.
My life has been driven by a deep need to ask questions and find
answers. When I was 3, I was already reading, so my father took me
to the elementary school, where I sat on the principal's lap and
read him a story. I started school early, later skipped a grade, and
escaped into books - I was incredibly motivated to learn. I asked
lots of questions, often driving adults to distraction.
As a teenager I was very interested in science and technology. I
wanted to be a ham radio operator but didn't have the money to buy
the equipment. Ham radio was the Internet of its time: very
addictive, and quite solitary. Money issues aside, my mother put her
foot down - I was not to be a ham; I was antisocial enough already.
I may not have had many close friends, but I was awash in ideas. By
high school, I had discovered the great science fiction writers. I
remember especially Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel and
Asimov's I, Robot, with its Three Laws of Robotics. I
was enchanted by the descriptions of space travel, and wanted to
have a telescope to look at the stars; since I had no money to buy
or make one, I checked books on telescope-making out of the library
and read about making them instead. I soared in my imagination.
Thursday nights my parents went bowling, and we kids stayed home
It was the night of Gene Roddenberry's
original Star Trek, and the program made a big impression on me. I
came to accept its notion that humans had a future in space,
Western-style, with big heroes and adventures. Roddenberry's vision
of the centuries to come was one with strong moral values, embodied
in codes like the Prime Directive: to not interfere in the
development of less technologically advanced civilizations.
This had an incredible appeal to me;
ethical humans, not robots, dominated this future, and I took
Roddenberry's dream as part of my own.
I excelled in mathematics in high school, and when I went to the
University of Michigan as an undergraduate engineering student I
took the advanced curriculum of the mathematics majors. Solving math
problems was an exciting challenge, but when I discovered computers
I found something much more interesting: a machine into which you
could put a program that attempted to solve a problem, after which
the machine quickly checked the solution. The computer had a clear
notion of correct and incorrect, true and false.
Were my ideas correct? The machine could
tell me. This was very seductive.
I was lucky enough to get a job programming early supercomputers and
discovered the amazing power of large machines to numerically
simulate advanced designs. When I went to graduate school at UC
Berkeley in the mid-1970s, I started staying up late, often all
night, inventing new worlds inside the machines. Solving problems.
Writing the code that argued so strongly to be written.
In The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone's
biographical novel of Michelangelo, Stone described vividly how
Michelangelo released the statues from the stone, "breaking the
marble spell," carving from the images in his mind.4 In
my most ecstatic moments, the software in the computer emerged in
the same way. Once I had imagined it in my mind I felt that it was
already there in the machine, waiting to be released.
Staying up all night seemed a small
price to pay to free it - to give the ideas concrete form.
4 Michelangelo wrote a sonnet
Non ha l' ottimo artista alcun
Ch' un marmo solo in sè non circonscriva
Col suo soverchio; e solo a quello arriva
La man che ubbidisce all' intelleto.
Stone translates this as:
The best of artists hath no
thought to show
which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
doth not include; to break the marble spell
is all the hand that serves the brain can do.
Stone describes the process:
"He was not working from his
drawings or clay models; they had all been put away. He was
carving from the images in his mind. His eyes and hands knew
where every line, curve, mass must emerge, and at what depth in
the heart of the stone to create the low relief."
(The Agony and the
Ecstasy. Doubleday, 1961: 6, 144.)
After a few years at Berkeley I started
to send out some of the software I had written - an instructional
Pascal system, Unix utilities, and a text editor called vi (which is
still, to my surprise, widely used more than 20 years later) - to
others who had similar small PDP-11 and VAX minicomputers.
These adventures in software eventually
turned into the Berkeley version of the Unix operating system, which
became a personal "success disaster" - so many people wanted it that
I never finished my PhD. Instead I got a job working for Darpa
putting Berkeley Unix on the Internet and fixing it to be reliable
and to run large research applications well.
This was all great fun and very
rewarding. And, frankly, I saw no robots here, or anywhere near.
Still, by the early 1980s, I was drowning. The Unix releases were
very successful, and my little project of one soon had money and
some staff, but the problem at Berkeley was always office space
rather than money - there wasn't room for the help the project
needed, so when the other founders of Sun Microsystems showed up I
jumped at the chance to join them.
At Sun, the long hours continued into
the early days of workstations and personal computers, and I have
enjoyed participating in the creation of advanced microprocessor
technologies and Internet technologies such as Java and Jini.
From all this, I trust it is clear that I am not a Luddite. I have
always, rather, had a strong belief in the value of the scientific
search for truth and in the ability of great engineering to bring
material progress. The Industrial Revolution has immeasurably
improved everyone's life over the last couple hundred years, and I
always expected my career to involve the building of worthwhile
solutions to real problems, one problem at a time.
I have not been disappointed. My work has had more impact than I had
ever hoped for and has been more widely used than I could have
reasonably expected. I have spent the last 20 years still trying to
figure out how to make computers as reliable as I want them to be
(they are not nearly there yet) and how to make them simple to use
(a goal that has met with even less relative success). Despite some
progress, the problems that remain seem even more daunting.
But while I was aware of the moral dilemmas surrounding
technology's consequences in fields like weapons research, I did not
expect that I would confront such issues in my own field, or at
least not so soon.
Perhaps it is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in
the vortex of a change. Failing to understand the consequences of
our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery and
innovation seems to be a common fault of scientists and
technologists; we have long been driven by the overarching desire to
know that is the nature of science's quest, not stopping to notice
that the progress to newer and more powerful technologies can take
on a life of its own.
I have long realized that the big advances in information technology
come not from the work of computer scientists, computer architects,
or electrical engineers, but from that of physical scientists. The
physicists Stephen Wolfram and Brosl Hasslacher
introduced me, in the early 1980s, to
chaos theory and
In the 1990s, I learned about complex
systems from conversations with Danny Hillis, the biologist
Stuart Kauffman, the Nobel-laureate physicist Murray
Gell-Mann, and others. Most recently, Hasslacher and the
electrical engineer and device physicist Mark Reed have been giving
me insight into the incredible possibilities of molecular
In my own work, as codesigner of three microprocessor architectures
- SPARC, picoJava, and MAJC - and as the designer of several
implementations thereof, I've been afforded a deep and firsthand
acquaintance with Moore's law. For decades, Moore's law has
correctly predicted the exponential rate of improvement of
Until last year I believed that the rate
of advances predicted by Moore's law might continue only until
roughly 2010, when some physical limits would begin to be reached.
It was not obvious to me that a new technology would arrive in time
to keep performance advancing smoothly.
But because of the recent rapid and radical progress in molecular
electronics - where individual atoms and molecules replace
lithographically drawn transistors - and related nanoscale
technologies, we should be able to meet or exceed the Moore's law
rate of progress for another 30 years. By 2030, we are likely to be
able to build machines, in quantity, a million times as powerful as
the personal computers of today - sufficient to implement the dreams
of Kurzweil and Moravec.
As this enormous computing power is combined with the manipulative
advances of the physical sciences and the new, deep understandings
in genetics, enormous transformative power is being unleashed. These
combinations open up the opportunity to completely redesign the
world, for better or worse: The replicating and evolving processes
that have been confined to the natural world are about to become
realms of human endeavor.
In designing software and microprocessors, I have never had the
feeling that I was designing an intelligent machine. The software
and hardware is so fragile and the capabilities of the machine to
"think" so clearly absent that, even as a possibility, this has
always seemed very far in the future.
But now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about
30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to
create tools which will enable the construction of the technology
that may replace our species.
How do I feel about this? Very
Having struggled my entire career to
build reliable software systems, it seems to me more than likely
that this future will not work out as well as some people may
imagine. My personal experience suggests we tend to overestimate our
Given the incredible power of these new technologies, shouldn't we
be asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own
extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our
technological development, shouldn't we proceed with great caution?
The dream of robotics is, first, that intelligent machines can do
our work for us, allowing us lives of leisure, restoring us to
Yet in his history of such ideas,
Darwin Among the Machines,
George Dyson warns:
"In the game of life and evolution
there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and
machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I
suspect, is on the side of the machines."
As we have seen, Moravec agrees,
believing we may well not survive the encounter with the superior
How soon could such an intelligent robot be built? The coming
advances in computing power seem to make it possible by 2030. And
once an intelligent robot exists, it is only a small step to a robot
species - to an intelligent robot that can make evolved copies of
A second dream of robotics is that we will gradually replace
ourselves with our robotic technology, achieving near immortality by
downloading our consciousnesses; it is this process that Danny
Hillis thinks we will gradually get used to and that Ray Kurzweil
elegantly details in The Age of Spiritual Machines. (We are
beginning to see intimations of this in the implantation of computer
devices into the human body, as illustrated on the cover of Wired
But if we are downloaded into our technology, what are the chances
that we will thereafter be ourselves or even human?
It seems to me far more likely that a
robotic existence would not be like a human one in any sense that we
understand, that the robots would in no sense be our children, that
on this path our humanity may well be lost.
Genetic engineering promises to revolutionize agriculture by
increasing crop yields while reducing the use of pesticides; to
create tens of thousands of novel species of bacteria, plants,
viruses, and animals; to replace reproduction, or supplement it,
with cloning; to create cures for many diseases, increasing our life
span and our quality of life; and much, much more. We now know with
certainty that these profound changes in the biological sciences are
imminent and will challenge all our notions of what life is.
Technologies such as human cloning have in particular raised our
awareness of the profound ethical and moral issues we face. If, for
example, we were to reengineer ourselves into several separate and
unequal species using the power of genetic engineering, then we
would threaten the notion of equality that is the very cornerstone
of our democracy.
Given the incredible power of genetic engineering, it's no
surprise that there are significant safety issues in its use. My
friend Amory Lovins recently co-wrote, along with Hunter
Lovins, an editorial that provides an ecological view of some of
Among their concerns:
that "the new botany aligns the
development of plants with their economic, not evolutionary,
Tale of Two Botanies," page 247.)
Amory's long career has been focused on
energy and resource efficiency by taking a whole-system view of
human-made systems; such a whole-system view often finds simple,
smart solutions to otherwise seemingly difficult problems, and is
usefully applied here as well.
After reading the Lovins' editorial, I saw an op-ed by Gregg
Easterbrook in The New York Times (November 19, 1999)
about genetically engineered crops, under the headline: "Food
for the Future: Someday, rice will have built-in vitamin A. Unless
the Luddites win."
Are Amory and Hunter Lovins Luddites? Certainly not.
I believe we all would agree that golden
rice, with its built-in vitamin A, is probably a good thing, if
developed with proper care and respect for the likely dangers in
moving genes across species boundaries.
Awareness of the dangers inherent in genetic engineering is
beginning to grow, as reflected in the Lovins' editorial. The
general public is aware of, and uneasy about,
genetically modified foods, and
seems to be rejecting the notion that such foods should be permitted
to be unlabeled.
But genetic engineering technology is already very far along. As the
Lovins note, the USDA has already approved about 50 genetically
engineered crops for unlimited release; more than half of the
world's soybeans and a third of its corn now contain genes spliced
in from other forms of life.
While there are many important issues here, my own major concern
with genetic engineering is narrower: that it gives the power -
whether militarily, accidentally, or in a deliberate terrorist act -
to create a White Plague.
The many wonders of nanotechnology were first imagined by the
Nobel-laureate physicist Richard Feynman in a speech he gave
in 1959, subsequently published under the title "There's Plenty of
Room at the Bottom."
The book that made a big impression on
me, in the mid-'80s, was Eric Drexler's
Engines of Creation, in which
he described beautifully how manipulation of matter at the atomic
level could create a utopian future of abundance, where just about
everything could be made cheaply, and almost any imaginable disease
or physical problem could be solved using nanotechnology and
A subsequent book,
Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology
Revolution, which Drexler cowrote, imagines some of
the changes that might take place in a world where we had
molecular-level "assemblers." Assemblers could make possible
incredibly low-cost solar power, cures for cancer and the common
cold by augmentation of the human immune system, essentially
complete cleanup of the environment, incredibly inexpensive pocket
supercomputers - in fact, any product would be manufacturable by
assemblers at a cost no greater than that of wood - spaceflight more
accessible than transoceanic travel today, and restoration of
I remember feeling good about nanotechnology after reading
Engines of Creation.
As a technologist, it gave me a sense of
calm - that is, nanotechnology showed us that incredible progress
was possible, and indeed perhaps inevitable. If nanotechnology was
our future, then I didn't feel pressed to solve so many problems in
the present. I would get to Drexler's utopian future in due time; I
might as well enjoy life more in the here and now. It didn't make
sense, given his vision, to stay up all night, all the time.
Drexler's vision also led to a lot of good fun. I would occasionally
get to describe the wonders of nanotechnology to others who had not
heard of it. After teasing them with all the things Drexler
described I would give a homework assignment of my own:
"Use nanotechnology to create a
vampire; for extra credit create an antidote."
With these wonders came clear dangers,
of which I was acutely aware. As I said at a nanotechnology
conference in 1989,
"We can't simply do our science and
not worry about these ethical issues." 5
But my subsequent conversations with
physicists convinced me that nanotechnology might not even work -
or, at least, it wouldn't work anytime soon.
5 First Foresight Conference on
Nanotechnology in October 1989, a talk titled "The Future of
Computation." Published in Crandall, B. C. and James Lewis, editors.
Nanotechnology: Research and Perspectives. MIT Press, 1992: 269. See
Shortly thereafter I moved to Colorado,
to a skunk works I had set up, and the focus of my work shifted to
software for the Internet, specifically on ideas that became Java
Then, last summer, Brosl Hasslacher told me that nanoscale
molecular electronics was now practical. This was new news, at least
to me, and I think to many people - and it radically changed my
opinion about nanotechnology. It sent me back to Engines of
Creation. Rereading Drexler's work after more than 10 years, I
was dismayed to realize how little I had remembered of its lengthy
section called "Dangers and Hopes," including a discussion of how
nanotechnologies can become "engines of destruction."
Indeed, in my rereading of this
cautionary material today, I am struck by how naive some of
Drexler's safeguard proposals seem, and how much greater I judge the
dangers to be now than even he seemed to then.
(Having anticipated and described many
technical and political problems with nanotechnology, Drexler
started the Foresight Institute in the late 1980s "to help prepare
society for anticipated advanced technologies" - most important,
The enabling breakthrough to assemblers seems quite likely within
the next 20 years. Molecular electronics - the new subfield of
nanotechnology where individual molecules are circuit elements -
should mature quickly and become enormously lucrative within this
decade, causing a large incremental investment in all
Unfortunately, as with nuclear technology, it is far easier to
create destructive uses for nanotechnology than constructive ones.
Nanotechnology has clear military and terrorist uses, and you need
not be suicidal to release a massively destructive nanotechnological
device - such devices can be built to be selectively destructive,
affecting, for example, only a certain geographical area or a group
of people who are genetically distinct.
An immediate consequence of the Faustian bargain in obtaining the
great power of nanotechnology is that we run a grave risk - the risk
that we might destroy the biosphere on which all life depends.
As Drexler explained:
"Plants" with "leaves" no more
efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real
plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough
omnivorous "bacteria" could out-compete real bacteria: They
could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce
the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.
Dangerous replicators could easily
be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if
we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling
viruses and fruit flies.
Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology,
this threat has become known as the "gray goo problem."
Though masses of uncontrolled
replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term "gray
goo" emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life
might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They
might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make
The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We
cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating
Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human
adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that
could stem from a simple laboratory accident.6
6 In his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle, Kurt
Vonnegut imagined a gray-goo-like accident where a form of ice
called ice-nine, which becomes solid at a much higher temperature,
freezes the oceans.
It is most of all the power of destructive self-replication in
genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) that should give us
Self-replication is the modus operandi
of genetic engineering, which uses the machinery of the cell to
replicate its designs, and the prime danger underlying gray goo
nanotechnology. Stories of run-amok
robots like the Borg, replicating or mutating to escape from the
ethical constraints imposed on them by their creators, are well
established in our science fiction books and movies.
It is even possible that
self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence
harder - or even impossible - to control.
A recent article by Stuart Kauffman
in Nature titled "Self-Replication:
Even Peptides Do It" discusses the discovery that a
32-amino-acid peptide can "autocatalyse its own synthesis."
We don't know how widespread this
ability is, but Kauffman notes that it may hint at,
"a route to self-reproducing
molecular systems on a basis far wider than Watson-Crick
7 Kauffman, Stuart. "Self-replication:
Even Peptides Do It." Nature, 382, August 8, 1996: 496. See
In truth, we have had in hand for years
clear warnings of the dangers inherent in widespread knowledge of
GNR technologies - of the possibility of knowledge alone enabling
mass destruction. But these warnings haven't been widely publicized;
the public discussions have been clearly inadequate. There is no
profit in publicizing the dangers.
The nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) technologies used
in 20th-century weapons of mass destruction were and are largely
military, developed in government laboratories. In sharp contrast,
the 21st-century GNR technologies have clear commercial uses and are
being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises.
In this age of triumphant commercialism,
technology - with science as its handmaiden - is delivering a series
of almost magical inventions that are the most phenomenally
lucrative ever seen. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of
these new technologies within the now-unchallenged system of global
capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive
This is the first moment in the history of our planet when any
species, by its own voluntary actions, has become a danger to itself
- as well as to vast numbers of others.
It might be a familiar progression, transpiring on many worlds - a
planet, newly formed, placidly revolves around its star; life slowly
forms; a kaleidoscopic procession of creatures evolves; intelligence
emerges which, at least up to a point, confers enormous survival
value; and then technology is invented. It dawns on them that there
are such things as laws of Nature, that these laws can be revealed
by experiment, and that knowledge of these laws can be made both to
save and to take lives, both on unprecedented scales. Science, they
recognize, grants immense powers. In a flash, they create
Some planetary civilizations see their
way through, place limits on what may and what must not be done, and
safely pass through the time of perils. Others, not so lucky or so
prudent, perish. That is
Carl Sagan, writing in 1994, in
Pale Blue Dot, a book describing his vision of the human
future in space.
I am only now realizing how deep his
insight was, and how sorely I miss, and will miss, his voice. For
all its eloquence, Sagan's contribution was not least that of simple
common sense - an attribute that, along with humility, many of the
leading advocates of the 21st-century technologies seem to lack.
I remember from my childhood that my grandmother was strongly
against the overuse of antibiotics. She had worked since before the
first World War as a nurse and had a commonsense attitude that
taking antibiotics, unless they were absolutely necessary, was bad
It is not that she was an enemy of progress. She saw much progress
in an almost 70-year nursing career; my grandfather, a diabetic,
benefited greatly from the improved treatments that became available
in his lifetime. But she, like many levelheaded people, would
probably think it greatly arrogant for us, now, to be designing a
robotic "replacement species," when we obviously have so much
trouble making relatively simple things work, and so much trouble
managing - or even understanding - ourselves.
I realize now that she had an awareness of the nature of the order
of life, and of the necessity of living with and respecting that
With this respect comes a necessary
humility that we, with our early-21st-century chutzpah, lack at our
peril. The commonsense view, grounded in this respect, is often
right, in advance of the scientific evidence. The clear fragility
and inefficiencies of the human-made systems we have built should
give us all pause; the fragility of the systems I have worked on
certainly humbles me.
We should have learned a lesson from the making of the first atomic
bomb and the resulting arms race. We didn't do well then, and the
parallels to our current situation are troubling.
The effort to build the first atomic bomb was led by the brilliant
physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was not
naturally interested in politics but became painfully aware of what
he perceived as the grave threat to Western civilization from the
Third Reich, a threat surely grave because of the possibility that
Hitler might obtain nuclear weapons.
Energized by this concern, he brought
his strong intellect, passion for physics, and charismatic
leadership skills to Los Alamos and led a rapid and successful
effort by an incredible collection of great minds to quickly invent
What is striking is how this effort continued so naturally after the
initial impetus was removed. In a meeting shortly after V-E Day with
some physicists who felt that perhaps the effort should stop,
Oppenheimer argued to continue. His stated reason seems a bit
strange: not because of the fear of large casualties from an
invasion of Japan, but because the United Nations, which was soon to
be formed, should have foreknowledge of atomic weapons.
A more likely reason the project
continued is the momentum that had built up - the first atomic test,
Trinity, was nearly at hand.
We know that in preparing this first atomic test the physicists
proceeded despite a large number of possible dangers. They were
initially worried, based on a calculation by Edward Teller,
that an atomic explosion might set fire to the atmosphere. A revised
calculation reduced the danger of destroying the world to a
three-in-a-million chance. (Teller says he was later able to dismiss
the prospect of atmospheric ignition entirely.)
Oppenheimer, though, was sufficiently
concerned about the result of Trinity that he arranged for a
possible evacuation of the southwest part of the state of New
Mexico. And, of course, there was the clear danger of starting a
nuclear arms race.
Within a month of that first, successful test, two atomic bombs
destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some scientists had suggested that
the bomb simply be demonstrated, rather than dropped on Japanese
cities - saying that this would greatly improve the chances for arms
control after the war - but to no avail.
With the tragedy of Pearl Harbor still
fresh in Americans' minds, it would have been very difficult for
President Truman to order a demonstration of the weapons rather than
use them as he did - the desire to quickly end the war and save the
lives that would have been lost in any invasion of Japan was very
Yet the overriding truth was probably
As the physicist Freeman Dyson later
said, "The reason that it was dropped was just that nobody had
the courage or the foresight to say no."
It's important to realize how shocked
the physicists were in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, on
August 6, 1945. They describe a series of waves of emotion: first, a
sense of fulfillment that the bomb worked, then horror at all the
people that had been killed, and then a convincing feeling that on
no account should another bomb be dropped.
Yet of course another bomb was dropped,
on Nagasaki, only three days after the bombing of Hiroshima.
In November 1945, three months after the atomic bombings,
Oppenheimer stood firmly behind the scientific attitude, saying,
"It is not possible to be a
scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world,
and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic
value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the
spread of knowledge and are willing to take the consequences."
Oppenheimer went on to work, with
others, on the Acheson-Lilienthal report, which, as Richard
Rhodes says in his recent book Visions of Technology,
"found a way to prevent a
clandestine nuclear arms race without resorting to armed world
Their suggestion was a form of
relinquishment of nuclear weapons work by nation-states to an
This proposal led to the Baruch Plan, which was submitted to
the United Nations in June 1946 but
never adopted (perhaps because, as Rhodes suggests, Bernard
Baruch had "insisted on burdening the plan with conventional
sanctions," thereby inevitably dooming it, even though it would
"almost certainly have been rejected by Stalinist Russia anyway").
Other efforts to promote sensible steps
toward internationalizing nuclear power to prevent an arms race ran
afoul either of US politics and internal distrust, or distrust by
the Soviets. The opportunity to avoid the arms race was lost, and
Two years later, in 1948, Oppenheimer seemed to have reached another
stage in his thinking, saying,
"In some sort of crude sense which
no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish,
the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they
In 1949, the Soviets exploded an atom
bomb. By 1955, both the US and the Soviet Union had tested hydrogen
bombs suitable for delivery by aircraft. And so the nuclear arms
Nearly 20 years ago, in the documentary The Day After Trinity,
Freeman Dyson summarized the scientific attitudes that
brought us to the nuclear precipice:
"I have felt it myself. The glitter
of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a
scientist. To feel it's there in your hands, to release this
energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To
perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the
sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of
illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all
our troubles - this, what you might call technical arrogance,
that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their
8 Else, Jon. The Day After Trinity: J.
Robert Oppenheimer and The Atomic Bomb (available at
Now, as then, we are creators of new
technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven - this time by
great financial rewards and global competition - despite the clear
dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a
world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and
In 1947, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began putting a
Doomsday Clock on its cover.
For more than 50 years, it has shown an
estimate of the relative nuclear danger we have faced, reflecting
the changing international conditions. The hands on the clock have
moved 15 times and today, standing at nine minutes to midnight,
reflect continuing and real danger from nuclear weapons. The recent
addition of India and Pakistan to the list of nuclear powers has
increased the threat of failure of the nonproliferation goal, and
this danger was reflected by moving the hands closer to midnight in
In our time, how much danger do we face, not just from nuclear
weapons, but from all of these technologies? How high are the
The philosopher John Leslie has studied this question and
concluded that the risk of human extinction is at least 30 percent,9
while Ray Kurzweil believes we have,
"a better than even chance of
making it through," with the caveat that he has "always been accused
of being an optimist."
9 This estimate is in Leslie's bookThe
End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction, where
he notes that the probability of extinction is substantially higher
if we accept Brandon Carter's Doomsday Argument, which is, briefly,
that "we ought to have some reluctance to believe that we are very
exceptionally early, for instance in the earliest 0.001 percent,
among all humans who will ever have lived. This would be some reason
for thinking that humankind will not survive for many more
centuries, let alone colonize the galaxy. Carter's doomsday argument
doesn't generate any risk estimates just by itself. It is an
argument forrevising the estimates which we generate when we
consider various possible dangers." (Routledge, 1996: 1, 3, 145.)
Not only are these estimates not
encouraging, but they do not include the probability of many horrid
outcomes that lie short of extinction.
Faced with such assessments, some serious people are already
suggesting that we simply move beyond Earth as quickly as possible.
We would colonize the galaxy using von Neumann probes, which hop
from star system to star system, replicating as they go.
This step will almost certainly be
necessary 5 billion years from now (or sooner if our solar system is
disastrously impacted by the impending collision of our galaxy with
the Andromeda galaxy within the next 3 billion years), but if we
take Kurzweil and Moravec at their word it might be necessary by the
middle of this century.
What are the moral implications here?
If we must move beyond Earth
this quickly in order for the species to survive, who accepts the
responsibility for the fate of those (most of us, after all) who are
And even if we scatter to the stars, isn't it likely
that we may take our problems with us or find, later, that they have
The fate of our species on Earth and our fate in the
galaxy seem inextricably linked.
Another idea is to erect a series of shields to defend against each
of the dangerous technologies. The Strategic Defense Initiative,
proposed by the Reagan administration, was an attempt to design such
a shield against the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet
But as Arthur C. Clarke, who was
privy to discussions about the project, observed:
"Though it might be possible, at
vast expense, to construct local defense systems that would
'only' let through a few percent of ballistic missiles, the much
touted idea of a national umbrella was nonsense.
perhaps the greatest experimental physicist of this century,
remarked to me that the advocates of such schemes were 'very
bright guys with no common sense.'"
"Looking into my often cloudy
crystal ball, I suspect that a total defense might indeed be
possible in a century or so. But the technology involved would
produce, as a by-product, weapons so terrible that no one would
bother with anything as primitive as ballistic missiles."
In Engines of Creation, Eric Drexler
proposed that we build an active nanotechnological shield - a form
of immune system for the biosphere - to defend against dangerous
replicators of all kinds that might escape from laboratories or
otherwise be maliciously created.
But the shield he proposed would
itself be extremely dangerous - nothing could prevent it from
developing autoimmune problems and attacking the biosphere itself.
10 Clarke, Arthur C. "Presidents,
Experts, and Asteroids." Science, June 5, 1998. Reprinted as "Science
and Society" in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! Collected Essays,
1934-1998. St. Martin's Press, 1999: 526.
11 And, as David Forrest suggests in his paper "Regulating
"If we used strict liability as an alternative to regulation it
would be impossible for any developer to internalize the cost of the
risk (destruction of the biosphere), so theoretically the activity
of developing nanotechnology should never be undertaken."
analysis leaves us with only government regulation to protect us -
not a comforting thought.
Similar difficulties apply to the construction of shields against
robotics and genetic engineering. These technologies are too
powerful to be shielded against in the time frame of interest; even
if it were possible to implement defensive shields, the side effects
of their development would be at least as dangerous as the
technologies we are trying to protect against.
These possibilities are all thus either undesirable or unachievable
or both. 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.
Yes, I know, knowledge is good, as is the search for new truths. We
have been seeking knowledge since ancient times.
his Metaphysics with the simple statement:
"All men by nature desire
We have, as a bedrock value in our
society, long agreed on the value of open access to information, and
recognize the problems that arise with attempts to restrict access
to and development of knowledge. In recent times, we have come to
revere scientific knowledge.
But despite the strong historical precedents, if open access to and
unlimited development of knowledge henceforth puts us all in clear
danger of extinction, then common sense demands that we reexamine
even these basic, long-held beliefs.
It was Nietzsche who warned us, at the end of the 19th century, not
only that God is dead but that,
"faith in science, which after all
exists undeniably, cannot owe its origin to a calculus of
utility; it must have originated in spite of the fact that the
disutility and dangerousness of the 'will to truth,' of 'truth
at any price' is proved to it constantly."
It is this further danger that we now
fully face - the consequences of our truth-seeking. The truth that
science seeks can certainly be considered a dangerous substitute for
God if it is likely to lead to our extinction.
If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we were
headed, and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous -
then we might understand what we can and should relinquish.
Otherwise, we can easily imagine an arms race developing over GNR
technologies, as it did with the NBC technologies in the 20th
This is perhaps the greatest risk, for
once such a race begins, it's very hard to end it. This time -
unlike during the Manhattan Project - we aren't in a war, facing an
implacable enemy that is threatening our civilization; we are
driven, instead, by our habits, our desires, our economic system,
and our competitive need to know.
I believe that we all wish our course could be determined by our
collective values, ethics, and morals. If we had gained more
collective wisdom over the past few thousand years, then a dialogue
to this end would be more practical, and the incredible powers we
are about to unleash would not be nearly so troubling.
One would think we might be driven to such a dialogue by our
instinct for self-preservation. Individuals clearly have this
desire, yet as a species our behavior seems to be not in our favor.
In dealing with the nuclear threat, we often spoke dishonestly to
ourselves and to each other, thereby greatly increasing the risks.
Whether this was politically motivated, or because we chose not to
think ahead, or because when faced with such grave threats we acted
irrationally out of fear, I do not know, but it does not bode well.
The new Pandora's boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics
are almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can't be
put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don't need to
be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are
out, they are out.
Churchill remarked, in a famous
left-handed compliment, that the American people and their leaders,
"invariably do the right thing, after they have examined every other
In this case, however, we must act more presciently,
as to do the right thing only at last may be to lose the chance to
do it at all.
As Thoreau said,
"We do not ride on the railroad; it
rides upon us"; and this is what we must fight, in our time.
The question is, indeed, Which is to be
master? Will we survive our technologies?
We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no
control, no brakes. Have we already gone too far down the path to
alter course? I don't believe so, but we aren't trying yet, and the
last chance to assert control - the fail-safe point - is rapidly
approaching. We have our first pet robots, as well as commercially
available genetic engineering techniques, and our nanoscale
techniques are advancing rapidly.
While the development of these
technologies proceeds through a number of steps, it isn't
necessarily the case - as happened in the Manhattan Project and the
Trinity test - that the last step in proving a technology is large
and hard. The breakthrough to wild self-replication in robotics,
genetic engineering, or nanotechnology could come suddenly,
reprising the surprise we felt when we learned of the cloning of a
And yet I believe we do have a strong and solid basis for hope.
Our attempts to deal with weapons of
mass destruction in the last century provide a shining example of
relinquishment for us to consider: the unilateral US abandonment,
without preconditions, of the development of biological weapons.
This relinquishment stemmed from the realization that while it would
take an enormous effort to create these terrible weapons, they could
from then on easily be duplicated and fall into the hands of rogue
nations or terrorist groups.
The clear conclusion was that we would create additional threats to
ourselves by pursuing these weapons, and that we would be more
secure if we did not pursue them. We have embodied our
relinquishment of biological and chemical weapons in the 1972
Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons
12 Meselson, Matthew. "The Problem of
Biological Weapons." Presentation to the 1,818th Stated Meeting of
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, January 13, 1999.
As for the continuing sizable threat from nuclear weapons, which we
have lived with now for more than 50 years, the US Senate's recent
rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty makes it clear
relinquishing nuclear weapons will not be politically easy. But we
have a unique opportunity, with the end of the Cold War, to avert a multipolar arms race.
Building on the BWC and CWC
relinquishments, successful abolition of nuclear weapons could help
us build toward a habit of relinquishing dangerous technologies.
(Actually, by getting rid of all but 100
nuclear weapons worldwide - roughly the total destructive power of
World War II and a considerably easier task - we could eliminate
this extinction threat. 13)
13 Doty, Paul. "The Forgotten Menace:
Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles Still Represent the Biggest Threat to
Civilization." Nature, 402, December 9, 1999: 583.
Verifying relinquishment will be a difficult problem, but not an
unsolvable one. We are fortunate to have already done a lot of
relevant work in the context of the BWC and other treaties. Our
major task will be to apply this to technologies that are naturally
much more commercial than military. The substantial need here is for
transparency, as difficulty of verification is directly proportional
to the difficulty of distinguishing relinquished from legitimate
I frankly believe that the situation in 1945 was simpler than the
one we now face: The nuclear technologies were reasonably separable
into commercial and military uses, and monitoring was aided by the
nature of atomic tests and the ease with which radioactivity could
Research on military applications could
be performed at national laboratories such as Los Alamos, with the
results kept secret as long as possible.
The GNR technologies do not divide clearly into commercial and
military uses; given their potential in the market, it's hard to
imagine pursuing them only in national laboratories. With their
widespread commercial pursuit, enforcing relinquishment will require
a verification regime similar to that for biological weapons, but on
an unprecedented scale. This, inevitably, will raise tensions
between our individual privacy and desire for proprietary
information, and the need for verification to protect us all.
We will undoubtedly encounter strong
resistance to this loss of privacy and freedom of action.
Verifying the relinquishment of certain GNR technologies will have
to occur in cyberspace as well as at physical facilities. The
critical issue will be to make the necessary transparency acceptable
in a world of proprietary information, presumably by providing new
forms of protection for intellectual property.
Verifying compliance will also require that scientists and engineers
adopt a strong code of ethical conduct, resembling the Hippocratic
oath, and that they have the courage to whistleblow as necessary,
even at high personal cost.
This would answer the call - 50 years
after Hiroshima - by the Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, one of the most
senior of the surviving members of the
Manhattan Project, that all
"cease and desist from work
creating, developing, improving, and manufacturing nuclear
weapons and other weapons of potential mass destruction."14
14 See also Hans Bethe's 1997 letter
to President Clinton, at www.fas.org/bethecr.htm
In the 21st century, this requires
vigilance and personal responsibility by those who would work on
both NBC and GNR technologies to avoid implementing weapons of mass
destruction and knowledge-enabled mass destruction.
Thoreau also said that we will be "rich in proportion to the number
of things which we can afford to let alone."
We each seek to be happy, but it would
seem worthwhile to question whether we need to take such a high risk
of total destruction to gain yet more knowledge and yet more things;
common sense says that there is a limit to our material needs - and
that certain knowledge is too dangerous and is best forgone.
Neither should we pursue near immortality without considering the
costs, without considering the commensurate increase in the risk of
extinction. Immortality, while perhaps the original, is certainly
not the only possible utopian dream.
I recently had the good fortune to meet the distinguished author and
scholar Jacques Attali, whose book Lignes d'horizons
(Millennium, in the English translation) helped inspire the Java and Jini approach to the coming age of pervasive computing, as
previously described in this magazine.
In his new book Fraternités,
Attali describes how our dreams of utopia have changed over time:
"At the dawn of societies, men saw
their passage on Earth as nothing more than a labyrinth of pain,
at the end of which stood a door leading, via their death, to
the company of gods and to Eternity.
With the Hebrews and then
the Greeks, some men dared free themselves from theological
demands and dream of an ideal City where Liberty would flourish.
Others, noting the evolution of the market society, understood
that the liberty of some would entail the alienation of others,
and they sought Equality."
Jacques helped me understand how these
three different utopian goals exist in tension in our society today.
He goes on to describe a fourth utopia, Fraternity, whose foundation
is altruism. Fraternity alone associates individual happiness with
the happiness of others, affording the promise of self-sustainment.
This crystallized for me my problem with Kurzweil's dream. A
technological approach to Eternity - near immortality through
robotics - may not be the most desirable utopia, and its pursuit
brings clear dangers. Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.
Where can we look for a new ethical basis to set our course?
found the ideas in the book
Ethics for the New Millennium, by the
Dalai Lama, to be very helpful. As is perhaps well known but little
heeded, the Dalai Lama argues that the most important thing is for
us to conduct our lives with love and compassion for others, and
that our societies need to develop a stronger notion of universal
responsibility and of our interdependency; he proposes a standard of
positive ethical conduct for individuals and societies that seems
consonant with Attali's Fraternity utopia.
The Dalai Lama further argues that we must understand what it is
that makes people happy, and acknowledge the strong evidence that
neither material progress nor the pursuit of the power of knowledge
is the key - that there are limits to what science and the
scientific pursuit alone can do.
Our Western notion of happiness seems to come from the Greeks, who
defined it as.
"the exercise of vital powers along
lines of excellence in a life affording them scope." 15
15 Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. W.
W. Norton & Co., 1942: 35
Clearly, we need to find meaningful
challenges and sufficient scope in our lives if we are to be happy
in whatever is to come.
But I believe we must find alternative
outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual
economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several
hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we
must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected
growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying
It is now more than a year since my first encounter with Ray Kurzweil and
John Searle. I see around me cause for hope in the
voices for caution and relinquishment and in those people I have
discovered who are as concerned as I am about our current
I feel, too, a deepened sense of
personal responsibility - not for the work I have already done, but
for the work that I might yet do, at the confluence of the sciences.
But many other people who know about the dangers still seem
strangely silent. When pressed, they trot out the "this is nothing
new" riposte - as if awareness of what could happen is response
They tell me, There are universities filled with bioethicists who study this stuff all day long.
They say, All this
has been written about before, and by experts.
They complain, Your worries and your
arguments are already old hat.
I don't know where these people hide their fear.
As an architect of
complex systems I enter this arena as a generalist. But should this
diminish my concerns? I am aware of how much has been written about,
talked about, and lectured about so authoritatively. But does this
mean it has reached people? Does this mean we can discount the
dangers before us?
Knowing is not a rationale for not acting. Can we doubt that
knowledge has become a weapon we wield against ourselves?
The experiences of the atomic scientists clearly show the need to
take personal responsibility, the danger that things will move too
fast, and the way in which a process can take on a life of its own.
We can, as they did, create insurmountable problems in almost no
time flat. We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be
similarly surprised and shocked by the consequences of our
My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of
software. Software is a tool, and as a tool-builder I must struggle
with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always
believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses,
will make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to
believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this
work. I can now imagine such a day may come.
This all leaves me not angry but at least a bit melancholic.
Henceforth, for me, progress will be somewhat bittersweet.
Do you remember the beautiful penultimate scene in Manhattan where
Woody Allen is lying on his couch and talking into a tape recorder?
He is writing a short story about people who are creating
unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them
from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the
He leads himself to the question, "Why is life worth living?" and to
consider what makes it worthwhile for him: Groucho Marx, Willie
Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's
recording of "Potato Head Blues," Swedish movies, Flaubert's
Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the apples and
pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo's, and, finally, the
showstopper: his love Tracy's face.
Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we
locate the essence of our humanity. In the end, it is because of our
great capacity for caring that I remain optimistic we will confront
the dangerous issues now before us.
My immediate hope is to participate in a much larger discussion of
the issues raised here, with people from many different backgrounds,
in settings not predisposed to fear or favor technology for its own
As a start, I have twice raised many of these issues at events
sponsored by the Aspen Institute and have separately proposed that
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences take them up as an
extension of its work with the Pugwash Conferences. (These
have been held since 1957 to discuss arms control, especially of
nuclear weapons, and to formulate workable policies.)
It's unfortunate that the Pugwash meetings started only well after
the nuclear genie was out of the bottle - roughly 15 years too late.
We are also getting a belated start on seriously addressing the
issues around 21st-century technologies - the prevention of
knowledge-enabled mass destruction - and further delay seems
So I'm still searching; there are many more things to learn. Whether
we are to succeed or fail, to survive or fall victim to these
technologies, is not yet decided. I'm up late again - it's almost 6
I'm trying to imagine some better
answers, to break the spell and free them from the stone.