Nanotechnology

Will Human Beings be Squeezed Out of Existence?

 

Be Afraid
by Jack Beatty

Source: The Atlantic Monthly Group
All material copyright 2000 All rights reserved.

April 6, 2000

If the digital revolution is soon to produce what Bill Joy -- one of the world's leading technologists -- fears is a dystopian nightmare, the only hope for humanity may be the end of capitalism as we know it. Try selling that in an election year

"This is the first moment in the history of our planet when any species, by its own involuntary actions, has become a danger to itself -- as well as to vast numbers of others."
--Carl Sagan

In the projectable future robots will replace "biological humans" as economic actors. Unable to compete in the marketplace with their super-intelligent creations, human beings won't be able to afford what they need to live and will "be squeezed out of existence." That is the dystopian vision of robotics. The utopian vision is that humans will attain immortality by "downloading" themselves into the undying electronic being of robots.

Genetic engineering will give evil new life, putting the power to loose new plagues on humanity into the hands of terrorists, madmen, and despots. Genetic engineering will soon allow our descendants to end hunger, to create myriad new species with myriad scientific and economic possibilities, to increase our life-span, and to improve our quality of life in dimensions beyond our present means to calculate (in the future we can all be blondes!).

Nanotechnology -- manufacturing at a molecular level -- will create plants that will "outcompete real plants," surrounding us with an inedible jungle and spawning "omnivorous bacteria" that, wind borne, will spread a self-replicating pollen that "could reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days." Nanotechnology promises to achieve huge results through the manipulation of the infinitesimal. Molecular-level "assemblers" engineered by nanotechnology will allow a grateful humanity to cure cancer, to abandon the use of fossil fuels before they render the planet uninhabitable (replacing them with cost-effective, environmentally salubrious solar power), and to compact all knowledge into a wristwatch.

These clashing vistas of the possible are taken from a horizon-widening 20,000 word article in the April issue of Wired by Bill Joy, the "Chief Scientist" and cofounder of Sun Microsystems. The Chief Scientist is afraid of science. The twenty-first-century technologies of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) could give us "knowledge-enabled mass destruction" to supplement existing arsenals of twentieth-century triumphs of mass destruction like nuclear bombs and germ warfare. Not since Jonathan Schell's 1982 vision of nuclear devastation, The Fate of the Earth, has one seen a preview of apocalypse to compare with this passage:

I think it is no exaggeration to say that 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. Humankind's only method of escape from a future so terrible as to drive us off the planet is "relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge" -- a dread step contemplated by scientists Joy respects.

Relinquishment will require a degree of monitoring and verification that only a government with near-dictatorial powers could enforce -- and remember, this is the good news. Government has no monopoly on GNR technologies, as it does on NBC -- nuclear, biological, and chemical -- weapons of mass destruction. The GNR revolution is being led by the private sector, meaning that, to achieve relinquishment, private businesses will have to significantly evolve into semi-public entities under the total scrutiny of thought-police. This is incompatible with capitalism as we know it. In history's bitterest irony, the "knowledge economy" will be the end of Western man's Faustian drive to know at any cost.

To ponder questions of this heft in an election year, when no candidate in his right mind will ask any member of the electorate to sacrifice anything, is to despair of democracy. If two dollars a gallon for gasoline has the voters in an uproar, imagine their reaction to Joy's thought police! Politics is more and more about disguising problems than about bringing important issues to the fore. The politics of candor can't seem to get traction against the politics of escape. Increasingly, candidates who identify problems so as to make issues of them -- Bill Bradley making universal health insurance the justification of his candidacy; John McCain running against systemic corruption -- get penalized for ruffling the national complacency. Politics needs to be made safe for bad news before issues like global warming, much less the relinquishment of dangerous technology, can get a serious hearing.

Joy thinks our "great capacity of caring" for the things we love about existence will somehow see us through the end of capitalism and of knowledge as we know it, but this closing flourish of optimism is at dramatic variance with the inventory of horribles he parades in an article comfortlessly titled, "Why the future doesn't need us."

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

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