One of the delights of reading ‘The Final Hour’ by Sir Martin Rees was the discovery of the article by Bill Joy: The future does not need us’ published in ‘Wired’ magazine in April 2000. I read it for the first time today.
There were so many thoughtful observations by the man who was the Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems. I will start with the footnote!
The footnote on the decision taken by New York Times and Washington Post to publish the ‘Unabomber’s manifesto’ is itself worthy of a separate case-study. Bill Joy reproduces two paragraphs from the Unabomber’s manifesto that Ray Kurzweil had reproduced in his book. They are actually very perceptive.
For me, this was one of the most important passages in the article by Bill Joy:
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.
The second paragraph from Bill Joy that I liked:
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 order. 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.
He is referring to his grandmother in that paragraph.
This is a key proposal:
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.
This is so thoughtfully funny:
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 universe.
Bill Joy also cites a wonderful paragraph from Carl Sagan’s ‘The Pale Blue dot’:
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.
Bill Joy on Sagan and humility:
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.
That is a good moment to end this blog post. Read or re-read that article again.