First published in The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper, Thursday, March 16, 2000.
A translation of this article into Romanian is available here.
Those who pooh-pooh William Shatner's acting should see his
soliloquy from the Star Trek episode "Return to Tomorrow."
Aliens offer the crew of the Enterprise fantastic advances
in technology in exchange for letting them inhabit the bodies of
three crew members for a few days.
Dr. McCoy, the Luddite, points out the downsides, but Captain
Kirk wins him over with his eloquence: "Risk is our business,"
he says after enumerating advances science has already made by
throwing caution to the wind. "That's what this starship is all
about; that's why we're aboard her."
Shatner is so terrific, actually, that one forgets that the
owners of the three borrowed bodies almost end up killed, one of
the aliens commits murder, two die by suicide, and no scientific
wonders are ever bestowed.
Despite this, we're left thinking that Kirk was nonetheless right
to push for the advancement of science, the risks be damned.
Anything less would be a betrayal of the human spirit.
These days, we don't have to look to aliens to provide
technologies indistinguishable from magic. Such powers are now
within our own grasp, apples of new knowledge seemingly ripe for
the plucking. But was Kirk right? Is taking risks for the mere
possibility of advancement worth it?
Bill Joy confesses to have grown up watching Captain Kirk and
reading science fiction. And, like many who did so, Joy has gone
on to a technological career. He is chief scientist at Sun
Microsystems, a giant Silicon Valley firm.
This week, in Wired magazine, he published an 11,000-word
"Why the Future Doesn't Need Us"
that, distilled to its essence, repeats the mantra of much 1950s science
fiction: "There are some things Man was not meant to know."
Joy is worried about three nascent technologies: artificial
intelligence (AI), genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. Is
he right to be afraid of them? And, even if he is, is there
anything we can do to reduce the risks?
His concern about AI is simple: if we make machines that are
more intelligent than we are, why on earth would they want to be
In this, I believe he is absolutely right: thinking computers
pose a real threat to the continued survival of our species.
Many AI experts including Hans Moravec, founder of the world's
largest robotics lab, at Carnegie Mellon University believe
that humanity's job is to manufacture its own successors.
Sure, Moravec says, we may shed a tear for some ineffable
biological qualities that might be lost, but in the end Homo
sapiens will be supplanted by machines. Since that's
inevitable, he feels, we might as well go along doing the
research that will lead to this.
Joy says no: we can, and perhaps should, put on the brakes. I
Intelligence is an emergent property of complex systems; it
arises spontaneously if conditions are right. Anatomically
modern humans first appeared 100,000 years ago, but they were
unencumbered by art, culture, religion, or abstract thought for
Then, with no apparent physical change in their brains, consciousness
emerged. Suddenly, these same people were painting caves,
developing religious rituals, and more.
The emergence of computer-based consciousness may happen the same
way: arising spontaneously out of something complex we built,
perhaps for another purpose (World Wide Web, anyone?).
It's not a new idea; Arthur C. Clarke first put it forward almost
forty years ago in his story "Dial F for Frankenstein."
Other science-fiction authors have sounded this warning bell.
William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer features an
organization called Turing whose job is to prevent the emergence
of AI. And in my own 1998
Factoring Humanity, a thinking
computer created at the University of Toronto commits suicide
rather than risk turning against its human father.
I'm less concerned, though, about Joy's other two bugbears:
genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Both, really, are forms
of manipulation at the submolecular level: genetic engineering
rearranges the atoms in a string of DNA so that a modified
lifeform is produced.
And nanotechnology simply takes that a step further, proposing
that we soon will be able to tear down and rebuild any molecules
we want, turning, for instance, a pile of bricks into a mound of
gold, or a giant three-cheese lasagna, or anything else.
Joy's fear is that genetic engineering will be used to create
diseases that target specific ethnicities. An Arab and an
Israeli don't just differ politically; they differ genetically,
too, and Joy fears it will soon be easy enough to produce a virus
that will wipe out only one or the other.
Possible? Yes. But, then, so is a plague that affects only
those humans with genes for antisocial behavior (first-order
sorting: check for a Y chromosome); you can bet some self-styled
Good Samaritan will release something like this, as well.
But, despite such scenarios, I find it unconscionable to tell a
boy with leukemia or a woman with diabetes that we're not going
to do any more genetic research. The cures for diseases
including the one known as aging that gets us all if nothing else
does will come only from manipulating DNA.
Joy also thinks we should have a moratorium on nanotechnology,
since a nanotech machine can produce anything including copies
of itself from whatever raw materials are at hand.
He writes, "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." Indeed, if just one little
self-replicating doodad that turns water into wine escapes, we
might see it and its spawn destroy our ecosystem, and us along
But nanotechnology will also allow us to provide for all the
material needs of the entire human race: as much clear air,
water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and entertainment as
anyone could ever want.
It will be impossible to keep this technology from the masses:
just one microscopic machine that can convert raw materials into
other forms is all that has to be smuggled out of the lab.
Soon, everyone will have a replicator, and the economic reasons
for war, oppression, and figurative and literal slavery will
disappear. Supply will always equal demand in everything from
basic essentials to elaborate equipment, costs will be zero, and
poverty will vanish.
Captain Kirk said, "Risk is our business." I don't think so; I
think improving the human condition is our business. Other minds
silicon consciousnesses won't share that mission statement,
and are rightly to be avoided. But genetic engineering and
nanotechnology will allow us to so vastly improve humanity's lot
that we'd be fools to turn our backs on them despite the
Robert J. Sawyer's
latest science-fiction novel is
Calculating God. He frequently
appears on Discovery Channel Canada talking about the future.