Don't hide out in the lab
By Stanley H. Brown, photograph by Elaine Herchock - June 1, 2000
A group of scientists and entrepreneurs this past March established a company called Molecular Electronics Corp. It is developing molecules to function as successors to silicon chips in computers. They hope to solve the mounting crowding problems of etching circuits on silicon.
|Technologists need to prepare the world marketplace for what they're doing|
Around the same time, a federal research project reported progress on a quantum computer that, in five years, could triple the speed of today's fastest computers. Then in April came the dramatic announcement that Celera Genomics Group had all but unscrambled the human gene code.
Coincident with these developments, Bill Joy, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems Inc., was doing the talk-show circuit following publication in the April issue of Wired magazine of his 20,000-word article "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Joy sees future science-in the form of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics-as a force that will overwhelm, perhaps enslave and poison or otherwise destroy us if we don't watch out.
His sources and inspirations include respected scientists such as Raymond Kurzweil and renowned sci-fi writers including Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. I am neither, and I certainly can't make or refute forecasts for the next century. But in Joy's well-written warning, I find virtually no trace of advice on how society can protect itself from these dire consequences. It's as though he's saying we are on an irrevocable course to doom.
The U.S. saw the emasculation of its nuclear power industry largely because of mindless fear following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The present uproar over genetically modified agricultural products seems to be following a similar course. In Europe, protesters are railing against "Frankenfood." And it looks like these protestations may cripple an industry that can literally save the world from starvation.
I don't mean that we ought to ignore the legitimate or even irrational fears of scientific developments. After all, it's conceivable that we can destroy ourselves by loosing a lethal bacterium on the world. And we know we can do it with the bomb we invented more than a half century ago. But the idea that what the people at Molecular Electronics can produce-or what any other advanced R&D lab can produce for that matter-will lead to computerized robots smarter and more malevolent than we are needs a lot more explanation.
The people who brought us nuclear power plants and genetically modified food have, in their failure, taught us a valuable lesson. Technologists need to prepare the world marketplace for what they're doing. It's not enough to market a robotic bartender that can mix a million permutations of a dry martini; they need to tell us what it can and can't do and why.
The point is they can't merely develop products and processes and then start marketing them. They need to prepare us for the actual risks. That way we as human beings with something computers and robots don't have-human consciousness-can prepare for the social consequences of these developments. We can use our minds and our wills not just to sicken or enslave ourselves but to build safety nets, firewalls and antidotes.
The engineers and scientists, especially those able to write and speak as lucidly as Bill Joy, owe us an intellectual and emotional foundation for what they will deliver. That way, no one need panic or protest mindlessly against real progress.
Stanley H. Brown is a business writer and formerly an editor at BusinessWeek, Fortune and Forbes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.