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Jewish World Review March 24, 2000 /17 Adar II, 5760

Tony Snow

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Potentially unlimited technology is effectively unlimited government -- BILL JOY, chief scientist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, thinks most of us are missing the Big Story, which is that we are making ourselves obsolete. Forget about Democrats and Republicans, he says. Rapidly, and in great exuberant leaps, we are handing our sovereignty to machines.

Joy offers this arresting argument in the latest issue of Wired magazine. The thesis may seem far-fetched, but it's not: Each day, astounding new developments in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics bring within reach innovations that would have astounded even the most visionary prophet just years ago.

Researchers already have begun using leech nerves to assemble "living" computers (perhaps for the IRS). We are likely within the next few decades to see the first programmable machines that use brain cells, and the first truly "lifelike" robots.

Theorists also predict the widespread use of prefab biological parts to replace our worn-out organs, so we might live hundreds of years. But Joy also worries that malevolent computer nerds will create devices that possess a) unlimited potential for destruction, b) a total absence of conscience and c) the ability to self-replicate. He writes: "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."

He frets that Satanic inventions could crowd humans out of the picture, and that we might even lose an evolutionary struggle with bio-robots. In addition, he warns that continuing innovations in biotechnology could make it possible, either through inadvertence or design, to create a microbial Frankenstein capable of endangering the entire planet.

Give Joy credit for ringing the alarm bells: The revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will force us to confront bizarre new questions. If and when someone maps out the human genome, for instance, will that person or corporation "own" the genome? What does it mean to own such a thing? When a company acquires a patent to a new form of life -- or for a perfected form of a human organ -- is that analogous to getting a patent for a new variety of petunia, or are we talking about something far more profound?

Sun's inquisitive cofounder believes we should back away from the precipice. He wants scientists to agree upon a code of ethics that forbids exploring "dangerous" ideas, and he wants the government to enforce the moratorium.

He acknowledges the social costs of such a move: "(It) 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."

In other words, his cure for potentially unlimited technology is effectively unlimited government. It may surprise Joy, but he has dusted off centuries-old reasoning. He assumes for starters that commercial avarice will drown out society's predilection toward prudent self-preservation and that we lack the spark of divinity that would distinguish us forever from automatons.

He implies that flesh and blood humans are but defective calculating devices, replaceable by more infallible computers. He therefore proposes playing G-d by urging a tiny intellectual elite to save civilization by imposing the mother of all "thou shalt nots": Thou shalt not explore taboo topics.

This makes him an heir to the Jacobins of the French Revolution who, in the name of reason, used the guillotine to terminate improper thinking. There is no way to shut off the intellectual spigot without resorting to thuggish totalitarianism.

Those who view technology as a self-driving force inevitably encourage draconian "solutions" of this sort because they believe nothing less will save civilization. Fortunately, there's good news: Machines lack that which makes us distinctive --- souls.

Any philosophy that outlaws knowledge makes ignorance the king -- and thus strengthens the despotic power of technologically proficient bad guys. At best, Joy has made a case for vigilance, but not for intellectual vigilantism.

Still, he's not overstating the nature of the looming challenge. Consider in closing a question of concern to military planners: What do we do if drug lords develop a cocaine strain capable of creating lifetime addictions with a single use? The prospect is not far-fetched, which is why wise men need to start thinking about non-despotic responses now.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate