Please read Bill Joy's "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us"

Several years ago, my cousin raved to me about a book promising that technological advances will soon create a wonderful future for humanity. I believe it was Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

I told my cousin I had read about the book but didn’t want to read it because of its unthinking optimism. I’m fervently in the Bill Joy “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” camp… and have been since long before attending a lecture at Stanford at which Bill Joy spoke about his fears that had driven him to write his (then) new essay.

I’ve often wondered why many apparently smart and informed people seem to believe — almost religiously — technological advances will make our lives wonderful. When I witness science and technology advancing exponentially — or perhaps double-exponentially — I’m both astonished and fearful.

Many tech geeks with greater intelligence than I possess are sanguine — even giddy — about tech’s likely impact on our future lives. Am I foolish to fear our nearly incomprehensibly advanced future?

I don’t think so, for four reasons:

1) No one today can possibly know how technologies will advance in the next few decades, except that they will advance incredibly rapidly and in ways we cannot imagine. We are bound to develop — perhaps unwittingly — dangerous technologies. Therefore, anyone today who expresses no such fears is deluding themself.

2) Humanity has proven throughout our history that we’re willing to use any available technology as a battlefield weapon to kill other humans. America itself has dropped nuclear bombs on defenseless cities and, just this decade, tortured people. The lethality of our weapons keeps growing exponentially. We already possess multiple categories of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). And the risk of nuclear or biological disaster keeps rising as we build more nuclear plants and more nations become capable of building nuclear weapons and as the technologies for building biological weapons keep becoming cheaper, more available, more effective, and more miniaturized.

3) Many of tomorrow’s technologies — like computers that re-design themselves faster than humans can; robot factories built by robots; genetically engineered biological weapons; nanotechnologies, etc. — are self-replicating. If released (even by accident) or unleashed (in the case of, say, robot armies), they could potentially kill billions and destroy human society. Technologies like the automobile or the iPod aren’t particularly dangerous or capable of self-replication.

4) Humanity’s ability to predict the future is horrible. Consider this new CNN article titled Why our ‘amazing’ science fiction future fizzled:

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, people stood in line for hours to… see the “Futurama,” a miniaturized replica of a typical 21st century American city that featured moving sidewalks, computer-guided cars zipping along congestion-free highways and resort hotels beneath the sea.

Even when technology advanced, relative to today, glacially (a metaphor in need of revision, given global warming’s acceleration), we totally missed the negative dimensions of many dreamy new technologies:

Joseph Corn, co-author of “Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future,” found an inflated optimism about technology’s impact on the future as far back as the 19th century, when writers like Jules Verne (“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”) were creating wondrous versions of the future.

Even then, people had a misplaced faith in the power of inventions to make life easier, Corn says.

For example, the typical 19th-century American city was crowded and smelly. The problem was horses. They created traffic jams, filled the streets with their droppings and, when they died, their carcasses.

But around the turn of the 20th century, Americans were predicting that another miraculous invention would deliver them from the burden of the horse and hurried urban life — the automobile, Corn says.

The car certainly seemed an improvement over the horse-and-buggy, but humanity completely failed to predict that our new car culture might help push us to the brink of global catastrophe. And we totally failed to anticipate car-induced problems like traffic jams and the many negative impacts of urban sprawl.

Heck, even cigarettes were long considered healthy:

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published its first cigarette advertisement in 1933, stating that it had done so only “after careful consideration of the extent to which cigarettes were used by physicians in practice.” These advertisements continued for 20 years. The same year, Chesterfield began running ads in the New York State Journal of Medicine, with the claim that its cigarettes were “Just as pure as the water you drink… and practically untouched by human hands.”

In medical journals and in the popular media, one of the most infamous cigarette advertising slogans was associated with the Camel brand: “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” The campaign began in 1946 and ran for eight years in magazines and on the radio. The ads included this message:

“Family physicians, surgeons, diagnosticians, nose and throat specialists, doctors in every branch of medicine… a total of 113,597 doctors… were asked the question: ‘What cigarette do you smoke?’ And more of them named Camel as their smoke than any other cigarette! Three independent research groups found this to be a fact. You see, doctors too smoke for pleasure. That full Camel flavor is just as appealing to a doctor’s taste as to yours… that marvelous Camel mildness means just as much to his throat as to yours.”

That even doctors long helped market cigarettes tells you all you need to know about the likelihood we’re overly optimistic about 21st Century technological change.

Everyone should read Bill Joy’s old article.

Posted by James on Sunday, May 31, 2009