Tidings of Joy (NOT)

First published on Woudhuysen.com, Winter 2000
Associated Categories Featured,IT Tags:
Theodore Kaczynski, Unabomber, and Bill Joy

Today’s excellent Netflix drama series Manhunt: Unabomber highlights the issues in this article from 2000.

Manhunt: Unabomber skilfully shows how much support for his anti-industrialisation views the original mad, bad Unabomber (pictured above left) enjoyed. When the Washington Post published his manifesto in September 1995, many agreed with it. Likewise when Bill Joy (pictured above right), a founder of Sun Microsystems and its chief scientist, published a doom-mongering attack on IT in the year 2000, complete with a friendly reference to the Unabomber, many agreed with that, too.

Since Joy’s outburst, his views have become completely mainstream. From Elon Musk to Stephen Hawking, everyone warns of an IT Apocalypse. Now read on…

Sun Microsystems founder and chief scientist Bill Joy has rattled enthusiasts for IT around the world. In an article titled ‘Why the future doesn’t need us’ (Wired, April 2000) Joy argued that genetics, nanotechnology and robotics – ‘GNR’ – could conspire together to rid the planet of mankind. It was, he felt, ‘greatly arrogant for us, now, to be designing a robotic ‘replacement species’.

Should manufacturers and designers be bothered by what Joy wrote? They should; but danger lies more in Joy’s thesis than in the technologies he attacks.

America’s Howard Gardner, arguably the world’s most eminent educationalist, spoke for many when he later described Joy’s piece as ‘courageous’ (Worldlink, May/June 2000).  In one sense, he was right. Until Joy, not even the most dystopian science fiction novelist ever drew a link between

  • The self-replicating properties of genetics, and
  • The possibility of mankind designing robots which are both intelligent and microscopic, too.

Fears about biological experiments gone wrong have been around since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Biology is mixed with industrial processes and the resulting worker androids turn against their manufacturer in Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (performed in London in 1923). Joy, however, has made an important innovation. He connects our heightened sense of viruses with what he calls the ‘prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years’.

It’s the film Fantastic Voyage (1966) all over again – but instead of a tiny, benevolent Raquel Welch in the human bloodstream, we get a self-reproducing race of molecular Josef Mengeles.

Now: we can certainly expect miniaturisation and IT to be joined with human biology – both natural and artificial – in becoming more prominent in the industrial designs of the next 30 years. What already begins as a chip in the forearm of Reading university’s Kevin Warwick, or as ink that, courtesy of California’s DNA Technologies, Inc, can be scanned to see whether its composition matches the DNA of the writer, could, in principle, end up being incorporated in all kinds of products. Prosthetics and bionics are one logical end-point of the trend toward portability in mobile IT; on the other hand, genetics could figure in products that remain external to the user. I would guess that, in today’s fearful times, products that add, or appear to add, to the human being’s health and security will provide us with the first genuine mass applications of wearable media.

Second: Joy’s prestigious place in the world of IT makes his manifesto for avoiding catastrophe a very striking one. For Joy, the only realistic alternative to human extinction through GNR ‘…is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.’ When the co-designer of the SPARC chip calls for limits on the development of IT, manufacturers and designers need to sit up.

Inside Joy’s labyrinth

Invoking his grandmother, a nurse, and her hostility to antibiotics, Joy calls for respect for the order of life. He says that human designers of systems, with their ‘early-21st-century chutzpah’, should learn ‘a necessary humility’  before this order. Indeed humility is the virtue ascribed to Joy himself by Howard Gardner, who describes it as ‘that rarest of qualities in a creator’.

In fact of course, many public figures today, and not just superstar designers, like both to exude and to call for humility before nature. But when we look at the galaxy of names dropped by Bill Joy, we find that our chief scientist is not so humble after all. He flaunts Elysian intimates: rightwing economist George Gilder, inventor and writer Raymond (The age of spiritual machines) Kurzweil, Berkeley philosopher John Searle, ecologist Amory Lovins, futurist Danny Hillis of the Long Now Foundation, complexity theorists Stuart Kaufman and Murray Gell-Mann, other greats in chaos theory and molecular science.

All of these authorities Joy invokes in support of his thesis. But he does something more remarkable as well. His article opens with a long quotation from the manifesto of Theodore Kaczynski… the Unabomber. And, despite Joy’s disgust for the Unabomber’s murderous tactics, Joy sees ‘some merit’ in Kaczynski’s theory. He agrees with TK that, in a workless world, where robots can do all things better than humans, society ‘might drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions’.

So far, so Terminator 2. But now Joy warms to his central argument. In the past, he says, governments sponsored nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction – NBC WMD. These weapons were largely based on rare raw materials, protected information and large-scale efforts in R&D and manufacture.

Today, by contrast, Joy believes that we have new WMD. The technologies are different: genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. But there are also other twists. GNR

  • Is a corporate, commercial affair, not a government one
  • Requires only knowledge, not rare raw materials or large-scale facilities
  • Is, because of self-replication, even more catastrophic than NBC: ‘a bomb is blown up only once – but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control’.

Above all, GNR – the ‘perfection of extreme evil’ – is bequeathed not just to nation-states, but represents ‘a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.’

Once more, it seems, we are in Mengele territory.

A flawed philosophy of design

In one sense the terrible results of GNR are, says Joy, nothing special. Unintended consequences are ‘a well-known problem with the design and use of technology’. Yet if the problem is well-known, mankind still needs to be humble:  ‘We tend to overestimate our design abilities’.

I completely disagree. From the bridge to Tate Modern to the Concorde disaster, media commentary and public feeling distrusts designers in the same measure as it lionises them. On the other hand, my experience in the design world is that, whatever our own balance of humility and chutzpah, the amount of difference design could make to an economy airline seat, a kitchen bin, a burglar alarm or a life-jacket is, if anything, underestimated.

What Joy himself underestimates is the amount of labour time, and therefore cost, that goes into not just science and design, but development and production. Like our Italian postmodern design critics, he believes that anything that is possible will become actual: once – by 2030 – an intelligent robot exists, ‘it is only a small step to a robot species’. Quoting nanotechnologist Eric Drexler, whose 1980s classic Engines of creation was the first to compare uncontrolled, self-replicating nanotechnology ‘assemblers’ with bacteria and viruses, he contends that such intelligent, molecular-level assemblers could make ‘any product… at a cost no greater than that of wood’. The breakthrough that will enable them is that branch of nanotechnology that goes under the name molecular electronics, in which individual molecules go to make up the elements in an electronic circuit. Molecular electronics, Joy, says should ‘mature quickly and become enormously lucrative within this decade’.

Altogether, Joy echoes the popular if unconscious prejudice of technological determinism. Aided only by ‘extreme individuals’, technology begets technology. Human actions, human design and indeed the whole role of conscious human agency based on mankind’s accumulated historical experience – this is effaced. Indeed, Joy confirms this in his lengthy account of his early years. As a lad, he found the idea that machines could give the ‘correct’ answers ‘very seductive’. Comparing himself – in all humility – to Michelangelo, statues and marble, he says that he used to feel, in his ‘most ecstatic’ moments, that the software he was creating ‘was already there in the machine, waiting to be released’.

By some strange process, technology builds its own dynamic. Thus Joy warns that GNR could follow the automatism that he believes defined the Manhattan Project. In Joy’s account, the momentum to visit not one, but two atomic bombs on Japan simply ‘built up’. Quoting the eminent nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson, he concludes about the Bomb: ‘The reason it was dropped was just that nobody had the courage or the foresight to say no’.

So: scientists, technologists and, we may surmise, designers are like boys with toys. Like fools, they rush in, without thinking, to strike a Faustian bargain with technology; one that threatens to ‘destroy the biosphere’. But Joy is on hand – a lone, ethical voice with the courage and the foresight to say no.

Where Joy comes from and is going to

Are we really sleepwalking, like Germany in the early 1930s, toward totalitarian rule – not toward fascism, but to a position of dangerous dependence on machines in general and on potentially fascist killer bots in particular? Are such bots likely to be unleashed by unscrupulous individuals in search of tremendous profits? Will molecular electronics (2010), followed by an intelligent robot (2030) and then self-replicating nano-assemblers, allow us to make anything nearly for free? And, in the face of the momentum built up by technology that could extinguish us, should we not be cautious and limit research and knowledge acquisition in GNR?

At one level it is easy to see where Joy’s concern comes from. As he attests, genetically modified food has caught the imagination. A glance at Amazon’s site reveals no fewer than 111 books published on nanotechnogy. US roboticist Helen Greiner, a critic of Joy, herself believes that intelligent, useful robots for home use are on their way in the next five years; and James Dyson’s work with human-free floorcare products is a step in the same direction.

So GNR technologies do seem to be developing in a way vivid enough to inspire Joy. Nevertheless, his thesis will not stand up.

It is not that we are unconsciously drifting to robot domination: the whole of mankind’s development since ancient times has been the story of increasing dependence on machines – and a good thing too. Of course, each new design throws up unexpected problems; but in an earlier age, that was what progess was thought to be all about. No doubt multinationals want to sell GM crops to developing countries to boost their own profits, not to boost the lifespan of people in the developing countries. But that, and the problems GM may bring, should not make designers join Joy in banning experiments in genetics. Without experiment, there will be no forward movement in design.

GM food has been eaten by millions and has killed nobody. Recall, too, that in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, unscrupulous Russian physicists, complete with highly individual ‘nuclear suitcases’, were meant to destroy us all in their search for willing buyers.  Again, fears of Western humanity being ‘crowded out’ by self-replicating (and often small!) black and yellow people have come to nothing. In sum, Joy’s apocalypse tells us more about the psychology of our times today than it does about the real future tomorrow.

Nanotechnology is fascinating. But so far, despite all the laboratory experiments with tiny cars and mechanised insects, few applications seem to be on the horizon. Molecular electronics is also a field which manufacturers and designers would do well to track closely. But if we do that, we find that the current round of construction of chip-building factories will cost hundreds of billions of dollars of investment – and that’s without getting down to the molecular level.

As it happens, mankind has long arranged for machines to build machines. But the investment is an enormous one, and each round of investment tends to be more expensive than the last. That’s if there is any investment in the first place – and a glance at the UK and US economies of the past decades shows that the rate of investment has been falling, even if a greater percentage of a diminishing outlay has gone on… IT.

Altogether, paying for the kind of mechanisation that could bring about manufacture of everything for nothing looks more elusive than ever.

Finally: even if it were possible to rid the world of work of humans, that would not make things much cheaper, for labour costs are already a smaller and smaller part of overall factory costs today. But the question Joy begs is whether computer-based, robotic intelligence is really achievable in the first place. To call the toys of 2005 ‘intelligent’ by contrast with the toys of 2000, as Helen Greiner does, is a mistake.

Joy diminishes human intelligence in the same measure as he begs for more humility, on the part of designers, in the face of nature. It is true that his calls for limits on human knowledge will disgrace this generation in the eyes of future ones, and especially in the Third World. But right now, today, they impede the work of designers. Why? Because they represent a summons to ignorance: not science, but fiction; not experiment, but restraint.

Humanity is reduced to the unfortunate role of ‘users’, or rather voracious desecrators, of what ought to be a more natural world. Design gets a bad rap.

You have been warned. The tidings of Joy are full of bad news for designers.

By opposing, we may seek to end them. The stakes are high. But it is also about time that we regulate the regulators.

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