TCS Daily


Bill Joy's Dangerous Pessimism

By James K. Glassman - March 20, 2000 12:00 AM

In any period of rapid technological change, there are numbskulls who forecast imminent doom. But they usually don't know anything about the technologies they're critiquing. That's why it's so surprising and discouraging to see Bill Joy, co-founder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, writing in Wired magazine that new technologies threaten enormous harm to mankind.

The Joy article will almost certainly be used as ammunition by Luddites and other "enemies of the future" (in Virginia Postrel's felicitous phrase) to try to bring government to bear to stop development in biotechnology and computer science. Already, the New York Times has ballyhooed it in a lengthy article.

In the Wired piece, Joy surveys the future of computing and doesn't like what he sees. "By 2030," he writes, "we are likely to be able to build machines, in quantity, a million times as powerful as the personal computers of today...As this enormous computing power is combined with the manipulative advances of the physical sciences and the new, deep understandings in genetics, enormous transformative power is being unleashed. These combinations open up the opportunity to completely redesign the world, for better or worse: The replicating and evolving processes that have been confined to the natural world are about to become realms of human endeavor."

The result, believes Joy, could be intelligent machines that compete with mankind, have the ability to replicate themselves and ultimately defeat us in a Darwinian struggle. Joy also fears that biotechnology could lead to self-replicating synthetic plagues, designed by evil humans, or perhaps evolving on their own and "out-competing" natural plants and bacteria in an evolutionary struggle.

Writes Joy: "In designing software and microprocessors, I have never had the feeling that I was designing an intelligent machine. The software and hardware is so fragile and the capabilities of the machine to 'think' so clearly absent that, even as a possibility, this has always seemed very far in the future. But now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable."

The problem may be that Joy knows just about everything there is to know about computing, but would benefit from a little more knowledge of history. Also, he relies on enviro-activist Amory Lovins for information on ecology - a huge mistake. Lovins' movement is synonymous with failed predictions of disaster.

Joy should take comfort in the history of scientific progress. For the last 1,000 years of history, technological advance has led to a constant increase in wealth, health and longevity. And the 20th century, bloody and frightening as it was with devastating new tools of warfare, actually saw the greatest improvements in the human condition -- thanks to rapid technological advance. From the discovery of DNA to the invention of the integrated circuit to the peaceful use of nuclear power, the last century was truly the tech century, and I'm glad we appear headed for another one.

A look back tells us just how far we've come. According to Stephen Moore and the late Julian Simon of the Cato Institute, "There has been more material progress in the United States in the 20th century than there was in the entire world in all the previous centuries combined."

One thousand years ago, the average person in the world had a life expectancy of just 22 years. One hundred years ago, the life expectancy of an American child had only increased to 47 years. So it took 900 years of history to increase life expectancy by just 25 years.

In the 100 years since then, with a tech boom in medicine, computing, telecommunications and countless other fields, we've increased life expectancy even more -- by a full 30 years. An American baby born today is expected to reach the age of 77. In the 20th century, the US infant mortality rate dropped by more than 90%. The rate of mothers dying during childbirth fell by 99%.

You can thank modern vaccines and antibiotics for much of the improvement, and the freedom that allowed inventors to create them. Yes, science gave us the atom bomb in the 20th century and its threat of deaths on a massive scale, but science also saved millions of lives.

At the turn of the century, for every 100,000 people in the United States, 700 died of infectious diseases. Today the figure is 50. Innovations in the treatment of trauma victims and safer workplaces caused other improvements. In the last 100 years, the death rate from accidents has fallen by more than 60%.

The economic news tells the same story. Since 1900, the poverty rate has fallen by more than half. Real wages have increased almost 300%. Has the growth in prosperity been uneven? Income for African-Americans increased more than 1,000% in the 20th century.

There's more good news. The value of household assets has increased almost 600%. Home ownership is way up, food prices are way down in real terms, and more than 90% of US households own an automobile. And I probably don't need to remind Bill Joy that his Sun shares appreciated more than 200% last year. How can he possibly be a pessimist? Quite simply, we're the most fortunate people who have ever lived - and it's no coincidence that we're also the most technologically advanced.

In his piece, Joy sounds much like George Soros, who has made billions of dollars off the market system but then turned (just as stocks and the blessings of technology were soaring) to attacking it. It's a shame. The truth is that we can't tell for sure what the future holds, but the lessons of the past are clear enough: technological (and financial) progress can cause pain, but the good far outweighs the bad.
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