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do we have a future?


the current coverstory in ' Wired' magazine blew my mind yesterday.

Bill Joy is the author, and he is Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems. This guy knows what he's talking about. And he's not a Luddite (someone categorically against technology, like Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber).

the 20th century brought us weapons of mass destruction (WMD), notably nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons.

the 21st century brings us WMD of even greater potential power that will be nearly impossible to regulate: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR), what the author calls knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD). we see these developing in their most basic form as computer viruses, protean 'robots' which may be defined as the only form of 'life' which humans have created.

consider: given only current developments in molecular electronics (not to mind unforeseen developments like biological computing) we will likely have human-level computing power in 30 years - computers with the computational capacity of a human brain. that means we could have artificial intelligence. some people are speculating that with that kind of power we could upload human consciousness into machines. insert your favorite apocalyptic science fiction nightmare here - 'Blade Runner', 'Terminator', 'The Matrix', William Gibson's Cyberspace trilogy, etc.

and that's just in the robotics category of GNR. genetic and nanotechnological 'developments' could easily destroy life on earth as we know it, intentionally or accidentally (c.f. 'The White Plague' by Frank Herbert. 'The Rock' is a movie about biological weapons in the wrong hands.).

After a significant examination of the problem, Joy concludes that 'the only realistic [way to protect ourselves from extinction at the hands of these technologies] I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.' This is coming from someone who makes a living in technology. The following quotes sum up Joy's position in the rest of the article:


'As Thoreau said, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us"; and this is what we must fight, in our time. The question is, indeed, Which is to be master? Will we survive our technologies?'

'I frankly believe that the situation in 1945 was simpler than the one we now face: The nuclear technologies were reasonably separable into commercial and military uses, and monitoring was aided by the nature of atomic tests and the ease with which radioactivity could be measured.'

'enforcing relinquishment will require a verification regime similar to that for biological weapons, but on an unprecedented scale.'

'Verifying compliance will also require that scientists and engineers adopt a strong code of ethical conduct, resembling the Hippocratic oath, and that they have the courage to whistleblow as necessary, even at high personal cost. This would answer the call - 50 years after Hiroshima - by the Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, one of the most senior of the surviving members of the Manhattan Project, that all scientists "cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving, and manufacturing nuclear weapons and other weapons of potential mass destruction."'

'Thoreau also said that we will be "rich in proportion to the number of things which we can afford to let alone."'

Bill Joy is not a Luddite. neither am i. if you know me, you know that i love and embrace technology. but this article has put the fear in me. humanity's track record on responsible use of technology and power is very poor. we aren't out of the woods on nuclear annihilation yet. with the breakdown of the Soviet empire and the new membership in the Nuclear Club of India and Pakistan, the possibility of nuclear terrorism is at an all time high (the theme of the recent movies 'The Peacemaker' and the James Bond movie 'The World is Not Enough'). and these new technologies will pose even greater threats to human survival.

where is God in all of this? we must ask ourselves this question when, like i do, we come from a faith perspective.

briefly, i believe that God is in control of history. however, there is also, undeniably, human agency. God has charged us to steward creation. our actions matter. we should beg off responsibility.

I believe that Jesus has already ushered in the Kingdom of God, but that it is not yet manifest in its completeness (this is called 'inaugurated eschatology' in theological jargon).

the most important role i see for Christians as these issues develop is participating in the development of ethics related to these technologies. we would be wise to monitor developments in these quarters very carefully and, if Bill Joy is right, to get on board with others like him who advocate strict regulation and a degree of relinquishment. we can serve the church and the world by being active in regard to these issues.

the answer to the question in my subject field is: yes, of course we have a future because God is in control. but what is that future? and what is our role as stewards? how does God want us to be involved? and how can we be proactive now to be ready to engage the development of these technologies, which will certainly emerge in the next 30 years, and most likely sooner than later?


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