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Bill Joy on Varmus and Emerging 21st Century Technologies

Next Wave asked Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and author of Wired's April cover story, " Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," what he thought of Varmus's answer to our question about ethical responsibilities. Joy responded in an e-mail:

"I think Varmus does not understand the full scope of the danger, which comes from the confluence of incredibly powerful computational tools (i.e., 1,000,000-fold faster computers within the next 30 years), and the Internet.

"We see with the "ILOVEYOU" virus the nature of the threat. Imagine what will happen if we make creating physical world viruses as easy as creating this virtual world one! The scenario then, as I described in the Wired article, is truly grim. We must not let this happen!"

Efforts to defend against emerging 21st century weapons will, by definition, lag behind the offensive initiative, Joy argued in a 5 May public lecture held at the National Science Foundation. In a monotone that seemed to have trouble keeping up with the pace of his thoughts, Joy laid out a cautionary tale of futuristic technologies emerging at the interface of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics that threaten our very existence. Joy warned that research into defense mechanisms in a new kind of "arms race" would inevitably provoke further evolution of the new technologies. Defensive research strategies don't work.

But there is a still more fundamental problem: As with the latest computer virus, these 21st century technologies will be able to self-replicate. "A bomb is blown up only once--but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control," Joy wrote in Wired. These technologies can replicate and take over, with or without our consent. "Will we survive our technologies?" Joy wonders.