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Sun Microsystems Chief Scientist Bill Joy, who designed Berkeley UNIX and the Java programming language, now says he is taking on a much more difficult project--saving humans from extinction.
In a speech yesterday at the Arco Forum titled, "The Internet, Genetic Engineering and Robotics: Are Humans an Endangered Species?" Joy warned that unchecked technological advancement may bring with it unprecedented disasters.
"Soon, we may see knowledge-based weapons of mass destruction, more dangerous than any weapons of mass destruction we have ever seen before," Joy warned.
Throughout his speech, he quoted thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Aristotle to science fictions writers such as Isaac Asimov. Joy silenced the audience with graphic accounts of historic plagues and offered controversial ideas about the need to regulate technology.
Much of Joy's argument was based on Moore's Law, which holds that technological capabilities double every 18 months.
He said that although processing speed in solid state computers has been predicted to hit a ceiling soon, recent developments suggest the curve will continue until at least 2030. By then, he claimed, computers will be a million times as fast as they are now.
"We really can't imagine the effects of being able to do things a million times as fast," Joy said.
Joy stopped short of proposing a governing body overseeing technology and the propagation of ideas, but he urged greater discussion of scientific advancement's ethical and social ramifications. In the future, he said, clearer laws on the subject may be needed.
"When computer code becomes a weapon, when everything becomes immaterial, we will have to make a distinction more precisely between speech, for example, and a weapon," he said. "We may have to amend the Constitution."
Joy said that the most immediate threat produced by scientific advancement would be genetically engineered pathogens.
"It could be possible to scan through the human immune system looking for holes and make the perfect pathogen," he said.
He also identified organic pathogens enhanced by nanotechology and intelligent robots as potential threats.
Joy also claimed that knowledge itself might eventually be used as a destructive weapon, though he gave no specific description of how such a weapon would work.
Now that technological advancement is driven primarily by private industry rather than government, and information is more widely accessible than ever before through the Internet, improving technology may make weapons of mass destruction available to more than just powerful nations, Joy said.
"Soon, someone may be able to distribute a self-propagating bomb as easily as someone distributed the 'I Love You' virus yesterday," Joy said, referring to the destructive virus that affected computers worldwide.
Joy's controversial theories have made waves throughout the technology world, especially since his article on the topic in the current issue of Wired magazine.
Some members of the audience praised Joy for questioning the assumptions upon which businesses operate.
"Unrestrained, unplanned growth is the core religious belief of capitalism," said Zack Exley, creator of the political satire website GWBush.com. "Bill Joy is a heretic for speaking out against that, and that is very courageous."
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