Prophet? Or Killjoy?

In the current issue of Wired, Sun Chief Scientist Bill Joy issues a warning.

Our newest technologies robotics and nanotechnology and genetics put the power to destroy the world in the hands of a small number of scientists, he writes, most of whom work for private companies interested more in profit than ethics.

Joy is no crank. He co-founded Sun with Scott McNealy. He’s a voracious reader with a 15-book-per-day habit. He got out of Silicon Valley way back in 1991 (for Aspen) and the man he succeeded as chief scientist, current Novell Corp. Chairman Eric Schmidt, wasn’t exactly chopped-liver, either. When it comes to the technology he knows best, computing, he’s a giddy optimist.

In some ways the situation may be worse than Joy imagines. I brought up the subject of ethics and nanotechnology when Malcolm Gillis, the president of my alma mater, Rice, came through Atlanta recently. He dismissed my worries out of hand, and gave every evidence he thought the whole question absurd. Yet it’s academics like Malcolm Gillis whom Joy sees as the chief brakes on the danger.

The fact is that we’re going into a future we’re only dimly aware of. While the visions of previous generations were flawed even Alan Steele’s Near-Space Stories now seem wildly optimistic some writers were also great seers. While we’re stronger in computing and biotech than writers like Heinlein, Asimov and Pohl once thought we’d be, we’re far weaker in mechanics, and we’re still tied completely to this planet.

One of the biggest problems I see with the near-term future is that reality has, in some cases, gone ahead of our imagination. I got a call from an editor last week asking for a feature on “wild, far-out” predictions for the next five years, and I had to tell her that some of those predictions like wireless broadband are already a working reality.

You know by now I hate to leave you feeling hopeless, and I love giving clues to those in the news. So here’s a clue for Mr. Joy.

Find a master of modern science fiction. (The name Jerry Pournelle leaps to mind, both because he understands computers and because he has done great work as a collaborator.) Then co-author some hard sci-fi based on your fears. You know the music but you need a writer to turn your science into stories. Combine the two into a bestseller (or a series of bestsellers) that Hollywood will be anxious to buy. Fame is what publishers want in an author (name above the title) and Bill Joy’s is a name to reckon with. Don’t stint on that co-author, either; if you can’t get Jerry, go for Larry Niven or Orson Card or Greg Bear someone with oomph.

If you’re afraid of the future, don’t just tell us. Show us. We’ll respond to a good story, and if it’s grounded in real science, we may just do something.

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