Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Why The Future Doesn't Need Us

Not everyone knows of Bill Joy, but he deserves to be heard of. He graduated from the University of Michigan and attended graduate school at UC Berkeley (7). With such educational merits, and also being a cofounder of three microprocessor architectures and the designer of several implementations thereof, his ideas and opinions are certainly worth taking into consideration (9).
In “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy makes a noteworthy assessment that with new technologies being introduced one after another, we become less and less phased by the outrageous advances of what would have astonished everyone fifty years ago. In fact, we absorb new devices so quickly that we seem to always be awaiting the arrival of something fresh to keep us entertained for a few months. However, Joy seems to be uneasy about what may happen in the future. One of his concerns is that “the gray goo problem,” in which scientifically modified cells in plants and animals may overrule the original unmodified cells and wreak havoc on the plants and animals, will eventually obliterate almost all life forms and there is nothing we can do about it (14).
If we think about how far medical and scientific research has gone in the past few decades, we’d be impressed. From simple technologies like the X-ray tube to marvelous technologies like CT scans and MRI’s, not to mention our wildest dreams come true with cloning and stem cell research. Doctors and scientists have been able to implant modified cells into plants and animals, and naturally these cells will reproduce. This self-replication is what worries Joy, because “stories of … robots like the Borg, replicating or mutating to escape from the ethical constraints imposed on them by their creators, are well established in our science fiction books and movies. It is even possible that self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder - or even impossible - to control” (14).
Will it really be harder, or impossible, to control the outcome of the self-replication of these cells? I don’t think so. Sure, the outcome may not be what was originally expected, but if our doctors and scientists can create cells that will help these plants and animals overcome obstacles, they should be able to create new cells that can overpower the cells gone bad. Research for this, of course, is quite costly and takes several years, but it is not impossible; and at the pace our technologies are advancing, amazing new innovations may take even less time than we think.
There are some ways we can help, whether it be individually or as a culture, to help aid the process of overcoming “the gray goo” problem. We can raise donations to fund research, or we can take time out of our hectic schedules to volunteer for experimental research. Unless something goes horribly wrong, it is not likely that we will be negatively affected by doing our part to help, therefore we should not hesitate to help someone potentially save the life of a plant or an animal. Raising funds for donations is simple enough: just get to know the subject matter and set up a presentation to entice donators. Doing so can be fun, especially if friends are involved, and it’s pretty much inevitable that people would feel better about themselves knowing that they helped such a good cause. Volunteering for experimental research, however, may be a bit scarier and therefore less frequent, but nevertheless it is an excellent way to help out, and for animal lovers- it would reduce the need for animal experimentation!
Bill Joy should have no reason to worry about “the gray goo” problem, because we have the ability to control what might happen. It’s just a matter of whether or not people are motivated enough to do so.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Your introduction is wordy; there are few sentences in which several words or even phrases couldn’t be dropped without altering the meaning. Although you have a strong handle on Joy and his credibility, you don’t have a strong thesis, at least in the introduction.

In the second paragraph, your argument becomes more distinctive. The problem is that at precisely the point where your argument needs support is when it becomes vague: “Will it really be harder, or impossible, to control the outcome of the self-replication of these cells? I don’t think so.” You never provide much in the way of justification for the “I don’t think so.” What can you add to the conversation that Joy hasn’t? Why should we take your word over Joy’s, in other words, since you’ve recognized that he’s a credible source?

Your solutions aren’t bad ideas - volunteering for experimental research as a solution to the “gray goo” problem in particular seems like an interesting idea; what you’re proposing, I think, is that *all* citizens should take responsibility for science, and that if they do so there is a political-scientific solution to the problems raised by Joy. This is a smart idea, but you don’t develop it at all; it is, in other words, both interesting and totally unconvincing when put up against the depth of Joy’s arguments. Directly engaging with a section of Joy’s text which you find problematic might have helped here . . .