Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Future's So Bright, I've Gotta Wear a Radioactive Fallout Suit

The debate about the future has moved from the pages of science fiction to a real war of words between those who feel that technology is our savior, and those who believe it could be our doom. In their unbridled enthusiasm for every new technological advance, futurists like Ray Kurzweil fail to acknowledge that scientific progress has inevitably led to sweeping and often harmful social change, along with the ability to kill each other in new and more efficient ways. Though it led to an unprecedented economic expansion in the West, the Industrial Revolution nevertheless exacted a terrible toll on the world, further separating rich and poor, and endangering the global environment through years of toxic pollution. The Atomic Revolution put within humanity's collective grasp the power to annihilate every living person on Earth many times over, a power that still threatens the planet nearly two decades since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Information Revolution has the potential to further destabilize the world, with its potential for thinking machines run amok.

Sun Microsystems co-founder and technological pioneer Bill Joy has sounded the alarm on these issues, warning that technology, though full of promise, is also pregnant with the possibility of peril. Joy and others like him see the future through the lens of the past, knowing that new innovations have always had unintended and negative consequences for society. Joy also makes the point that these new, self-replicating, artificially intelligent robots pose a danger of uncontrollable growth. They could easily become a real threat to the very existence of humanity, rendering us obsolete and potentially leading to our own extinction.

As a believer in the Bible, I know that the years to come will not bring a human devised utopia in which all disease and death have been eliminated through shear will. The truth of the human condition is that we live in a fallen, degenerate world, and we are incapable of saving ourselves. Each new advance will only give us more power to destroy ourselves. Our capacity for intelligence and innovation will never outweigh our capacity for short-sighted greed and bloodlust. We would do well to heed the words of naysayer Ian Malcolm of Steven Spieldberg's film, Jurassic Park, when addressing what he called a "lack of humility before nature." Malcolm warned that "scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Before opening yet another in a long line of Pandora's boxes onto a world teetering on the brink of the apocalypse, scientists should be asking themselves that very question. The answer will determine humanity's course over the next century. Given our history with bad choices from the Garden of Eden to the Manhattan Project, I for one do not hold out much hope for turning back the hands of the Doomsday clock.

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