Three Prophets Walk into a Bar…

Photo: left to right- Ted Kaczynski, Billy Joy, Ray Kurzweil 

Theodore John Kaczynski played trombone in the Evergreen Park High School marching band. He had a family—parents Wanda and Ted, brother David; he earned a bachelorette from Harvard, his masters and doctorate from the University of Michigan. His former teachers lauded him as a mathematical genius; his closest friends described him as quiet but personable, reserved but brilliant.

In 1967, the year his dissertation on Boundary Functions was published, Kaczynski’s future looked bright and full of promise. Eleven years later, on May 25, 1978, he became the Unabomber, domestic terrorist, targeting an engineering professor at Northwestern University with package bomb. (1) What was Kaczynski’s gripe? Why did this brilliant Doctor of Mathematics turn to violence and author a manifesto that condemns technology and advocates total social destruction?

William Nelson Joy, an American Computer scientist and futurologist also attended the University of Michigan, receiving his B.S. in Electrical Engineering, and subsequently, at UC Berkeley, his Masters in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. He co-founded Sun Microsystems, co-created the Java programming language and perfected the Berkeley Software Distribution Unix operating system. (2)

Though hardly a “Luddite” like Kaczynski, dystopian Billy Joy shares some of his fellow Wolverine’s trepidations about humanity’s future especially in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. Unlike Kaczynski who opted for violent attacks on fellow scientists, Joy advocates control of dangerous information through universal ethical standards, through law and through market solutions. (3)

Enter a third voice crying in the wilderness:

Raymond “RayKurzweil attended Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, NY and, majoring in computer science and literature, earned a B.S. From MIT in 1970. He founded many companies, including Kurzweil Computer Products, Kurzweil Music Systems, and a hedge fund called FatCat. He has authored seven books and currently works for Larry Page bringing “natural language understanding to Google.” (4)

Unlike Joy and Kaczynski, Kurzweil supports a utopian view of humanity’s future, and welcomes the inevitable synthesis of humans with artificial intelligence within the next 20 years. (5)

One night in a hotel bar Billy Joy sat jawing with fellow futurist John Searle and enter—literally– Ray Kurzweil. During this three-way, MENSA-meeting, Kurzweil presented a partial preprint of his new book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, to Joy and…

Enter Ted Kaczynski—not literally–but in the form of a long, surprisingly reasonable passage quoted in Kurzweil’s book warning of the dangers of technologies run amuck. Joy was so troubled by the passage, both before and after he turned the page and realized the words came from the Unabomber’s Manifesto, that he decided to write a manifesto of his own, the famous Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us article, published in Wired magazine, April 2000. (3)  Kurzweil countered with The Human Machine Merger: Why We Will spend Most of Our Time in Virtual Reality in the Twenty-first Century published on KurzweilAI.net, August 29, 2001 (5). Thus began a decadal discourse between Joy and Kurzweil on the promise and perils of that runaway train called “technological advancement.”

Joy’s trepidations revolve around a “survival of the fittest” model. Given that artificial intelligence will become superior—quicker, with greater capacity, more efficient– to human intelligence in the very near future, what will keep the machine mind from ultimately triumphing over the biological mind? He fears that self-replicating nano-probes could, someday, turn humanity into the Borg (a formidable cyborg hive race from the Star Trek universe); that the loose controls over dangerous biological and chemical substances could easily fall into dangerous hands, risking an unstoppable pandemic; that unrestricted genetically engineered food could alter humankind’s ability to combat disease.

As a solution to the adverse effects of progress, Joy, unlike Kaczynski,  does not advocate killing off the great scientific minds of his generation, but instead suggests a system of regulations and controls to keep humanity’s 21st century Frankensteins in check, even to the point of relinquishing the development of certain dangerous Genetic, Nano technical, and Robotic (GNR) pursuits.

Joy voices his awareness of the quintessential conflict in restricting scientific progress–privacy and freedom vs. safety and security–but he views avoiding self-extermination as the overriding concern. If I were in that bar with our three prophets, I would add these concerns to the mix:

• Who decides what pursuits are dangerous?
• Who decides who gets to play in the GNR sandbox? Our reactionary President? Our dysfunctional Congress?  Our Less-than-Supreme Court? Perhaps some United Nations scientific committee?
• Then consider what personal religious biases will be inflicted on the rest of us by the devout as in the fields of cloning and stem cell use?

Joy concludes his article with an admission that he does not have all the answers and that he still searches for solutions to this dilemma. Humankind has been forewarned. (3)

Conversely, Ray Kurzweil paints a seductive view of humanity’s future with immortality as the ultimate prize of his Human Machine Merger. He cites Moore’s law, which implies, generally, that computing power will double every two years, growing exponentially, for the foreseeable future. Using Moore’s Law as a yardstick, Kurzweil believes that the “singularity,” a term he applies to the merger of human and artificial intelligence, will occur by 2029—100 years of progress at today’s rate will be compressed to about twelve years over the next decade. He cites gene mapping, nanotechnology and telecommunications as additional areas of exponential growth. He names economic growth as a motivator for this continued progress.

Kurzweil’s future visions include contact lenses that write directly to the retina, world-wide, high speed bandwidth, highly developed, shareable virtual realities, injectable nanobots that can scan for/cure diseases and enhance human intelligence. Kurzweil believes that the promise of nanotechnology far outweighs the danger and that solutions will evolve with the technology. He also confesses to being an optimist.

I must confess, I can be a bit of a Luddite when it comes to some things. I have long been wary of antibiotics and have not taken any since 1985. I avoid social media like the plague, valuing my privacy so much that I never publish under my real name. My cell phone remains turned off 90% of the time, my car is 14 years old, I grow my own food in summer, and never pay bills or do my banking online. Conversely, I am rarely without my iPad, am the proud owner of a 450-gigabyte, solid state external hard drive, love learning anything new, consider myself an uber-progressive, advocate cloning, and always try to stay abreast of the latest fashion trends. These contrasting positions may baffle most, but to me, they make perfect sense. Likewise my view on the three prophets cited above. I am downright Kaczynski-esque when it comes to medicine and doctors; whereas, I align more with Joy in his distrust in humanity’s ability to govern itself. Yet, I remain hopeful, given my age, that immortality via the uploading of my consciousness into a cybernetic organism might be possible in my lifetime, as Kurzweil believes.

Having read dozens of pages penned by Kaczynski’s, Joy and Kurzweil, having viewed several videos featuring both Joy and Kurzweil, I find myself hoping that Kurzweil is the true prophet, but fearing that Joy has a more realistic grasp of the failings of human nature to govern its own voracious curiosity. Hopefully humankind will not have to resort to Kaczynski’s methods in order to avert self-destruction.

Quotes:

“If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave.”—Ted Kaczynski (6)

“We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes. Have we already gone too far down the path to alter course?”—Billy Joy (3)

Does God exist? I would say, ‘Not yet.’”—Ray Kurzweil (4)

Photo: Composite photo by M. Daniels; from wikimedia commons photo gallery

Sources:

  1. Wikipedia; Ted Kaczynski:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Kaczynski
  2. Wikipedia; Billy Joy: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Joy
  3. Joy, Billy; Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us; Wired: April, 2000: https://www.wired.com/2000/04/joy-2/
  4. Wikipedia; Ray Kurzweil:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil
  5. Kurzweil, Ray; The Human Machine Merger: Why We Will spend Most of Our Time in Virtual Reality in the Twenty-first Century: KurzweilAI.net,  Aug. 29, 2001: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-human-machine-merger-why-we-will-spend-most-of-our-time-in-virtual-reality-in-the-twenty-first-century
  6. Kaczynski, Theodore;  Industrial Society and Its Future: The Unabomber Manifesto; Sept. 19, 1995: https://archive.org/stream/IndustrialSocietyAndItsFuture-TheUnabombersManifesto/IndustrialSocietyAndItsFuture-theUnabombersManifesto_djvu.txt

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s