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Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, Revisited

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When the stunning article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” by Bill Joy, chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, made the cover of Wired Magazine in April 2000, it created quite a rumble in high-tech circles. Its argument was that “our most powerful 21st century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech—are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”

Bill Joy was writing about out of control, self-replicating technologies that, once the stuff of science fiction, were now on the way in decades if not years. Tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and systems analysts are working in countries all over the world churning out theories and specialized applications without much consideration of their overall impacts.

The funding has been coming from various governments’ military budgets, heavily contracted out to industrial corporations and, now increasingly, from the commercial pursuits of global corporations. The rate of knowledge production has been exponential as computers become faster and are programmed to become more self-reliant.

Seventy percent of the volume of stock trading in the U.S. is now driven by computers and their algorithms—a mere glimmer of the future pictured by Mr. Joy.

The worries among sensitive futurists are both the intended and unintended consequences. Autonomous weaponry, for example, may be intended for certain purposes by government militaries, but then emerge as more dreaded unintended consequences where, for example, these weapons decide themselves when and whom to strike.

Last month, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk of Tesla Motors were some of many specialists who signed an open letter that called for a ban on autonomous weapons. The letter says, “If any major military power pushes ahead with artificial intelligence weapons, a global arms race is virtually inevitable,” adding that “unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) or “thinking machines” are worrying far more of the serious scientists/technologists than those few who speak out publically.

Last December, in an interview with the BBC, Stephen Hawking, through his computer-generated voice, warned that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race… It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.” Hawking, a big thinker, noted that “humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Self-restraint is not a characteristic of the companies developing robotics for businesses that want to replace tens of millions of both white collar and blue collar jobs. Look at the latest factories, refineries and warehouses to illustrate what is coming fast. Even the work of lawyers is being automated.

But the warnings coming from people like Nassim Taleb, author of the runaway best-seller Black Swan and Stuart Russell, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, co-author of the textbook on artificial intelligence who writes about “risks that could lead to human extinction,” need to reach wider audiences.

Complex systems can be very fragile in ways not foreseen until they happen! That is why Bill Joy saw all three of these technologies—nanotechnology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence—as interwoven systems expanding over the globe beyond human control.

In a recent interview (July 17, 2015) by Science magazine, Professor Russell was asked “what do you see as a likely path from artificial intelligence (AI) to disaster?” He replied: “the routes could be varied and complex—corporations seeking a super-technological advantage, countries trying to build AI systems before their enemies, or a slow-boiled frog kind of evolution leading to dependence and enfeeblement not unlike E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops.”

He told Science that he “is not aware of any large movement calling for regulation either inside or outside AI, because we don’t know how to write such regulation.” Such, he noted, is the “bewildering variety of software.”

In the meantime, Congress is oblivious to these grim scenarios. The Republicans in charge have no interest in holding educational public hearings, because the corporations who own them have no such interest. Meanwhile, the myopic Democrats are too busy dialing for commercial campaign dollars to grease their campaigns so as to retake the Congress in 2016.

Some of these Democrats know better. They championed the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an arm of Congress established to research and advise members of Congress about such matters. When Congressman Newt Gingrich toppled the Democrats in 1994, one of his first acts was to defund and shut down OTA.

Congress has played ostrich ever since. The American people will surely pay the price unless a tiny few, including leaders of the scientific community, organize and demand that Congress reinstate this technical warning system that OTA provided. With a tiny annual budget of $22 million, OTA saved far more in prevented boondoggles that were circulating on Capitol Hill.

None of this domestic inaction should preclude international efforts to expand the Geneva Conventions against chemical and biological warfare to cover these latest mass destruction weapons against humanity. This initiative would constitute an updated declaration of profound human rights.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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