Wired 8.04: Why the future doesn't need us.
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7/10/06 3:21 PM
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- Apr 2000
Why the future doesn't need us.
Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech - are
threatening to make humans an endangered species.
By Bill Joy
From the moment I became involved in the creation of new technologies, their ethical dimensions have
concerned me, but it was only in the autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of how great are the
dangers facing us in the 21st century. I can date the onset of my unease to the day I met Ray Kurzweil, the
deservedly famous inventor of the first reading machine for the blind and many other amazing things.
Ray and I were both speakers at George Gilder's Telecosm conference, and I encountered him by chance in
the bar of the hotel after both our sessions were over. I was sitting with John Searle, a Berkeley philosopher
who studies consciousness. While we were talking, Ray approached and a conversation began, the subject of
which haunts me to this day.
I had missed Ray's talk and the subsequent panel that Ray and John had been on, and they now picked
right up where they'd left off, with Ray saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to
accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that, and John
countering that this couldn't happen, because the robots couldn't be conscious.
While I had heard such talk before, I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction. But
now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility. I
was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine and create the future. I already knew that
new technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world,
but a realistic and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me.
It's easy to get jaded about such breakthroughs. We hear in the news almost every day of some kind of
technological or scientific advance. Yet this was no ordinary prediction. In the hotel bar, Ray gave me a
partial preprint of his then-forthcoming book
The Age of Spiritual Machines,
which outlined a utopia he
foresaw - one in which humans gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. On