Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Confronting Big Issues

Written Fall 2002

Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article in Wired Magazine, in which he expressed his deep reservations about the exponential advances in the fields of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology. In short, he feels that scientific development has left moral and ethical development in the dust in a race that civilization does not know where it leads. The ramifications of his thesis should concern us all.

The question of whether science, and ultimately, knowledge is a good thing, is an ancient one. There is an old Indian joke that it is easy to convince an uneducated man, and easier still to convince a wise man, but even God himself cannot convince the half-learned man. History has shown that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that science & technology are good or bad depending on who is using them and for what purpose.

Exploration of the world, the human body, and the atom have perhaps been the Triple Crown of scientific advancement over the last millenium. Each advance has been a double-edged sword: trade and colonialism, medicine and biological weapons, the theory of relativity and nuclear weapons have all gone hand in hand. Mr. Joy has argued with passion and tenacity that recent advances will become confluent and give us the opportunity not just to destroy ourselves or other creatures, but to alter ourselves and evolution itself. It conjures to mind an image of a man playing with fire along a slippery slope overlooking an abyss.

So what to do? Mr. Joy proposes that we as a society consciously decide to abjure certain fields of research. But I feel it does no good to close Pandora’s box once it is opened. There are no glib solutions, but several necessary actions.

First and foremost, people have to start caring. That probably sounds corny, but the lives of most of the people around us have become so hectic that they never think of these kinds of issues, of problems greater than themselves. But all it takes is a little reflection to realize and understand that even if something is not your problem today because it is removed from your daily existence, it may be your problem tomorrow or your children’s problem the day after. There is a culture of apathy that permeates America, and that more than anything else is what hamstrings action and resolve.

Second, we need to ensure education and scientific literacy for the population at large. That is where we can take concrete action. Those who work at technology firms or who have significant material or political resources can mobilize action to make long-term changes in the way our schools and communities educate youth and adults on scientific issues. If people don’t understand science, they will likely revert to apathy and cede their sovereignty to those who would abuse it. We must become active participants in revitalizing our school system and increasing awareness of the general public to scientific and technological issues. We must harness technology not merely to make millions for a few but to put in place a sound infrastructure and education system so that the masses can become engaged in the scientific processes that are happening around them. The issues of genetic engineering, health insurance guided by genetic profiles, cloning, information technology and privacy, and interfaces between biological and computer systems need to be discussed publicly and sincerely.

Third, in our own lives, those who are in positions to do so, which includes all of us, should try to appreciate and gauge the long-term effects of our actions. That is a nebulous sentence, but again, we need to look beyond ourselves and realize that life is not a rat race; besides, as someone said, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat! Life is a team marathon with the rest of society and also a relay race where one generation passes on the torch to the next. So, I humbly ask that all of us at some point take a step back, think about the big picture, and see how you can make it better, no matter how small the way.


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