Science and democracy

Wether you are interested in the fate of Sun Microsystems or not, hold on.

Both The Register and Slashdot report that Bill Joy is leaving Sun Microsystems which he co-founded with McNealy in 1982 and where he last served as chief scientist.

In April 2000, Bill Joy published Why the future doesn't need us, a controversial article in Wired subtitled "Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech - are threatening to make humans an endangered species."

He described there the "gray goo problem", where a simple accident with self-replicating nano-machines could mean the end of life on earth in a matter of days:

"Plants" with "leaves" no more efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous "bacteria" could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.

Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the "gray goo problem." Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term "gray goo" emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.

Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident. Oops.

I haven't finished reading it yet, but even the engineer, the convinced scientist in me has this feeling that we are sometimes playing with fire, only with much, much bigger flames.

Don't get me wrong, doing nothing is not an option -- fearing the unknown is a direct path to obscurantism. Scientists have a sheer fascination for the unknown, which they will relentlessly observe, examine, explore, to eventually understand and explain. Observe, theorize, explain. Move from the unknown to knowledge.

Blaming the scientists for their discoveries is futile. Asking them to take responsibilities of their acts is only one part of the journey. The responsibility is collective. As is ethic. We are all in charge here. I strongly believe in the vital importance of public research as a balance (not a replacement nor a competitor) to the free-market patented knowledge. Uncontrolled capitalistic research, in my worst nightmares, can only lead to knowledge scarcity, a form of organized obscurantism.

If knowledge is power, science must remain in the democratic sphere. Watch your country politics regarding science, it is as important as education, justice and other fundamental pillars of democracy.

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