June 12, 2013

Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure

The New York Times ran an article a few days ago that points toward one of the more important lessons of our time, a lesson that will almost certainly be ignored. 

HeadlinedData-Driven Tech Industry Is Shaken by Online Privacy Fears,” it described how upset members of Silicon Valley’s elite have been by the revelations of the National Security Agency’s Prism program.

The piece, by David Streitfeld and Quentin Hardy, was nicely written, with a generous serving of appropriate irony. “The dreamers, brains and cranks who built the Internet hoped it would be a tool of liberation and knowledge,” they began. “Last week, an altogether bleaker vision emerged with new revelations of how the United States government is using it as a monitoring and tracking device.”

Then came the kicker: “In Silicon Valley, a place not used to second-guessing the bright future it is eternally building, there was a palpable sense of dismay.”

That nails it. No one is more convinced that technology is the gateway to a new Eden than the technologists themselves, and no one is more surprised than they are when things turn out to be more complicated than expected.

The reason I find the Times article so significant is that the privacy concerns at the heart of the Prism imbroglio are only the tip of the technological iceberg. The Internet is far from the only cutting edge technology that presents tremendous opportunities for intentional abuse or unintentional disaster, and Silicon Valley’s engineers and scientists are far from the only ones who have routinely ignored the dangers.

There’s a second irony here that Streitfeld and Hardy didn’t mention. While the security branches of government have joined the profiteers and thieves in exploiting the power of the Internet for questionable ends, realistically our best hope of protection from those ends lies in the hands of­­—you guessed it—the government. Libertarians will disagree, but there’s abundant evidence to suggest that Silicon Valley’s failure to rigorously defend the public interest in its corner of the technological universe is the rule rather than the exception. Thus the answer to the question, “Who’s watching the technological store?” is basically, “Nobody.” 

Remember Bill Joy’s famous essay in Wired, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”? It's surprising to realize that 13 years have passed since it appeared. In it, Joy warned of three specific technologies that concerned him: robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech. Like the Internet, each holds tremendous promise, but each also holds tremendous risks. Joy urged that the risks be seriously addressed before it’s too late, and said he remained optimistic we would find ways to do so. 

As far as I can tell, the momentum toward exploitation of all three technologies continues unabated. If anything, it’s accelerated. I'm not aware of any concurrent momentum toward establishing effective precautions.

Joy issued another plea for restraint five years later, less known, but relevant to the discussion here. It was an an op-ed piece in the New York Times, co-authored with the futurist Ray Kurzweil and headlined “Recipe for Destruction.” In it they denounced the decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to publish online the genome of the 1918 influenza virus responsible for the deaths of 50 million people worldwide. To publicly release such information in an era when the techniques of synthetic biology are widely available, they said, was tantamount to advertising “the design of a weapon of mass destruction.” Joy and Kurzweil called for an "international dialog" on ways to prevent lethal genetic codes from "falling into the wrong hands." They also called for “a new Manhattan Project" to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made.

Christine Daniloff/iMol

In connection with the book I’m writing, two months ago I emailed Joy to ask him how much progress he’d seen toward the sorts of safeguards he and Kurzweil proposed. Here’s his response:


Since the article, I have been focused on investments for sustainability. I haven't been tracking the progress on what we suggested. I know of nothing substantial that has been done to address any of these. But then again, I'm not "in the loop" on all such things, so perhaps something has been done; to find that out would be a pleasant upside surprise.



There’s a couple of implicit suggestions in Joy’s response, beyond what he says explicitly. First, although he’s careful to say he’s not aware of anything substantial having been accomplished to address his concerns, I think it’s fair to assume he would be aware of any significant efforts in that regard, had they materialized.

Second, the fact that Joy’s attentions are directed toward other endeavors represents a big part of the problem. All of us have our attentions directed elsewhere – they have to be. We can’t spend full time trying to see that the potential dangers of a whole range of incredibly powerful technologies are being adequately addressed. Nonetheless, thousands of people are spending full time, day after day, week after week, trying to find ways to exploit those incredibly powerful technologies. Often they're well paid for doing so; almost always they’re hoping for a payoff at the end. Undoubtedly some of them are working carefully; undoubtedly others aren’t. The problem is that the balance between ambition and restraint seems radically tilted toward risk and irresponsibility.   

As I say, like it or not, our best bet for oversight is the government. Not surprisingly, we can't take much comfort in that fact. For example, in 2010, after a lengthy series of hearings on synthetic biology, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues found “no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time." This prompted an open letter signed by the leaders of more than fifty environmental organizations calling the Commission’s conclusions hopelessly inadequate. "We are disappointed that 'business as usual' has won out over precaution in the commission's report," the letter said. "Self regulation amounts to no regulation.”

The story is much the same with nanotechnology. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is responsible for coordinating the activities of 15 federal agencies that distribute government money for nanotech research and development, has been the focus of ferocious criticism for spending almost all of its funds promoting nanotech’s commercial prospects while paying virtually no attention to its safety. A survey, meanwhile, found that some 60 percent of American nanotechnology companies have ignored government recommendations regarding safety precautions in their workplaces.

Citing that survey, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said it's "critical" that appropriate federal agencies "engage" with companies to increase their awareness of safety issues and their ability to address them. And how should this engagement proceed? Why, in a "non-regulatory capacity," of course!

Like Bill Joy, I can’t claim to have kept track of every attempt, either by government or by industry, to monitor and regulate the dangers inherent in synthetic biology – or in nanotechnology and robotics. I have other things to do. I think it’s a safe bet, however, that neither government nor industry have pursued their responsibilities in those areas as aggressively as the NSA has pursued its surveillance of the Internet, despite the fact that their potential for evil are at least as severe, and probably more so. 

It’s true, I’m sure, that the web can be an effective tool for uncovering terrorist plots involving other technologies—someone hoping to unleash a genetically engineered virus might well leave tracks there, for example. As a pronounced civil libertarian, it feels odd to say it, but I hope the NSA is watching out for those types of threats. These are the devil's bargains our technologies lead us into.

I’ll close by noting the comments made nearly half a century ago by a scientist who can be considered Bill Joy’s predecessor in the role of technological Cassandra. Norbert Wiener was the founder of cybernetics, and in that role made foundational contributions to the digital technologies that are so forcefully reshaping our world today. Unlike many technologists, however, he worried a lot about the uses to which some of his theories might be put, so much so that he turned down many offers of corporate and military research contracts, at significant cost to his career.

Wiener harbored an undisguised contempt for the “gadget worshipers” among his colleagues who rushed to exploit their knowledge without due consideration of the consequences likely to ensue. They fail to appreciate, he said, that “a sense of the tragic" is a prerequisite to the exercise of scientific and technological power. The scientist with an appreciation of the tragic, he said, "will not leap in where angels fear to tread, unless he is prepared to accept the punishment of the fallen angels.” 

Technology, he added, is a two-edged sword, “and sooner or later it will cut you deep.”

©Doug Hill, 2013


  1. Any innovation can be a double edged sword, including the Internet. Technology offers a myriad of undiscovered benefits but we have to be conscientious about how it is used.

    1. Right. The point is that a good deal of the time we're not conscientious about how it is used.