The Basic Problem, revisited

Week 4’s readings take exploring the ‘Basic Problem’ into new depths.  These readings are markedly different from Freeman Dyson’s “The Darwinian Interlude” and Michio Kaku’s “Visions: How science will revolutionize the 21st century,” in that they are much more pessimistic. Where Dyson and Kaku predict a bright future in which children will play with biotech games, gardeners will use gene transfer on their plants[1], and genetic diseases will be eliminated.[2] Moreover, while Prof. Chaloupka’s writing defines and examines the possible risks of the ‘Basic Problem,’ it seemed that his analysis was one of a kind. Bill Joy’s article, however, is evidence that understanding of the ‘Basic Problem’ is spreading to other prominent scientists. Joy’s writing strikes a balance between the blind optimism of Dyson and Kaku on the one hand, and the stark realism of Chaloupka on the other. While by no means naïve about the risks of scientific progress, Joy also expresses his belief in humanity’s “great capacity for caring”[3] and his hope that “discussion of these issues… with people from many different backgrounds, in settings not predisposed to fear or favor [of] technology”[4] will prevent catastrophes.

I would like to examine Bill Joy’s article in conjunction with the ‘Basic Problem’ as defined in class. In doing so, I hope to explain how these four weeks have changed my understanding of biology and physics.

Joy begins by examining the possibility of sentient robots becoming mainstream technology. Using the dystopian vision of the Unabomber, Kaczynski, as an example, Joy ponders the causes of unintended consequences to technology. The answer seems clear – due to the complexity of technology, an changes may “cascade in ways that are difficult to predict,… especially [when] human actions are involved.”[5] I agree with joy that changes of technology may cause unpredictable outcomes due to the nature of the humans using it, but I disagree with his choice of example. To start with, I do not agree with Joy’s conviction that sentient robots are feasible in the near future. Intelligent machines have been predicted to be on the horizon of science for decades. Evidence of this is the predictions of robotic servants in the World Fairs of the early 1900s and the Jetson’s cartoons of the 1960s. None of these predictions, however, have been true. Indeed, it is 14 years since Bill Joy’s article was published and still sentient robots remain the expensive feats of engineering labs, not part of mainstream life. Regardless of whether sentient robots are possible or not, I think Joy’s argument would have been stronger if he had focused on the unintended consequences that small changes in technology can have. For example, the invention of the radio and television, the move from corded to wireless telephones, and the invention of contact lenses have also made significant impacts on society. Radio and television started the communications revolutions. They have also led to unintended consequences such as making sedentary lifestyles more common and leading to a spike in obesity. These consequences are smaller in magnitude and less dramatic than humanity’s incapability to make decisions without machines. But these smaller unintended consequences are more realistic, and would thus strengthen Joy’s argument.

Our class’ exploration of the ‘Basic Problem’ has changed the way I understand my biology and physics classes. After reading Prof. Chaloupka’s and Bill Joy’s writings, I now ask myself how new technologies might be used and the implications for society. This week, for example, I learned about a novel gene pyro-sequencing technique allowing for greater precision in the analysis of penguin GI microbiota. Before taking 216, I would have found this new technology interesting, but focused on understanding only how it works. Now, I also ask myself: does this technique have potential commercial uses? Would it be dangerous in the wrong hands? What will it allow biologists to do, that they have not yet thought of applying this technology to? Similarly, I have realized that the involvement of physicists in the Manhattan Project was never discussed in my year of physics classes at the UW. My classes focused instead on the mathematics behind basic physics phenomena and the solving of problems. While physics classes have, of course, only a limited time to teach students to analyze and solve physics problems, even spending one minute on the Manhattan Project and other real world applications of physics would have improved my understanding. Indeed, it is alarming that prior to this course in my 4th year of university I have not been exposed to these issues in my courses. The material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.


[1] Freeman Dyson, “The Darwinian Interlude,” Technology Review (2005), 27.

[2] Michio Kaku, “Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century.”

[3] Bill Joy, “Why the future doesn’t need us,” Wired 8.04 (2000), 16.

[4] Ibid, 16.

[5] Ibid., 2.


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