In 1998, Bill Joy, the founder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, co-author of Java script and chair of a presidential commission on the future of IT research, was invited to speak at a tech conference. The title of the conference was ‘Telecosm: the World after Bandwidth Abundance’.
“From the moment I became involved in the creation of new technologies,” writes Joy, “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 Kurzweil is best known as the foremost prophet of the technological Singularity, artificial intelligence and a transhuman future; a kind of John the Baptist to the robo-Christ.
He just can’t wait.
“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 reading it, my sense of unease only intensified; I felt sure he had to be understating the dangers, understating the probability of a bad outcome along this path.
“I found myself most troubled by a passage detailing a dystopian scenario:
THE NEW LUDDITE CHALLENGE
First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.
If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would wilfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.
On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite—just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.
In the book, you don’t discover until you turn the page that the author of this passage is Theodore Kaczynski—the Unabomber.”
From ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’, by Bill Joy, Wired Magazine April 2000.
Theodore John Kaczynski, PhD, the ‘Unabomber’, was no ordinary terrorist. A mathematical prodigy at the cutting edge of his field, he became the youngest assistant professor ever appointed by University of California at Berkeley. Two years later, in 1969, he abruptly resigned his post in 1969 and disappeared.
Living in a simple log cabin he himself constructed in the Rocky Mountains, in the woods outside Lincoln, Montana, he taught himself survival skills, earned what little cash he needed from odd jobs, and read classic texts at the local library.
The world would never have heard of him again if it had just left him alone.
But a four years later, as real estate and industrial developers started destroying the wilderness around his home, he turned to sabotage. His reading habits changed; now he was devouring books on history, sociology and political theory. Three years later, in 1978 — nine years after his sudden exit from the academia — he fashioned his first bomb from junkyard parts and wood.
Kaczynski’s sporadic campaign spanned 18 years, including a two protracted breaks, of three and six years respectively. He targeted information technologists, geneticists, materials engineers and psychologists, as well as airline executives and lumber companies with his shrapnel bombs. The FBI designated his file UNABOM, for University & Airline Bomber.
The passage quoted by Kurzweil comes from the 35,000-word document known as the Unabomber Manifesto — actually entitled Industrial Society and its Future — which the New York Times published in 1995, in exchange for Kaczynski’s promise to renounce terrorism. At that point he had successfully evaded the longest and most expensive man-hunt in the history of the FBI.
It was the publication of this essay which finally led to his arrest, when his younger brother (to whom Ted wrote regularly) recognised not just some of his ideas, but certain characteristic spelling and hyphenation errors, and did what he felt he had to do. The Unabomber in his third phase was getting more lethal. He’d killed his targets in his last two attacks, not just blown their fingers, hands or faces off. David Kaczynski didn’t casually betray his brother, it wasn’t like that at all, to judge from his actions. Obviously it was a hard decision to have to make. He was afraid of the denouement playing out like Waco or Ruby Ridge — he didn’t want to see his brother gunned down or incinerated — so he didn’t go direct to the police but instead engaged a team of lawyers to strategically handle the approach to the FBI on his behalf, and who were not to reveal information until negotiations had been fully entered into to guarantee Ted would live to stand trial.
Kaczynski had to resist intense pressure from his court-appointed defence lawyers to plead insanity. In his journal he had once expressed the hope, right at the beginning of his campaign, that he wouldn’t be taken alive when the time came. Now, he’d chosen to live. He’d decided that wanted to stand trial. He would conduct his own defence if his lawyers wouldn’t co-operate. He would plead sanity.
The courts were never going to let them happen. The Unabomber case was not going to trial without an insanity defence. After protracted negotiations he eventually agreed to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for life imprisonment without parole, rather than the death penalty.
Bill Joy was profoundly impressed by the Kaczynski passage in Kurzweil’s Spiritual Machines preprint. Four years after the publication of Industrial Society and its Future, Joy published his seminal Wired Magazine article, in which he condemns the Unabomber’s actions and calls him ‘criminally insane.’ But he does not dismiss his argument, and nor did many who read Industrial Society and its Future. Some hailed it as a work of great profundity, and many acknowledged the rationality of Kaczynski’s argument.
Joy’s article is riveting, well constructed, highly readable. So whatever the rights and wrongs of murdering a man because he’s the CEO of a logging company, or an ad man who was instrumental in sanitising the public image of Exxon-Mobil after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster — whatever the rights and wrongs of this archetypal revenge tragedy, the Unabomber did get his message out here and there, and particularly this passage, thanks to Kurzweil and Joy, who reprint it, and then take very different directions in their response.
And the message, I think, can be boiled down to two words.
Kaczynski doesn’t focus on the machine itself so much as the knowledge-elites that control it, and Joy follows him in this, while reviewing the potentials of the three technologies that would dominate the twenty-first century — genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology — in symbiosis with the umbrella technology, the digital architecture, under development since the Second World War.
But if anything, his conclusion is even more chilling than anything in Kaczynski’s dystopia, perhaps only because of the language in which it is couched. But it gave me the shivers.
I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.
I wonder what he’s thinking now. Kaczynski, too. Surprised, perhaps, that it came on so fast, that he’d lived long enough to see it happen. Or the beginning of it, at least.
2020, hey? Year Zero. Who’d have thought? Sometimes the future comes suddenly.
Kaczynski is in his late seventies now, serving eight life sentences without the possibility of parole at ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado, a super-maximum-security prison reserved for the ‘worst of the worst’ criminals and those who pose an extremely serious threat to national and global security.
And Kurzweil? Since 2012 the famous transhumanist has been Director of Engineering at Google.
NEXT: THE SADNESS OF ELON MUSK