Scientist ends IDCA with grim warning |

Scientist ends IDCA with grim warning

John Colson

By far the most disquieting moment of the International Design Conference at Aspen came at the end of the event, when a respected computer scientist warned of possible worldwide catastrophic consequences from current scientific research trends.

Bill Joy, an Aspen resident and the chief scientist for the Sun Microsystems computer software corporation, was the last speaker at the 50th IDCA conference on Saturday night.

Expounding on a thesis he has developed recently, he cautioned the 1,100 listeners on hand that research into three relatively new areas of high technology – genetics, advanced robotics and nanotechnology – poses serious threats to humanity’s continued existence on the planet and needs to be closely monitored.

Among other possible cataclysms that could result from genetics research, he said, are planet-scourging bacteria or diseases released accidentally from genetics research labs or created deliberately by disgruntled sociopaths or terrorist groups.

He also warned that, if current thinking on robotics continues unchallenged, we are capable of creating sentient machines that can replicate themselves and could eventually replace the human race as the dominant species on Earth. Citing scholarly and scientific literature on the subject, he believes such technological advances are possible within the next 30 years.

He said some theorists have predicted that the human race could bring about its own destruction before the end of the 21st century, the way things are going.

Joy stressed that even he is not completely certain that his bleak vision of the future is unavoidable. But he said his research into the matter has left him unalterably convinced that society at large, including governments and the scientific community, needs to take a step back and look carefully at what it is doing and where it might lead.

This is particularly true, he said, for those engaged in the designing of computer software and hardware and other components of the ongoing high-tech revolution – including himself.

His talk Saturday night, together with an article he wrote on the same subject for Wired Magazine two months ago, sparked a debate among some participants at the conference over the role of design in the modern world and whether more attention should be paid to the ethical aspects of their work.

His concerns already had prompted a spirited debate in the scientific community, and he has said he hopes the issue will gain national prominence as quickly as possible.

The conference, under the title of “The Spirit of Design,” ran from June 14-17 and was the third in a trilogy of events commemorating the Aspen Idea originated by the late Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke.

The Paepckes were wealthy industrialists who came to Aspen in the 1940s from Chicago and began the renaissance of the sleepy former mining town. They decided that Aspen would henceforth be known as a place where people can come to rejuvenate and replenish their whole beings – body, mind and spirit – by taking advantage of skiing and other physical activities, the intellectual offerings of the Aspen Institute and the IDCA, and the Aspen Music Festival. This conference marked the final piece of that trilogy.

Designers of all kinds mingled with an eclectic mix of experts in a wide range of fields for four days to talk about what it is that makes people want to design things, whether for the aesthetic pleasure it brings or for its practical functions.

Next year’s theme, in keeping with its half-century celebration, will be, “The More Things Change …” According to organizers, it will be structured to prompt discussions about the future of design and its place in the rapidly changing world.

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