Beyond 2001: HAL’s Legacy for the Enterprise Generation

August 10, 2001 by Frank Schirrmacher

Bill Joy and Robert Freitas debate the perils of a technology that, in the words of the author, is so far in the future that even the word infancy would be premature. But does science fiction indeed shape the future?

Originally published August 2000 at Edge. Originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Published on August 10, 2001.

DALLAS. Doubtless, the visitor tells himself, doubtless Bill Joy’s worries are nothing more than science fiction–the irrational fears of a run away engineer.

Which is why he was so pleased to find an answer to them–a rejoinder by Robert A. Freitas called “Some Limits to Global Ecophagy,” which can be downloaded from the Internet. Freitas addresses the fear that nanorobots might one day replicate unrestricted and out of control and take over the planet.

A rejoinder which consigns Joy to the realms of science fiction–which of us would not applaud? Freitas’ article is 30 pages long and contains a lot of complex sums. But the point of these computations is not to tell us whether or not atomic nanorobots are feasible. Instead, they tell us how to read the tell-tale signs of rampant robotic procreation and what can be done to stop it. Freitas tells us how we can use global warming to measure the spread of nanorobots. He also calculates the energy consumption of all the insects and all the birds on the Earth. His paper has already been presented to the U.S. authorities responsible for President Clinton’s nanotechnology initiative. It is an advisory paper intended for politicians.

What is extraordinary about this scientific debate is that both Joy and Freitas are talking about a technology which is so far in the future that even the word infancy would be premature. Yet both are convinced–Joy with grave concern and Freitas full of hope–that it will dominate the next great industrial revolution.

Freitas, a man not even 40, was commissioned by NASA to conduct an extensive study of self-replicating systems for long-distance space travel. He has just published the first volume of his “Nanomedicine,” another science which doesn’t yet exist but is nevertheless described in great detail. He is a quiet and unassuming scientist, whose patrons include the 1996 Nobel laureate in chemistry, Richard E. Smalley. It was Smalley’s own paper on “Nanotechnology and the Next 50 Years” which helped establish nanotechnology as a serious new branch of science. Ray Kurzweil and Ralph Merkle are also among those who find it difficult to dismiss Freitas as a dreamer. “We’ve got to learn,” Smalley said in his paper, “how to build machines, materials, and devices with the ultimate finesse that life has always used: atom by atom, on the same nanometer scale as the machinery in living cells.” To which Freitas responds, “This is something we will learn.”

Freitas responded to Joy because he considers Joy’s concerns to be legitimate. “That’s exactly what we’re doing here,” he says, referring to Zyvex’s bunker like pavilion near Dallas. Zyvex, which likes to describe itself as the first private molecular nanotechnology development company in the United States, doesn’t build nanorobots as yet. According to Freitas, however, that’s only a matter of time. “We can move single atoms around with our tweezers,” he says, “but we can’t yet put them down exactly where we want them.” Once this becomes possible, he tells us, it should, in theory, be possible to create completely new materials. At present, however, Zyvex is still working on the tools required for such a job, including tweezers just 0.5 mm (0.02 inches) long which can open and close 1,000 times per second.

 The visitor leaves the story on the possibilities and hazards of nanotechnology to his better informed colleagues. What interests him, apart from the rather spooky dialog between Joy and Freitas, is the imagination which provides the raw material for this new reality.

“I was a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie,” says Freitas . And those who want to get an idea of what is currently going on in the twilight zone between science, fantasy and politics must take such confessions seriously. Just as the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s generation was obsessed with Homer, so all the great sci-fi epics, especially those on celluloid, have left their mark on these 40-something scientists. And they now have the education and–thanks to the new economy–the enormous financial resources they need to pursue their version of reality. Schliemann wanted to find Troy, while these pioneers are on a quest for their own childhood utopias. It is not just the child’s desire to fly through interstellar space or even the prospect of scientific prestige–such as was recently reaped in by Craig Venter–which motivates them. Death is also a driving force, as is the fear of death. Jim van Ehr, whose complex software developments have earned him billions of dollars, is the man now bankrolling Zyvex. And he is getting impatient. Having just turned 50, he knows he doesn’t have so many years ahead of him. He, too, carries a lot of Hollywood baggage around with him.

He, too, wants to know what the future will be like, even if that means having himself deep-frozen after death–an idea which not just Freitas , but nearly everyone in the lab is deeply committed to.

“I was created in the HAL factory in Urbana, Illinois on January 12, 1997.” These are the words with which Arthur C. Clarke, in his 1968 novel “2001–A Space Odyssey” (later filmed by Stanley Kubrick), introduces us to the supercomputer HAL, to a machine with artificial intelligence powerful enough to destroy both the spaceship and its crew. It’s now Aug. 1, 2000 and HAL is still a utopia, no matter how firmly this utopia–like the heroes of the real Odyssey–is anchored in the hearts and minds of an entire generation.

Taking such stuff seriously is considered taboo among intellectuals. Those intellectuals who do read Joy therefore reserve most of their contempt for that passage in his treatise in which he describes a future in which humans are no longer needed. It is at this point that he narrates his very own bildungsroman and acknowledges the influence of such sci-fi classics as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein and above all, Star Trek, the adventures of the starship Enterprise, which he used to watch while his parents went bowling. This, we hear, is also the quality of his warnings: Science fiction in the style of an American soap.

We have spent decades training ourselves to think of history in terms of ideologies, motives, influences and world views. Why does one think the way he thinks? Who indoctrinates a person? The “old world” spent decades worrying about the long-term effects Hollywood might have on our children. And now that we know the answer to this question, now that we are indeed confronted with the results of Captain Kirk, the educator–are contempt and ridicule our only response? Haven’t at least our professional, cultural and literary critics noticed what is going on here?

Who, if not the Europeans, who, if not the Germans, is in a position to talk about the power role that models can acquire over reality? Wars have been fought over them and whole generations incited to violence in their name. We have studied the images and the language which gave the pioneers of the industrial revolution their confidence and we have encapsulated its life cycle–from the discovery of electricity to the sinking of the Titanic–in parables.

But now, as President Clinton said when his government’s nanotechnological initiative was launched this February, we are at the threshold of the “third industrial revolution.” Surely, then, it is time to ask how the agents of this revolution perceive themselves and the roles they are playing, to ask what influenced them as children, who their role models were and what are their goals? It is not Joy but rather Jeremy Rifkin who describes the situation as follows, in “The Biotech Century”: “Never before in history has humanity been so unprepared for the new technological and economic opportunities, challenges, and risks that lie on the horizon. Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous 1,000 years. By the year 2025, we and our children may be living in a world utterly different from anything human beings have ever experienced in the past.” Rifkin’s own term for this transformation is “remaking the world.”

People have always wondered what kind of people Hollywood’s galaxies would one day produce. We know now. The first generation is already there. Joy, the founder of Sun-Microsystems and one of the prime movers behind the transformation now taking place, claims to have been influenced and motivated above all by “Star Trek.” The office of Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s head of research, is full of “Star Trek” memorabilia. Venter feels a deep affinity for Christopher Columbus as well as for Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. Two years ago, MIT Press published a book called “HAL’s Legacy: The Computers of 2001 as Dream and Reality.” In this book, several scientists discuss whether HAL really could exist and the technology which would be necessary to make it happen. More important than their crushing conclusion–that computers will not even be able to talk the way HAL talks in the film–is the following message: HAL is fantasy, not science.

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Copyright © 2001 by Edge Foundation, Inc.