A Biologist Responds to Bill Joy

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[Two articles follow: In one, a biologist responds to Bill Joy's Wired magazine article (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/). I include this because Joy's piece, although now a few months old, has taken on a life of its own and has even, I'm told, led to a forthcoming conference. In the second, politechnical Charles Platt replies to a report in the San Jose Mercury News' Good Morning Silicon Valley newsletter. --Declan]


Date: Sun, 06 Aug 2000 15:27:57 +0530 From: The Gardners Subject: bill joy is hooey

a biologist's resp. to > By Bill Joy, Tuesday, April 18, 2000; Page A29

Notes from India: Some of the President's highest level science policy makers converged here during his visit in April. In discussions with their Indian counterparts, Bill Joy's ideas kept surfacing, so I finally looked up his original longer article on Wired's website. Sorry everyone, but it's balogna, sheer hubris.

Little nanobots taking over the world. With apologies to any physicist and other "hard" scientist who might read this, non-biologists often err in this direction. For example, one promise from nanotechnologists is that they'll make little robots that can swim through our bloodstream to seek out and eliminate cancer cells. In the real world, they would have the same problem our immune system has in distinguishing neoplastic from normal cells, the needle from the hay.

It's techno-hype, neither the first nor the last. Used with discretion, it keeps the research grant money flowing to mostly worthy causes. In Bill Joy's hands, it just feeds into the lastest popular techno-fear-mongering.

Bill Joy thinks self-replicating gizmos are just around the corner. But non-biological self-assembling devices that can operate in real-world conditions are a very very long way off.

Of course, we have already developed self-assembling or self-replicating widgets that work under very special conditions with specially supplied parts. These include computer viruses (like the love bug that did $10 billion dollars damage to the world economy this spring), and enzymes that can catalyze their own formation.

But a Von Neumann device that could exist on its own in the outside world and make copies of itself from whatever material is at hand is incredibly far-fetched. (I'll grant Joy one thing: if the time ever does come, I hope they're not developed on Earth; somewhere off-planet would be best, where they could refine rare metals or volatiles to be harvested later).

The simplest model for a self-replicating device, the "Universal Constructor," was developed on paper by Von Neumann back in the 1940s. It requires a manipulator arm which can assemble literally anything, including itself, from a supply of parts. It also needs a power source and a "brain," which he called the Universal Computer. These are very different and complicated things, but the constructor would have to make all three in order to truly copy itself.

Under any conditions I can imagine, simply limiting the supply of parts would limit replication. If they're not specialized parts, but common atoms or molecules from the surrounding environment, then nanoscale molecular positioning and "tip chemistry" would require a vacuum and/or other special environmental conditions unlikely to exist outside a laboratory.

Not very robust this grey goo, and not likely to escape. It doesn't sound very threatening to us carbon-based life forms, or even to the machines we depend upon.

In B-movies, crazy scientists whip up nanobots every day, which always escape and threaten to take over the world. In the real world, Joy's ideas would make me laugh if they weren't being taken so seriously by so many people.

His original article in Wired was rambling, repetitive and alarmist. He never proved his central premise. He assumed the risks, and went on from there. In reading it, I felt the same irony as when I first watched Jurassic Park, all that high-tech computer animation harnessed to deliver an anti-technology message. Hm.

It's misdirected alarm. Self-replication already exists, honed by evolution over four billion years. But let's get real. Today, there is far more risk and demonstrable damage from the introduction of non-indigenous "natural" critters into the wrong environments than from introducing GMOs anywhere.

Meanwhile, the danger from biological weapons is very real. Here, at least, I share Joy's concern, but there's nothing original in his doomsaying. Preston and others in the popular press, and Lederburg and others with academic and Government credentials all sounded the alarm on BW threats several years ago.

There are probably enough viral and bacterial self-replicators out there in various laboratory freezers--forgotten at the bottom, or intentionally bioengineered--to scare the hell out of me. In the face of that threat, I wouldn't waste time imagining fanciful nanobots that could turn all our toys (and us) into gray goo.

Old-fashioned self-replication, making babies as my wife and I have just recently done, is strange and wonderful enough.

--Charles A. Gardner, Ph.D.


G O O D M O R N I N G S I L I C O N V A L L E Y Last updated: MONDAY, AUGUST 7, 2000, 8:30 AM

By John Paczkowski E-mail mr at jpaczkowski@sjmercury.com

[snip -DBM]

Who're you callin' "new and useful composition of matter"? My mention in Friday's column of a Canadian patent issued for a genetically-modified mouse and subsequent suggestion that such a patent was "somewhat unsettling" elicited no small number of affirmations and more than a few dissenting opinions. Clearly the issue of genetic engineering is a contentious one, deserving of a bit more exegesis. While I don't feel GMSV is the proper forum for a lengthy rumination on the topic, I do think there are occasions when the column might benefit from the inclusion of some of the salient thoughts and opinions that find their way into my in-box. So today as an experiment, I'm concluding GMSV with a brief exchange I had this weekend on the topic of genetic engineering. I trust that you'll let me know whether or not I was right to do so. http://www.mercurycenter.com/svtech/reports/gmsv/backups/morn08042000.htm mailto:jpaczkowski@sjmercury.com


It does depress me when a shrewd columnist such as yourself refers to the oncomouse patent as "disturbing." I would like to suggest that this is a disservice to the many people who suffer from diseases (Parkinson's, for instance) which are genetic in origin.

In the era of Copernicus, many people found it disturbing to think that the Earth might not be at the center of the universe. In the era of Darwin, many people found it disturbing to think that species, including our own, were not created as-is by God. People were disturbed because these discoveries made human beings seem less "special."

Still, most of us have accepted this view of the world, and I would suggest that respect for human life has increased, rather than diminished. (Where was Amnesty International during the Spanish Inquisition?)

I would like to think that the chemical view of life can prevail, just as the previous revisions of our self-assessment prevailed. The difference is that today, government has far more power--possibly sufficient to throttle research or regulate it out of existence. This would be a tragedy, since the patentability of new genetic combinations is a powerful incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop techniques that will eradicate birth defects and many hereditary diseases.

Living things are, of course, "special" in the sense that their complexity is beautiful. But let's be clear about this: The special quality of living things is PURELY a matter of complexity. We're fooling ourselves if we imagine there is some "life force" (an idea that was conclusively discredited in biology about a century ago). If there is a soul or spirit, then that too must be a function of complexity.

There should be nothing disturbing about patenting a new complex chemical, especially if it has the potential to alleviate so much human suffering.

In fact I would go further and suggest that a well-intentioned columnist who perpetuates the idea that living things are "too special to be patented" is actually helping, just a little bit, to endanger valuable research by increasing the risk of backlash; and the more powerful this backlash becomes, the more human suffering will be perpetuated by depriving people of future medicines.

--Charles Platt

Senior Writer, Wired magazine (but the views above are just mine).


Thanks for this.

Points well taken -- all of them. Now allow me to clarify mine. What I find disturbing about this announcement -- and my subsequent realization that the oncomouse had already been patented in the U.S. a few years ago -- is what I described in the item as "free market genetic experimentation". While I realize that patentability of new chemical therapies is what drives the pharmaceutical industry to pursue research that might someday eradicate birth defects and hereditary disease, I do find the implications of identifying the patentability of _life_ as a source of revenue to be somewhat unsettling. That genetic engineering is certain to effect profound changes in the quality of our lives is cause for rejoicing. That it aligns the development of life with an economic metric and not an evolutionary one may well be cause for concern.

Still, you are right to question my shoot-from-the-hip use of the word "disturbing", and my failure to further clarify an item that would certainly have benefited from a bit more exposition.

Best and take good care,

John Paczkowski Good Morning Silicon Valley


[Subscription information for John's newsletter seems to be at http://www.passport.realcities.com/sjm_subscribe --DBM]

-- Scott (hma5_5@hotmail.com), August 08, 2000

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