FC: Bill Joy is Hooey? and alarums over patented mice genes

kelley kwalker2 at gte.net
Mon Aug 7 23:06:59 PDT 2000

forwarded from politech

Date: Tue, 08 Aug 2000 00:03:38 -0400 To: politech at politechbot.com From: Declan McCullagh <declan at well.com> Subject: FC: Bill Joy is Hooey? and alarums over patented mice genes

[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 <gardners at del3.vsnl.net.in> 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.


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