||Modified image of Judith Shea's "Post-Balzac" from The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washington, DC. Photo by Brian Nelson.
What need is there for responsibility? I believe that the horrifying deterioration in the ethical conduct of people today stems from the mechanization and de-humanization of our lives, a disastrous byproduct of the development of the scientific and technical mentality. We are guilty. Man grows cold…faster than the planet he inhabits.
In September of 2010, the Nobel prize winning molecular chemist Bill Hopkins hosted a conference for some of the greatest minds in science at the Millennium Institute in San Francisco. The theme of the conference was the anticipated growth in technology over the next half century. The predictions of the attending scientists—who ranged from physicists to geneticists to computer engineers—prompted Hopkins to draft a letter to the president warning him about the possible dangers from emerging technologies. “If one looks closely at some of the technologies that are in their infancy today and considers their rate of growth,” Hopkins wrote, “one must conclude that the future will be a place where the individual will have access to astonishing power.” The letter, which was modeled after Albert Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Roosevelt warning him about the possibility of an atomic bomb was signed by Hopkins and twenty-seven other leading scientists. It described how the combination of genetics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology (manufacturing on an atom-by-atom basis) would allow for the creation of tiny microscopic organisms smaller than a single cell. “As soon as 2030,” Hopkins wrote, “these three sciences will merge: advances in nanotechnology will allow for the creation of these tiny machines, progress in genetic engineering will make it possible for them to make copies of themselves, and artificial intelligence will guide them with computers that exceed humans in intelligence.” While these tiny devices could have tremendous benefits—including the ability to greatly prolong life by entering the bloodstream to fight disease—they could just as easily be designed as a new breed of biological weapon. “Unlike nuclear weapons,” Hopkins wrote, “which are extremely difficult to make, these microscopic devices will be cheap and simple to make. Instead of rogue states developing nuclear or biological weapons,” Hopkins wrote, “we will have rogue individuals (like those who create computer viruses today) able to threaten the world with a man-made virus so advanced that it can target people with a specific genetic trait.
The letter stressed that while the invention of these new weapons was a foreseeable possibility, these microscopic machines will be so versatile that there will be thousands of other unforeseeable scenarios that we cannot even begin to fathom today. To prepare for these contingencies, Hopkins called for the creation of a new government agency to regulate their development.
While the publication of Hopkins’s letter caused a stir within the scientific community, media attention was sparse. Only a few major papers covered the story, and many prominent scientists—including some who had attended the Millennium Conference—denounced Hopkins and his predictions, calling him paranoid. The world was ending the decade with a jaded tenor to its way and people refused to be frightened by this new prediction of distant doom. Besides, mankind had learned—and had the lesson reinforced many times—that the future would be all the brighter more his progress was intertwined with his dominion over nature—the atom, the cell, the microchip.
But in a dorm room overlooking the Charles River, a twenty-year-old college student named Eric Hill happened upon a brief summary of Hopkins’s letter in the Science section of the Boston Herald. He was, for reasons he could not quite explain, immediately enthralled and over the next few weeks he scoured the web, reading everything he could find about Hopkins, his predictions, and his critics. He quickly noticed that while Hopkins’s detractors dismissed his vision of a dystopia, none of them questioned his predictions for technological change: No one disputed that artificial intelligence would exceed human intelligence or that the human body would soon be integrated with intravenous microscopic devices. Eric knew that there was something important here. Hopkins, the man who had accurately predicted the rise of biotechnology a generation earlier, now had a new vision of the future. And while the inventions he foresaw might not be realized for decades, their antecedents were already being designed in universities and laboratories today.
A month after the publication of the letter, Eric changed his major to chemistry with a concentration in systems analysis. It was a fateful decision, the kind that would always make him wonder, had he taken that first step as a capricious whim or as part of a brilliant plan? He knew the timing was important. In January, at the Dartmouth meet, his knee had given out for the second time. He could no longer be Eric Hill the athlete, the team captain, the kid from backwater Indiana who had made All-American his freshman year. He had to make himself anew.
He devoured his new material like a sprinter devours air. And because he didn’t know any better, he challenged everything, broke rules, and soon found himself in territory that his professors had never thought to explore, astonishing even himself with his natural ability to solve problems. He told himself it was his father’s scientific genes working inside him, particles that had long lain dormant, and that by returning to science he was really returning to a path he had started down as a boy. A path he had abandoned for sports—one of the best ways he had found to piss off his father. But dad had been gone for almost two years, and all those rebellious emotions seemed to belong to a different, younger Eric Hill. Suddenly he found that doing science, a thing he thought he hated, had become the most natural thing in the world.
But this was only the fall of 2010, and Eric was just a sophomore. It would be another five years before he even met Bill Hopkins. He could not have known then how Hopkins’s life and his would come together. The irony of it. How his work would help bring Bill Hopkins’s worst nightmares to fruition.