O futile humans! Why does your folly teach skills innumerable, and search out manifold inventions still? But there is one knowledge you do not gain and have never sought it: to implant a right mind where no wisdom dwells. - Theseus
Myths abound about the folly of humans in meddling with forces beyond their control. Think of Prometheus, Pandora, Daedulus and Icarus...and that's just the Greeks! Closer to our own time, of course, is the story of Dr. Frankenstein.
Today, in the age of hyper-modern technology, we are forced to grapple with ever more serious challenges.
One such is the deadly potential of biotechnology when used as a weapon:
There is growing scientific consensus that biotechnology -- especially, the technology to synthesize ever larger DNA sequences -- has advanced to the point that terrorists and rogue states could engineer dangerous novel pathogens. . . We live in a world where gene-sequencing equipment bought secondhand on eBay and unregulated biological material delivered in a FedEx package provide the means to create biological weapons.
"The Loss of Biological Innocence" is how Jason Pontin, editor of MIT's Technology Review, describes his dilemma in deciding whether to publish a frightening story (quoted above) about the perilous availability of plague-like bioweapons.
Remember last year when the US Department of Health and Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet? Some hailed it as a step forward in openness, while others, most notably Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy, decried it as "extremely foolish."
Here at CRN, we've had our own qualms about publishing technical information that might be abused.
Can dangerous knowledge ever be contained? Once opened, might Pandora's Box be shut again? Those questions lie at the heart of an ongoing debate over the necessity and application of precaution in the deployment of new technologies.
"Reversibility" is a concept that Jamais Cascio proposes as a wiser alternative to the Precautionary Principle or the lesser-known Proactionary Principle:
A cornerstone of the open future concept is that we should be striving towards a world that maximizes our flexibility in response to challenges. We will never have perfectly free choices when problems arise, but we are more likely to come up with good solutions under less-constrained conditions than we would if we were limited to a handful of options. The choice to pull back and say "let's try something different" is an option that we should strive to maintain.
But tech analyst George Dvorsky worries that Cascio's idea may be too idealistic:
There is no precedent yet in human history where the pursuit of certain weapons technologies have been abandoned due to their potential risks. It is the nature of the military to be in a perpetual search for the most sophisticated technologies. . . Worse, once a military force gains possession of a weapon, it will never relinquish it.
Dvorsky's arguments against the feasibility of Cascio's proposal are quite well reasoned. That's a pity, though, because it seems that something must be done. As Dvorsky says:
[W]ith non-state actors increasingly threatening to acquire dangerous weapons, societies are increasingly become more police-like in their approach to surveillance and control. Our social and legal infrastructure is being moulded by technological and geopolitical pressures -- something that is clearly beyond reversibility.
For more than two thousand years, we've heard warnings about our lack of preparedness or ability to handle dangerous knowledge. It would be a shame if, having come this far, we end up like poor Icarus.