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Monday, June 7, 2004

Civilization-Changing Event

Bill Joy one of the founder's of Sun Microsystems and considered "a Silicon Valley deity, generally regarded as one of the most gifted engineers ever to have negotiated freeway traffic," is very worried:

Four years ago in an article he wrote for Wired magazine, Joy declared that the headlong race in biotechnology and nanotechnology might prove catastrophic. In the time since, he has continued to explore and advance this concern. Joy says he thinks the probability of a ''civilization-changing event'' is most likely in the double digits, perhaps as high as 50 percent. He doesn't merely ascribe these odds to terrorism; he suggests a pandemic disease might arise from a sudden accident or as a consequence of cutting-edge research. For disquieting evidence, he points out that a couple of years ago scientists assembled polio in a lab. That in late 2002 J. Craig Venter, the founder of Celera Genomics, announced plans to create organisms from scratch. That only a few months ago scientists were tinkering with deadly strains of bird flu in less-than-top-security labs. That the genomic sequence for the plague is now on the Web for anyone to see or make use of.

Joy calls the bird-flu experimentation ''insane.'' But he is fixated less on whether scientists committed ethical breaches in this case than on whether the larger scientific community can temper the pace of innovation before it's too late.

Proceed With Caution [NY Times]

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