William H. Calvin, "Worrying more about sociopathic outliers, rather than robotic trends," The Seattle Times Sunday feature, "Is technology a threat to humanity's future?" that keys off of Bill Joy's article in WIRED 8.04. (March 2000). See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/2000/sociopathic.htm.
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William H. Calvin
University of Washington
Thoughts re Bill Joy WIRED article
It’s easy to see the slower insidious trends about robots competing with humans, but I tend to agree with Danny Hillis about them: we’ll get used to it. I’d worry a lot more about the low-percentage possibilities, about the sociopathic outliers rather than the main trends.
As Bill Joy said, “We’re lucky Kaczynski was a mathematician, not a molecular biologist.” Most of the mentally ill are harmless. Those who aren’t are usually too dysfunctional to do organized harm. But I’d point out that there is a class of people with “delusional disorder” who can remain employed and pretty functional for decades, despite their jealous-grandiose-paranoid-somatic delusions. Like the Unabomber, they usually don’t seek medical attention, making their numbers hard to estimate. Even if they are only one percent in the population (and I’ve seen much higher estimates), that’s 20,000 mostly untreated delusional people in the Puget Sound area. You don’t have to be mentally ill to do malicious things, and few of the mentally ill perform them, but one percent of sociopaths or delusional types in an anonymous big city is sure different from one percent in a small town where everyone knows one another. And bare fists is sure different from the same person equipped with technology.
As we’ve seen several times in recent years, it doesn’t take special skills or intelligence to create the fuel-oil-and-fertilizer bombs. Many fewer will have the intelligence or education to intentionally create sustained or widespread harm. Even if that is only one percent of the one percent, it’s still a pool of 200 high-performing sociopathic or delusional techies just in the Puget Sound area alone - and you can scale that up to the nation and world. That bad things happen infrequently from the few Unabomber types among them isn’t too comforting when the capability of that tiny fraction is growing enormously. Small relative numbers still add up to enough absolute numbers to be worrisome.
The issue here is managing rare-but-high-risk situations, the sort of thing that military planners have to consider, and which physicians are particularly trained for. There are many everyday examples of worry-about-the-off-chance in medicine, where treatments must be started for even unlikely conditions. The physician who waits until "dead certain" of a diagnosis, in such cases, is likely to wind up with a dead patient.
So it may be with civilizations. Considering the minority possibilities, and acting on still-incomplete knowledge, is likely going to be the name of the game. Fatalism, which is essentially what Bill Joy is describing among the technologists, is one way of dealing with the future. But with it may go an abdication of responsibility for seeing that things go on and that everything turns out well. The future is arriving more quickly than it used to, and, since our reaction time is slowed by the necessary consensus-building, it makes foresight more important than ever.
- William H. Calvin is a neurobiologist at the University of Washington, author of many books about brains and evolution, and of the Atlantic Monthly’s cover story, “The Great Climate Flip-flop.” His web pages start at WilliamCalvin.com.
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