Weapons and Hope
As Freeman Dyson observes in his book Weapons and Hope, scientists and engineers have a complex relationship with military weapons. Advances in science have over the years made possible ever more powerful weapons, and scientists and engineers have been intimately involved in applying new scientific developments to the design of more advanced weapons. Acutely aware of the harm can be done by new weapons, scientists and engineers have also been among the leaders of efforts to curb development of new weapons, particularly nuclear weapons.
Dyson has applied his impressive knowledge of history and literature as well as his personal insights into humanity to the problem of nuclear proliferation. We need Dyson’s wisdom and a good deal more to deal with the array of military technologies that now confront us. In some ways, nuclear weapons were simple. They were big bombs possessed by big countries. Today’s weapons can be microscopically small, and they are available to virtually all countries and even to underground terrorist groups.
Dyson wrote about some of the new threats associated with biotechnology and nanotechnology in a recent article in the New York Review of Books in which he recounted a debate between himself and Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems. Joy attracted attention for an article he published in Wired that argued that scientists should forego certain areas of research because they could lead to applications so dangerous that we cannot afford to risk their coming into existence.
Dyson disagreed with the suggestion that areas of knowledge shoulld be avoided. Although he acknowledged the same dangers that alarmed Joy, he argued that knowledge is not the problem. Human beings can choose how to use knowledge, and he recounted the history of biologists assessing the potential dangers inherent in new genetic knowledge and taking responsible action to eschew some applications of the new biology without curbing further scientific progress. He says that Joy’s precautionary stance is wrong not to weigh benefits as well as risks. As Dyson has remarked before, in the early stages of any major scientific development we are simply incapable of predicting the extent of its risks or benefits. He concludes that it is wrong to deny ourselves the potential benefits. We should proceed, and when dangers emerge, we should deal with them at the time.
Dyson has warned that: “There is nothing so big nor so crazy that one out of a million technological societies may not feel itself driven to do, provided it is physically possible.” But he is an unapologetic enthusiast for the potential of human curiosity and ingenuity to make our lives better. He argues strongly for vigilance and responsibility, but he ultimately believes in hope. The authors in this issue share Dyson’s approach. They do not indict the interconnectedness of the wired world or the power of biotechnology; they explore the details of how technology is used and seek creative ways to minimize the harm that new technologies can cause.
In his defense of progress, Dyson turns to a surprising ally, the seventeenth century English poet John Milton. In 1644, many members of Parliament wanted to ban a technology that they believed was being used by religious fanatics to corrupt souls and ultimately to overthrow the existing political order. In his essay “Areopagitica” Milton agreed that the technology possessed the potential for great mischief, but he argued that the potential benefits were too great to be ignored. He maintained that the technology should be developed and that its misuse could be regulated later. That technology was the unlicensed printing.