23 years ago, the Sun Microsystems co-founder raised serious concerns about out-of-control technology innovation. As we grapple with the latest wave of AI, it’s time to revisit his article.
In April 2000, Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy shook the world of tech in a wide-ranging article in Wired magazine.
Despite a successful career as a technologist and entrepreneur, his essay “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us” marked a point of existential introspection for Joy, fueled by visions of out-of-control advanced technologies destroying life as we know it.
Of course the world has moved on since 2000. But as we collectively grapple with the latest wave of AI-based technologies and the concerns that come with them, Joy’s article remains essential reading—-even though it doesn’t explicitly mention artificial intelligence.
Joy’s article is an endearingly rambling yet deeply insightful exploration of technology-driven existential risk. It plays with intriguing thoughts and half-formed ideas as if we are privy to an internal struggle for clarity—you can imagine him working through his angst in the early hours as he drafted the piece. He even concludes “I’m up late again — it’s almost 6 am. I’m trying to imagine some better answers, to break the spell and free them from the stone.”
It also feels genuine and humble — here’s a leader in his field recognizing that he needs to be thinking beyond the confines of his expertise as he grapples with what the future might be like.
Along the way he invokes the likes Ray Kurzweil, Richard Feynman, Ted Kaczynski, and even the Dalai Lama, as he works through his fears and tries to find a pathway forward. And he adeptly uses ideas that are new to him to expand his thinking.
The result is a disarming, engaging, and provoking article — and one that captures a moment when it truly felt that, perhaps for the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, emerging technological capabilities were beginning to exceed humanity’s grasp in potentially destructive ways.
At the heart of Joy’s fears were self-replicating technologies — technologies that have the ability to set off a chain reaction of replication that not only places them outside human control, but that threaten to obliterate humanity as we know it …