Luke Melia


June 10, 2004

Computech vs. Biotech

The same NYT magazine that has the bagel story also has a piece about Bill Joy, who’s up there on my world-wide respect list. The contrast of risk in computer science and biotech is really interesting…

If there is a key to understanding Joy’s point of view, a code to his code, it is recognizing his preoccupation with risk instead of fear. Making us think about potential ”bad outcomes” is his goal; scaring the hell out of us is not. Joy often uses the free market as an example of a system where any outcome, good or bad, is possible. At the moment, he argues, the same potential for good and bad outcomes exists in various kinds of private-sector research. The problem, though, is that a single bad biotech outcome may quickly become epidemic, unstoppable and irreversible. ”Markets can take us places we don’t want to go,” he says, ”and science, unchallenged and uninhibited, will take us places we don’t want to go.” As a contrast, Joy brings up the example of the operating systems he writes so well, where information is carefully architected and vast numbers of computational outcomes are anticipated. Even the freakish occurrence, the wildest mistake, is taken into account.

Mankind created computer science from nothing, while biotech, or biology at least, is a deconstruction of ages of evolution. While biology is just becoming understandable enough to predict the effects of some fundamental changes, computer science is just becoming complex enough that we are having difficulty predicting the effects of some changes.

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