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By Jennifer McArdle

Has our pursuit of scientific and technological knowledge led us to become ‘Icarus’? In some dystopian science fiction futures, such as Jack McDevitt’s Odyssey, humanity’s pursuit of scientific knowledge brings us to the brink of universal destruction. It is humanity’s hubris, our desire to be ‘all knowing’ that leads us to this point.

In Greek mythology, Icarus, and his father, Daedalus, in an attempt to flee Crete fasten feathers to wax, creating wings to soar away over the sea. Daedalus warns Icarus of the folly of first complacency and then arrogance. The former, complacency, flying too low, would cause Icarus’ wings to be moistened and him subsequently to be swallowed by the sea. The latter, arrogance, flying too high, would melt away the wax of his wings, causing Icarus to tumble into the sea below. Not heeding his father’s warning, Icarus curiously ascended to the sky above. His ambition was his destruction, and as he sailed closer to the sun, the wax sealing his wings in place melted. Icarus fell to his death.

One does not need to read science fiction to understand the hubris of some scientific thinking, some of our most visionary scientific thinkers have exemplified Icarus’ same curiosity and ambition. Indeed, Robert Oppenheimer emerged from the Manhattan project and the ensuing mass destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki staunchly opposed to more lethal nuclear weapons. However, once learning that the hydrogen bomb was a real technical possibility, his curiosity got the better of him, and his position famously changed:

The program we had in 1949 was a tortured thing that you could well argue did not make a great deal of technical sense. It was therefore possible to argue that you did not want it even if you could have it. The program in 1951 was technically so sweet that you could not argue about that. The issues became purely military, the political, and the humane problems of what you were going to do about it once you had it.

It seems, today, as if we are in a very similar position to Icarus receiving his wings. Stephen Hawking famously quipped earlier this month that the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) may be the greatest triumph of human history, but it may also be our last. And Stephen Hawking is not alone in this potentially bleak forecast; Bill Joy, the Founder of Sun Microsoft Systems in his influential Wired article has noted that 21st century technologies—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR)—could yield not just weapons of mass destruction but knowledge enabled mass destruction, with the power to self replicate. More disturbing to Joy was that these scientific and technological advances would arise gradually and humans would become increasingly socialized to them.

The question becomes: When is the tipping point? When does our scientific and technological curiosity turn to hubris? Will humanity acknowledge the inherent risk involved in AI and GNR research, and thus tread carefully, or will we be Icarus and soar into the sky?