March 31, 2000

ALBERT Einstein’s famous formula E=Mc2 set off the atomic bomb. ‘‘If only I had known,’’ he said at the end of his life, ‘‘I should have become a watchmaker.’’

Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, is tormented by the same doubts. But Joy is at the height of his career, a software developer credited with pioneering the Internet and creating the universal programmes which make it hum.

And he believes we must stop. Right now. Before computer networks become so advanced that they don’t need people any more.

Joy’s nightmare vision, expressed in a 20,000-word essay online at, has shocked America’s digital entrepreneurs.

Billions of dollars have been created on the stock exchanges and no one, until now, has suggested this could be the beginning of the end of the world.

But if Joy is right, our headlong electro-lust could trigger a Holocaust virus.

The talk so far has been of bubbles bursting, shares crashing. But never of computer-assisted genocide. As the 20-something millionaires of Silicon Valley digested the new view, even President Clinton was requesting a copy of the piece Joy had headlined, ‘Why the future doesn’t need us’.

It filled me, as I scanned it for the first time, with a cold thrill of terror, like a plausible techno-novel — Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, say, or Robert Harris’s Fatherland.

It’s fun to be chilled, for a while. Then it’s good to apply what I call the ‘Prophet of Doom’ test.

Why is this visionary sharing his nightmare with us? Does he seriously think he can avert disaster? Is this altruism of the purest, highest kind? Or not?

Bill Joy fails my PoD test because he cannot honestly believe that mankind is going to voluntarily withhold from creating better, faster, cleverer microprocessors. This is the race which fell over itself to build the neutron bomb and the mustard-gas shell.

We may be like lemmings, rushing to hurl our feeble bodies over a cliff. But there’s a sea of cash at the foot of that cliff — trillions of dollars washing around, enough money to drown an army.

Bill Joy knows no one will hold back.

With this in mind, I re-read the essay. And all the prophecies turned to gibberish. All except one.

One prophecy struck a chilling note, and the cold went deeper and deeper into me over the next few days. That prophecy is the reason I’m talking about Joy in the Jewish Telegraph.

‘‘My own major concern with genetic engineering,’’ he writes, ‘‘is that it gives the power — whether militarily, accidentally or in a deliberate terrorist act — to create a White Plague.’’

He is not talking about tuberculosis, the original ‘white plague’,’ or about the modern version, cocaine.

Joy is refering to a 1984 novel by Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, about a genetically-engineered virus which infects people with a specific DNA characteristics.

The warning is hidden in a long discussion on nanotechnology, the science of building computers as small as human cells. As small as the molecules in those cells.

It has been a goal of scientists since 1959, when Nobel Laureate Prof Richard Feynman gave a speech, called ‘There’s Plenty Of Room At The Bottom’, imagining computers as small as grains of dust, which would swarm like microbes to build themselves into intelligent, microscopic entities.

The science is still imaginary, but it is alluring. Think of a powder consisting of computers, which could organise itself and set off into the recesses of any machine to perform repairs.

Pour this intelligent powder onto the engine of a damaged car, and set to work rebuilding every connection. Inject it into the human bloodstream, and it would behave like an army of hospital medics, cleaning up damaged tissue and optimising every braincell.

Feynman and his fantasists seem to have forgotten that computers do what they are programmed to do. If this magic powder were programmed to destroy cells with certain DNA profiles, and them to replicate themselves to infect other carriers, a silicon plague would be effected.

Every reader will have realised that there is no human genome more distinctive than the Jewish one. Nor any genetic type whose enemies have come closer to eradicating it.

For the racial terrorist, there will be no need to wait for nanotechnologies to be perfected. The luminous singularity of the Jewish genes will be enough to attract viral terrorism.

Any biologist who can produce a flu bug which is especially strong in carriers of the Tay-Sachs gene, for instance, will possess a virulent weapon to persecute Jewish communities.

Targets will not have to suffer the disease to fall victim to the virus — and that could mean the bug hits more than half the people in any Jewish community.

When the human genome is fully decoded later this year, it will be possible to identify the gene which has been passed down the paternal line of Cohens and Levis.

This invisible quirk which has survived 6,000 years of tradition could conceivably be the trigger of a plague.

There is no question that these weapons will become possible, perhaps within a decade. Vague pleas by software maestros will do nothing to slow their development.

There is only one defence —the defence which Israel has learned painfully during the past century.

We must develop an antidote. And to do that we must invent the weapon itself, before anyone else does. In other words, we must possess the capability to strike first.

Uri Geller’s novels Dead Cold and Ella are published by Headline at £5.99. Mind Medicine is published by Element at £20.

Visit him at and e-mail him at [email protected]


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