Neil J. Sullivan


On his book The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Cover Interview of January 25, 2017


The Prometheus Bomb is an extension of teaching. I hope to introduce a question, about experts and democracy, then see it discussed in a variety of forums. Public policy questions that involve science have long been with us, but the future likely will have issues that are barely imaginable.

Bioengineering can let us control nature in unprecedented ways. Hybrid creatures fashioned from different species have already been fashioned. Limits that nature has developed over millions of years may tumble quickly as a result of human design. The natural selection that was critical to the Darwinian understanding of evolution could give way to a renewal of eugenics as we consciously select qualities that may or may not improve our prospects against environmental change.

We may decide to bypass natural phenomena entirely by combining robots with artificial intelligence. Possibly, these entities will be indistinguishable from humans, and possibly they will be considered a human species themselves. Quite likely, we will have to decide if restrictions on the capacities of these robots should be limited. As with Hal in 2001, it might be possible that the robot declines to be limited by our species. Who will decide how far these experiments may proceed? Who will enforce those judgments? How?

Assuming public budgets will support this kind of work, what ethical issues will have to be determined and by what standards? What opportunities will be ignored so that funding for the new projects can proceed?

In another area, what instruments of surveillance will help police departments gather evidence? What threats to civil liberties will those instruments introduce?

The technology is coming. It’s coming in medicine, the food industry, environmental protection, warfare, domestic security, education and other areas of human endeavor. The Manhattan Project was the first of the great scientific policies with cataclysmic potential for our species. That model of decision making diverted money, presumed secrecy, indulged dangerous experiments with an unknowing public nearby, and applied the product of that work to the deaths of nearly 200,000 people. Before the next grave matter is upon us, we should have a better understanding of how we will meet the challenge.